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Friday, January 28, 2011

Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

Ansel Adams is very likely the single most recognized photographer by name. A combination of timing and location led to his fame. In the early nineteenth century travel took much longer than today so Adams’ sweeping views of the stunning Western United States landscapes were unprecedented views to the vast majority of Americans.

Ansel Adams was born February 20, 1902 in San Francisco, California (Turnage, n.d.). Adams parents, Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray were around forty years old when Adams was born (very old for the times) (Turnage, n.d.). By the time Adams was 12, he obviously did not “fit in” at school and Adams’ father took the bold step of bringing the boy home for homeschooling (Deyo, 2002). Beyond English literature and algebra, Adams also studied the piano and spent a full year exploring the Panama-Pacific International Exposition which was a collection of exhibits based around the opening of the Panama Canal (Deyo, 2002).

The Photographer Emerges
In 1916 the Adams family took a trip to Yosemite National Park during which young Ansel was given a Kodak Brownie (Deyo, 2002). A few years later, in 1919, Adams joined the Sierra Club which was later responsible for the his first published works. Like many photographers today, Adams had his first published work in a club newsletter (Turnage, n.d.). It was Sierra Club trips during which Adams began to realize that photography instead of music was a possible career (Turnage, n.d.). In 1932 Adams joined photographers, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Henry Swift, Sonya Noskowiak, and Jon Paul Edwards in starting the photographic group f/64 (Hostetler, 2004). This group was dedicated to photography that looked like photography and showed the world without glossing over bits and pieces of it (Hostetler, 2004). The name f/64 came from the theoretical smallest aperture possible on a camera lens that allowed for the largest depth of field to show as much of an image as possible in sharp focus.

Body of Works
While Adams is probably best known for his images of the Sierra Nevadas and Yosemite he had a much wider body of work. Working with Dorothea Lange, Adams created various image sets for Time Magazine and others (Deyo, 2002). The subjects of these images were diverse as water rights struggles to the Mormons of Utah (Deyo, 2002). Adams also recorded the Japanese American interment camps from World War II (zpub, n.d.).

Technical Photography
In addition to the photographs themselves, Adams contributed to the growing field of photography in his development of the “zone system” relating to exposure and development (Turnage, n.d.) before computerized light meters and developing techniques. Adams was also a consultant for companies such as Polaroid and Hasselblad (Turnage, n.d.).

  • Nearly became a concert pianist instead of a photographer (zpub, n.d.)
  • Died of cancer-related heart failure (zpub, n.d.)
  • Was never financially secure despite his fame (Turnage, n.d.)
  • Was described as having a “particular fondness” for alcohol (Turnage, n.d.)
  • Turnage, William (no date) Ansel Adams, Photographer,
  • ZPub (no date) Ansel Adams,
  • Hostetler, Lisa (October 2004) Group f/64 In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,
  • Deyo, Nan (2002), A biography of Ansel Adams Pagewise,

Depth of Field calculator

Most photographers know the effect of different apertures. The smaller aperture (=bigger f-value) the longer depth of field. But how long is the depth of field precisely?

I was quite surprised how much the distance from the subject affects the length of the depth of field. Let's imagine that we are taking a photo of a flower from one meter distance with 100mm f2.8 on 1.6 crop frame. Based on an online calculator the depth of field is 9.7 mm. But we want to double that because the flower is not completely sharp.

Stepping down to f5.6 gives depth of field of 19.3 mm. Now the dof is twice as long but the exposure time has become four times longer. In case of hand held photography this might be too much.

Another option is to keep aperture at f2.8 but take one step backwards so that the distance is 1.4 meters.  This will give the same depth of field as above but without the expense of longer exposure time.

How to photograph the moon

Taking a decent moon photo is not too difficult but you need to have some equipment for it. The most important one is a proper tripod or similar support for the camera. Almost as important is a decent telephoto lens. A sharp 200 mm telephoto lens is a good start for photos like this:

But even if you have the best possible gear you still need to see the moon. So, check the moon phase calendar, weather forecast and head to a dark location. Usually cities have way too much light pollution and this reduces the contrast between the sky and the moon. Find a dark area with solid ground for your tripod.

Then set up your tripod as stable as possible. Do not extend it completely unless really necessary. Select your telephoto lens with longest focal length and remove any filters you have. Even high quality filters can cause unwanted flare.

Use low ISO setting to avoid noise - ISO 100 works well. I do not pay attention to white balance as I shoot on RAW which allows more post processing options. Use mirror lock up if available and use long timer to trigger the shutter. These help to reduce camera shake and therefore improve image quality. The choice between manual and automatic focus is up to you. When using a lens without distance view the autofocus might be a better option.

Finding the right aperture for your lens needs some experiment. Most lenses have their sweet spot around f8-f11. Any higher aperture number causes diffraction which reduces image sharpness. Too low aperture number leads to soft photos especially on cheaper zoom lenses.

After all this setup the last step is to aim the center of the moon and select the right exposure. There are calculators for moon photography but couple test shots give you a good idea anyways. Depending on your camera its exposure metering it might give totally misleading results so feel free to ignore it.

Take plenty of shots with different aperture and exposure times. At the post processing I use only green color component because it seems to have less noise compared to red. I also reduce saturation so the end result is black and white. Apply some sharpening, crop tight and upload to your favorite image gallery for feedback.

Canon EOS utility and tethered shooting preview quality

Canon DSLRs come with a software bundle and one of the applications is EOS Utility. Among other features it allows you to transfer your shots right away to your computer over USB cable and it also displays a quick preview of the photo on the computer screen. This is pretty handy because it is much easier to see results on the big screen. Obviously the USB cable length limits your movements so I guess people will use this for studio shots mostly.

I was playing around with this feature and I noticed that the preview had rather bad quality. After trying out different settings it turned out that shooting in RAW+JPEG mode instead of RAW only resulted better previews. Apparently the quick preview's RAW conversion outputs only low resolution images.