Everybody Wants to be Ansel Adams (Including Me)

I’m betting that just about everybody who’s seen a black & white landscape picture has silently and sarcastically thought to themselves, “Nice job, Ansel Adams-wanna be.”  I know I’m guilty of it, even with my own shots.  But there’s gobs of reasons his name is synonymous with black & white nature photography – he took a lot of damn good shots and did some groundbreaking work in the field in terms of technique!

Maybe it’s because Adams’ work was mainstream in the sense that it appeared in places other than just the fanciest museums so I was exposed to it a little more often, but I usually prefer black & white landscape shots to those in color.  Don’t get me wrong – color landscape photography can be really amazing.  But, I deal in reality and my reality/luck is that I’m rarely in the right spot at the right time with the utterly perfectly dramatic conditions to get a National Geographic-worthy color shot no matter how hard I try.  So instead, I work to find something interesting about the scene nature’s put in front of me, even if it’s not readily apparent the moment I take the picture.

It may sound silly, but that was definitely the case at the Grand Canyon.  That vast swath of land is so beautiful I still can’t find words to do it justice.  It’s also really hard to capture it in a way that conveys both its magnitude and its beauty.  So, instead of frustrating myself with not-quite-ideal conditions, I made the best of what I had.  Turns out, the best of what I got was on our way back to Phoenix at the end of our stay in the park.

The morning we left, we decided to head further east towards Desert View Tower to get a different vantage point on the Grand Canyon.  The 25-mile drive out to Desert View Tower had quite a few places were you could stop and look out over the rim.  What was cool for us was that, after spending 3 days in the Village looking north out into the Canyon and across to the North Rim, this drive put us more towards the eastern side so we were looking up the Canyon to the west, more in line with how the Colorado River flows through it.  Because it was mid-morning, the light was just about right to keep things bright, yet still have some dramatic shadows in play, so I activated my inner Ansel Adams and got to work.

I normally shoot my black & white shots in color first, then convert them to black & white later during post-processing.  Even in cases when the color is a bit blah due to flat light, I find I can manipulate the monochrome version more easily to get make things come out the way I want it.  Using this approach over the years, I’ve built up a sense for what I think would make a good black & white shot based on the Technicolor version in front of me when I initially take the picture.  That helps me think through the shooting process to get interesting or dramatic shots.  When I get home to review and process the images, sometimes I surprise even myself in terms of what I can come up with in black & white.

Here’s 3 examples from this trip alone where I was really surprised with how much better I thought things looked in black & white instead of color.  Each is presented in a slide show so you can see what I saw when I took the picture versus how it changed when I converted to black & white.

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Ansel Adams was definitely onto something all those years ago, so I’ll keep channeling him on occasion when it comes to my own landscape & nature photography.

– JC

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