Ansel Adams had more influence on me than I thought.


I’ve been slowly working my way through Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs. I would say “reading”, but it’s mostly photographs. In any case, I’m really enjoying this extensive collection.

What’s most interesting to me is that the book breaks his works into decades. I made it through the 40’s last night and it’s really neat to see the progression from seemingly documentary, to much more artistic and skillful compositions.

I also ran across some surprises. I know that Ansel’s work has influenced my style to some degree, but I didn’t realize how similar some of our compositions were. For instance, I didn’t realize that he had photographed at Bodie until I saw this photo in the book.

Ansel Adam's 1938 photograph of Bodie, California

Ansel Adam’s 1938 photograph of Bodie, California

Unaware, I took almost the same composition when I was there.

"Downtown" (2012)

“Downtown” (2012)

Judging from the background hills and buildings, I think he was a bit closer than I was and used a wider angle. It was also a different time of day and probably season, and of course I was blessed with some awesome clouds which I based my composition around. But when I saw his photograph, I was amazed. I felt connected to him, like we had the same vision of this place.

The same thing when I saw his “White House Ruins”.

Ansel's "White House Ruins"

Ansel’s “White House Ruins”

I had seen this photograph before, and loved it, but I hadn’t studied it closely or commited it to memory. I love Ansel’s composition, but I actually prefer the contrast and detail of Eliot Porter’s version. The contrast in this particular photograph is part of what inspired me to process my photographs the way I do. There are more highlights and shadows than there are mid-tones, giving it a very stark and textured quality.


Eliot Porter’s White House

So my take was a blend of both, except I cropped out all the foliage at the bottom to keep it “clean” and included two buzzards in the sky, which I think completes the photograph.

White House - After ProcessingIt’s actually a difficult site to shoot because the ruins themselves are fenced off so it’s impossible to get close for a wider angle. That’s why most compositions of the location end up looking similar overall. It’s the minor details and processing that sets them apart.

Anyway, if you’d like to study some of Ansel’s work and don’t have access to his photographs on display, this is an excellent book.

10 questions I ask before I take the shot

There are perhaps hundreds of decisions that I make when creating a photograph. I’d like to share a fraction of them with you so that you can understand my work a little better.  Note that some of these questions are completely artistic in nature, and others are technical. Technical decisions directly contribute to the look of the final photograph and thereby are indirectly artistic.

In no particular order:

1. What is the main subject?

Most photographs contain a main subject.  Sometimes two or three.  Any more and the “story” can become confusing.


Bodie – This ’37 Chevy is definitely the main subject.

2.  What feeling am I trying to express?

Drama, mystery, awe, beauty… where will this photograph fit the best? Once I decide, I can often find ways to increase that emotional response.


Gateway to Manzanar uses the sweeping curves of the trees and the converging lines of the clouds to create drama.

3.  Is my tripod stable?

I always check to make sure that my tripod is balanced within all three legs or it could fall over.  This can be very difficult to visually judge when I’m on a 30 degree incline so I often will give it a nudge to see how easily it moves.

Using my tripod in a creek.

Using my tripod in a creek. It had better be stable!

4.  Can I imagine a better lighting situation?

If I expect conditions to improve, I wait.  If the light is not right for the shot, I come back later or else I don’t bother.

The red light from the sun is lighting the clouds directly, but not the land. We are in the shadow of the mountain.

Tufa at Sunset – The best light.

5.  What is in the sky?

Clean blue sky and completely flat overcast sky are very difficult to create interesting photographs with if including the sky in the photograph.

Big Sky - This wouldn't work without an interesting cloud arrangement.

Big Sky – This wouldn’t work without an interesting cloud arrangement.

6. Is anything in the frame moving?

If so, shutter speed becomes very important.  Do I want the moving object to blur or not?

Blurred water from a one second shutter speed.

Aspen Reflections – Blurred water from a one second shutter speed.

7. Color or Monochrome?

If I am in a colorful area, then I may look for natural color palettes that work together. Otherwise, I will focus on what I like in monochromatic photographs… high contrast, sharp details, vivid textures, dramatic skies, etc.

Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange, complimentary colors.

Guadalupe Sunset – Contains Blue-Violet and Yellow-Orange, complimentary colors.

8. Is there a story here?

A story is often told by inferring human characteristics on nature. It’s not easy to tell a story while limiting myself to natural, non-animated objects, nor is it always necessary.  But if I can find one, it can result in a more emotional photograph.

Storm Over Water artwork

Storm Over Water

9.  Mirror Lock-up on?

I always shoot with mirror lock up to minimize camera shake when the shutter releases (I also use either a remote release or the built-in timer so I am not touching the camera when the shutter releases).  This insures the sharpest image possible.

Guadalupe Foothills

Guadalupe Foothills – Excellent Detail

10.  Is this the best?

Once I take a shot, I examine it on the screen (I love digital) and become very critical. Are there distractions? What if I moved a few inches to the right, left, up, or down? Is the exposure perfect?  Focus?  Does my eye flow naturally?  What will it look like printed large?  Small?

Guadalupe Sunrise

Guadalupe Sunrise

These are just a few of the many questions that I ask myself when I am creating a photograph.  With experience, some decisions become subconscious while others are made in a fraction of a second, but they are made nonetheless.

Waiting for the Light

I want to show you a series of photographs that led up to my popular photograph Guadalupe Sunrise.  Notice the time stamps and how just a bit of waiting for the right light can be the difference between boring and excellent. I recognized that the sun was low in the sky and the clouds were moving quickly, therefore the light was changing quickly. It was just a matter of time.  In this case, less than 13 minutes.

Time: 8:33:48AM

Time: 8:33:48AM

Time: 8:43:46AM

Time: 8:43:46AM

Time: 8:45:28AM

Time: 8:45:28AM

Time: 8:45:46AM

Time: 8:45:46AM

Time: 8:45:59AM

Time: 8:45:59AM

Time: 8:46:18AM

Time: 8:46:18AM

Note that the final creation Guadalupe Sunrise (not shown here) is a composite of the second and last photographs.  Also note that there is only the same basic processing applied to these images, and with the exception of the first being at f/10, the rest are f/14, 1/8 of a second, at ISO 100.