Wilderness Idea: The Environmental Photography of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams and camera

In brief:

  • Ansel Adams is possibly the best known landscape photographer to have lived in the 20th century.
  • Before becoming a full-time photographer, Adams studied music and contemplated seriously on becoming a classical pianist.
  • Ansel Adams is a co-creator of the Zone System which allows photographers to precisely determine the exposure of their photographs.
  • Besides being a famous photographer, Adams was known for his environmental work. His photographs and writings were part of a successful campaing to designate the Sequoia and Kings Canyon areas in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California as a national park.

Info Box: Cameras Used by Ansel Adams >>

“Perhaps music is the most expressive of the arts. However as a photographer, I believe that creative photography, when practiced in terms of its inherent qualities, may also reveal endless horizons of meaning.” (Ansel Adams)

Ansel Easton Adams (1902 – 1984) was an American musician, mountaineer, teacher, writer, environmentalist, and possibly the most famous landscape photographer of the 20th century.

Adams studied music in his youth and achieved a high level of competency as a classical pianist. The musical disciplines of perfection and accuracy, which Adams learned under the tutelage of piano teacher Marie Butler, would also become the cornerstones of his photography work.

One of the main contributions Adams made to the art of photography is the Zone System which he invented and developed along with another American photographer, Fred Archer (1889 – 1963).

The Zone System gives the photographer an objective tool to determine the exposure of his images. The idea is to divide the scene you’re photographing into distinct areas of brightness starting from the darkest tones and ending with the brightest ones.

While the exposure is always the same for the whole image, it is your responsibility, as a photographer, to decide whether you wish to emphasise the darker or the lighter areas of your photograph – or whether you’re content to find an average exposure which renders both extremes as natural as possible.

Looking at Ansel Adams photographs online, it becomes evident that he favoured the darker tones in his exposures. There is hardly ever, or never, a blown-out highlight in his photos. The blacks, on the other hand, are depicted as beautiful, strong inks that give his images their iconic, recognisable look.

As a matter of fact, many of Adams’s images exhibit a remarkable array of tones from the darkest to the brightest, all within the same composition.

The starting point, when creating photographs with the Zone System, is visualisation. The pre-visualised picture was also the basis of Ansel Adams’s photography work. When creating a photograph, he would first view the scenery and then choose the perspective and the look he wanted to give to the image.

The whole process was based on very deliberate pre-imaging, with camera settings and the choice of lenses depending on the vision of the photographer.

If you’re at all serious about photogaphy, you might find it worthwhile to study the Zone System and acquaint yourself with the photographic exposure principles in the system.

As photographers, this systematic approach to exposures – as well as conscious visualisation – are some of the most important lessons we can learn from Ansel Adams.


Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams.

Both his maternal and paternal grandfathers were businessmen by trade. His mother’s father owned a freight-hauling business – although he later lost his wealth as a result of bad investments. Ansel’s grandfather from his father’s side had started a lumber business which his father later continued to run.

The little Ansel was four years old when San Francisco was hit by an earthquake. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed more than 3000 people and destroyed over 80% of the city.

For Ansel, the earthquake resulted in a facial injury. An aftershock catapulted him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. The nose was never reset leaving Adams with a crooked nose throughout his life.

As a child, Ansel was a restless introvert who liked to explore the hills and coastal areas around San Francisco. He would also collect insects and study the stars with a telescope his father had acquired.

With his father’s business taking a downturn after the Panic of 1907 – a three-week financial crisis during which the New York Stock Exchange lost nearly half its value – the family had to get used to living with less material security.

There was still enough wealth for Ansel to attend private schools, however, from which he was expelled, one after another, due to restlessness and absent-mindedness. From when he was 12 years old, Adams was educated at home by his father and his aunt, as well as private tutors. He returned to a private school after some time and graduated from eighth grade in 1917.

Adams became interested in music in his early teens. He studied piano with the afore-mentioned piano instructor Marie Butler as well as composer Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965) and others. For the remainder of his youth, the piano became his foremost interest and only took a second place after Adams decided to pursue a career in photography, his other passion.

The Splendor of Yosemite

Ansel Adams - National Archives 79-AA-E23 levels adj

The seeds of future photographic absorption were possibly planted on the very first visit to the Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains in 1916.

The wonders of nature and the quality of light on the mountains made an unforgettable impression on young Adams. He wrote in his notebook: “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious…. One wonder after another descended upon us…. There was light everywhere…. A new era began for me.”

From then on, Adams visited the High Sierra regularly, developing the stamina needed for outdoor photography. He would also read photography magazines, and meet with other photographers at camera clubs as well as frequent photography and art exhibitions at museums and galleries.

On his trips to Yosemite, Adams made acquaintance with the family of his future wife on whose piano he would practice.

He married Virginia Best in 1928 in the Best’s Studio located in Yosemite Valley. The studio, which was owned by the family and operated by Adams until 1971, now houses the Ansel Adams Gallery.

The call of the wilderness for Adams didn’t end with the marriage. He joined the Sierra Club, founded by the Scottish-American preservationist John Muir (1838 – 1914). He worked the summers from 1920 to 1924 as a caretaker of the Sierra Club visitor center in Yosemite Valley, as well as serving on the Sierra Club’s board of directors from 1934 till 1971.

In his 20s, Adams made friends with Cedric Wright (1889 – 1959), an American violinist and wilderness photographer, who became his mentor and photographer companion on his mountain treks to High Sierras.

Both of them espoused the ideas brought forth by Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929) in his 1883 poem Towards Democracy. This four-volume work held up the values of freedom, beauty and oneness with nature and the universe.

For Adams, the underlying inspiration for his photography could be found in the beauty of the nature as well as the future of humanity: “I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.”

Monolith, the Face of Half Dome

ansel adams monolith the face of half dome 1927

Adams started selling his photographs at the Best’s studio, owned by his wife’s family, in 1922. Five years later, in 1927, he took his arguably best known photograph called Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, depicting the Half Dome rock in Yosemite National Park.

Monolith was photographed with a Korona view camera using a red lens filter to exaggerate the tonal differences in the scene. Adams only had one negative plate left, and before taking the photo he visualised the Half Dome with a black sky above it.

For Adams, the reality of the view was not as important as his inner vision: “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.”

Even at this early stage in his career, Adams had already more or less defined his artistic language. He had rejected the soft-focus aesthetic of the pictorialist photographers of his time and instead chose to depict his subjects in clear tones using “sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.”

Parmelian Prints

Ansel Adams Marion Lake Parmelian Prints

Ansel Adams published his first portfolio of photographic gelatin prints, called Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, in 1927. The collection of photos included the now famous Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.

The photographer was pleased with the level of professionalism he had achieved in his craft: “My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world’s critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind.”

The publication was a success. It grossed $3900 which, according to an online inflation calculator, would stand at $54,318.85 in today’s money.

The portfolio sales also led to photographic assignments. Adams was commissioned to photograph portraits of the wealthy patrons who had bought the portfolio.

Photographic Experimentation

Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937

The 1930s for Ansel Adams were a time of photographic experimentation and social expansion. He would keep photographing sweeping mountain landscapes but also concentrated on portraits and still lifes of natural objects, such as leaves and flowers.

During the decade, Adams became a popular figure with the artists that gathered around the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946). He made friends, among others, with Stieglitz’s wife, painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) and photographer Paul Strand (1890 –1976). From Strand, Adams learned new photographic techniques. It was Strand who also encouraged him to embark on a photographic career.

Adams published his first book, Taos Pueblo, in 1930 and held his first solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in 1931. The next year, Adams had a shared exhibition with photographers Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976) and Edward Weston (1886 – 1958) at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Group f/64

Ansel Adams-Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite

The three photographers – along with John Paul Edwards (1884 – 1968), Sonya Noskowiak (1900 – 1975), Henry Swift (1891 – 1962) and Willard Van Dyke (1906 – 1986) – formed the Group f/64. This famous association of photographers emphasised the importance of sharp focus and precise framing in photography.

The group formed partly as a reaction against Pictorialism, a popular photography style of the time which encouraged creation of blurry, dreamy-looking photos.

The ideal aesthetics, for the members of the Group f/64, consisted of recording “life as it is, through unmanipulated ‘pure’ documentation.”

The group was named after the smallest aperture on a large-format camera. The aperture f/64 on a view camera results in maximum depth of field.

Environmental Campaigner and Publisher

Ansel Adams Olmsted Point Yosemite

Adams started his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933. In 1935, he published a photography manual, Making a Photograph.

During this time, he continued photographing the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. He also campaigned for the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. The campaign was successful and these areas of Sierra Nevada were designated as national parks in 1940.

In the 1950s, Adams co-founded the photography magazine Aperture with Melton Ferris, Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965), Ernest Louie, Barbara Morgan (1900 – 1992), Beaumont Newhall (1908 – 1993), Nancy Newhall (1908 – 1974), Dody Weston Thompson (1923 – 2012), and Minor White (1908 – 1976). The magazine is still in operation and specialises in serious art photography featuring work by established as well as up-and-coming photographers.

Famous Photography Workshops

Ansel Adams was also known for his photography workshops which he organised annually at his gallery in the Yosemite National Park since the 1940s.

The workshops lasted seven days and consisted of groups of 10 to 12 students who learned the theory and practice of photography on the field as well as in classroom and the darkroom. The school had a number of teachers, with Adams himself continuing to teach the photography workshops until 1981, a few years before his death.

According to Adams’ daughter-in-law, Jeanne Adams, the great photographer was “always gracious” when interacting with his students.

He was “very careful not to hurt someone,” says Jeanne Adams, “because he knew that their hearts were on their sleeves and the photographs were their hearts.”

Unsurpassed Reputation

Adams The Tetons and the Snake River

From the 1960s onward, Adams’ work was exhibited in many of the world’s most prestigious art galleries, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York which showcased his photography in a retrospective exhibition in 1974.

The respect and reverence enjoyed by Adams during the latter part of his life, and also after his death, by photographers and photography journalists in America is unprecedented in photography.

Adam’s photographic work is technically flawless and artistically impressive. The quality of his prints is something that is seldom seen nowadays.

But, the basis of Adams’ reputation as an unsurpassed master photographer – even outside photography circles – stems largely from his role as a modern-day patron saint of the environmental movement.

Adams worked to preserve many wilderness areas in California. His photography and many essays and other writings on nature preservation touched the heart of the American nation like perhaps no other naturalist has done, before or after him.

He could truly be said to have encapsulated the “wilderness idea”.

Death and Burial

Ansel Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco and lived throughout his life in the state of California. He died at Monterey in Monterey County, California, in 1984. He was 82 years old.

Adams was cremated and his ashes left on the summit of Mount Ansel Adams in the Ansel Adams Wilderness area in California.

Cameras Used by Ansel Adams

“The small camera, held in hand, can scan the subject freely, as directed by the hand and eye, but the view camera – fixed on the tripod – ‘sees’ only the area of the field covered by the lens within the format of the negative. Changes can be made by turning or tilting the camera on the tripod head or moving the entire assembly, but such adjustments are much more cumbersome than the free positioning of the hand camera. On the other hand, the fixed position of the few camera (and of any camera used on a tripod) leads to greater precision of composition and higher optical quality of the image. Proponents of the small hand-held camera argue that the intuitive perceptions of the eye and mind will determine the optimum point of view and select the ‘decisive moment’ with far greater efficiency than the tripod-bound camera will…. Both approaches are valid within their appropriate fields.”
– Ansel Adams

Like many of his contemporaries, Ansel Adams started his photography with a Kodak Box Brownie camera which his father gave him in 1916.

He soon outgrew the simple box brownie camera and, during his career, Adams used a variety of cameras from large viewfinder cameras to handheld 35mm cameras.

Adams is best known for his large format photography made with such cameras as Arca-Swiss 4×5 inch view camera, which he used during the 60s.

He also worked with an 8×10 Deardorff view camera which he used in the 1950s while making Coloramas for the Kodak company.

Also a large format camera, Adams used a 7×17 panorama camera to create panoramic landscape photographs.

Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta B was a medium format folding camera made from the 1930s to the 1950s. Adams bought the camera as a gift to his wife but loved it so much that he borrowed it from time to time for his own projects.

Many of Adams’ best photographs were created with Hasselblad cameras, such as the famous Moon and Half Dome, photographed in 1960.

In addition to the large format and medium format cameras, Adams also used smaller cameras.

A personal friend of Edwin Land (1909 – 1991) – who invented the polaroid camera – Adams was employed as a consultant to the Polaroid Corporation and would use a Polaroid Land camera (also known as SX-70) on a regular basis.

From the 35mm cameras, Adams used at least a Leica camera as well as a Zeiss Contax camera.

The following is a partial list of photographic equipment used by Adams and listed in the documentary film Ansel Adams, Photographer, shown above.

  • 8×10 view camera with 4 lenses
  • 7×17 panorama camera with a 13.5 inch lens
  • 4×5 view camera with 6 lenses
  • Hasselblad camera
  • 2 Polaroid cameras
  • 3 exposure meters
  • Filters for each camera
  • 2 tripods
  • Lens brush
  • Stop watch
  • Thermometer
  • Level
  • Focusing magnifier
  • Focusing cloth
  • Heiko light strobe portrait outfit
  • 200 feet of cable
  • Special storage box for film
  • Eight-passenger limousine with 5×9 foot camera platform on top


Ansel Adams on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams
John P. Schaefer: An Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography. Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
Zone System: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_System
Towards Democracy by Edward Carpenter: http://www.edwardcarpenter.net/ectd1.htm
The Early Photos of Ansel Adams: Looking Back at the Work of a Black-and-White Master: https://www.shutterbug.com/content/early-photos-ansel-adams-looking-back-work-black-and-white-master
Group f/64: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Group_f/64
Group f.64: https://www.britannica.com/art/Group-f64
Aperture (magazine): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperture_(magazine)
Gallery History: http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-gallery-in-yosemite/gallery-history/
Ansel Adams Yosemite Photos, Portraitures & Teaching: https://youtu.be/2fpu4bjFKlU
Ansel Easton Adams on Find a Grave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/2967/ansel-easton-adams
Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement: http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-the-role-of-the-artist-in-the-environmental-movement/
Ansel Adams House, Commercial Work, Teaching & Cameras: https://youtu.be/5DXfXDU912E
Colorama (Kodak): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorama_(Kodak)
Zeiss Super Ikonta B: https://www.cameraquest.com/zikontb.htm
Ansel Adams: “Moon and Half Dome”: http://anseladams.com/portfolio/3012/\
Ansel Adams, Photographer (1958) narrated by Beaumont Newhall: https://youtu.be/M-BhJQqHXfQ

All photos in this post are either public domain or copyright (c) Ansel Adams.

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