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Blog // Images // Thoughts
April 21, 2016

Ansel Adams On Small Cameras

While discussing a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz in his book, Examples: The Making Of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams makes some fascinating comments about “Small Cameras.” Of course, what Adams’ had in mind was actually 35mm film cameras from Leica and Contax. But, in a way, Adams’ thoughts seem relevant to the discussions we have today […]

While discussing a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz in his book, Examples: The Making Of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams makes some fascinating comments about “Small Cameras.” Of course, what Adams’ had in mind was actually 35mm film cameras from Leica and Contax. But, in a way, Adams’ thoughts seem relevant to the discussions we have today about smartphone and other digital cameras.

Adams discusses how small cameras make it easier to take more photos and also cut the time required to develop and print images. He felt this could be good for some situations, like reporting, but might undermine good photography in other ways.

“One is beguiled by the quick finder-viewing and operation, and by the very questionable inclination to make many pictures with the hope that some will be good. In a sequence of exposures, there is always one better than others, but that does not mean it is a fine photograph!”

Do digital cameras lull us into a kind of “questionable inclination.” There’s no incremental cost to shoot an extra 5, 10 or, 100 frames. And, if it’s not perfect we can always tweak it in post-production, fixing the errors in exposure, cropping the composition and if all else fails, covering up our mistakes with filters!

The so-called “spray and pray” approach, shooting lots of photos in the hope one comes out looking OK is a self-defeating kind of laziness. The habit of getting our light and composition right in the camera not only makes for stronger images, it also makes us stronger photographers.

“The best 35mm photographers I have known work with great efficiency, making every exposure with perceptive care.”

You can be perceptive, as Adams puts it, aware of what you are doing and working with care and efficiency with any camera. The technology doesn’t make you a good or bad photographer, it’s your technical and creative choices that do that.

Ansel Adams---Stieglitz

Responses
Toni 3 years ago

“Do digital cameras lull us into a kind of “questionable inclination.” There’s no incremental cost to shoot an extra 5, 10 or, 100 frames. And, if it’s not perfect we can always tweak it in post-production, fixing the errors in exposure, cropping the composition and if all else fails, covering up our mistakes with filters! ”

This is an interesting question to ask in the light of Adams own inclination to manipulate his images, and the manner in which other well known photos were heavily tweaked to turn them from images with potential into the world-class pictures that became famous.

Everyone has their own criteria for what makes a good picture, and for some, a photo is only acceptable if it has been taken in conformity with the requirements of their process. I am a little like that, spurning images taken with phonecams, while for others it is unethical/unacceptible to take multiple shots of a scene, or to adjust in post, or to remove items that spoil the original scene. In the end, I’m not sure it matters provided the print makes you want to look at it more than once.

Regarding post processing, as someone who loved making their own prints and would manipulate in colour and B&W, being able to process images to acheive a desired endpoint in post is wonderful. Is it rescuing failures? I never saw an image SOOC that I would not wish to adjust in some way, and could not imagine a camera that could give me the results I wanted without adjustment – all images SOOC are ‘failures’ for me, so maybe it is rescuing? And I certainly roduce plenty of junk. TBH I’m not sure it matters if someone uses ‘spray and pray’, or whether they take a single, meticulously thought through and pre-prepared image, provided the print expresses something good or uplifting or wonderful in some other fashion.

And for me, the highest complement is when someone wants to take one of my pictures home and hang it on their wall.

    fernando 3 years ago

    Toni – thanks. I wasn’t being negative about post-processing, if you’ll pardon the pun, my point was more about the cost. It is easier and cheaper to take a lot of photos now and post-process them heavily, which has changed the way we approach photography.

    Part of what fascinated me in Adams’ words were that he didn’t have a black and white view on this. Smaller cameras had good and bad points and he even wanted to use them more. But, he was already so heavily invested in his own process and had a backlog of work he wanted to continue working on.

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