The Greats: How Ansel Adams’ Visualisation Techniques Will Better Your Photos

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As millions of photographs are uploaded to the internet every hour, slowing down and being more deliberate in your work is one way to improve creative satisfaction. Through his technique known as ‘visualisation’, the famous landscape and nature photographer Ansel Adams gave modern-day photographers a thoughtful way to transform good images into great ones.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Ansel Adams

Since the beginning of photography, capturing immense landscapes has been one of the medium’s greatest tenants. One of the first photographers to rise to prominence due to their mastery of the medium was Ansel Adams, who in the early 20th-century developed a concept called visualisation. This technique not only formed a cornerstone of his own practice, but would lead the following generations of photographers to think more deeply about their work.

Now, almost one hundred years later, as digital cameras let us continuously snap away, visualisation remains a useful technique for photographers who like to slow down and contemplate the emotion behind their subject.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

“We must teach our eyes to become more perceptive.”

What is Visualisation?

Visualisation is the concept of interpreting a scene and deciding on the final shot before pressing the shutter. Taking place within the ‘mind’s eye’, as Adams often said, visualisation involves intuitively assessing a subject and choosing the most important attributes to frame and highlight. Alongside the appropriate technical skills, having the ability to capture the mood of a scene is something that requires its own practice, which often only comes with experience.

To describe visualisation, Adams said: “We must explore what lies before our eyes for its significance, substance, shape, texture, and the relationship of tonal values. We must teach our eyes to become more perceptive.”

For Adams, having an emotional response to the subject was key to making great photographs. Once he experienced this feeling of inspiration and wonder during his exploration of rural America, he worked intently to translate it into a print so that his audience could feel the exact same reaction. He often compared his photographic negatives to a musical score, where if the photograph was created just right, the final print should serve as a grand performance of the feeling behind his subject.

“Many of his images failed to convey the same momentous impact that they initially had on his eyes.”

How Ansel Adams Used Visualisation

The landscape photograph is one of photography’s greatest tenants – and Ansel Adams was its pioneer. Having become fascinated with the natural world from a young age, once he was gifted a Kodak Brownie by his father, he had the means to capture anything that caught his attention. But he soon discovered that many of his images failed to convey the same momentous impact that they initially had on his eyes. It wasn’t until more than 10 years later at Yosemite National Park’s famous Half Dome that he made a profound breakthrough.

Having already exposed ten of his twelve glass plates without achieving his desired shot, he returned to the site as the afternoon sun was starting to hit the massive granite rock formation. Assessing the scene, Adams had the realisation that his yellow filter wouldn’t capture the dramatic quality of the sunlight and shadows surrounding the Half Dome. Instead, he made the conscious decision to use his red filter, knowing that it would greatly darken the sky and jagged cliff. Reflecting on how he managed to successfully translate the most emotive qualities of the scene into his famous Monolith photograph, Adams began to develop the concept of visualisation.

Portrait of Ansel Adams by J. Malcolm Greany
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Ingredients of Visualisation

Here are some simple steps to follow when you want to put visualisation to work in your own practice:

1. First and foremost, you have to choose what to include within the frame to produce the strongest possible image. That might mean changing your angle or finding a position that alters the foreground and background elements.

2. You also have to consider the spatial and shape relationships between the objects that you do choose to keep within the frame. Look for lines, curves and angles that might link or divide the subject, leading to an attention-grabbing visual dynamic for the audience.

“Look for lines, curves and angles that might link or divide the subject.”

3. Another factor that Adams considered central to visualisation is the time of day that you decide to shoot. With longer shadows giving photographs an enhanced three-dimensional quality, Adams was an expert at working with shifting light to create fascinating shots.

4. Finally, the form and tones that are almost hidden within a shot are also key to its success. Consider the shapes produced within the shadowy details and how they might be used to have a greater visual impact.

“Consider the shapes produced within the shadowy details and how they might be used to have a greater visual impact.”

Grand Canyon National Park, ArizonaGrand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Ansel Adams was undoubtedly one of the most important figures to ever pick up a camera, playing a pivotal role in transforming photography from a rudimental hobby into an art form. Learn from his teachings and see how visualisation might help you before you set out for another day of shooting.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.