A classically trained musician, Ansel Adams thought of his negatives as the score and his work in the darkroom as the performance. He would “interpret” his negatives differently, “dodging” and “burning” during the printing process to create a more dramatic image. In this short video you get to watch the master at work.
During the printing process the longer light hits the surface of the print, the darker it gets. Dodging is holding back the light so it doesn’t hit part of the print during part of the exposure process, making that area of the print lighter. Burning is the opposite, allowing the light to hit part of the print longer so that area of the print ends up darker. Dodging and burning increases the contrast of the print, the range of light to dark tones.
Digital photographers use Levels and Curves in Photoshop, Elements, and other software to increase contrast in their photographs. And there are digital ways to dodge and burn selective areas of the image to make them lighter and darker.
On four successive mornings Adams tried to take this photograph from the east side of the Sierra. On the fifth day it was still dark and bitterly cold when he set up his camera on the new platform on top of his car and retreated to the warm interior. As dawn drew near, he returned to the camera to await the sun’s first rays on the meadow. “I finally encountered the bright, glistening sunrise with light clouds streaming from the southeast and casting swift moving shadows on the meadow and dark rolling hills.” At the last possible moment, the horse turn to offer a profile view. Many years later he wrote “Somethings I think I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter!” (Photo note from the Ansel Adams Gallery.)
Originally posted Sep. 23, 2014. Revised, expanded, and re-posted Feb. 22, 2017.
A brief biography of Adams’ life at the Yosemite National Park web site.
Ansel Adams Gallery. Buy posters and reproductions of Adams’ work ($20-30), archival replicas (starting at $129), and vintage, rare originals that were printed by Adams (these cost thousands of dollars). You can also get “Yosemite Special Edition Photographs” that are individually hand printed by Alan Ross from Adams’ original negatives (currently $325). The gallery also sells works by other photographers.