Contrast in the Photography of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"

Ansel Adams, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”

Contrast is a matter of personal taste. A classic illustration of this is the way Ansel Adams interpreted his negatives when he made prints, and how that changed over time. Adams often said “The negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print to the performance of that score.”

Ansel Adams was arguably the most famous black & white landscape photographer of the 20th century. Adams became a master at dodging and burning, a process in which some areas of the print receive more light and some receive less (video here). This lightens and darkens different areas of the print. When I took a class in black & white printing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, once we learned the basics (how to process our own film and make a basic print), one of our first advanced steps was to learn how to dodge and burn prints.

"Moonrise", 1941-1975

“Moonrise”, 1941-1975 (click to see a larger version)

Over a period of years, Adams increased the contrast of some of his famous images, one of the most notable being “Moonrise, Hernandez, NM”. The Andrew Smith Gallery has a set of five Ansel Adams “Moonrise” prints made between 1941 and 1975. The sky gets darker and darker and the moon and crosses in the cemetery get lighter and lighter. Adams is steadily increasing the contrast. Some people prefer the earlier, less contrasty prints, and some the later prints. I suggest you go to the Andrew Smith Gallery, click on the individual photos and check them out for yourself.

Ansel Adams, Moonrise

Ansel Adams, Moonrise

In this delightful photo of the master himself, he is sitting below two interpretations of his negative. On the left (to Adams’ right) is a more straightforward interpretation of his negative. On the right is a recent, high contrast version. Which do you prefer?

In the digital age, we can increase or decrease the contrast of our digital files by dragging a few sliders. The contrast is up to you and how you want to interpret your image. And your taste may change over time. Some people will like what you do, some won’t. But it is, after all, your image.

Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships. – Ansel Adams

Originally posted Sep. 23, 2014. Revised, expanded, and re-posted Feb. 22, 2017.


Video: Ansel Adams Printing in the Darkroom

The Ansel Adams Gallery – the official site.

“Moonrise” poster from the Ansel Adams Gallery.

“Moonrise” prints at the Andrew Smith Gallery

On Closer Inspection, a selection of images by Ansel Adams at the Andrew Smith Gallery.

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.

A selection of photography books by Ansel Adams.