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SCL Photo Podcast 28: Ansel Adams "The Negative"

SCL PodcastIt may be a technically challenging book to read and understand, but Adams' "The Negative" still has a strong resonance in the digital age..

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Show notes:

Featured Posts:

Simplifying Composition By Learning The Rules.

Photowalk 55, The First Of The New Year.

Video Book Review: Women by Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag.

Photowalk 56, Afternoon Light And Underexposure.

Bigstockphoto Diary #1.

Photowalk 57, The Familiar.

Photoworkbench, Sunrise, By Shade.

Photowalk 58, Shapes, and Cold.

Bigstockphoto Diary #2,Two From Five.

Photowalk 59, A More Natural Black And White.

1 Picture a day assignment.

the_negative_book_coverAnsel Adams "The Negative", Book Review

Available in the UK from

Available in the USA from

My Notes:

I've looked at a few of Ansel Adams books over the last few months, and this Volume, "The Negative" is the second in his "New Ansel Adams Photography Series". The first book dealt with the camera, how it works and it's technicalities, and I reviewed that back in podcast 15.

"The Negative" expands on the technique of Visualization, Adams talks about Light And Film, Exposure, The Zone System, Filter and Pre-exposure, Natural and Artificial Light Photography, Darkroom Processes and Equipment, and finally Value Control in Processing.

If some of those chapter headings leave you a little bemused, don't worry, so was I when I read the book, and re-read it. This book completely and utterly talks about film, and its aim is to help the film photographer achieve the photographs he or she envisioned in their minds before they pressed the shutter release.

So, if you're into film photography, use single sheet film and make your own prints, then this is a very in depth study into that black art. Unfortunately for Digital Photographers it's not as useful as Adams first book in the series, "The Camera".

There are some things as digital photographers we can take away from it though - his discussion on the merits and functions of various filters. We can use physical filters if we're shooting in black and white, or simulate those filters in our photo-editing software. As ever, Adams explanations of the Technique of Visualization are welcome and inspire the reader to really think about what they want their final photographs to look like before they even set out of the door with their camera bag.

I was initially excited to read this book because of its explanation of the zone system, that mystical technique Adams used to extract every inch of detail from the scene, and create perfect contrast. However the Zone system as explained here relates to initial exposure of the Film, and the development of the negative, and that process allows Ansel Adams to capture detail in the shadows and the highlights, rather than just going for straight processing.

I'm not going to attempt to explain the Zone system in detail, because at heart it is a simple idea, and I believe it helps us really think about the way we are exposing our digital photographs.

With the Zone System, the different levels of tone or brightness available to a photographer are numbered 1 through 10, in Roman numerals. Zero is Pure black, 10 or X is Pure White, with levels of grey in between. A bit like one of those colour swatches you get in paint shops. Each zone is one f-stop or exposure value apart.

The first point is to understand Zone V, which is 18% grey. When you're using your camera in average mode to meter the exposure automatically, say in auto, s p, a p or programme modes, it will alter the shutter speed and aperture until the scene has 18% grey in it because that's what's accepted as a good base for exposure.

This is why that if you try and take a photograph on a frosty or snowy morning, when you get home and look at your photographs the snow or frost will not be as white as it should be. This is because the camera looked at the scene, saw too much white, because it wanted to see at least 18% grey, so it underexposed the image, darkening the snow or frost. So in the zone system you'd know that sun-lit snow should fall into Zone 9, so you'd point you camera at the snow, take a reading, which the camera would see as zone 5, then dial in four stops of over-exposure to reach zone 9, either by using exposure compensation, or going to manual mode. Remember that for each stop we're halving or doubling the amount of light entering the camera - so to overexpose by three stops we'd have quadruple the length of the shutter time, reduce the aperture by a factor of four, or more like a combination of the two. So if when we pointed our camera at the snow, it wanted to take the photo at 125th of a second at f5.6, we could either stay at f5.6 and increase our shutter speed to 1/750th of a second, or stay at 125th of a second and decrease our aperture to f22. If we wanted to change both, we could decrease our aperture to f11 and change our shutter speed to 1/500th of a second.

Few! I know that sounds complicated at first, but it's all about realising that the exposure your camera tries to set in any of the automatic exposure modes can be improved upon by thinking about which areas of the scene are important to you and the final photograph you want to produce. You could go as far as learning where all the different values of common things belong in the different Zones, such as skin in zone 6, dark foliage in zone 4, etc and then dialing in the alternate settings, but it's perhaps simpler just to be aware of our cameras short-comings and use two tools to help us improve - our histogram and our view-screen.

Quite simply with digital you can shoot a scene, look at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, zoom into check the detail, then adjust your exposure accordingly. You can also check the histogram. If you're shooting snow, all the information should be bunched to the right, shooting a sunset it should all be bunched to the left.

Also remember that in scene position modes, or multi or matrix metering modes the camera works a lot harder to figure out what the correct exposure should be relying on complex algorithms and years of research, so it may be only necessary to make fine adjustments.

The points that I've taken from Ansel Adams "The Negative" are the confidence to really play around with exposure, the understanding that even though our camera can only record a limited amount of light compared to our eyes that by making quite large changes to exposure I, as a photographer can control where I want the detail, and colour to be.

So although its a brilliantly technical book, beautifully printed with excellent photographs included as examples, I don't think that it's a must by for the digital photographer. By all means borrow a copy from your library, but I wouldn't spend the cash. If however you're a film shooter, who develops your own negatives and makes your own prints, this must be a must-by.

That's it for the review, and I'll apologise for any mistakes I may have made in trying to describe the zone system, feel free to post on the blog any corrections, or perhaps they way you've adapted the technique for your photography.

End of Year Photo Assignment - "Shape Interrupted!"

Post photo's here.

Just for fun, no prizes I'm afraid, and we'll run it into January, as every-one's been busy at the moment with Christmas and New Year.

Technique challenges (No Time Limit):

No Sky Landscapes

Fill The Frame!

Dawn / Dusk shots

A Landscape Style Shot With Strong Foreground Interest

Remember to email me your photos if you'd like to me work on them for the Photo Workbench.

To contact me, just click on the link near the top of the page under the big picture.

Thanks for listening, see you on Flickr!

Join the Flickr Group!

Cheers, Rob.

Reader Comments (2)

Hi Rob,

Thoroughly enjoyable podcast!

Really enjoyed every minute of it. Glad that we had the discussion that you mentioned at the start, made for some insightful comments and was very much appreciated. (Nothing like a real in depth discussion!)

Your research into aspects of photography has been a pleasure to follow and it's so nice experiencing your 'discoveries' along with you.

I've seen a real difference to you imagery as you make each of these steps and your recent exposure adjustments testify to this.

Fantastic work and fantastic share!

All my very best wishes to you,


January 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Hi Victor,

Thanks for your comments, I guess you could say its been a real trip, and the best is yet to come, I've got a feeling this year could be really interesting.

Thanks again for your support and encouragement,

Cheers, Rob.

January 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

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