Ansel Adams the Greatest Teacher

If you live within 500 miles of Salem, Massachusetts, absolutely do not miss the Ansel Adams exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. Entitled At the Water’s Edge, it showcases more than 100 original photos by Adams, ranging from the iconic Reflections at Mono Lake to images never before seen in public. As someone who loves New England and photographs there often, I was amazed to see a close-up of barnacles at Cape Cod. 

As the title suggests, all the images on display have something to do with the theme of water–whether waves, snow, tides, the Old Faithful Geyser, even the Golden Gate before the Bridge image that hung over Adams’s desk. One thing I found very striking (as someone who enjoys photographing water myself) was his preference for crisp, sharp images that freeze a very brief instant of time and that thus produce, say, a very detailed shot of a wave breaking. This was after a brief period in which he was influenced by the Pictorialists, who preferred soft rather than crisp images and long shutter speeds to produce a silky water effect.

The latter sort of image is very popular today, especially among those who like to shoot waterfalls. Reflecting on Adams’s “defection” from the Pictorialist to the Modern school, I thought of my own recent journey of discovery with shutter speeds and water. In spring 2011 I was fortunate to be on the Rhode Island coast during the spring full moon. The tides were amazing and the wind was, well, this was Rhode Island!  Then came the icing on the cake as the full moon rose over Rhode Island Sound as I was shooting. Here are two images I shot that evening.  The first one shouldn’t have been made with that slow shutter speed; it doesn’t look right, you want to capture the incredible power of the waves and you need to freeze the action in order to do this. In the next shot the slow shutter speed works better, because it captures the water, after the wave has broken, washing over the rocks.


The day after seeing the Ansel Adams exhibition at PEM I was out early in the morning in that same spot–the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge. I found one of my favorite rocks, the light was right, and the waves were breaking. I ramped up the ISO to 640 and shot at f14, 1/500 second. And those who read this blog regularly will know that I like to do black-and-white conversions, and this image was a perfect candidate–it’s the breaking wave frozen in time against the contrast of the rock and water that was important, and so I converted the image to B&W.

Another thing that struck me was how Adams wasn’t afraid to have almost solid patches of black in his images. Nowadays we tend to feel we should open up the shadows. Clearly, the solid black patches depend on contrast for their effectiveness; they’re not going to work if they’re situated in an otherwise dark picture. Here is the interpretive journey of another of my images. It was taken at sunrise last December at a lake in the Catskills of New York. (The blue colorcast is natural, not a result of processing.) A friend suggested that I might want to try opening up the dark clump of trees on the right side, which I did. You see the result here. Then after seeing the Ansel Adams show I wondered how I could process this image differently. So I went back to the saved psd file and, after trying a few different presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, decided on Full Dynamic (harsh). The Contrast was already at 34, which worked for me. I increased the Brightness to 12 and the Structure to 4, because contrast in texture can also be important in B&W processing.

Different ways of interpreting a scene and of interpreting one Raw image. Tell me which you like. And tell me what you think after you see this awesome Ansel Adams exhibition at the PEM.

Art by Accident: Unusual Photo of a Beloved Rhode Island Icon

Like any photographer who is active in Rhode Island, I’ve shot the Newport-Jamestown Bridge countless times over the last few years. At dusk, in early morning, with or without the Goat Island Lighthouse–I’ve done all these and yet will never tire of photographing this lovely bridge over and over again.

The above photograph, taken shortly after sunrise on a bitterly cold January weekend recently, is unique. At least, unique in my collection. And it happened quite by accident.  Here’s the original image, right out of my Nikon D90:

How did I get this original capture, and how did I transform it into the artsy version you see at the top of this post?

As I said, it was bitterly cold. And very, very windy. Not always conducive to thinking first and shooting after. So I set up the camera on the tripod, focused, dialed in what I thought were the right settings in Aperture Priority, and fired away.

Except that I wasn’t in Aperture Priority–the camera was still in Manual, from a shoot the previous afternoon. My usual method of shooting is to start in Aperture Priority but then, if the blinkies warn me that I’ve overexposed or (less frequently) I see that the result is underexposed, I correct it by readjusting in Manual. That’s what I had done the day before, during “normal” daylight, and I had forgotten to switch the camera back to Aperture Priority. Hence the extreme underexposure. The settings were f/14 at 1/125 sec. with -0.3 exposure compensation, and ISO 320.  Not conducive to overwhelming brightness early on a January morning.

Normally I would simply have deleted the image after upload, but this time curiosity got the better of me. Could anything be done with it? So I opened the image in Raw (I always shoot Raw + jpg), adjusted the exposure, then opened it in Photoshop CS5 (my editing program of choice) and simply adjusted a few sliders. No filters, no plug-ins, nothing other than the most basic tools CS5 has available. And I deliberately didn’t de-noise it either; that’s what gives it the “artsy” look, almost as if it were a colorized version of a charcoal drawing.

Could I repeat this crazy experiment successfully? I don’t know–but given the opportunity, I’ll certainly try.

The picture (the Photoshopped one, not the original) is available for purchase on my website at the special Print of the Month price for the entire month of March. Act now–by March 31–to get your own print of this iconic bridge in one of four different sizes.

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Above you see a selection of some of my more “normal” photos, as purchased and framed for a corporate office. The purchaser specifically wanted to display images from my “Windows, Doors, Reflections” collection, and here you see one way of framing them. “Window, Doors, Reflections” is an exciting series for me and one to which I am always adding new images. If you’re interested in a themed display for your home or office, why not take a look at this gallery on my website? You can create your own themes, perhaps from my lighthouse images, or my Monochrome or historically-oriented Modern Vintage collection. I look forward to your visit!

What a Difference a Night Makes

Sachuest Moonlight

In April I had the great fortune to be on the Rhode Island coast during the spring high tides. The full moon combined with high wind to produce some really dramatic surf at Sachuest Point, one of my favorite places on earth.

The evening’s fading light allowed me to use relatively slow shutter speeds to capture some silky water textures as the waves either shot into the air upon impact with the rocks or rolled over the rocks when their power was spent. Here is a shot I got with an aperture of f 8, ISO 200, and shutter speed of 0.3 second.  It was quite an exciting experience because when I was looking through the lens at the wave action I had no idea what was happening immediately around me–one of those waves could have been about to engulf me and I’d have been quite unaware until after the fact!  Such are the adventures one has for the sake of one’s art.

The following morning brought bright sunlight and still the strong wind. (Is there ever a time without any wind when you’re near beautiful Rhody’s coast?)  I returned to the same spot, and here I was able to use a shutter speed of 1/1000 second to freeze the wave action and get quite a different effect. 

It seems paradoxical that by freezing the action you actually convey a greater sense of action, but so it is. I never tire of shooting somewhere along this amazing, rocky coast.