Feature Story

Today Ansel Adams would bracket for HDR


You gotta love Ansel he still keeps us on our toes.

I wanted to respond to a recent comment reference Ansel's statement "those who bracket don't really know what they are doing". Understandably it seems to have unnecessarily stirred up some emotions in both the traditional film photography and HDR circles.

I tend to agree that Ansel's statement is still valid when analyzed in context. Remember he was professing this long before the advent of digital photography. His statement was in fact an artifact of the compromises that the film medium placed upon photographers and as a result quality prints demanded rather precise zonal placements. Yes you could play with plus and minus development times, adjust your paper or your filters and chemical selections. But in reality that wasn't HDR but rather an acceptable work around. Upon closer examination it could be said that it was the camera and enlarger technology that prevented him from pursuing HDR as a solution. The cameras and enlargers didn't provide a mechanism to accurately register two or more negatives into a print. Combine that with the limited masking capabilities and the net result is that it's virtually impossible to execute HDR as we know it in the film world. In other words in the days of film Ansel didn't have a technical requirement to bracket.

If we were blessed to have Ansel among us today my guess is that he would bracket. He would bracket if the range of light in a scene approached or exceeded that of the sensor or film. He wouldn't bracket on a flat foggy morning. If he found himself needing to bracket he would bracket with the Zone system! He most likely would have been a pioneer in the HDR realm. Lastly he probably would have revised his statement to "those who bracket within the Zone system know what they are doing".

Why would he bracket today? Because Ansel was a perfectionist. He studied and experimented and always extracted as much information as he could out of the medium that was available to him in his day. That being said I am almost certain that in today's world of digital imaging he still would use a Weston 1 degree spot meter. He would determine precisely the values of the highlights and shadows in a scene and would compensate for them. Choosing a indiscriminate value of +- X f stops is not very accurate and may not lend itself to accurate results. I would contend that at the root of many an HDR image with a desaturated or muddied appearance is an over exposed image, especially in the two or three frame HDR composites.

An interesting footnote is that Ansel donated most of his images to the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, AZ. The stipulation was that they would be made available to photography students to study and print for non-commercial use. He was very clear that the dawning digital world was coming and it would open up new interpretations of his work. "The negative is the composition and the print is the performance" How right he was.

Is this a case that both sides are somewhat correct, if only examined from a slightly different angle?

Understanding the Zone system is still as relevant today as it was in Ansel's day. For further reading I would recommend Fred Picker's book, Zone VI Workshop or Ansel Adams, The Negative.

Comments, viewpoints, opinions are more than welcome. I will listen and maybe update the article based upon the feedback. So please don't be silent. One more request if you decide to vote "Nah", please, please post a comment. It's really discouraging to take the time to write and have folks blast your thoughts via the "Nah" button without providing usable content.

Thanks and have a great day!

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—The JPG team

4 responses

  • Jeff Winterton

    Jeff Winterton said (26 Apr 2009):

    I am always arguing with friends about this. Some say the old KINGS OF PHOTOGRAPHY would evolve. Others and myself say they would not. Because they have perfected their art.
    What made them GREAT (I feel) was they would inspect their scene. Rise early for the best light, and spend the time (behind camera) to get it right.
    I believe if King Ansel was alive today, he would rather spend time behind his camera, then in front of a monitor. But, what if the scene wasn't perfect? There were limitations in the darkroom. Would the GREATS pass it by? Or would they do their best and the jaws of the world would still drop at the image they have just created?
    Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of HDR images that I enjoy looking at to the fullest extent. They are awe inspiring. I myself would rather stare at an image that hasn't been stacked or grossly manipulated, to fantasize about the how and when, and dream about creating such a beautiful image. Then, to copy one's key strokes on a computer.
    I look at images made 30, 40 and fifty years ago and I lose myself within those photographs. Then, I look at photos manipulated by a keystroke, and I flip the page.
    I myself push a lot of color into some of my photo's using the software that came with my Canon. Could that be thought of as manipulation? Or just my Digital Darkroom?
    I am not for adding or subtracting elements from a photo by using photo editing software. To me, that's like lowering the rim to 8 feet whenever you have the ball. Editing certain elements such as color and contrast (as they did in the physical darkroom) is something we have to do today because of the Digital age. And I will learn to live with the fact that Publishers only want the most Perfected photograph that software can create. I just Hope that Mr. Adams is still facing up…
    But, that’s just my opinion.

  • Bob Douglas

    Bob Douglas gave props (27 Apr 2009):

    Ansel did leave some clues in interviews that digital would open new oportunities hence new techniques.

  • Christopher Boles

    Christopher Boles (Deleted) said (26 Aug 2009):

    If it isn't in the camera you don't have anything to work with. That is why the perfectly exposed and processed negative was so essential to the final product. I am well versed in the Zone system and used it in my work site. The HDR system opens up new vista's with the digital age by marrying 3 images together. We can't do that with negatives very well and expect to come out with the same result. The Zone system was designed to compress into the negative the full tonal range the film could hold and express on paper the limited range that it could pull from the negative. We are trying to do that with HDR from a CMOS sensor of a wider range than film but not as wide as our eyes. Thank you for sharing all of your thoughts. Keep shooting!

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