Ansel Adams.

Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975 online

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on photography in their "How to Do It" series, in which they had
Levon West, the etcher, who later left etching and took up photography
and was known as Ivan Dmitri. He was a pretty good etcher. His book
on etching, I understand, is excellent. He was a fair photographer.

Well, I did this book, and now we're thinking of reprinting it
just as an historical object, because it was at the time one of the
most concise works on straight photography.

Teiser: What is it called?

Adams: It's called Making a Photograph. The first edition was in 1935. I
asked for good reproductions, and they agreed. The plates were
beautifully made, printed on very smooth paper, and tipped in which,
of course, is an ideal way to do it. It gives the illusion of being
originals, but if one corner gets dog-eared, or if people lift them
out, you know, you can get into trouble.

Now there's no need of that at all with modern double offset.
You just print text and images on the same paper. You use smooth
paper, and then you can apply lacquer with what is called tint block
on the press. Lacquer increases brilliancy.

But Making a Photograph in 1935 was the only book of its kind
known that was quite that simple and had anything like those repro
ductions. They were simply marvelous.

I remember going into Chicago one time, waiting for a train,
and went to a big bookshop, where there were a lot of photographic
books, and I pointed to mine and I said, "How's that going?" He
said, "Oh, it's going fairly well. It's written by one of those
highbrow Englishmen." And I didn't have the heart to tell him that
I was the author.

It's interesting that a photographer living in San Francisco
would have his first book published in London, or the first book of
any consequence in the instructional sense. Now that I say that, it
sounds very conceited, but still it has a function that's very, very
good, and there would be very little in it that would be changed.
Of course it was done long before the zone system appeared, so there
was no real analysis of exposure development and control.

Teiser: Your Morgan & Morgan Basic Photo series


Adams: First there was Camera and Lens Book One. That's now been revised;
it's a rather handsome 304-page book. Now I'm working on revising
the others The Print. The Negative, Natural-Light Photography, and
Artificial-Light Photography. And then Book Six is the Polaroid
manual [Polaroid Land Photography Manual^. The revised edition will
probably come out, if all goes well, very soon. But as soon as a
book's out, they've got a new process! The first edition of that
was very bad, because PolaColor came out right after the book was
published; I knew there was to be color, but I had no idea when it
was coming, and they couldn't tell me. So we had a filler inserted

And now the new process, the SX-70 system, which is a fantastic
achievement that will be in the revision. God knows what else
Land's got up his sleeve.

Teiser: It must have been hard to sit down and write.

Adams: Well, I'm very glib. I need an awful lot of editing, but I'm very
glib. When I get going I can write very fast quantities.

Teiser: But those books are so precise.

Adams: Yes, but if you know your subject you can write. The difficulty is
checking to be sure you have all the details right, and when you
read your own manuscript you find that you often overlooked important

I got a letter today. I mentioned a tripod number, 403 733 A,
Goldcrest. Well, this man writes, "There isn't any such tripod.
The Goldcrest people say it probably means 337 A." What it was, you
see, I'd put down number 403 337 A, and the typesetter made a
mistake in his composing machine, and I didn't catch that in time.
I'm going to have now an editor that will do nothing in the world
except check word for word and number for number.

Teiser: Did anyone read over them?

Adams: Yes, but not the way it should have been. Not a technical person.

I had another instance just the other day. A man wrote, "In
your warm-tone Glycin formula [page 14, The Print] , you say 'potassium
bromide, four grams', and right under it you say 'potassium bromide,
40 cc at 10 percent solution'." I never caught that. It should have
said "or" because that's the same thing. He said, "Why did you want
to put that in? Why didn't you just use more bromide?" Of course,
anybody who knew about it would realize they were the same, but
the word "or" is left out.


Adams: You say that's easy, but there's hardly a scientific book that comes
out that doesn't have a page of errata in it, and some have ten or
twelve pages. I've seen one very complicated thing on the photo-
physical chemistry of photography that had four or five pages of
errata slight changes of formula, etc. And of course unless you're
a mathematician, you wouldn't realize it, but when a mathematician
tries to work something out and he finds something wrong, he is

Teiser: When you work on such technical things, do you take whole days, or
do you take a whole period when you don't work on photographs?

Adams: Well, realistically I should just cold-bloodedly set aside a month
for this and a month for that , but sometimes I go at it for several
days, and then suddenly the curtain rings down. I've completely
lost the facility to think. I'm loaded with work continuously. So I
go on to do something else. And when I did the book on the University
[Fiat Lux] , I couldn't stay more than three or four days in one place
because after that I just stopped "seeing." I could say, "Oh, I have
to do a picture of that building," and it meant nothing. So I'd
"pogo-stick" to another campus and then have several days of
excitement, and then all of a sudden you don't see any more and you
must move on.

The Zone System

Teiser: Your writings on the Zone System

Adams: There are so many versions of the Zone System. They all come out
right, but the best one, the clearest one, is in the Polaroid Land
[Photography] Manual. People buy the Manual just for that, and I
never realized that. It is a kind of distillation and applies the
principles step by step, in much clearer style than the other

Teiser: You said that Minor White's article or pamphlet on the Zone System
was an extension of your work?

Adams: He has a booklet. He's doing a new one, which I haven't seen yet,
which goes into the mystical interpretation of photography. It
worries me a little because I think he's inclined to go off the beam
and be inexplicable (is that the word to use?). It's a form of
"camera as therapy," and I don't know; between you and me, it's not
entirely healthy, it's too mystical. It's a constant justification
and explanation, where photography should be a rather simple thing.


Adams: But he has some very good exercises, and details for working out the
Zone System, for students. I find it very complex, and he makes a
few errors, which I think are deplorable. It isn't whether he agrees
with me. I didn't invent the Zone Syst<fa. I simply codified
sensitometry. If you want to juggle with it and say, "Well, you
know, you can't print Zone I, so we'll start with Zone II," that
isn't scientific. That isn't sensitometry, you see. [Laughter] I
can't say, "Look, you're hurting my system. You can't do that." I
just say, "It's not right. It doesn't stand the test; you have to
begin one end of the exposure scale at Zone I."

There's a man in Sacramento who thinks he can get by with five
zones. Well, if he wants to do it, okay. But it's still not right
in sensitometry. The values that we can refer to with confidence
are in geometric ratios. And if you know anything about lenses,
you know how the stops of lenses progress from, say, f/8, f/11, f/16,
and so on. The point is that the f/8 means the focal ratio of the
diameter of the stop to the focal length of the lens at infinity.
So f/8 means the diameter of that stop is one-eighth of its focal
length at infinity. So therefore f/8 is a factor number that relates
to any focal length lens, one inch to twenty inches. F/8 will always
be a stop in that ratio, and will always transmit the same amount of
light, no matter what the size of the lens is.

Then you go on f/11, f/16, so you think f/16 would be one-half
of f/8, that it would let in one-half the light. But you're working
with the area of a circle, and that means f/16 is letting in one-
fourth the amount of light f/8 does, because a circle one-half inch
across has only one-fourth the area of a circle one inch across. To
set one-half the exposure you multiply eight by the square root of
two, 1.414 (here's geometry again) and then you get f/11. 3. You
actually progress at 11.3, 16, 22.6, 32, 45.2 those would be the
exact numbers, but we approximate them by just saying 8, 11, 16, and
22, etc.

Well, some people don't know what a square root is. They know
what a square is but not a root. It's just basic geometry. Now,
there used to be the old U.S. system, which meant "universal system,"
and they started at f/16 being the same as U.S. 16. And then, f/8
passed two times, f/4 passed four times, f/2 passed eight times the
amount of light, with ascending numbers like 16, 32, 64, 128, 256.
Every one was doubled, and it meant 2X, 4X, 8X, 16X, and 32X instead
of 4X, 16X, 64X, 256X, etc.

The Europeans, instead of having f/8 as the base, used f/9 but
the same thing. You get f/12.7, f/18, f/25 the ratio is always the
same. And ASA speed numbers are 64, 125, 256, and between each of
those are two other numbers like 32, 40, 50, 64; 100, 125, 256.
And if you once get that geometric idea in your mind, fine! But


Adams: meters come out with exposure values with arithmetic numbers, but

which have geometric significance all very confusing. On the Weston
5 meter, number twelve was equal to 100 candles per square foot,
number thirteen equal to 200, number fourteen equal to 400. So in
reading these numbers, you really have to think geometrically. But
many people don't think, they just take for granted a number on the
dial. They put it on the "arrow" and they read the exposure. You're
just pressing buttons without any knowledge of what's happening, and
I think that's very serious. And the exposure formula is so
absolutely simple once you know it. You don't need any dials; you
take the readings of your subject.

A typical example would be if I want to make a picture in
Yosemite, and it's a contrasty day, but I want to get a tone value
III in the tree shadows, and those tree shadows read 6.5 c/ft^. I
put 6.5 c/ft on Zone HI, go to 13 on IV and 25 on V, which is the
"geometric mean." So the exposure is 1/25 of a second at the lens
stop number, which is the equivalent of the square root of the ASA
speed number. And people collapse. And then you try to explain
again and say, "Well, that's nothing. Now you know you have 25
opposite V, so that's 1/25 of a second; that's simple. And if you're
using ASA 64, the square root is eight, so it would be 1/25 at f/8"
(that's your base exposure; you don't need a dial). Or if you're
using 125 ASA, that would be f/11, or ASA 250 would be f/16. You
just memorize a little table of squares. Kodachrome at 25 would be
f/5. The whole idea of photographic exposure is really a geometric
system. That doesn't mean that you don't work between stops to
balance and control. The Polaroid electric eye camera is extremely
sensitive, and you don't think of any f stops or shutter speed there;
you know it's calibrated to render a single surface luminance with
a value VI. And there's reason for that. It automatically registers
the values in this infinite series of adjustments, but you can make
it lighter or darker, according to the contrast of the scene, by
using the lighten-darken (L.D.) control. But the theory is exactly
the same .

Meters and Automation

Adams: In the earlier days, we did everything "by grace and by God" and by

tables. I had a little meter a tint meter that would use sensitive
paper and there would be two reference colors, light and dark green,
or light and medium green. And you'd hold it in the light and count
seconds until the sensitive paper was the same color as one of the
reference colors. But of course it's very hard to do, to be exact,
because your eye doesn't like to make that kind of decision, you see,


Adams: especially if there's an edge. But you count, say, fifteen seconds
and then you relate that to some mark, and you set the exposure. It
was fairly accurate if your eyes weren't too tired.


Then I had extinction meters, where you look in and see a wedge,
and you look at the scene through it, and you read the highest number
you can see it might be six, it might be fifteen. The tragedy was,
if you came out of a very bright light you'd see a very low number,
and then the longer you looked at it, the higher and higher and
higher the number you'd see. [Laughter] So you had to sort of balance
that out. If I was sitting here now, I could look in this room and
I'd trust what I read. But if I were looking out at the ocean for a
while and then tried to read in the room, it would take me about two
minutes before I was confident that I was seeing the correct number.

Then the Weston meter came out, which used the selenium cell,
which is a self-generating cell selenium on one side. As light
strikes this material, it creates energy and works an ammeter. The
Weston cell was a great invention, and it's used in many, many ways,
and it's probably one of the most accurate and dependable of all the
meter devices. The only thing that can go off is the little
electrical ammeter, which is working on a very low current. The
current is just generated in the cell entirely by light. There's no
batteries in the meter at all.

Then the next step was the cadmium sulphide cell, which is
extremely sensitive and is operated with a very small battery. But
it is inclined to be very erratic. It has to be primed. You have to
show it the light for a little while. That's the average cell,
although the one Dr. Land uses is apparently "capsulated" and gives
immediate response.

And now most of the meters out on the market Weston Nine and
the Gossen meter and the Pentax and all those in the cameras are
based on little sulphide cells.

Then there's the standard visual photometer, like the S.E.I.
meter (made in England). That's probably the best thing of its kind
made within the price; you can get photometers up to four figures.
But this one has a battery and a light, and you adjust this light to
a fixed brightness, which properly illuminates the comparison cube.
Now you match the light from the scene through a little telescope by
operating the main rheostat until it matches the fixed brightness
spot. That gives you the photometric measurement. But that is using
a fixed value to match not like the extinction meter, which depended
entirely on whether the eye could see a number or not in a dark field.

The S.E.I, meter has a diameter of field of view of one degree.
They've increased it a little bit lately it's one and a half now, I
think. So that means I can take the shadow on that tree trunk, and


Adams: I can take the white rock, and the highlight on that lamp, and the

white picture frame with the picture on the white mat from here, you
see. You just put the dot on it, and turn this thing until the values
match. That's really a great invention, because it gives you command
of what you're doing. All on the assumption that your shutter and
your diaphragm are correct and that your film and developer are
properly functioning.

[End Tape 6, Side 1]
[Begin Tape 6, Side 2]
Teiser: Have you had any experience with the light cell in the camera?

Adams: That's a new development which is primarily a gadget to sell cameras
to indulgent and wealthy amateurs. It's extremely clever and many
are extremely well made. If it is a meter which averages the light
coming in over the entire field it's like holding a Weston meter up
to the field of view. If it's a spot meter, then you have the
inevitable selection of what you point it at, because the spot
doesn't know; it will respond to the tree shadow, and to the water,
and will control the exposure accordingly. I've made tests with the
new Leicaflex, and it was extremely accurate a beautiful piece of
equipment but I still had to make up my mind, putting the spot on a
snowbank or on a tree, and the exposure will always be on the
geometric mean.

Now they have new meters which are a combination of the two,
which probably is a little better. But the camera can't make the
aesthetic selection if it is purely automatic. It can approximate
it. But as 90 percent of the pictures taken are of people, most
cameras and systems are calibrated to flesh tones. So if you point
this box, this finder with the spot meter, at the skin of a person,
you will get a reading which will put that on the proper point on the
exposure scale. God help you for anything else, because everything
you point it at will come out at the same point on the scale.

I went through this whole complex scene in Yosemite with my
photometer, and the Leica meter was very accurate. But still, that
was just the meter. Now what do I do_ with it? Do I want to place
that tree shadow on Zone V? I might want it at Zone II. Where do
I put it? So the only way you can control that situation is to set
your ASA and set the related lens stop. You then control the shutter
speed dial until the needles match, and then you have the candles per
square foot.

Teiser: So it's more trouble to override the automatic system than not?


Adams: Oh, it's terrible. It's much better to have a separate meter, read
it and set the camera accordingly. But then some automatic cameras
don't like to be "overridden." I've se^n people with cameras that
cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars completely frustrated; they
had no idea what was happening, and they were getting terrible
results. The camera was doing the best it could beautiful optics
but the user had no knowledge of what to do.

Teiser: I suppose there will be a whole lot of people who adapt themselves
to the automatic camera.

Adams: Oh, there are now, yes, to a certain extent. But see, where the

Polaroid is so far ahead of them is that with the Polaroid electric
eye receptor you have the ability to make it lighter or darker. Now
that's not too easy in the standard camera. You have to change stops
or shutter speeds. Well, what are you changing, you see? In the
Polaroid you can change two stops to light and one to dark. They're
going to try to get it two stops each way. And that's a very
intricate little system, but they can put it on their very cheap
cameras. And when you press the shutter it releases a certain amount
of current that controls the electronic mechanism.

Now we are getting those cameras that have electric drives. The
Hasselblad electric is just simply winding the film and setting the
shutter. It doesn't control the exposure, thank God. But you can
put it on sequence, take a picture every second, or you can just
press the button and have one image. They sent me one, but really,
I still have enough strength to wind the film! [Laughter] But it
really is wonderful when you have these 70-millimeter magazines with
many, many exposures to make in sequence. You're doing, say, a
series of portraits, and you're talking, and you just press this
button, and press and press; it's "sh-sh-sh," like that. But that's
not exposure reading; it's something else.

Now some equipment has electronic shutter control, and they're
having a little trouble. They're awfully complex, you know. Polaroid
is the only one that, so far, has been able to make these things in
quantity. Everybody else has had trouble. I guess Kodak is all
right with the Instamatic. And they use the same general principle.
Unfortunately, that principle of electronic exposure was not patent-
able not controllable by Polaroid. The thing was patented many,
many years ago, and it's now in the public domain. It wasn't used in
shutters. It was used in scientific instruments. It was used first
in engraving, so no matter what happened to the fluctuating arc lights,
the exposure would always be the same. And this was called an
accumulator. There would be a little meter on a copy board in the
engraving camera. They'd set the exposure, say, for three minutes,
and then the meter would take care of it and balance all lighting
variations. All these things are so interesting technically, and
they all had their roots in various applications, long before they
were thought of in actual field camera work.


Technique in Relation to Aesthetics

Teiser: When you were a youngster, were you interested in optical instruments?
Adams: Oh, yes, I loved instruments always been an instrument lover.
Teiser: Were you interested in your father's astronomical instruments?

Adams: Yes, oh yes. Of course, we only had a small telescope,
go up to Lick Observatory, see the big telescope.

We used to

The thing to get over is this: that I think my contribution,
if there is one (the creative work is something which only critics
of photographic history can say whether I did any pictures of
importance or not I'm conceited enough to think I did a few) the
main thing is that, as far as I know, I'm the first one that
codified technique in relation to aesthetics. You see, now there 've
been many, many people who've codified technique in relation to just
facts exposure and instrumental control and all that, and far
beyond anything I've done in physical accuracy. You know, when
you're making photographs in terms of nanoseconds and tracing spark
gaps, and doing things from the U-2 plane with slit-shutter cameras
at sixty or seventy thousand feet or higher (and you can see gravel
on the railroad beds) these are optical achievements that are
infinitely beyond me.

But as far as I know, and as far as other people know, I'm the
first one to have said you can control exposure and development in
relation to aesthetics, not just in relation to the photometric
equivalent. And the photometric equivalent means the light measure
ment which has the proportionate values of the subject, getting a
negative, and then, with light passing through the negative, getting
the value equivalent of the negative on the print. It's called the
photometric equivalent, and it has nothing to do with expression. It
relates to an approximate simulation of reality. And, in aesthetics,
we attempt departures from reality, whether we do them by trick and
by guess in the darkroom or whether we do them all ahead of time by
visualization .

I remember one of Minor White's great achievements. By the way,
he's one of the great photographers, and I have the utmost affection
and respect for him, so when I criticize what he did with the Zone
System, that just means the difference of technical application.
But he did a series of photographs of performances of Ibsen's Ghosts
in San Francisco, and in doing this, he wanted to give the nonliteral
feeling of the unworldliness of the characters. It was done very
simply by just using the Zone System, placing the skin values very
high. So all these people in the images are white very pale, very


Adams: unreal. And then, you see, it's not just value. If you go up the
top of the curve, it flattens off, and your contrasts become less,
so the face would become smoother, much higher in value, much less
defined. But you can visualize all tha*t. So that is, I think, the
contribution which is now being pretty well accepted.

Science and the Creative Photographer

Adams: I had the funny comment of a photo technician from, I think it was,
Eastman. He says, "You know I'm up there in that pretty hard-boiled
lab, and we're working with some of the most complex photochemistry
and physics that's going today but," he says, "when I want to know
something about photography, I read your books." [Laughter] I said,
"Well, thank you. I understand the difference." You should see
sometime one of the technical manuals! You know, it's just up in the
domain of higher mathematics and advanced physical chemistry. But
everything has its place, and that's what enables them to make the
materials that we people can throw around in a so-called creative

Even at this late date, they are not absolutely sure what
happens in the formation of the latent image. You've got a silver
crystal, which is a nice-looking triangular crystal different sizes
I forget the name of it it's got bevels and edges, but it's primarily
a triangle. And that is silver halide, composed of silver bromide,