Exploring the Grandeur of Nature

With a career spanning seven decades, Ansel Adams was a true environmentalist and an advocate for America’s wilderness. Although his photographic portfolio included a wide range of subjects such as portraits, still lifes, architecture and landscape, some of his most well known images are series exploring the grandeur of nature. Adams is not only one of the most revered figures in landscape photography, but his photographic instruction became legendary to a future generation of photographers.

An Early Interest in Photography

Ansel Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco to a wealthy upper class family. His interest in photography showed its first signs at an early age during adolescence as he began photographing downtown San Francisco. An only child, Adams would take frequent trips to the Yosemite National Park, where he would initially take family photographs to record the trips, but over time, he began noticing the landscape that surrounded him. He would say,

‘The rocks of Yosemite are the very heart of nature speaking to us.’ 


At the age of 20, Adams became the caretaker of the Sierra Club in Yosemite Valley. He went from being a tourist in Yosemite to being an expert and a mountaineer, recording the wilderness and beauty of the location, marking the beginning of what would be an iconic and life long photographic study.


The year 1927 was one that Ansel Adams considered a breakthrough. It was the year he coined and familiarized himself with the idea of visualization, where a certain image would be first composed in his mind in order for Adams to think of the tonal values to execute the very image he visualized. His photographs gradually became a means of manifesting his vision. Adams began concentrating on mastering technique and pushing the possibilities of the medium as he was seeking the closest equivalent to his vision. A perfectionist, he would usually take only one photograph (two at times just to be safe) which speaks to his level of precision and confidence.

The F/64 Group

Joined by other fellow San Francisco Bay Area photographers such as Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dycke, Ansel Adams founded the f/64 group in 1932, which all shared a common photographic style that was characterized by what they called ‘pure photography’. The group adopted an approach that a photography should be ‘a clear image of the subject using light to capture each natural texture.’ It served a modern alternative to the Steichen x Stieglitz camera clubs and believed that photography should not take inspiration from other forms of art, such as painting, for the sake of acceptance. The name of the group, on the other hand, was chosen as such because the photographers ‘preferred to shoot f/64 which was a narrow aperture that keeps frame sharp by maintaining good depth of field.’

The Zone System

Known to spend hours in the darkroom to perfect each picture, Adams even developed his own system, which he called the Zone System, that enabled him to precisely depict the tonal values of each picture. The exposure of certain tonal values in a photograph was crucial to him that in developing such a system, he ranked values from zero to ten based on how dark or bright they were to appear on the print. Whether he was on location or in the darkroom, the ability to expose these elements accurately, true to his vision, allowed Adams to manipulate the lighting and contrast of a photograph. Adams’ technical experimentation and mastery of technique has since been a tremendous influence on form and light in contemporary photography.

Ansel Adams, Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California
Ansel Adams, Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California, 1960, Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph

Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California

One of the best examples presenting Ansel Adams’ genius is his photograph titled Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California. The photograph is a striking depiction of the grandeur of the High Sierra mountains, as the Cathedral Peak stands proudly behind the lake with pine trees and rock formations on the shoreline. The atmospheric clouds in the sky add a cinematic effect to the overall feeling of the photograph. It was a part of a series of photographs Adams took during his trip to Yosemite with a group of his close friends, which included Georgia O’Keeffe, another significant name who had a great impact in the cultural imagination of the American wilderness.

Expressing the True Ecstasy and Excitement of Witnessing the Beauty of Nature

There is a certain larger-than-life, even spiritual sense to the photograph as Adams captures a particular, arresting moment revealing the magnificence and glory of nature itself. The fact that he had access to nature untouched by humans, such as the location in the picture, gives the image an extraordinary, even romantic quality. The photograph is also a testament to the fact that Adams has never simply been a nature photographer, but such an image is a way of expressing the true ecstasy and excitement he felt witnessing the beauty of nature.

The Final Print

The final print, with Adams’ attention to its tonal elements, also presents an idealized version of what really exists. By shooting black and white, Adams is able to enhance the dramatic shadows, and manipulate reality in a way, positioning the viewer closer to his envisioned image. The strong ’S’ curve created by the lake serves as a guiding line to emphasize movement in the photograph. Adams’ instinctive play on contrasts throughout the photograph provided it an engaging drama and heightened intensity, a recurring characteristic throughout his photographic portfolio that gave its iconic status.

A Legacy

Throughout his career, Ansel Adams has has earned numerous medals, awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Hasselblad Medal, the French Legion of Merit, and was recognized as an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from from Havard University. The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a major retrospective for Adams in 1974, and he co-founded the Center for Creative Photography the following year. Adams was a pivotal name in photography’s acceptance in fine arts as a medium, and his acute attention to detail, both in terms of narrative and technique is considered a guiding light for the advancement of the medium today.