Creating HDR Like Ansel Adams

Moonrise over Hernandez photography by Ansel Adams

"Wait a minute!" you say. "Ansel Adams didn't ever shoot HDR. 

Well he did and he didn't. But when you get down to what HDR is really all about (High Dynamic Range) you might realize that he did it better than anyone else, as exemplified by the photography he conceived using his famous Zone System.​

One great example of his use of the Zone System, his famous Moonrise over Hernandez, is explained here in his own words:


In his book The Making of 40 Photogaphs, he explained further that "I was at a loss with the subject luminance values, and I confess I was thinking of bracketing several exposures , when I suddenly realized I knew the luminance of the moon – 250 c/ ft2 Formula. Using the Exposure Formula, I placed this luminance on Zone VII."

For those of you not familiar with the Zone System, it was a system devised by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer to assist photographers with visualization and exposure. The Zone System has 11 zones, ranging from 0 to 10, with 0 representing pure black and 10 representing pure white. Zone V represent middle gray. Each Zone represents a doubling of light from the zone below it. So when Ansel says the moon was to be placed at Zone VII, he was saying that it was to be two stops brighter than middle gray. 

So you see, the key to making the most popular photograph by one of the most famous photographers ever, was knowing where to place a highlight (the moon).

This brings us to the first of the 7 Keys to Photographic Greatness.

Key 1: Knowing You're Not in Kansas Anymore (Visualize)

The very first step in creating a great photograph is to visualize it as you want it. Then you create it. It's your own world. Do with it what you feel prompted to do. But be true to it. As Yogi Berra famously said, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up some place else." And that surely applies to the HDR photographic process. When you capture those highlight values, where are you going to put them? When you capture those shadow values, how dark are they going to be? How much detail will be visible?  How far from Kansas do you really want to go?

Too often, HDR photographers are not discriminating on just how much they move these values. They have no idea what the Zone System is and how it applies to their HDR images. But High Dynamic Range doesn't mean High Dynamic Clump. That is, just because HDR makes it possible, don't clump your highlights and shadows all together in the middle, in Zones IV, V, and VI. That equates to a very flat image, and in my mind's eye, not very dynamic at all. I would call it muddy.

When you spread out your values, you get a luminous image. The light in the image becomes alive and magical. And that is a key ingredient of a great image.​

Key 2: Don't Blow Your Chance for $100,000 (Shoot it Right)

Do you know that prints of Moonrise over Hernandez have sold for over $100,000. But what if Ansel Adams screwed up the shot? What if he forgot that when he changed the aperture to f/32 that he had to advance the focus about 3/32 of an inch? I'll tell you what. He would have missed out on a lot of money. And though you might not know which image of yours is going to be a big seller, you know right away which ones are not going to be. And that's because you know which ones you didn't shoot correctly. Shoot them all as if you know you are going to sell $100,000 worth of prints off of it.

Shooting it right means capturing the best image possible. No camera shake due to your sturdy tripod. The image is focussed precisely. The camera is level. The depth of field is correctly chosen. You have the image framed properly so you won't have to crop later.  And last but not least, you are using your best lens suitable for the subject.​ You are using the most appropriate shutter speed, the most appropriate f/stop, and the most appropriate ISO. 

And after you shoot it (your multi-bracketing exposure sequence)​, check the histogram in the camera to make sure that your under-exposed shot captured all the highlight values and that your under-exposed shot captured all the shadow values. 

If you have remembered all of these details, you will have the ingredients for the best possible 32-bit floating tiff file from your merged raw images. And this will give you maximum flexibility and latitude when tone-mapping in your choice of software, whether it be Lightroom, Photomatix, or HDR Efex Pro 2 from the Nik Collection.

Step 3: Your Tone Mapping Software is a Tool, But Not a Hammer (Subtlety)

We have already touched on this subject. But tone mapping is the corner stone of HDR. Don't overdo it just because you can. Get the luminance values right, then you can expand your radius values if you have a preference for that kind of look. Treat your luminance values with care. Don't crush them into unrecognizable form.

Remember, the whole purpose of HDR is to be able to capture the range of light that the eye can take in but which ​your camera sensor cannot with one exposure. Were the shadows barely discernible to your eyes? If so, you might want to make them barely discernible to the viewers of your image.

I usually make my HDR images just a tad beyond what is possible without HDR. That is, I get the shadow and highlight values in the image and I expand my pixel radius values​ and add some clarity. People see it as a photo, but can't quite make shy it looks different that a typical photo. And from the HDR  fans, I get a lot of positive feedback how my HDR is not overdone.

I guess it is like a fine wine that is not too sweet, but it does have a discernible bouquet fragrance about it. It is called subtlety, and people love it when they discover the subtleties in the finer things of life.

Key 4: Sharpen for Source, Effect and Output

One of the great features of HDR photography is that it gives us great detail. If you sharpened correctly.

If you are shooting with a DSLR (as opposed to a medium format camera like a Hasselblad) you most likely have a camera with an optical low-pass filter. These filters reduce the sharpness of an image, requiring a sharpening workflow in post production.

This trend of camera manufacturers might soon come to an end, as more and more are starting to be made without the low pass-filter. This new trend started with the Nikon D800E and now with the Nikon D810. There are others as well and the reason is simple. With the high-density of pixels on sensors, the moire patterns are not much of an issue. But even without the low-pass filter, when photons are changed to pixels, sharpness is compromised. Just not as much as before.

But when it comes to HDR digital photography, some Photoshop gurus claim that it is best not to sharpen the raw images before they are merged for HDR. Their reasoning is that HDR exaggerates digital noise and aberrations like halos around edges of high contrast.

My experience is that this is true sometimes, but not all the time. And the times that it is true, I can always reprocess my raw images and remerge them. Then I have two HDR images and I can open them together as layers. If there are any problems of halos in parts of the image​ with high contrast, I can paint in the layer made up of the non-presharpened raw images.

This extra process takes an extra couple minutes but the results are much, much better. If you look at the two versions side-by-side, there is no comparison in the detail and dimensionality. Here is a sample of the unsharpened prior to HDR merge followed by a version that had the raw images sharpened prior to the HDR merge. You be the judge: 

Detail with no raw pre-sharpening

HDR Detail with HDR Pre-sharpening

Both of these images had sharpening applied to them after the HDR merge. The first one had a double dose of sharpening but it still doesn't catch up with version two. Look at the details in the bark of the stumps under the boathouse and you will see the difference. And the other important thing to note is that Version 2 does not exhibit any halos around the high contrast edges. 

But if it had, and Version 1 was noticeable cleaner, I could have use sections of Version 1 to paint in on those problem edges. That way I would have the best of both images. And that is what HDR is all about, isn't it? Anyway, I rest my case that you should pre-sharpen before the HDR merge, and anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or lazy. I'm glad that is off my chest.

If you are interested in my pre-sharpening setting I used in Adobe Lightroom, here they​ are. These are typical setting that I use in High-Frequency images (images with a lot of edge detail and luminance changes). The opposite of this is a low frequency image, such as a portrait of a woman, where the luminance values change gradually and there are not as many edge details, and thus it gets a different type of sharpening.

Lightroom Sharpening

The most detailed treatise on sharpening in Photoshop, Camera Raw, and Lightroom is a book by Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe, entitled Real World Sharpening with Adobe Photoshop; Camera Raw, and Lightroom. It explains in great detail about the multipass sharpening workflow. A must read for professional photographers who want to achieve the difference between reasonably good sharpening and perfect sharpening.

But you have to consider several factors when you sharpen an image. You need to consider what type of image it is so you can apply the appropriate capture sharpening. Then you need to decide what, if any, creative sharpening the image needs (perhaps some sharpening of a model's eyes), and lastly, you need to know what type of output your image will have. Sharpening an image for display on a monitor is far different than sharpening an image for printing on a fine art textured paper.

Another key component of sharpening is that output sharpening should not be done until the image is resized for output. You don't want to be resizing the radius values after the output sharpening​. It won't be nearly as effective.

A great tool for sharpening come with the Nik Collection. You will find there both Sharpener Pro 3 (1) Raw Presharpener and Sharpener Pro 3 (2) Output Sharpener.

The Output Sharpener​ is very effective because it asks you to specify what type of output you are sharpening for (screen, glossy paper, matte paper, textured paper) and it also asks for the type of printer (ink jet, continuous tone, half tone, or hybrid device.) You can even make adjustments for Output Sharpening Strength, Local Contrast, Structure, and Focus.

The results never cease to amaze me. Sometimes the sharpening for print looks way overdone on screen, but the print comes out of my printer looking perfect.​

Key 5: Know Your Camera Like Your Spouse

​Cameras can be intimidating. I remember once having to buy a book to understand a manual. In your relationship with your camera, that is a stage where you might hate your camera because it doesn't cooperate with you. But give it your attention and you'll become friends. 

I heard a story about an acquaintance of mine going through customs in India with a bicycle. The customs agent stopped him because he thought the man (an American) was bringing it into India to sell it. The man said, "Are you kidding? This is my wife." The customs agent laughed so hard that he had to call another agent over.

"Tell that to him too," the agent said. Ken, the American with the bike, repeated what he told the first agent.

"This bike is my wife." The second agent laughed just as hard, and they let him through without paying duty.

That is how you have to be with your camera. Know it intimately. Know it inside and out, just like your wife (or husband) or significant other.​

Back to the Ansel Adams example of Moonrise, if you watched the above video you heard him say that he got the image with only a second to spare. He tried to get a second exposure but the light was no longer reflecting off the crosses.

Think about that. One second more and it would have been too late. It's amazing, as prints made by Ansel Adams of this photograph sell for huge sums of money. ​Sotheby's sold a 20 x 24 inch Moonrise for $115,000.00. And to think the photograph almost didn't happen. If Adams didn't know his gear inside and out, he would not have gotten the shot.  Or if he didn't know his photographic theory.

Here's another quotation from him about getting the shot from his book, The Negative: "I set up the 8 x 10 camera as fast as I could while visualizing the image. I had to exchange the front and back elements of my Cooke lens, attaching the 23-inch element in front, with a glass G filter (#15) behind the shutter. I focussed and composed the image rapidly at full aperture, but I knew that because of the focus-shift  of the single lens component, I had to advance the focus about 3/32 inch when I used f/32. ​These mechanical processes and the visualization were intuitively accomplished. Then to my dismay, I could not find my exposure meter!" But we know how he handled that.

He knew that ​250 c/ ft2 Formula  equated with a shutter speed of 1/250 at an f/stop that was the equivalent square root of the ASA of his film. In his case, he was shooting with ASA 64, so his aperture was f/8. And because he was placing this on Zone VII, he had to expose for the Zone V equivalent of 1/60 shutter speed at f/8. But he also was using a filter, so he had to allow for the 3X factor of his Class G filter, meaning the shutter speed would be 1/20th. But since he was going to shoot at f/32 to get the maximum depth of field, the shutter speed had to be adjusted to 1 second.

Remember, he had one second to spare in getting his shot off. If he didn't know this photographic math like he high school student knows his multiplication table, he would not have gotten off the shot.​

When doing nature photography, it is mostly in early morning or late evening, taking advantage of the golden soft light. And the light changes quickly at those times of day. The sun coming up over the horizon of the Atlantic doesn't last more than a few seconds. Don't waste the opportunity of a great shot by fumbling over your equipment.

Key 6: Know Your Software Too.

I often tell people that a photographer is only as good as his or her Photoshop skills. The owner of an advertising agency, when he heard me state this in a meeting, scoffed, by saying, "Tell that to Ansel Adams."

But you see, Ansel Adams was a master of the darkroom. He was doing his own version of HDR with his Zone System. He was able to get just about any photographic effect he wanted. If he knew he was going to need more exposure latitude from a negative he was developing, he would develop it one way. If he needed more contrast, he had another method.

Photoshop is nothing but a digital darkroom. And it can be overwhelming to a newcomer, just as learning how to get around in the analogue darkroom.

I remember years ago when I first got into digital photography (I had been shooting with a large format 4 x 5 view camera). I was sharing a cup of coffee with my wife along with the artist, David Barison at a bookstore. I had just picked up the book by Malcolm Gladwell​ called Outliers  in which Gladwell introduces the 10,000 Hour Rule, a rule that states it takes a person 10,000 hours to be a master at their profession. I mentioned that I wanted to be great at Photoshop and so I would put 10,000 hours into it.

David then told us of a conversation he had with someone who really knew what it took to become world-class: the legendary ballet teacher, Margaret Craske. Miss Craske taught at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, Juilliard, and the Manhattan School of Dance. Her distinguished students included Melissa Hayden, Hugh Laing, Nora Kaye, Carmen Mathe, Paul Taylor and Sallie Wilson.

Here is what Miss Craske shared with David in her thick British accent: “It takes eight years to learn how to be a student. It then takes another eight years of being a student to learn the technique; and then again another eight years of learning to use the technique to become an artist.”

That was sobering. Eight years just to learn how to be a student! I guess that is how long it takes to make the ego subservient to the teacher, to allow oneself to truly be open to being molded by the teacher’s vision. And then begins the quest of learning the technique. It’s one thing to know how to type; it’s another to type a novel. The last phase I suppose is the process of getting the “self” out of the way and letting the Higher Self flow through the art.

So a student I became. One of the steps I took to becoming proficient at Photoshop was deciding to become an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop. I knew the study guides would show me what I didn't know. And that was a big step. Because at the beginning  of any endeavor, the person doesn't know what he doesn't know. So then I was able to learn what I needed to learn and I passed the exam on the first attempt. But it was a lot of work. But it was helpful work that improved my photography. 

If you also have that goal of mastering Photoshop, use it everyday, and then start preparing to be a certified expert.​ You'll get there more quickly. But take your time.

Key 7: Awareness of Light​

​Photography is nothing if not about light. For without light there is nothing to photograph. Albert Einstein once said that "Nothing happens until something moves." Well, in photography nothing happens until there is light, and if we do the light right, our viewers are moved. And that's something.

Here is what Ansel Adams had to say about the importance of light: " should be pointed out that too few photographers are fully aware of what light value can mean in both practical and emotionally expressive terms. Awareness of the subject luminance range is essential to adequate visualization of the final photograph. The impression of light is important in nearly all photographs; it is very subtle and sometimes difficult to achieve."​

​How to develop this awareness of light? Look at the masters of art. Look at the work of Monet and other impressionists.  Go check out a museum showing Cezanne or Renoir. Your appreciation of light and its emotional impact will be changed.

​Or better yet, go check out an exhibit of Ansel Adams. The first time I did, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, my photography changed forever.

Far too often, HDR photographer don't give enough attention to the subtlety of the light. They are in a hurry. It looks good enough. It looks cool. But Ansel Adams didn't work that way.

Do you know that​ Adams was constantly working on getting the light just right in the Moonrise photograph. It evolved over many years. In the early years the sky wasn't as dark.  Also, several years after taking the photograph, he decided to increase the contrast of the foreground, and to do so, he even refixed the negative. 

Here is how Adams summed up the making of this masterpiece: "It is a romantic/emotional moment in tie. I think it would have a certain appreciation even if poorly printed. However, the mood of the scene requires subtle value qualities in the print that I feel are supportive of the original visualization. The printed image has varied over the years; I have sought more intensity of light and richness of values as time goes on."​

I don't know about you, but I'm glad he didn't just give 20 minutes to it and call it a day.​

Key 8: Love Your Photos Like They Were Your Children.​

And one more story about Ansel Adams; and it's a story from my past. And it is about Ansel Adams as the person. It's about his generosity.

At the time I was living in Los Angeles and I was taking private lessons on the Zone System and darkroom technique from a photographer named David Moore, who, by the way, had taken a workshop at Yosemite with Ansel Adams several years earlier.

One night, after spending three hour with David in his darkroom under his supervised instruction, I paid him an amount of money that we had previously agreed to for his time. But he surprisingly returned two-thirds of it. I asked him why. He said, "I was working on my own stuff too. That's what Ansel would do. Let me tell you a story."

He then told me how one day he was in Carmel, California and decided to go knock on the door of Ansel Adams, who had lived there for many, many, years. Ansel came to the door and David said, "I don't know if you remember me, but I took a workshop with you in Yosemite a few year ago and I just wanted to say hi and thank you for all you gave me."

Now most celebrities (and Ansel Adams was more than a celebrity in the world of photography​) would say something like "Thanks for coming by. Nice to see you. But I got to get back to work."

After all, he was busy with his work. He was in the last couple years of his life, he was putting out his series of books on The Camera, The Negative, and The Print, and was going through all of his decades of photography and organizing it and getting it all ready for the archives.​

But instead he said, "Come on in. Let me give you a tour of my house and my darkroom. Have you had lunch?" And he made David feel like he was more important than anything else on his agenda that day.

David went on to say that this generosity made such a deep impression on him that he decided to model his life on that. And that is why he gave me back two thirds of my money.

So what does that have to do with photography? Well, it all comes down to generosity and time. Be generous  with your time you put into your photography. Love your craft. Love your viewers. Love your photos as if they were your children. Give them time and attention. Don't ignore them. Let them evolve as you evolve. Make your photos as great as you can, as if they were going to hang in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa.

If you put the effort into your craft each day, as if you were creating a masterpiece, the odds of eventually making a masterpiece go way, way up. And if you are fortunate enough to even make one great masterpiece in your lifetime, your photography will have been a great success​.

That's what Ansel would do.​  That's what Ansel did.


Greg Butler, Managing Editor of Making Great Photos, is a professional photographer and an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop. He lives in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area. His speciality in photography is nature, architecture, and portraiture.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Leave a Comment: