Ansel Adams’ photography puts the American wilderness on display, highlighting its enormity and beauty through dramatic black and white photos. Adams’ knowledge of cameras and the science behind them allowed him to visualize his photos before he took them. His long career left us with hundreds of remarkable photos. Here are 25 of them and 6 facts about the man behind them.
1. Monolith, The Face Of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley By Ansel Adams, 1927
When speaking of Ansel Adams’ photography, the most famous is Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. This was Adams’ first photograph that gathered the attention of the public and the art world. Using his Korona camera, Adams captured his iconic photo of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park after a difficult hike. Initially using a yellow filter, he then swapped it for a red filter to darken the sky, brightened the snow, and brought forth all the monumental detail and enormity of Half Dome, making it glow under the black sky.
2. Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941
This famous photograph was captured a moment before the sunset. With his camera’s back to the sun, Adams captured this twilight scene of Hernandez, a small New Mexico town. An orange Wratten No. 15 G filter helped to darken the sky and emphasize the adobe buildings and fall-colored leaves. The contrast gives the gravestones of the small cemetery an eerie glow under the black sky. Thanks to his technical knowledge and quick thinking, Adams was able to capture this image before the sun disappeared.
3. Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California, 1938
Half Dome sits in the center of this photograph, wrapped in snow and rising above the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. The stark whiteness of the snow outlines Half Dome and the darkness of the trees and sky draw the viewer’s attention right to it. The undisturbed snow and still reflection on the water emphasize the calmness of this wilderness scene.
4. San Francisco From Twin Peaks, 1953
A much different image than typical Ansel Adams photography, here we see San Francisco sprawling out before Twin Peaks, two large hills that sit within the city. Shadows from the clouds darken different areas of the city, making it look small and toy-like. The strong contrast between light and dark in this photo creates a chaotic visual drama among the buildings and streets, quite a change from Adams’s usual tranquil photos of nature.
Fun Fact 1: Adams is from San Francisco and was 4 years old on April 18, 1906, when the city was devastated by an earthquake. His only injury was a broken nose that he never had properly set.
5. Sand Dune, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California, 1948
After spending the night on top of his car and trekking into the sand dunes before the sun rose, Adams found himself in the right place at the right time to capture this stunning image of the sun rising over the sand dunes of Death Valley National Monument. In true Ansel Adams photography style, the use of light sets this image of the sand dunes apart from all others. A striking line down the dune separates light from shadow. A taller dune in complete shadow contrasts the lighter Funeral Mountains behind it.
6. Sierra Meadow, 1930
Sierra Meadow is quite different from Ansel Adams’ monumental photographs of great land formations. Here, he looks closely at a small part of nature. Instead of his classic use of strong contrasts between dark and light, he creates a softer focus on the small flowers. They glow in the sunlight, emphasized by the difference in texture from the grass behind it.
7. Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, 1934
The Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley is a popular spot to view the immensity of this valley, carved out centuries ago by glaciers. Adams enjoyed this view greatly, photographing it multiple times at different parts of the year. On the left, El Capitan stands guard. On the right, Bridal Veil Falls shines brightly. In the far distance, the famous Half Dome makes an appearance.
Fun Fact 2: Adams first became enamored with Yosemite at the age of 14. His aunt brought him In the Heart of the Sierras by J. M. Hutchings while he was sick in bed.
8. Autumn, Storm, Near Peñasco, New Mexico, 1958
Dark clouds that seem out of place float low over a brightly lit field. The grass and trees are illuminated, emphasizing their texture in contrast to the soft clouds. The flat land stretches to the horizon, only broken up by the groups of trees. Adams shows the enormity of the land and its’ calm resolve in the face of the storm.
9. Half Dome Of Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1937
Half Dome from Glacier Point shows Half Dome rising up amidst the other Sierra Nevada mountains. From this viewpoint, Half Dome is less imposing over the surrounding mountains. A 20-mile hike separates Half Dome from Glacier Point where Adams took this photo from. Using a Turner Reich lens consisting of three elements and his Korona camera, he was able to shorten the wide distance between himself and Half Dome without losing focus of either the foreground or Half Dome.
10. The Golden Gate Before The Bridge, 1932
Adams captured this photo one year before construction on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge began. From his home nearby, he saw the clouds rolling in and he rushed to Lands End, a nearby park, where he could stand on a cliff and capture the view before him. The darkened hills that stretch out to the horizon are made small in comparison to the enormity of the sky and clouds above. Ansel Adams’ photography was known for showcasing the immensity of land and sky.
11. The Grand Tetons And The Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942
In this photograph, Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia River, winds away from the Teton Range in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. The dark trees and vegetation around the river contrast the white of the snow on the mountains. The partly cloudy sky creates unique reflections of light on the water and snowcaps.
Fact 3: Many years after Adams had taken this photo, a close friend of his, Nancy Newhall, who was an American photography critic, had a fatal accident while rafting on this very stretch of Snake River.
12. North Dome, Basket Dome, Mount Hoffman, Yosemite, 1935
North Dome and Basket Dome sit in the foreground of this photograph, shadowed on the left side and illuminated by the sunlight on the right. They rise up out of a sea of dark trees that contrast the smooth texture of the domes. Behind them, Mount Hoffman shines in the light and stretches across the horizon. Numerous smaller peaks rise up around Mount Hoffman creating definition on the mountain’s surface.
13. Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain, Yosemite National Park, California, 1948
Near Mirror Lake in Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams searched for dogwoods to photograph. This photo, taken on the banks of the Tenaya Creek, shows the bracts of the dogwoods illuminated against the dark foliage of the nearby plants and trees. The mountains that surround this wilderness area peek through the trees past the dogwoods and creek. His view of the creek and the frame created by the trees invite the viewer to step into the photo.
14. Nevada Fall, Rainbow, 1947
At 594 feet tall, the Nevada Fall is a popular feature in Yosemite National Park. Adams had to approach the fall carefully to avoid traveling through any lingering mist and damaging his equipment. The darkened trees and rocks contrast the white water as it falls. Even in black and white, a rainbow can clearly be seen stretching across the bottom of the photo as it refracts off the fall’s mist. The ability to display the definition of mist and clouds is a staple of Ansel Adams’ photography.
15. East Vidette, From The Portfolio Parmelian Prints Of The High Sierras, 1925
East Vidette is a striking peak located in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. A flat foreground with tall, darkened trees stretches to the base of the mountain, which rises steeply to a sharp point. The light clouds surround East Vidette and emphasize its rocky surface against the milky sky. Light dances throughout the photo on illuminated rocks and patches of snow.
Fun Fact 4: Adams worked with Albert Bender to put together the Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, but he greatly disliked the portfolio’s name. “Parmelian” was a made-up word to make photographs sound more sophisticated and “Sierras” is the improper spelling, as the word “Sierra” is already plural without the “s.”
16. Moon And Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1960
Moon and Half Dome was taken many years after Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, but captures the rock formation in a similar fashion with the addition of the moonrise. The setting sun illuminates the cliff face, contrasted by the darkened Washington Column in the left forefront. An orange filter was used to dim the sky, a technique that creates a higher contrast when the image is in black and white.
17. Eagle Peak And Middle Brother, Winter, Yosemite National Park, 1968
This unique photo of Eagle Peak and Middle Brother, part of the Three Brothers rock formation in Yosemite National Park, shows the rocky peaks soaring out of dark fog around their bases. Black trees in the foreground and the darkened sky contrast the snowy peaks reflecting the winter sunlight. The detail of the trees and the rocky surface of the mountains separates them from the hazy darkness of the fog.
18. Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah, 1958
A self-portrait of himself using his own shadow is very fitting for the photographer whose contrast between light and dark set him apart from the others. As he holds up his light meter, Ansel Adams captures a photo of the shadow from himself and his camera next to him on the rock surface. The sunlit rock almost resembles his other photos with a sky full of wispy white cracks and texture that looks like a distant mountain range.
19. The Sentinel, From The Portfolio Parmelian Prints Of The High Sierras, 1923
Here, Adams gives us a westward view down Yosemite Valley. On the left, Sentinel Rock towers over the valley floor, casting it into shadow. The light reflecting off the snow on Sentinel Rock highlights the extreme, rocky surface. On the right, farther away, stands El Capitan, illuminated against the dark vegetation that stretches back to the horizon, only disrupted by snow-topped mountains.
20. Redwoods, Bull Creek Flat, California, 1960
Towering redwoods dominate this photo, reaching past the top of the frame, seemingly reaching upwards forever. The quintessential trees of Yosemite are emphasized by their strong contrast to the blackness behind them. The smoothness of the darkness balances the texture that the light illuminates on the redwoods.
Fun Fact 5: Ansel Adams’ grandfather owned a lumber business that cut down redwoods; an industry Adams would condemn throughout his life as an environment conservationist.
21. Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful, 1942
In this photo, white steam shoots out of Old Faithful and rises up toward a clear, black sky. Old Faithful, a famous Yellowstone National Park geyser, dominates the photo and no other features break the distance between the viewer and the geyser. Adams carefully created an image of the steam where the texture and shapes within it were distinguishable through slight shading.
22. Half Dome, Blowing Snow, Yosemite National Park, California, 1955
Ansel Adams applied a strong contrast in this wintertime photograph of Half Dome, allowing the detail of the rock formation to be heavily emphasized. The snow reflects back the sunlight and the cloudless sky shows the snow being blown off of it by the powerful winter wind. The trees dotting the snow in the foreground show the immensity of Half Dome as it towers over them.
23. El Capitan, Yosemite, 1935
Adams shows another famous rock formation of Yosemite National Park in this photo, El Capitan. Soft light on the rock’s face allows for its details to be illuminated. The semi-matte, warm-toned paper that the photo is printed on softens the contrast with the trees below El Capitan and brings warmth to the image.
24. The Abode Of Snow, From The Portfolio Parmelian Prints Of The High Sierras, 1923
Trees and snow balance the light and shadows of this photo. Taken from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams shows the rolling hills that shift from dark patches of trees to bright snow blankets. The viewer’s eyes travel over the numerous mounds in the land up to the mountain peak in the distance. Adams concentrates the light at the top of the photo while the bottom balances it with its darkness.
25. Rain, Beartrack Cove, Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska, From Portfolio Two: The National Parks And Monuments By Ansel Adams, 1949
A small, peaceful stream cuts across this photograph, splitting the uniform stretch of grass. In the foreground, the light reflecting off the tall, bending grass highlights the detail between each blade. The meadow extends out to the horizon, showing the immensity of the land before it meets dark trees and dark mountains shrouded in white clouds.