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Nature in Black and White

This assignment ran from Apr 7 to Apr 28, 2014.

Recently, I discovered Ansel Adams’s book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which showcases the stunning wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada. Adams’s photos immediately struck me as simple yet elegant compositions; his straightforward black-and-white approach perfectly complements the purity of the mountains. These images left an indelible impression on me.

Like Adams, I am a native Californian familiar with the High Sierra, and some of my first successful photos were of this wilderness area. After much research, I proposed a story to National Geographic magazine on shooting the Ansel Adams Wilderness area in black and white. I wanted to pay homage to the master but not duplicate his work. The result was a magazine story published in October 2011 and a book entitled The Ansel Adams Wilderness published in April 2014. More

Curated by:

Peter Essick
National Geographic Photographer
Assignment Status
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Published May 6, 2014.
Thank you for your contributions!

Garden of Eden

Posted apr 22, 2014

Nature as a subject matter has been present since the beginning of photography. William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins carried huge cameras out into the wilderness as part survey expeditions. They depicted nature as a Garden of Eden, and their photographs were used as tools to protect extraordinary landscapes as national parks for future generations.

In the 1920s and '30s, Ansel Adams expanded nature photography by infusing a personal point of view into his images of the Sierra Nevada. He called this approach an “extract” of nature, the result of making a photograph that contained all that he saw and felt about the scene. Adams still depicted nature as primarily a Garden of Eden, even as development started to take hold in the American West.

Today we have a different view of nature than the early photographers, and it by necessity requires a different approach. We now know that all aspects of nature are interconnected and that humans can impact nature in a detrimental way. Also, lesser known natural areas like a park in a city or a reclaimed industrial area can be ecologically important and beautiful in their own way. The field of nature photography can now be expanded to include all of Earth, an exciting prospect to discover and enjoy.

The Digital Darkroom

Posted apr 18, 2014

I wanted to pass along some general thoughts after looking at the submissions of the last couple of days. I have seen many excellent images, but I am looking particularly for nature images that work better in black and white than in color. Or at least are dramatic depictions of nature in black and white. Usually this means subjects where the form, light and design are the dominant elements. One tip I could suggest is to set your LCD display on your camera to monochrome so that you can see how the photo will look in black and white as you are shooting.

Many of the photographs that I have seen could have benefited by better toning in photoshop or another image management program before submitting. The controls available in the digital darkroom are very powerful and will make all the difference in turning a standard photograph into one that is really stunning and special. If possible, I would recommend shooting in RAW format and then converting the image to black and white. At the time of the conversion, it is possible to adjust the red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow pixels into darker or lighter shades of grey. This is the equivalent to using a yellow or red filter, as Ansel Adams did with black and white film, only we now have much more subtle and powerful controls available. Then use the controls of burning and dodging to darken elements that are not as important and lighten those elements where you want the path of the eye to focus. Small adjustments in the digital darkroom can go a long way.

The final aspect to remember is to make sure that the cropping includes exactly what is necessary, and nothing more. This is the same in black and white or color, but is very important nonetheless. Bright or distracting elements are most evident along the edges of your rectangular frame. Make a final check of all four sides and see if you notice anything that detracts from the main subject. If you take a little extra time, it is possible to have beautiful print quality of all your digital submissions.

If you'd like to learn more about photography through a hands-on experience, join me for a Yosemite National Park Photo Expedition or check out these other National Geographic Yosemite trips.


Posted apr 7, 2014

This month’s Your Shot assignment is a chance to channel your inner Ansel Adams and shoot nature in black and white. Many of his photographs of nature are beautiful compositions that elevate form by reducing a scene to its elemental components. Adams called this method extracts, a way to turn landscape photography into an avenue for personal expression.

The universe can speak clearly in its pure and natural state, conveying both the spirit of the past and the wonderment of the new. Black-and-white photography strips away the distractions and lets that message ring loud and clear. Show us the sacred spaces you’ve found in nature.

Peter Essick

Peter Essick

National Geographic Photographer
Recently named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photographer, Peter Essick has spent the last two decades photographing natural areas around the world, revealing in careful compositions the spiritual and emotional aspects of nature. A frequent contributor to National Geographic, his work has been featured in 40 articles on topics like the American wilderness, global warming, and Greenland, for which he shot a June 2010 cover story. He lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife, Jackie, and son, Jalen.