Ansel Adams Versus Amateur Snapshots Prank

Ansel Adams is possibly the most recognizable name in photography. Most photographers claim he is the greatest landscape photographer in history. But what if you were shown his photos mixed into a group of other horrible photos? Would you still see the genius? 

I've made some comments in the past about classic photographers that have always gotten me into trouble. Comments like: "Their work is good, especially for its time, but with current cameras, post-processing, and printing technology, their work wouldn't hold up today." Mike Kelley especially has given me endless grief for these comments, and I've always said that if he didn't know a famous photographer took the shot, he wouldn't think it was any good. 

Well, we don't have to argue anymore, because I've put together a little experiment. In the video above, I grabbed eight Ansel Adams prints that have recently sold at auction, and I mixed them with seven random horrible selfies I grabbed off of Patrick and Mike's Facebook pages. I cloned them out of their own shots and made them black and white so that they would be extra "artistic."

Check out all of the images in the critique below. Can you guess which is which? Watch the entire video above to see Mike and Patrick melt down.  

This video was sponsored by ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate. Also, every Fstoppers tutorial, including Mike's, is currently on sale

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Andrew Eaton's picture

Great Video :-) Just shows how subjective art is

Christian Durand's picture

Your best video !

RT Simon's picture

I was once told by Joan Lifton, a former Magnum editor, that even HCB shoots many photos that do not make the cut. I’m being polite here, as her words were much more graphic. I also knew of a situation in which a dealer had access to test prints of another great photographer, Andre Kertesz, and they sold for a lot of money, because there’s nothing left to buy. These were not important. Some had fixer stains. So the ‘door image’ by Adams for a mere 5K, is still an acquisition of a great photographer, hence the high value for such a small print and a much less important work. With that said, the more grand landscapes were clearly Adams work, apparent through the tonal values.Or at least, Zone System large format landscape. The critique itself was more of a prank. There needs to be a baseline. It was like being on Just For Laughs. One of the guests did not look happy.

JEFF STANLEY's picture

I agree with them, not sure what all of the fuss is about on most old master photographs except maybe as a piece of history.

Jeff Thayer's picture

Really? Maybe do a little research into the zone system and the process that the f64 group used to produce their images. It was a little more difficult than photoshop. They also couldn't rescue complete crap the way that many completely horrible exposures with ugly lighting can be salvaged today. One of the reasons our business has been devalued and became more difficult to make a living is the abundance of people that believe they are great photographers and yet couldn't hack it if they didn't have a computer to fix their lack of knowledge to getting a great image in camera. Well I'll fix it in post should be regarded as blasphemy.

Celso Mollo's picture

This was fun, I am glad you guys are Into the photography thing again. Enough of politics and covid, we have enough info on that from other sources.

Alan Myers's picture

This video is hilarious!

I recognized four of the Adams images right off the bat, though.

In defense of Ansel, you guys were viewing the images on a computer monitor. If you ever saw actual prints of those Adams' images, you would change your opinion. They are stunningly beautiful. No digitized version displayed on a computer monitor can ever do them justice.

The aspen trees were shot by natural light. It was either early morning or late afternoon, with strong side lighting. The leaves on the sunlit tree are not "blown out", as they appeared on your monitor. The dynamic range of that image (and most Adams prints, for that matter) is beyond what any computer monitor can display and took great care every step of the process from metering and exposure to film processing and finally to enlargement and printing.

It was a different time, when Adams was shooting. Large format cameras, waiting hours or even days for everything to come together just right, composing and focusing an upside down and reversed image under a dark cloth, taking one or two images a minute if light allowed, later developing 6 or 12 shots under tightly controlled conditions, and finally making an enlargement with similar care and attention.

I think Adams would have LOVED digital photography and Photoshop!

P.S. Look into the story of the Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico image some time. It was an opportunistic shot done very quickly (in large format, one-shot-at-a-time terms), I think from the roof of his car. The setting sun only lit up the buildings, fence and crosses in the grave yard momentarily. By the time Adams flipped over the film holder to take a second shot, the lighting had passed. There has been controversy about whether that image was a composite, because of the detail retained in the moon... But it's not made from multiple images. It's a testament to Adams' process and the control he achieved with it. Many photographers today simply wouldn't have the patience to make images that required so much study, preparation and work. (I know I wouldn't!)

One of my photography instructors... Gary Metz... worked and studied with Adams, doing a lot of printing for him. Metz' classes were brutal. His "Beginning Photo 101" required a portfolio of 120 finished B&W prints in a semester. I spent many nights in a darkroom!

Thanks for the fun video!

Jim Bochicchio's picture

I wholeheartedly agree... I spent hours just looking at his prints in galleries, getting lost in the depth of them.

Timothy Roper's picture

Years ago, I saw an Adams exhibit at San Francisco's MoMa featuring some of his High Sierra works (like "Mather Pass"). I was very underwhelmed by just about all of them. They were all pretty mundane, and too small (around 8x10). More recently, I saw some of his more famous prints in a much large size (at the Cantor museum at Stanford), and was amazed at how beautiful they were. So, it's not like every photo he took was a masterpiece--far from it. But he dedicated his life to it, and as a result produced more great works that most other people. And that's the main reason he's known and remembered (plus, he was a very active environmentalist helping to create the parks he ended up photographing).

Michael Clark's picture

The main reason Adams was revered in his time was because he created a systematic
and repeatable metering/exposure/development system that allowed squeezing the higher dynamic range that his negatives could capture into the lower dynamic range that the papers available to him could print. The reason others did not photograph some of the iconic scenes he captured wasn't because they weren't aware of the vistas from the places he shot or couldn't see the compositional possibilities. It was that they didn't know how to capture those scenes within the limits of their films and printing papers. That's where Adams truly blazed a trail. Sure, he was no slouch in terms of composition. But his genius was in his tireless work to develop a way to record what he saw and to stretch the capabilities of the tools available at the time.

Timothy Roper's picture

Agreed. But I do think Adams went farther into the backcountry to capture some scenes that most other photographers weren't aware of at the time. He was a little more intrepid than most (although he was also getting paid to do it). On the other hand, as I mention above, the more backcountry photos of his (as opposed to just views from Yosemite Valley, for example) I've seen aren't his best imo. I'm still inspired by his doing it though. I don't know of any other photographers in the first part of the 20th century who hauled cameras into the mountains like that (at least not the big mountains in the US).

Ed Sanford's picture

You nailed it. I will add one more thing. Adams shot “Moonrise” in the 1940s. It was well into the 1970s before he made a print that satisfied him. I agree with you that he would have loved Photoshop. He spent far more hours in the darkroom than he did in the field. He may have been the first photographer that achieved full tone prints.

Michael Clark's picture

Some of the most definitive prints of "Moonrise..." began appearing circa 1965-66. Still, that was 25 years after it was shot and about seven years after he had chemically altered the negative to darken the sky in 1958.

Benjamin Brody's picture

Ansel Adams used his camera to say something about the world. Are you using the world to say something about your camera?

Paul Scharff's picture

I was going to run for the hills when I saw this was 46 minutes, but I found it incredibly compelling from start to finish. It was entertaining and engaging and educational all at once. Thanks for the post.

Mark Sawyer's picture

From the top, Adams, not, Adams, not, Adams, not, etc.

This is just the author trolling a couple of other trolls.

Randy Little's picture

So you mixed together adams silver prints with amateur what? Or am I using a screen that can't even come close to any silver, Platinum, or carbon analog print since they are reflective mediums? I suppose you would also say a Ferrari daytona, is a crap car because look at this La Ferrari or porche 917. Well your comparison would be daytona vs daihatsu by a person who doesn't really car at all about cars. Has the Author even been up close with a Cole Weston printed Weston? Or an Adams printed Adams? A Minor White? A Joyce tenison 20x24 Polaroid? ( Bias one of the greats I assisted in the late 90s amazing woman) Shish. Why do I keep letting this click bait get to me.
Oh because I actually care about my profession and art.

Anton Nyman's picture

It's just for fun...

David Medeiros's picture

Thank you for doing this! I love Ansel's work, most of it, but I am right there with you on it's over importance as images by themselves (some of them). And I have never liked 'Moonrise'... or atleast never understood why this was one of his most important images.

edited to add: just here for the indignation of the Adma's fans now :)

Michael Clark's picture

Because until Moonrise no one had figured out to capture what they saw when looking at a scene like that without having to decide whether to blow the highlights or crush the shadows in the foreground landscape.

Matt Coppage's picture

This was fun to watch. Shows how far photography has come. AA was a pioneer and paved the way for the evolution of landscape photography. I'd love to see a Critique the Community with B&W Landscapes as the theme.

Tin Man Wong's picture

I think these guys never see an Ansel Adam picture in person to feel the impact. Plus they never spend a minute in the darkroom and understand the limitations of films so they are clueless about the amount of time Ansel Adam had spent to develop these pictures.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Shows you the weight of a name. Question....if someone else had photographed "Moonrise Over Hernandez"...would it carry the same weight as Adams? Just think about where these photos would stand if taken by 'mundane' photographers. We give weight, pay homage to whom we call Masters. If Moonrise Over Hernandez was not in Adams portfolio, how significant would it be?

Michael Clark's picture

The point is, no one else had managed to capture that scene, or other scenes like it in terms of the wide dynamic range, until Adams blazed the trail. It's like people who don't "get" Citizen Kane because they've seen shots like that in movies all their lives. Before Citizen Kane, no one had ever used those kind of camera techniques and movements. The few "expert" cinematographers who could even envision shots said they'd be impossible to pull off. No one had ever incorporated the musical score into the storyline that way before, nor told the story out of chronological order that way before. The reason we take those things for granted now is because Orson Welles invented them when he made Citizen Kane.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Oh I am very much aware of what you're saying. I was stationed not too far from Hernandez at Hollomann AFB in the early 70's and used to drive past it often. As for Citizen Cane....I agree with this. It was a first in many respects and now such movies which use these techniques are common-place. However, my question still is valid and worth a thought. If anyone other than Adams HAD made that photo, with the final editting being as it is, how popular would it be? Whether then or now? Something to think about.
I also appreciated very much what Orson Welles did in this movie. It made me piece the timeline together as the movie evolved.

Mutley Dastardly's picture

A good laugh with a lesson to be learned. I learned now that we want to see Ansel Adams work - life.
The critique was fun to watch, it's easier to learn something from a fun video - than to have a dry theoretical explanation of the way mr. Adams did what he did - creating Art with one big analog camera. I do know about the zone system Ansell Adams created - this video will get starters look into this material. That's important.
And the way Lee got his two mates, they know Lee well enough to enjoy this afterwards. This co-operation is important to let fstoppers be what it is. Having fun with photography - trying to hold the line between useful information and a good laugh.
Indeed one of the best video's i have seen from Lee and his mates! Mike seemed a little bit less happy, he was surprised by the event i assume. It's an unusual approach - but i enjoyed it.

I hope Mike and Patrick know Lee's weaknesses - it's time for revenge!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Bear in mind that they are looking at web resolution images from across the room in these videos.

That said, preference is pretty subjective. Personally, I've never seen an AA image that I liked. I recognize and am impressed by the impact he had on photography, but the actual images themselves are super unimpressive to my taste.

Yule Goldschagg's picture

Enjoyed this video. Although part of my photography studies evolved Ansel Adam's I recognized most of his landscapes.
Very interesting judging the photos gives one a new perspective overall. It makes one relook into one's own and consider better compositions, tones, maybe story telling etc for black and whites.

Mini Buns's picture

modern artists can demonstrate technical skill level like that of Leonardo da Vinci; however, their paintings will not be valued at $660 million like the “Mona Lisa”.

Michael Clark's picture

That's because no one knew how to achieve da Vinci's technical expertise until he showed everyone how to do it. It's like Soul music. The reason Ray Charles is the "Genius" is because before he came along, no one had thought to combine "Church" with R&B before. Soul music didn't exist until Ray created it.

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

Funny but demented article, before talking about Ansel Adams you should rinse your mouth. Moreover, no mention of the zonal system. Guys have fun but fall into the grotesque.

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

To be studied thoroughly, even in the age of digital and post-production you will become a better photographer. A hug guys!

Gabriella Sommers's picture


Momchil Yordanov's picture

It's impressive how full of himself the little one with the ponytail is though. Apart from that - it's true that today the same pictures are much easily achievable. But it takes NOTHING away from the fact that 70 or 80 years ago these pictures were a) something unseen, b) something extremely hard to technically achieve, c) something extremely time consuming. The sheer fact that for decades thousands of photographers try to IMITATE them, show their value.

Simon Davies's picture

Easily achievable? Try it!

Michael Clark's picture

Much easier now than then, thanks to Ansel's showing the way to get there.

C E's picture

Adams would wipe the floor with any of todays photographers if he was alive now!

Ryan Cooper's picture

No he wouldn't. He would likely be just another landscape photographer you have never heard of. Even if he was in the top 0.5% of all landscape photographers he would still be relatively invisible in the great big scheme of things. (I also think his work would look completely different if he was alive today.)

Adams became famous because he was among the first and worked extremely hard to be as good as possible, not because he had a superhuman talent that wildly surpasses the millions upon millions of photographers who came after him.

Being first is always more important than being the best. We, as humans, attach a ton of exclusive and sentimental value to pioneers of everything.

Matt Coppage's picture

A good study of a modern Adams would be Clyde Butcher

Simon Davies's picture

If you can’t immediately spot which ones are by Adams then I’m afraid photography may not be for you lol

I somewhat agree with the general point, but he’s a bad example because his work stands up in any context. It’s still better than most landscape photography today. But a lot of old photographers, especially in genres like fashion and street, got their prominence simply because there weren’t many photographers around at the time. Now there are so many photographers all over the place it’s much more difficult to get prominence, so many amazing talents go totally under the radar.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I respectfully disagree. I can do a search for landscape photography on 500px or IG and instantly find tens of thousands of landscape photos that I personally enjoy far more than anything Adams ever created. The only thing I find impressive about Adams work is the processes he created and his pursuit of excellence. The actual images themselves I find pretty bland.

Everyone has different taste. Just how it is. Liking or disliking the work of AA is no more a test to see if photography is "for you" than it would be to suggest that you must adore the work of Beethoven to be a musician. We all like different things, nothing wrong with that.

apmadoc's picture

Interesting, makes me look at your contest critiques in a whole new light

Jacques Cornell's picture

I'll say it again. Viewing Adams' images on a screen instead of as prints is missing the boat so completely that you have to be yanked, soaking wet, from the surf by a lifeguard.

Michael Clark's picture

It's true there's no comparison between a well done print and a screen image. But in this case, even the degraded screen images totally kick the asses of the others.

R W's picture

The question shouldn't be whether the photos from today that are photoshopped are as good or better than Ansel's photos the question should be would Ansel's photos today using modern equipment outshine even his original work!

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think it would be completely different. Indistinguishable so. But it definitely wouldn't outshine it in the sense of fame. Even the best landscape photographer in the world right now, whoever it is, is relatively invisible in the great big scheme of things. Adams was famous because he was a pioneer, not because his work is magically better than every photographer who ever lived or will live.

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

Very entertaining video. I think I missed one of the Ansel Adams shots, but a lot of the non-Ansel ones were easy to rule out because they had sloppy tones (big areas of dark mushiness, etc.). That was something Ansel didn't do.

Then again, I had the benefit of going into this knowing that at least some of the shots were Ansel Adams. Be interesting to know how I would have done if I had gone in truly blind on this "test."

All that said, I absolutely loved the snowy monolith photo. Hands down my favorite.

Klaus Scherer's picture

Here apples are compared to pears. Ansel Adam's masterpieces were created with the possibilities of his time. Every digigrapher today creates "good" pictures with the latest technology but also with the old darkroom technology?

Nox Vega's picture

After decades of camera development and photographers reaching new heights, I find it hard to believe that Ansel is the best.
He might be the first but he's most definitely not the best.

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