Critique about an Ansel Adams photo

I have an Ansel Adams calendar on my wall that I stare at drinking my morning coffee. The January 2021 photo is "Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Winter, Yosemite (1932). I was struck by how little space there is between Half Dome and the top edge, and also by how the tree branch on the right abuts that edge. I’ve been obsessively thinking that if this photo was posted on NPN people would respond that they would like to “see more space” at these areas of the photo. Also, maybe there would be comments about how the photo is heavily weighted on the right side. And comments about the snow covered branches poking out of the ride side (not present on the calendar photo). So, I invite you to pretend that this is my photo and critique it, especially concerning the points I have raised. Oh by the way, I looked around for the original photo and discovered that the photo on my calendar was slightly cropped on the right, so there actually was more space. I think Ansel would be turning over in his grave if he knew his photo was cropped for a calendar.

Here is the original photo, followed by my cropped calendar version.

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Dear Ansel,

Please forgive me. I have been asked to critique your photo “Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Winter, Yosemite (1932).” I mean well and no offense and hope it meets with your approval.

First, I wonder why you included the plowed snow and road in the frame. They distract from the subject. What prevented you from walking 30 feet to your left and framing the next tree?

Next, is the apple tree or Half Dome the true subject of your photo? It’s not entirely clear. I sense it is the apple tree because Half Dome is in shadow, but if that is the case, could you not have used a longer lens to isolate the tree a bit more?

Also, I feel the photo is heavy on the right side with both subjects on that side. I would have liked you to provide better balance in your composition. Others have remarked similarly, so I’ve heard.

Lastly, aside from its great brightness, the light quality is rather ordinary. The atmospheric conditions in general appear rather ordinary. Was there something great about them you failed to capture in this image?

That is all. As I said, I was asked to do this. I hope all is well. Keep on shooting!!


“Twelve significant photos in a year is a good crop” - Ansel Adams

If this image (with its obvious issues) was one of his top 12 that year, what does that say about the rest of them? :roll_eyes:

I actually prefer the reworked calendar version to the original post :grin:

This image might work better in color, I would prefer to see blue shadows in the snow (now Ansel really is rolling over in his grave).

I have a couple of Ansel books. The books contain some stellar images and also have a bunch that do absolutely nothing for me (seem like filler). This one would fall into the latter category in my mind.

It was a different time and had different standards?


Picasso had some duds…

Until I’ve sold my first $1M image, I think I’ll just sit on the sidelines. :grinning:


Hey Tony, Happy New Year!

Interesting topic, and I’ll bite, although late to the party now. I must start out by saying this is like comparing apples and oranges, (if I can borrow a cliche…). It’s not fair to judge/critique an AA photograph from 90 years ago, nor is it fair to measure today’s photography and NPN critiques or members of today on how we, in today’s photographic world, critique this image. So, I’ll just treat this as a fun exercise and a chance to let slip my opinions.

First, Ansel wasn’t jaded by decades of countless images of Yosemite (or any other place for that matter). He wasn’t concerned with critiques or how this might play on IG, FB or any other forum - of course those didn’t exist back then. Much to Harley’s point of different times, different standards.

Were these instant classics back in the day? Or did they “become” classics over time because it was AA?

I would be willing to bet that no one here on NPN would have taken and certainly not posted an image that had a corner of the image of “road plow.” Yes, many, including myself, are fine with road-side photography… but I think most would avoid that element and likely hop over the snow plow line and look for a clean composition - as Matt eluded to. We may even have backed up to include more of Half Dome - but then the point may be the snow-laden tree and not Half Dome…

I’d be hard pressed to believe that back when the photograph was taken, that anyone at the time, and even since, would recognize Half Dome. We do now, well because we already know this is Yosemite… But IMHO, the image is about the snow-covered (heavily) apple tree and orchard - that just happens to have an impressive backdrop - but clearly the image isn’t about Half Dome. Back then, there was no pre-conceived notion that the “man-made” plow line would be considered a negative element; AA could have cared less about that. So back to the point of this exercise, why would we critique that image to the same standards we apply today? Again, apples and oranges.

And if I may - and call me blasphemist… Much of Ansel Adam’s work, especially his color work (I have his color book and I’m sure many have seen it,) is pretty mediocre by today’s standards - images that are pretty static, routine and classic compositions. Ansel Adams was, IMHO, THE MASTER printer; his darkroom work was extraordinary, AND frankly, revolutionary in terms of what we now refer to as “Photoshopping” Yes, he manipulated his photographs in the darkroom - “Moonrise over Hernandez,” heavily processed and then there was the “Winter Sunrise From Lone Pine” which I understand he burned/masked out hillside markings “LP”. (I’ve since googled and you can read the story here……)

In the end, it doesn’t make sense to critique this to today’s standards or jaded influences we all carry.

This does remind me however, of the time I rammed a VW bug in to a very similar snow-bank near Curry Village in 1982… :wink: :roll_eyes:


This is a fascinating topic! I generally agree with a lot of what’s been said. I have an Ansel Adams book and I although I respect how important he is to nature photography and photography in general, I was honestly surprised at how mediocre some of the photos were. Was I just not getting it? I’m still not sure. I think @Lon_Overacker spot-on though - I don’t even have the ability to judge this image without coming from my 2021 perspective loaded with all the various biases I have. I think back in this time I’d have to say things like “wow, that exposure is spot on!”, as if it wasn’t super easy to take a perfect exposure in the field or adjust it in post, right? :slight_smile:

This one in particular is better than some I was thinking about in my book… I like the shadows on the ground and the poofy snow on the tree. The way the tree intersects with the sky is somewhat imperfect and I can’t help but wonder if standing further to the left to eliminate the sky would be a stronger composition. Keep trying and maybe you’ll get somewhere some day :stuck_out_tongue:

I won’t attempt to critique this image beyond the fact that it doesn’t really grab me. What I find interesting is that apparently it did appeal to the editor of the calendar ( I’m sure they had more than one winter image to choose from).

On a similar subject, you should see what was considered good bird photography 90 years ago!

Firstly, I think you really need to see an AA print to appreciate his work. This copy doesn’t do justice to the original. The whites in the picture leap out at you in their freshness. Here, on the other hand, they look drab. I think that’s important because of what he was trying to get across.

I have seen this image before as it is often featured in his calendars. It’s not one of his best. It’s really not even close. Most photographers start out wanting to talk endlessly about AA and then they cool off. Perhaps when you see too much of one photographer’s work you start to grow indifferent. Perhaps that’s the price of being famous. His work is not complex. It’s easy to like and appeals to just about everyone because he’s just so darn positive.

Regarding the composition issues of elements being too close to the edge. I agree that this was less of an issue in his day. I think this is really about the tree, which is well within the frame, and the background was of less interest. AA’s composition are usually almost perfect, so this is a departure from his usual work.

It is interesting to me how “standards” of good art change over time. If you spend time in museums and look at landscape paintings and pay attention to the compositions, you will notice that they didn’t care so much about the edges of the composition. In our photography world, it seems to be an obsession to keep the edges clean, not truncate objects, etc. Maybe it has something to do with how easy it is to take hundreds of photos and pick just one to work on. Regarding this photo, I agree with you Igor, the subject is the tree and it is well placed.

And that’s unfortunate. I think we obsess over them too much. They are really of minor importance, as you’re suggesting. A big reason we talk so much about that is because it’s the easy critique. It’s a critique that requires the smallest investment of time. Studying an image to see what the author was trying to say requires more time and effort.

Maybe it has something to do with how much control we now have over our images, Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminosity masks , etc. Regarding the importance of edges, things like the Lightroom crop tool allow for more creative choices even after the shutter has already been tripped.

My guess is that if Ansel had access to modern software to expand his creative choices, he would be obsessing about edges too (along with many other things). Remember, he was someone who was willing to make masks out of cardboard. How obsessive would he be in Photoshop ?

Hi! I’m new to this community and by the way love it! I hope you don’t mind me giving my thoughts on this photo… Could it be that AA wanted the viewer to feel like they were actually driving or walking down the road in this beautiful place? They can see Half Dome hidden by the apple tree, which is also something beautiful and to be enjoyed until they finally keep walking and get a full better view of the peak. The joys of exploration! You have to keep hiking or driving until you reach the destination, but there’s also a lot to see along the way! That’s just my amateur view.

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Hi Tony, I stumbled onto this conversation when I tried to look you up. Had not noticed your comments recently and hope that you are well.

After enjoying the comments by all, I settled in on the Why question, which I think is always the best one. It would not surprise me if AA wanted to convey the repetition of arches in the scene. I see the arch at the end of the road, the arch of Half Dome over the tree tops arched under the snow, and I see arches over the row between the rows of trees. All the archways take me more or less toward Half Dome. The proximity of HD to the top edge makes sure we notice it.
The branch sticking up into the sky? Well the sky had not much else going on so why not showmoff the branch?
I wonder if we can get @William_Neill to join the discussion? Bruce Birnbaum is not shy about crowding the top edge, either.