Saturday evening I joined dozens of photographers in the Ahwahnee Meadow to see the celestial encore of Ansel Adams’ famous Moon and Half Dome image. Don Olson of Texas State University had predicted that the moon would be in almost the same spot as when Ansel made his photograph in 1960. In the meadow Saturday were two of Ansel Adams’ former assistants, Alan Ross and Ted Orland, seen in this photo (Ted is the one pointing). A large group of park rangers took a group portrait, and Delaware North, the park concessioner, even set up a little stand at the edge of the meadow serving free hot chocolate.
There was just one small problem: no moon! The sky was mostly clear, but a persistent band of clouds behind Half Dome hid the moon. Nevertheless, we all had a great time—the lunar no-show didn’t really seem to matter. I’ve posted more photos on The Ansel Adams Gallery’s Flickr group.
Afterward the Gallery hosted a reception for Alan Ross and his beautiful new exhibit, Visions of Yosemite and the West. I talked with Alan about the contact sheet of images Ansel made that evening in 1960; it’s an unusual glimpse into the thought process of a master photographer. Although this JPEG is small, you can see that Ansel actually bracketed exposures! By four stops! Yes, Mr. Zone System hedged his bets. Wouldn’t you in this situation? Also, he apparently didn’t wrap the roll of film tightly (he made this image with a Hasselblad and 120 film), and there was a light leak. Luckily only the edges were damaged, otherwise the world would never have seen this fantastic photograph.
I was also struck by the different compositions he framed. We tend to think that a master like Ansel would have such a clear concept in his mind that he would only need one composition. And in fact the first frame here is, I believe, the one that became famous (I could easily be wrong about that). But he also pointed the camera at Mt. Starr King, then put on a shorter lens and photographed the top of the Royal Arches cliff and the moon above Half Dome again. If you look closely you’ll also notice that Ansel shifted the camera slightly to the left and right for the first four frames, where he bracketed exposures. Was he unsure about the precise framing? This seems odd since he wrote in Examples that he visualized the cropping from the start. The contact sheet shows that after bracketing those first four exposures Ansel composed an image of Mt. Starr King, then came back to the moon rising above Half Dome, but this time with slightly different framing, pointing the camera more to the left than previously, then more to the right. It seems that he was bracketing compositions as well as exposures.
This is something I do frequently. You can’t always tell what really works by looking through the viewfinder or at the camera’s LCD screen. If I’m not sure whether composition A or B is better, I do both. It’s nice to know that Ansel wasn’t immune from this uncertainty!
What all this points out is that even the best photographers sometimes make mistakes, and aren’t always sure about the best composition or exposure. We’re all striving to get better; some are just farther along the path than others. Ansel certainly traveled farther than most of us ever will.