Ansel Adams. Gearhead?

As we mentioned in our post on Monday, this entire week Paper Airplanes is dedicated to Ansel Adams.  Not only did our very own Neil Chaput de Saintonge study with Ansel back in the day, but RMSP is now a proud (ahem, a VERY proud) sponsor of a show at the Missoula Art Museum titled “Ansel Adams: A Legacy.”

If you are like most people, when you hear the name Ansel Adams, it might inspire thoughts of a bearded man standing near a massive tripod somewhere in the wilderness. If the tripod in your mental picture is supporting a camera that looks like an accordion or a wooden shoe box (and in no way resembles your fancy Canon 5D Mark II) you’ve got the right Ansel.  For many, this may be the extent of what they know about the equipment he used.  So, today we thought it would be interesting to take a quick look at some of the gear Ansel had tucked away in his camera bag…which was often carried by his mule, Mistletoe, high into the mountains.

Let’s start from the ground up. Many times, Ansel would set up shop a few feet off the ground in order to get a unique perspective. This meant climbing on top of his eight-passenger Cadillac which was outfitted with a 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top. Not a bad idea!

image from

Next up – the tripod.  According to one quote we found, Ansel Adams said that the ideal tripod “is a cubic yard of solid concrete with a 1/4″ X #20 bolt head sticking out of the top.” While Ansel used a variety of tripods, they had to be sturdy enough to support his massive camera.

photo: ©Neil Chaput de Saintonge

Now for the camera. More often than not Ansel used what is called a large-format view camera. Typically large, heavy and rather complicated, a view camera has a light-safe bellows between the lens and the film plane. This bellows is flexible, allowing the photographer to adjust and control the focus, perspective and depth of field. View cameras accommodate single sheets of film at varying sizes up to 20×24 inches, however typical sizes for a view camera are 4×5 and 8×10. Although the technology progressed throughout his career, and cameras became smaller, he preferred his large-format view camera for the incredible detail they provided his images.  Needless to say, Ansel’s view camera did not have a motor drive, nor did it allow him to upload anything to Facebook.

image from

The light meter. Ansel used a Weston Master meter to take readings of the light. Largely considered to be a “workhorse” in the realm of light meters, the Weston Master series provided Ansel with important baseline readings. From there…well he used this little thing called the Zone System. In the interest of keeping this blog post under the length of War and Peace, we won’t get into the Zone System today.

example of a Weston Master series light meter.


The hat.  Although not a typical piece of photo gear, Ansel is often seen in photographs wearing a cowboy hat. Apparently it was a Stetson. As many people know – especially in our home state of Montana – a good hat can make all the difference. Maybe this was Ansel’s secret???

Do you have any experience using any of the equipment Ansel used? Perhaps you’ve rigged up your own top-of-car platform. We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.