A Look Inside Ansel Adams’ Darkroom Magic

It’s hard to imagine a world without Photoshop or Lightroom. But there was a time. Instead of a computer mouse, iconic photographer Ansel Adams used a microwave and cardboard cut-outs to create his masterpieces. We kid you not.

In “Advancing Your Photography Show’s” latest video, “An Inside Look into Ansel Adams’ Darkroom Magic,” Ansel’s son Michael, gives us a tour of his father’s darkroom. At times the darkroom looks and feels more like an experimental science lab. Ansel designed and built a railroad track system in his darkroom to move his enlarger to and from his exposure apparatus on the wall. Ansel also engineered cardboard cut outs to bring about different exposures on multiple parts of his photographs. Michael said some times it would take his father half a day just to decide the proper exposure. Ansel also use a homemade “dodging device” which consisted of a piece of cardboard and a stick. He would move it around on the photograph to block light to expose certain spots less. Ansel also had 30 plus light sources in his enlarger so he could choose which bulbs to illuminate in order to control the exposure.

Michael said his dad would even use a microwave to dry the photographs to see the final print so Ansel could tweak the exposure. The entire process could, and often would, take up to 20 hours per photograph.

The video feels intimate, hearing Ansel’s voice as we tour his darkroom it’s almost as if we get a look inside his photographic “universe.” We get a rare glimpse at how he saw the pictures along with the painstaking amount of work it took to bring his photographs to life. Now, go kiss your digital camera and never complain about having to spend time with PhotoShop or Lightroom!

Ansel Adams washing a print inside his darkroom. Photo Credit: Ansel Adams Gallery

Ansel using cardboard cut outs to test exposure.
Ansel Adams using cardboard cut out to control exposure. Photo Credit: Ansel Adams Gallery


Ansel Adams' Darkroom
Ansel Adams’ darkroom safelights.  Photo Credit: Ansel Adams Gallery

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These switches controlled the lights in his enlarger Decades before PhotoSHop gave us the ability to mask. Photo Credit: Ansel Adams Gallery

Ansel Adams’ Darkroom Work Flow:

-Place the negative in camera

-Decide on size (often 11×14)

-Focus image

-Move cardboard dodging and burning devices above paper to create different exposures

-Then develop to see which exposure he liked most

-Wash picture, then dry it in the microwave (the best exposure was seen better on a dry print)

-Go back and perfect the desired exposure he wanted

-Took 1/2 day (sometimes up to 20 hours) to set exposure to where he wanted it

-Wash prints, dry for at least 8 hours

Ansel Adams

Young Ansel Adams and his camera.