The Two People in Every Photo, According to Ansel Adams

Tips & Techniques

One of my favorite photography quotes is Ansel Adams’s observation, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” I find that very poignant. Here’s the longer quote to show a bit of context:

I would never apologize for photographing rocks. Rocks can be very beautiful. But, yes, people have asked why I don’t put people into my pictures of the natural scene. I respond, there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. That usually doesn’t go over at all.

Ansel Adams said this in one of his last interviews, about a year before his death, in Playboy magazine of all places. (People really did read it for the articles!) It’s a small part of a long interview, but it captures the purpose of photography in a very poignant way.

Yellowstone River and Trees Abstract Landscape Photo Nikon Z9 Sample
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 210mm, ISO 64, 1/500, f/6.3

When I write about creative photography on Photography Life, I always try to emphasize the importance of emotion. To me, that’s what makes a good photo: the emotion you put into the image. This, in turn, helps the photo emotionally resonate with viewers.

But Ansel Adams takes it further in his quote. Emotions aren’t the only thing that you put into the photo; you put in your whole self. No one else would have taken the photo exactly like you. Then, if you show the photo to other people, they will experience it in a way unique to their whole selves. It’s essentially a conversation.

On Photography Life, we often talk about “the photographer” side of things. After all, there are plenty of concrete ways to take photos that convey your message more effectively as a photographer, from the technical to the creative. I’ve talked about that before in my articles on unifying emotions and the three elements of a good photo.

It’s less common that we talk about “the viewer.” Maybe that’s because it’s hard to know who your viewer even is, let alone how they’ll interpret your work, unless you’re shooting for a specific client. Perhaps all you can do (and should do) is take a photo that resonates with you. It might then resonate with others, and it might not.

But as Ansel Adams suggests, the viewer is an equally important part of the conversation that happens in photography. If you want your photo to be successful – even if you define “success” simply as a photo you’re happy with – you can’t ignore the viewer.

Great Sand Dunes Abstract
Chamonix 4×5; Rodenstock Sironar N 150mm f/5.6 @ f/40, 1 second, Ilford FP4+; Front tilt and swing

One of the most important parts of a viewer’s experience is how the photo is being displayed. Is it print, web, mobile, or something else? What are the photo’s surroundings (like the nearby photos in the same gallery)? And if you’ve chosen a print rather than a digital display, what print substrate and lighting conditions are you using in your display?

I have my gripes about Peter Lik, but I’ll bring him up here because one of my most memorable experiences viewing a print was at his gallery in Las Vegas. When I entered one of the gallery’s side rooms, the lights suddenly went out. As they slowly faded back on, showcasing a large acrylic print in front of me of Las Vegas at night, a salesman behind me said something like, “Doesn’t it look like the city is glowing?”

It was a masterclass in marketing. Without that trick, I probably would have spent a few moments in the room looking around casually, and now I could only agree with the salesman: The print did look like it was glowing. 

I have no doubt that each lighting unit in Peter Lik’s gallery costs more than the (rather high) prices of the prints themselves. That’s because unlike many photographers, Peter Lik deeply understands the importance of the viewer’s experience. No, he can’t control the “inner world” of the viewers who see his photos, or exactly what they bring to the conversation. But he does everything in his power – the photographer side of things, again – to cater to his audience.

In Peter Lik’s case, that’s tourists who want a luxury memento of their trip to Las Vegas. But it could be anything. Your audience can be a friend who wants a print, judges in a photo contest, clients you want to satisfy, and so on.

Your audience could even be yourself. In that case, still, you need to think about your own viewing experience. There’s a difference between viewing your photos on a cheap monitor versus a well-made print. Whether you show your photos to other people or not, “the viewer” still matters a great deal.

Hong Kong Blue Hour Taken with Panasonic S1R
Panasonic S1R + LUMIX S 24-105/F4 @ 105mm, ISO 200, 1 second, f/5.0, high-res pixel-shift

Ansel Adams’s quote sums up one of the realities of photography: Every photographer brings something about themself into a photo; every viewer does the same. No matter what the purpose is behind your photography, you’d be wise to keep both sides of this mirror in mind.

That starts in the field, where you can convey more of yourself – your personal style and your message – by making smart, creative decisions. It continues into post-processing, with numerous tools at your disposal to accentuate the photo’s message. And then it’s about your choice of display, where I hope it’s obvious how important it is to consider the viewer’s experience.

You can’t know or control how someone will interpret your photos. A viewer may hate your picture because it reminds them of a bad memory, or love it because their favorite color is green. They may buy a print because they adore pictures of frogs, or never want to see your work again because they’re ranidaphobic (had to look that one up).

What you can control, though, is the clarity of the conversation from your end. If your photo’s emotional message is clear, perhaps not everyone will buy into it, but those who do will resonate with it to the fullest. As photographers, that’s all we can hope for.

To me, it’s easiest to achieve that goal if you take a page from Ansel Adams’s book – or magazine, in this case – and always think about the two people in every picture.

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