I've heard of the "Group f.64", and know that famous photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were members. What was this group and why was it significant? What about members of the group other than those commonly-recognized names?

Beyond print sales for college dorm rooms, what is their impact today? Are there tenets of or lessons from this group that are important or useful for photography today even in the modern digital world?

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, people who grew up using phones or other tiny sensor cameras that could effectively only produce this type of image, and who routinely recreate that rejected pictorialism with software, are going to have a very hard time understanding how this was a thing. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 16, 2018 at 3:43
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Is there anything in your question that isn't answered by the Wikipedia entry for 'Group of 64'? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Sep 16, 2018 at 7:24
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark We could say similar for many top technical questions on this site, no? But in this case: the Wikipedia article is pretty good on background and context, but weak on impact and legacy (which makes some sense as it will be harder to find Wikipedia-acceptable concrete fact references on the latter). And it's completely missing anything on practical impact of that legacy or of the group's philosophy on contemporary photography. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Sep 16, 2018 at 10:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Cartier-Bresson: “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” So influence/impact on their contemporaries, let alone ours, maybe not so much. \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Sep 16, 2018 at 19:19

3 Answers 3


The f.64 group was founded by Ansel Adams and his peers in the early 1930s. The group promoted the art of the "clearness and definition of the photographic image" (quote of their words), with photos of sharply-focused on and carefully framed images showing actual fine detail (portraying reality) as opposed to the then popular pictorialist style, as for example, imitating artist brush paintings.

Stopping down to f/64 for better depth of field was one of their approaches, however, realize that to maximize detail, they were generally using large view cameras, perhaps like Ansel Adams using 8x10 inch sheet film, requiring corresponding longer lenses like perhaps 300 mm (or longer) as a normal lens. However f/64 required a long exposure.

Because of diffraction, one side effect was an old rule of thumb to NOT exceed a f/stop greater than focal length / 4. This just computes a minimum aperture diameter of 4 mm. Those old limits compute as:

600 mm f/150
300 mm f/75
200 mm f/50
100 mm f/25
50 mm f/12.5
24 mm f/6
12 mm f/3

Still not a bad plan for routine work (although it does not take sensor size or print enlargement into account, but both are fundamentally important to depth of field). However today, we do realize that in some cases, the greater depth of field can often benefit much more than losses of diffraction can hurt, so this old rule disappeared. We no longer hear it said that way.

So things are bit different today with the tiny digital sensors requiring a very short focal length (like 3 mm on a phone camera). F/64 would not often be a proper idea with todays small cameras.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What about influence today beyond aperture selection? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Sep 16, 2018 at 1:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not aware of any dogma from that now, other than I think we do all like sharp photos. \$\endgroup\$
    – WayneF
    Sep 16, 2018 at 2:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer mostly focuses on the aperture, as in the name of the group. Clearly this was important enough to them to use as the identifier, but as you say, this was "one of their approaches". What were the others? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Sep 16, 2018 at 10:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Primarily sharpness and detail. There is much found with Google, searching for f.64 finds mentions of contact printing and glossy paper as sharpness aids. I think choice of subject matter has to rate way up there too (emphasizing texture and detail), for example Weston's Pepper No. 30 (it was a 4+ hour exposure at f/240). Sharpness is not so new today (better equipment now, and shorter lenses substitute for f/64), but f.64 was protesting the common art previous to f.64 which was using soft lenses and paper to mimic etchings and drawings. Emphasizing sharpness was a dramatic change then. \$\endgroup\$
    – WayneF
    Sep 16, 2018 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ One of the best links, including the f.64 Manifesto and examples: hrbaan.home.xs4all.nl/Photography/Fotovakschool/… \$\endgroup\$
    – WayneF
    Sep 16, 2018 at 12:17

@WayneF hit a lot of good points but to expand on what he has,

Aside form taking some of the most historic photos of all time...

Ansel Adams and his Contemporaries (Edward Weston and the rest of F/64) were largely responsible for getting non pictoralisim photography to be accepted as fine art which at the time was controversial in the community. The Ansel Adams Gallery site puts it nicely

The perception of photography as too mechanical and “realistic” to be a truly fine art was then still widespread. Partly in reaction, “pictorial” photographers tried in various ways to soften realism, resorting to soft-focus lenses, brush strokes on the negative, soft-texture papers—anything that would make their photographs not look like photographs. But some independent spirits such as Edward Weston were taking the opposite tack, producing sharply focused pictures and printing on glossy papers. “Such prints retain most of the original negative quality. Subterfuge becomes impossible. Every defect is exposed, all weakness equally with strength. I want the sharp beauty a lens can so exactly render,” said Weston.

Ansel realized that, as Imogen Cunningham said, “there are fewer good photographers than painters. There is a reason. The machine does not do the whole thing.” He also realized that the two-dimensional, monotone nature of a black and white photographic image was in itself a radical departure from reality and needed no further embellishments. He was readily converted toWeston’s and Strand ‘s approach. Looking over many of his negatives, he saw he would have to start over. After 1931 he steadfastly objected to use of the word “pictorial” in reference to his work.

With West Coast photographers of a similar bent, among them Weston, Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke, he formed Group f /64. The number designates a very small lens aperture capable of producing an image with maximum definition. The group’s advocacy of “straight” photography had a revolutionary influence on attitudes in the world of photography.

Alfred Stieglitz would also greatly help Ansel in his journey but the impact of the work is arguably ever lasting. Ansel was eventually asked to form the first Fine Art Photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute with many of the F/64 members coming to lecture there. This arguably shaped the next century of photography although an argument can be made that someone would eventually have promoted this kind of work Adam's and F/64 with out a doubt were at the forefront.

Photography aside, as landscape photographers they also fought for the environment before that was a thing people really did. The photographs that the group produced helped to shed light on the American west and played a large roll in popularizing and bring note to the National Parks.


What was this group and why was it significant?

As others have already said, 'Group f/64' was made up of a number of photographers based in and around the San Francisco Bay area who formed an association in the 1930s to promote their similar style of photography that emphasized straight photography as opposed to the popular pictorialist style that had prevailed in photographic art circles for the first third of the 20th Century.

The defining moment for 'Group f/64' was an exhibit of a collection of photographs from its members that opened in 1932 at the M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Posted with the exhibit of 80 photographs, 66 from the seven "members" of 'Group f/64' as well as 16 others from four like-minded "guests" of the group, was the following manifesto:

"The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.

The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.

Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire spectrum of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group.

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

The Group will appreciate information regarding any serious work in photography that has escaped its attention, and is favorable towards establishing itself as a Forum of Modern Photography."

Adams himself said, in a 1933 article he wrote for Camera Craft magazine:

Our motive is not to impose a school with rigid limitations, or to present our work with belligerent scorn of other view-points, but to indicate what we consider to be reasonable statements of straight photography. Our individual tendencies are encouraged; the Group Exhibits suggest distinctive individual view-points, technical and emotional, achieved without departure from the simplest aspects of straight photographic procedure.

The movement away from pictorialism to straight photography, as defined by 'Group f/64', dominated artistic photography in the United States from the early 1930s until well into the 1970s. It's influence had spread abroad by the 1950s and also was significant in other parts of the world.

Are there tenets of or lessons from this group that are important or useful for photography today even in the modern digital world?

Had Ansel Adams not been the primary "name" associated with 'Group f/64', I'm not sure we would hear anywhere near as much about them today as we do.

Many people like to invoke Adams as some kind of mystical compositional genius when they seem to have no clue whatsoever as to what his most significant contributions to the art of photography actually were. In reality, his ascendence to the throne of American photographers in the mid-20th century was all about his development of the zone system and darkroom techniques that allowed him, and those who learned from him, to successfully capture scenes that had previously not been printable on the papers available to photographers at the time.

That's not to say that Adams was a slouch when it came to composition. He certainly was not. But it doesn't seem to me that the way he composed was revolutionary at all. He more or less followed the general rules of composition that were prevalent at the time. Many of these 'rules' were learned by photographers from observing several hundred years worth of masterpiece paintings.

What was revolutionary about the work of Ansel Adams was the way he exposed and developed that allowed a scene with wider extremes between the darkest and brightest parts to be depicted in a photograph than could be done conventionally using the best films and papers available at that time. He also did it so that the things he wanted to emphasize were reinforced by the tonal values within the photograph.

It's not that Adams "saw" all these wonderful scenes in front of him that no one else had tried to capture before. Others had tried and failed to do much of what Adams did compositionally. Those failures were due to limitations of dynamic range and tonal control. Where Ansel Adams expanded the envelope was in the way he controlled the range of tonal values from pure black to pure white to fit the details in the scene into a tonal range that could be printed on existing photo papers while also drawing the viewer's eyes to the things he wanted them to see.

Adams' membership in 'Group f/64' probably contributed a lot more to the status of 'Group f/64' and most of its other members than membership in 'Group f/64' contributed to Adams' stature as a photographic genius for his innovations in exposure and darkroom techniques. To be sure, much of the work that the members of 'Group f/64' did would not have been possible without techniques created or enhanced by Adams. In many cases it was those techniques themselves that allowed 'Group f/64' members and their followers to do what they did compositionally.

Today many of us probably take the true contributions of Adams, his work regarding exposure and darkroom techniques, for granted. We don't remember a time before Adams' zone system when the images he created using those techniques were thought to be not possible to make. Yet many of us still refer to him as the greatest American photographer of the 20th Century without knowing exactly why we say he is.

As inkista quotes Cartier-Bresson in a comment to the question:

"The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” So influence/impact on their contemporaries, let alone ours, maybe not so much.

Where the influence of 'Group f/64' has the most impact for us today, perhaps, is in the technical requirements for things such as lenses and recording mediums, and in the proper use of them, that the 'Group f/64' style required (and that pictorialism which preceded it did not). Even as Cartier-Bresson and others like him began emphasizing humans in their sociological/historical contexts and often in motion - rather than static scenes in nature - they accepted some of the basic tenets of straight photography that had been popularized by 'Group f/64':

  • Sharply focused
  • Carefully framed
  • Precisely exposed

Many of us still place a good deal of emphasis on those things today.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.