Athabasca Indians Keeping Watch

The Scene

The Icefields Parkway in Canada winds through spectacular scenery in Banff and Jasper National Parks where it takes visitors to the foot of glaciers in the enormous Columbia Icefield. Summer melt from the icefield fills numerous waterways, including the Athabasca River. Glacial melt fuels the Athabasca Falls, shown in this image, into a powerful torrent of whitewater. This region was once inhabited by the Athabasca Indians and rocks surrounding the falls seem to be Indian faces quietly keeping watch. To me, the rocks had a quiet, spiritual feeling that contrasted greatly with the powerful avalanche of water pouring over the falls. I thought it was important to capture both the calm, spiritual feeling of the rocks and the powerful rush of cascading whitewater in a photograph.

Technically, this scene was challenging to photograph. The sun was located behind the falls and the water reflected direct sunlight toward my viewpoint. The reflected light was extremely bright compared to the shadowed rocks yet both areas needed to show much detail to produce an effective photo. I dealt with this difficult situation two ways.

First, I used orthochromatic film rather than panchromatic film. Ortho film is sensitive only to blue and green light whereas panchromatic film is sensitive to red, blue and green. Since the water was illuminated directly by sunlight, it was white (sunlit water contained nearly equal amounts of red, blue and green light). On the other hand, the rocks were not illuminated directly by sunlight since they stood in shadows. Rocks were illuminated indirectly by the blue sky so they contained more blue than red or green light. I chose ortho film because it would record neither the large amount of red light from the water or the small amount of red light from the shadowed rocks so the film exposure of the bright water would be reduced more than the shadowed rocks.

Second, contrast at the scene was reduced by decreased film development. For the exposure, shadowed rock tonal values were placed relatively high on the tonal scale to record plenty of shadow detail so bright tones of the sunlit water were far off of the bright end of the usable tonal scale. The bright tones of sunlit water was brought down two f-stops into the usable range to show detail by decreasing negative development by two t-stops (N-2).

By using these two procedures to control tones in the scene, I hoped to record enough image detail to adequately depict the calm, spiritual feeling of the rocks as well as the powerful movement of whitewater. The water speed was very fast so I selected the fastest shutter speed available on my lens, which was 1/250 sec. Although I would have liked to stop down my lens more, I was only able to stop down to f/16. Fortunately, that lens aperture provided enough depth-of-field for the scene. I was running short of film and could record only two exposures. Both films were good but the one shown here captured the essence of moving water better.


I usually spend some time examining a new scene by looking through a hand-held viewing frame, an aperture in plastic which has the same proportion as my 4 x 5 film. This helps me identify important compositional elements at the scene as well as locate a suitable position for the camera and select the proper lens. While doing this, I realized that the small tree shown in the lower left of the photo would be key to controlling the viewer’s eye movement through the image. To appreciate this, place your finger over the tree and notice that your eye will have a tendency to fall off the bottom of the image as it naturally follows the line of dark rock down toward the lower tree. When your finger is removed, the tree will push your eye back up into the image. Obviously, I wanted to include the lower tree in the image since it would strengthen the composition considerably.

There was a problem with that – the foreground partially blocked the small tree. To avoid the foreground obstructions, I had to move forward by climbing over the guard railing and placing my camera close to the ledge which drops off into the falls. I knew this would be extremely hazardous so I took a moment to prioritize my actions in the event that the ground gave away and I fell toward the water. I told myself that I would not hesitate to push my camera and tripod over the ledge to help push myself in the opposite direction if I had to. Fortunately, all went well.


The film exposure and contrast were excellent and I had a fine negative to work from. The negative was easy to scan, required little editing in PhotoShop and printed very nicely.

I do not apply sharpening during scanning and I seldom apply sharpening during image editing. None was applied at either step for this image. I generally sharpen only during printing to counter image blurring that is associated with dot gain when ink droplets spread on the paper. Consequently, a moderate amount of sharpening was applied during printing this image. That sharpening is not present in the web image shown here.

Drum scanning my 4 inch x 5 inch negative provided a gray scale image of nearly 1 GB size (5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth). During image editing in PhotoShop, I slightly burned (darkened) specular highlights of the water at the top of the image and slightly dodged (lightened) the dark rocks. I applied small amounts of very localized burning and dodging to portions of the mist and flowing water to strengthen the mood of the image. Finally, I brightened water drops dripping from the darkest rock on the right side of the image (dripping water might not be visible in the low resolution image shown here).

I printed this image to a size of approximately 16 inch x 20 inch and immediately noticed that important details could not be seen easily in the print using the naked eye. I examined the print with a loupe and saw a considerable amount of important detail so I knew the image would look better when printed larger. Specifically, the viewer would be able to more easily see water dripping on the right side of the print and turbulent water splashing in the lower part of the print. The latter detail was crucial for conveying the power of water movement. I printed the image to 22 inch x 27 inch and it looked much stronger than the 16 inch x 20 inch print. More detail could be resolved with the eye and that detail helped convey the feeling I wanted in the print. I’m quite sure that the image will reveal even more detail when printed considerably larger.


I believe that my photograph definitely communicates both the calm, spiritual feeling of the rocks and the powerful torrent of whitewater. Any comments you might have on this image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or the workup of the negative will be appreciated. For a larger view of this image, visit and click on the “Galleries” tab on top and select the “Canadian Rockies” gallery.

Randall R Bresee

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