Bright Cloud Along David Thompson Highway

As I had done a few times during previous years, I planned to spend my vacation touring the northern Rockies in Canada. I plotted the trip for months and was excited when the time arrived to immerse myself for about ten days in the spectacular scenery of Canada’s national parks.

As nearly everyone knows, plans in life don’t always proceed as we design them. When the airplane descended into Calgary, I anxiously looked out the window and saw heavy clouds cloaking everything in dark gray so the mountains that I knew were present only a short distance from the airport were not visible. I loaded the rental car and headed west toward Banff National Park, arriving in Banff 90 minutes later without seeing a single mountain. For the next three days I drove through numerous areas that I knew provided spectacular views but did not record one photograph because the scenery was invisible in the bad weather.

The Scene

On the fourth day, I was beginning to panic because my 10-day vacation was 40% gone and I hadn’t made a single exposure yet. I had worked my way north through the park and stopped for a cup of coffee at Saskatchewan Crossing. As it continued to rain, I sadly sipped and stared through a coffee shop window. It looked like the rain would never stop.

I left the coffee shop and decided to drive on David Thompson Highway toward the park’s boundary only a few miles to the east. I reached the boundary and it continued to pour rain so I found an area where the shoulder of the road was wide enough to park. The sound of beating rain helped me fall asleep and I had been dozing for a while when the sound of quiet awakened me. I opened my eyes and saw that the rain had stopped completely and the sun was trying to emerge through the clouds. Then I saw the magnificent scene in front of me.

I started the car and raced ahead to a slightly better viewpoint where I assembled my camera as quickly as possible. The sky was changing so fast that I knew I would not have time to think much about composition, exposure, filtration, etc. I simply aimed my one-degree light meter at some dark trees in the bottom left-middle of the image area and placed them on Zone II (very dark but with slight texture). This forced the big bright cloud to fall mostly on Zone VII-VIII with some areas of the cloud falling on Zone IX. I quickly dialed the lens to1/30 sec at f/32-45 and exposed two 4inch x 5inch black & white film. I marked one for Normal development and the other for N-1 development (to bring down the bright cloud a bit). Before I could load another film holder in the view camera, the sky darkened and the scene was gone forever. The march of time is really evident when a wonderful scene appears briefly and then disappears to never appear again. I hoped that my camera had done justice to the setting during its brief lifetime.

Sometimes, you simply get lucky. In this particular case, I hadn’t been to the location before and did not know what lay before me when I parked on the shoulder of the road. It was pure luck that I happened to be at a great location when the weather cleared momentarily. On the other hand, my father always said that life presents everyone with many good opportunities and people who are prepared to take advantage of them are said to have good luck. I had repeatedly practiced setting up my camera quickly and the practice paid off on that particular day.

I had been in Banff National Park for four days and my first exposures were finally made.

I had a feeling the photo was a good one but knew that it may or may not produce a strong image when printed. Experience had taught me that it is surprisingly difficult while still in the field to know which negatives will produce strong prints. Some spectacular scenes in the field simply don’t translate well into black and white prints when you get back home. On the other hand, scenes have excited me only modestly so I recorded films only reluctantly but was surprised later when they produced strong prints.


As it turned out, the film which was developed N was better than the N-1 film because I hadn’t noticed that the light level at the scene had darkened about 2/3 of an f-stop after I acquired light meter measurements but before my exposures were recorded. The reduced exposure didn’t hurt the dark trees at the bottom because they looked better when printed darker later. The tones of the bright cloud in the normally developed film were fine since their reduced brightness lowered their densities in the film to more suitable levels. Sometimes a little luck really helps.

I drum-scanned the film with my usual resolution of 5,000dpi and16-bit pixel depth and the unedited digital image looked good on the computer monitor. I planned edits to enhance the two most important features of the image which I believed were (a) the immensity of the valley and surrounding mountains and (b) the colossal bright cloud which dominates the immense terrain beneath it.

I thought the huge sense of scale could be communicated effectively for the terrain by a comparison of the size of trees in the foreground with trees on the dark mountain to the right and trees on the far sunlit mountains in the middle of the image. I knew that my negative contained more than enough resolution to define the distant trees so they could be resolved in a large sized print by human vision. Since the emotional impact of the scene depended on communicating its immense sense of scale, I was certain that the image would have to be viewed as a fairly large print.

What I like best about this image is that it clearly shows that the valley and mountains are enormous but the mammoth bright cloud still dwarfs the huge terrain beneath it. I thought the relative immensity of the cloud could be communicated best if it was tonally different than the terrain. Since the cloud commands such a large portion of the image area and it would be viewed in prints which were quite large, the cloud required delicate adjustment to retain visual structure over its entire area. This is an example where I really appreciated having a well-exposed film as well as 16-bit pixel depth for image editing.

In PhotoShop, I carefully did a curve adjustment to nudge the dark trees at the bottom left-middle into pure black while preserving overall image luminosity by keeping dark tones in other areas from becoming darker. I also adjusted the curve to brighten some of the cloud’s middle tones to increase brilliance and help separate the cloud tonally from the darker terrain below. After the curve adjustment, the only pure black in the image was the dark foreground trees at the bottom of the image. The impact of this small black area on the image is substantial because it helps develop image depth front-to-back by tonally separating near scene components from scene components located far away. This tonal separation also helps communicate the immensity of the scene. In addition, the pure black foreground trees help the mind separate the brilliant white cloud from the terrain below. For me, the pure black trees help “lift” the cloud psychologically higher above the ground.

I performed slight local brightening to small areas in the clouds, sunlit areas on the far mountains and sunlit areas of the valley floor. The large dark mountain entering the scene from the right was brightened slightly over its entire area to help maintain softness in the scene.

I believe the bright cloud along David Thompson Highway turned out well. To help preserve the overall feeling of luminosity, preserve the delicate high tones in the cloud, and resolve the distant trees, I printed the image on bright glossy paper. I have printed it to several sizes and, as expected, the grandeur of the terrain as well as the colossal size of the bright cloud is communicated most effectively in larger prints. Bigger is better in this case. The tiny image prepared for the web (like the image shown above) cannot begin to offer enough spatial resolution for the human eye to see the distant trees and the emotional impact of the web image is reduced substantially. This image provides an especially good example of why visiting a museum or gallery to see actual prints usually provides a considerably more exciting experience than merely looking at images on the web.


Although I didn’t have much time in the field to plan my exposure, luck was on my side and I obtained a decent film to work with. A large print of this image is impressive and effectively communicates the feeling I experienced while present at the scene. In particular, the print clearly conveys the enormity and brilliance of the cloud as well as its dominance over the huge valley and mountains below it. To me, the print is exciting.

Any comments you might have on this image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or the workup of the film will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this image, visit here.

Randall R Bresee