Mistaya Canyon

The Scene

Driving up the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park takes visitors to a fascinating canyon that is located just south of Saskatchewan Crossing. An easy ten minute hike leads visitors to Mistaya Canyon, a wonderful place where the water flows briskly when the river is wide and then gains ferocious speed to pass through the narrows. The dominant feature of the area for me was the unshackled flow of water through spectacularly narrow gaps between the rocks. In photographic terms, that meant carefully rendering the whitewater in the narrows with blazing bright tones but not so light that the water lost the feeling of “substance.”

Fortunately, the sun made this task considerably easier because it directly illuminated only a few small areas of the whitewater but it provided indirect illumination on most of the whitewater. This allowed me to place the directly lighted water on high tones that were nearly white to create the feeling of unrestrained whitewater but place the majority of the water (shadowed water) on tones that were dark enough to establish substance.

A few quick reads with my one degree light meter revealed that placing the small areas of sunlit whitewater quite high on the tonal scale allowed me to obtain good tones on the negative for all other areas when using a normal development time.

Composition

The basic subject of the photograph was water and the visual excitement of this scene clearly resided in the foreground whitewater. However, it was important to connect the whitewater in the narrows with the river upstream so the scene was logical. That is, the photograph should allow the viewer to see that the large volume of water in the wide river upstream had to gain ferocious speed to pass through the narrows further downstream. Consequently, I selected a camera location that provided an unobstructed view which connected the river upstream and water in the narrows. While I stood at the camera location and visually explored the scene with a simple viewing frame,

I realized that the flow of water would be visually strengthened if the composition allowed the rocks to extend in the same general direction as the water. The simplest way for rocks to move the viewer’s eye upstream was to include the near rock at the lower right corner of the image since the angle of its edge would guide the viewer’s eye upstream. In addition, I realized that including the rock would add considerable depth to the image. Adding that particular rock to the composition was an important decision.

Now the challenge was to obtain sharp focus extending from the near rock only a few feet in front of the camera to the distant trees far away at the back of the image. I selected a 120 mm Super-Angulon lens that was sharp-as-a-tack. The lens had an f-stop as small as f/64 which would provide considerable depth-of-field but my light meter told me that such a small f-stop required a shutter speed that was only 1/15 sec, far too slow for the water. The rapidly moving water clearly needed a faster shutter speed to “freeze” its motion enough to capture its violent flow. I thought a shutter speed of 1/125 sec was fast enough to freeze the water movement sufficiently and that speed corresponded to an f-stop of f/22. I knew that f/22 would not provide nearly enough depth-of-field to obtain sharp focus through the entire image area.

Thank goodness for view cameras that offer additional controls for focus and perspective. My choices to increase depth-of-field were to tilt the lens forward or tilt the back of the camera (i.e. film) backward and I used both options. The lens was tilted forward until the scene was nearly but not completely in focus. Then, the film was tilted backward until the whole scene was in sharp focus at f/22. Unlike lens tilt, camera back tilt provides the additional feature of changing image perspective at the same time focus is changed. That was used to advantage for this photo because it caused the foreground rocks to appear slightly larger than they would otherwise. Once this is pointed out, you can look at the image and see that the foreground rocks loom a bit larger than might be expected and this has the extremely important effect of increasing apparent depth in the image.

I normally expose only one negative for each scene but I exposed three films here because the fast moving water made it extremely difficult to “time” the exposure. I developed my three Tri-X films normally and they all looked fine. Movement of the water was captured best on one negative so it was used for subsequent work.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

I drum-scanned the film with my usual resolution of 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth. The unedited image looked good on the computer monitor and little editing was required. First, I applied a curve to shift tonal values slightly. Then, I brightened small areas within the dark shadowed rock at the lower left of the image to give the rock more “presence.” The tops of the flat rocks on both sides of the river were composed of two tones and I slightly lightened the brighter tones on the rocks to increase their texture.

A few other minor edits here and there and I was ready to make a test print.

I use a calibrated monitor, profiled printer and proof images in PhotoShop for the appropriate paper profile so my prints match the computer monitor quite closely. However, fine photographs invariably require many subtle refinements to maximize their “mood” so I nearly always approach printing the old fashioned “dark room” way. That is, I make subtle changes to strengthen the image and then make a test print to evaluate the changes.

The general workflow involves first editing an image to my satisfaction on the computer monitor for the paper I think I will use to print it. Then, I make a small test print (say, 16inch x 20inch), evaluate the print, make refinements in PhotoShop, make another test print, make more refinements in PhotoShop, make another test print and repeat this process numerous times. Editing one area of an image often impacts other areas so the need for additional refinements becomes evident as editing progresses. As I begin to approach what I believe will be the final version, I start printing to larger sizes and apply subtle toning to strengthen the image further. This gives me an opportunity to evaluate the image at several print sizes as well as evaluate the effects of subtle toning. When I finally get a print that I don’t think I can improve upon, I print a final copy at the most appropriate size with the best toning scheme and then I mount, mat, frame the print and hang it on a wall.

During the next few weeks or months, I look at the print many times under many different lighting conditions. In most cases, I gradually become aware of ways to strengthen the image further. When I think that I have identified all of the changes I need to make, I go through another series of image edits and test prints and then disassemble the frame and replace the old print with the new one and hang it on the wall. Only then do I think that the image is completed.

In most cases, I am indeed finished but occasionally I realize later that I should have done something different and I have to repeat the process again. That was the case for this image. After the print was hung on the wall for three months, reedited, reprinted and then hung on the wall again for three more months, I decided that the sense of depth in this image was crucial and deserved strengthening. I realized this could be accomplished easily by changing the foreground slightly in two locations.

First, I worked on the sculpted boulder at the left foreground. I slightly brightened the sunlit area that is oriented vertically on it and slightly brightened the light surface on its flat top, carefully emphasizing its edge a bit. These edits were subtle but effectively drew more visual attention to the rock. Second, I increased the local contrast and sharpness of the near flat rock at the lower right of the image. This was done moderately but it increased the rock’s prominence greatly. These final image changes definitely improved depth in the photograph by increasing the visual “nearness” of two important foreground objects.

I reprinted the image and replaced the previously framed print with the third completed version. I invited a few friends to take a look at the photograph on the wall. When doing this, I usually position myself beside the photo to watch the viewer’s eyes and listen as they examine the print. The most important information for me to gather is how their eyes move through a print as they view it. When I see a person’s eyes move fairly rapidly in a print and remain within the boundaries of the image, I score that as a success. If people simply stare at an image without moving their eyes much, I suspect that I have failed.

The second most important information for me to gather is the sound a viewer makes while examining a print. If I hear silence or a faint hollow sound like air is being expelled from the lungs as their eyes feast on the image, I am pretty sure the photograph has moved them emotionally. If they spend little time looking at an image before talking about how they took a similar picture or they begin discussing technical features of photography, I know that I have failed to move them. In that case, it is back to square one.

I use a lot of paper, a lot of ink and a lot of time to complete a print but it helps achieve my goal of producing the strongest prints that I can. For me, the proof is in the pudding, err the print.

Summary

I believe this photograph of Mistaya Canyon effectively captures the essence of the scene. It shows a wide river upstream which pushes water furiously downstream through a narrow gap between the rocks. I think the image displays considerable depth which helps communicate the large size of the scene and helps viewers “enter” the scene with their eyes. A large print of this image shows great detail and effectively communicates the feelings I experienced while present at the scene. I am confident that the print has the capability to move viewers because numerous people stare at it quietly for a long time while their eyes dance excitedly through the scene.

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

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