Sand Abstract

The Scene

While attending Florida State University, I enjoyed exploring areas of natural beauty in northern Florida and often drove 25 miles to the coast to look for something interesting to photograph. I was walking on the beach near Carrabelle when I happened upon some interesting sand patterns. Ocean water flowing over beach sand during tidal changes sometimes creates wonderful abstract shapes and I found one that looked especially interesting.

The sand pattern had two basic components. First, water flow deposited sand in lines that looked like a creature from the sea. The natural illumination created bright and shadow areas along the lines which helped add three dimensional shape to the sand. The second basic component of this pattern was texture from individual grains of sand. Definition of sand grains also depended strongly on illumination. A successful photograph needed to show both pattern components clearly but I knew the flat light of an overcast sky was not likely to reveal the image components strongly enough.

It was clear that the image needed to be strengthened considerably by increasing its contrast. One of the advantages of black and white film is the ability to control image contrast easily by varying the negative development time. I knew this technique could be used to increase the “presence” of the lines of sand, three-dimensional shapes and texture of individual sand grains.

I stopped down the lens enough to ensure that all sand particles would be sharply focused and a shutter speed was selected to place average scene values in the middle of the exposure scale (Zone V). The Kodak Tri-X (ASA 320) film was marked for increased development time (N+2) to increase image contrast by two f-stops.


Sand patterns formed by tidal changes usually exhibit a fairly high degree of directionality as a result of the directional flow of water. This provides an opportunity to develop visual movement in images. For the photograph discussed here, lines of sand are oriented in one basic direction. I thought this offered an opportunity to strengthen visual movement in the composition by making a print that was more-or-less oriented in the same direction. That is, I hoped to strengthen the long thin lines of the subject by making a print that also was long and thin.

I framed up the subject so the sand lines were parallel to the long dimension (5inch) of my 4inch x 5inch negative. The beach area of interest was centered on the short dimension (4inch) of my film since most lenses are sharpest near their center. I planned to crop unnecessary sand from the short negative dimension later to achieve a longer and thinner image.


I previewed the film on my drum scanner and its histogram showed that the image was still slightly flat. A major advantage of Howtek drum scanners with Digital PhotoLab software is the ability to make hardware adjustments before scanning rather than adjusting data with software after a scan has been completed. I instructed the scanner to increase contrast during scanning and a high resolution digital file was recorded at my usual resolution of 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth. Viewing the digital file with PhotoShop showed that it looked good although the contrast remained a bit flat.

First, I cropped unwanted areas from the image as originally planned. ­This meant that I kept only half (2 inch x 5 inch) of my negative (4 inch x 5 inch). It is somewhat peculiar that large format photographers usually try harder than others to utilize every tiny speck of their film area. You might think that using a large film would lead to more generous image cropping but I think that large format photographers work so hard to capture an image that they usually frame scenes very tightly and discard image area only reluctantly. I am pretty typical in that regard so I have to admit that it was a bit difficult to crop half of my film area for this particular image. However, a long thin image was planned from the beginning so I cropped the image as needed.

Next, I performed a final contrast adjustment using levels in PhotoShop to increase image contrast a bit. It is generally recognized that adjustments which are made earlier in the photographic process yield better image quality than adjustments which are made later. For example, adjusting image contrast by changing illumination before an image is acquired is more desirable than adjusting contrast with PhotoShop after an image has been acquired. For the image discussed here, it was not possible for me to increase contrast by changing illumination so I did the next best thing by increasing image contrast through a substantial increase in film development time. After that, I increased contrast slightly with scanner hardware adjustments prior to acquiring a digital file from the film. Lastly, I opened the file and needed to make only a minor contrast adjustment using PhotoShop software.

Contrast was adjusted three different times with the most adjustment being performed earliest (during negative development) while the least adjustment was performed last (during PhotoShop editing). Flat illumination at the scene necessitated a considerable increase in image contrast and a conscious effort was made to perform the most increase early in the process to maximize image quality.

Next, I performed a curves adjustment to improve the “substance” of the image by adjusting the feel of the sand.

Finally, local burning was performed to darken sand areas that were a bit too light and local dodging was performed to lighten sand areas that were a bit too dark. Increasing uniformity by burning and dodging helped the sand feel bigger and more solid.

Finally, I burned all edges of the image very slightly to help push the eye back into the image.


I believe this photograph provides a interesting look at beach sand. The elongated print shape reinforces the elongated lines of the sand quite effectively. The sand is sharply focused and the direction of illumination is clearly evident. Any comments you might have about this image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or the workup of the film will be appreciated. For a larger view of this image, visit here.

Randall R Bresee