View Atop The Jasper Tram

The Scene

A ride up the tramway near the town of Jasper provides easy access to spectacular vistas from elevations above 7,500 feet. During a visit in 1994, I wandered near the upper tram terminal and photographed seven different scenes. I thought that two of those scenes turned out to be quite strong and one is discussed here.

In 1988, I began recording technical information for each film that I exposed. Information is recorded on 3 inch x 5 inch paper while at each scene and includes the date, location, film holder number, contrast filter (if any), lens, shutter speed, f/stop, luminance values for key scene components and negative development instructions. I have continued to write film exposure records because the information has proven to be very useful. Its most important use occurs immediately after film is proofed by comparing proofs to exposure records to evaluate pertinent decisions that were made when the film was exposed. Those comparisons have revealed exposure, film development and equipment problems and helped me avoid the same problem later.

Before I began to print digitally, a film was proofed by making a contact print in the wet darkroom using my standard printing conditions and each contact print was carefully viewed with a large magnifying glass and then compared with the film’s exposure record to determine how each scene could have been handled better. Since I began to print digitally, a film is proofed by acquiring a low resolution scan using my standard scanning conditions and then the digital image is carefully viewed on the computer monitor and compared with the film’s exposure record.

One of the exasperating things about photography is that photographs can be corrupted by a gazillion different photographer errors or equipment failures. However, the process of comparing film proofs with exposure records helps me identify mistakes quickly so my photography has became considerably more reliable. After going through this process for only 1-2 years, I became confident enough in my technique and equipment to expose only one film at most scenes. Of course, scenes with fast moving objects or uncertain conditions often require more than one exposure but the majority of the scenes which I photograph require only a single exposure.

While writing this blog, I reviewed exposure records for the 1994 photographic trip when the photo shown above was taken. Records revealed that I exposed 96 negatives while photographing 72 scenes during the 14 day trip. More than 75% of the scenes (55 of 72 scenes) were photographed with a single exposure. Reasons for exposing more than one film for the other 17 scenes included fast moving objects (11 scenes), uncertainty about focus (3 scenes), uncertainty about exposure (2 scenes) and uncertainty about film development time (1 scene). Five films were exposed at one scene because the placement of shadows from fast moving clouds was critical to the composition and it was difficult to predict their locations.

I normally expose about 100 sheets of film during a 14 day photographic trip and this number probably seems small to many photographers. I know digital photographers who make more than 100 exposures per day when photographing an area as beautiful as the Canadian Rockies. However, I think that I am pretty typical of large format photographers who tend to work deliberately and frugally since large cameras require extra time, effort and expense.

The exposure record for the image shown above indicates that one sheet of 4inch x 5inch Kodak Tri-X film was exposed using a 12 inch lens (305 mm). A 12 inch lens is a moderately long focal length for a 4inch x 5inch camera since a 6 inch lens (150 mm) is a “normal” focal length for the camera. This means that the depth-of-field was somewhat limited and indeed was a problem for the scene since it included a broad hump in the near foreground, a mid-range valley and mountains far away. I knew the image would look best when printed large and would benefit by resolving small detail in the foreground hump, individual trees in the valley and mountain features far away. I definitely needed to achieve sharp focus through the whole scene.

I use a view camera in large part because it can help tremendously with focus problems by allowing me to relocate the lens’s plane of focus. I knew that the lens’s focal plane for this scene could be used considerably more effectively by tilting the top of the focal plane forward to encompass mountains near the top of the image while leaving the bottom of the focal plane positioned on the foreground hump at the bottom of the image. Relocating the lens’s focal plane in this manner can be achieved either by tilting the lens forward or tilting the film backward. Tilting the film backward changes perspective as well as focus but perspective change was undesirable since it would cause the foreground hump to appear larger (which is good) but cause the mountains to appear smaller (which is very bad since mountains in this photo should look large). Consequently, I chose to tilt the lens forward since it improved focus in the scene without changing perspective. To improve focus more, the lens aperture was stopped down considerably to increase depth-of-field (thickness of the focal plane).

The exposure record for this film shows that a dark yellow contrast filter was used to increase structure in the clouds and reduce atmospheric haze. This filter reduced haze enough to make the mountains feel more “solid” but still leave enough haze far away to help impart a feeling of depth to the scene.I placed the dark yellow filter over my spot meter and measured the light levels of important scene components. I assigned the dark foliage in the valley to Zone II (very dark with little detail). The light meter indicated that the brightest areas of snow fell on Zones VII-VIII (bright with some detail – very bright with little detail) and this was fine since the brightest areas were small and thus required little detail. I marked my exposure record for normal negative development since it would render all important areas of the scene properly.

I settled on a shutter speed of 1/15 sec and an f-stop of f/45. Since the scene was still, I was confident that it would be exposed properly and sharply focused so only one sheet of film was exposed.

All of this information is available years after the photograph was recorded simply by examining the film’s exposure record on a small piece of paper.

Composition

The broad hump in the near foreground is an important compositional element of this photograph. A good way to think about this is to view the hump as a closeup “sample” of the whole mountain range. Including such a “sample” in the near foreground when it is exposed well and sharply focused allows viewers to see its structural detail (since it is close) and then unconsciously ascribe the same structure to the mountains throughout the image even though they are located too far away to reveal their structural details.

In effect, including a closeup “sample” allows the image to communicate more structure than it actually contains. This is important for the photograph discussed in this post since most of the image area is composed of mountains that are located too far away to reveal fine structural detail. It is especially effective when the image is viewed as a large print where foreground detail on the film is enlarged enough for human vision to see it. Of course, little detail can be seen in low resolution web images such as the one displayed in this blog so it may be difficult to appreciate the effect by viewing only this blog page.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

I placed the film on my drum scanner and used standard scan conditions to acquire a low resolution digital proof of the film. As usual, I evaluated the proof by carefully viewing it on the scanner monitor and concluded that the original film exposure couldn’t have been much better, all important scene elements were sharply focused and the dark yellow filter seemed to have the desired effects. A quick look at the film’s exposure record reminded me of how I handled the scene and caused me to conclude that neither my technique nor equipment introduced a serious problem. It is always a relief to get home from a photograph trip and see that success in the field was actually achieved.

Next, I obtained a high quality digital working file for the film by instructing the scanner to perform a high resolution scan at 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth. No scanner hardware adjustments were needed for the film during scanning.

The high resolution digital file needed only a few tweaks with PhotoShop. First, a minor curve adjustment was performed to nudge some image tones to slightly better values. Then, I performed local dodging to lighten a few important image areas. For example, I thought that it was important to feel the sunlight spilling down the side of the large mountain which enters the image from the left so I lightened sunlit areas slightly. Sunlight reaching areas in the valley also was important since the valley was quite dark so a few sunlit areas in the valley were dodged. Finally, small areas of sunlight splashing on mountains far away were carefully dodged as well.

Next, local burning was performed to darken areas located next to a few important bright areas to help strengthen the bright tones. I thought that areas on the side of the large mountain which were illuminated by sunlight spilling down the mountain were particularly important for developing the feeling of sunlight so adjacent dark areas were darkened slightly to help the bright areas pop a bit more.

I have printed this image at several different sizes and larger prints are definitely stronger than smaller prints. One reason for this is that more detail is visible in larger prints and that helps the mountains feel more solid. Another reason is that the enormity of the subject matter simply looks more impressive in larger prints. I believe this image requires a print size which measures at least 24 inch x 30 inch.

Summary

I think this photograph is a worthy representative of the spectacular Canadian Rockies. The mood is strong, the subject matter is sharply focused and the direction of sunlight is clearly evident. A large print reveals much detail which helps viewers visually descend into the valley or climb the peaks far away. Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, its composition, or image workup will be appreciated. For a larger view of this photograph, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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