Native Americans talked about enormous fires in Kansas which were several miles wide and burned across huge areas of the prairie while leaving blackened soil in their paths. Flames destroyed most trees except those located near water in lowlands so the blackened soil absorbed sunlight and encouraged fast growing grasses with less competition from slower growing trees and larger plants. Tall grasses thrived under these conditions and remain important today in the state of Kansas.
Pillsbury Crossing is located six miles from Manhattan in the Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas. A thick limestone ledge spans Deep Creek and provided a sturdy bottom for the wagons of early pioneers to safely ford the water. I wanted to capture a photograph of the Pillsbury Crossing area and initially focused my attention on the water and limestone ledge. However, I was unable to locate a scene that day which I thought would translate well into a black and white photograph so I moved to a grove of oak trees next to the creek. The oaks weren’t directly the subject matter I had intended to photograph but were a suitable subject for the Deep Creek crossing since trees which usually survived early grassland fires were located in lowlands near water. The oak grove looked beautiful and provides cool shade for modern day visitors to the historic Pillsbury Crossing area.
Wind often adds challenges to landscape photography by creating movement that produces blur in images. Blur can contribute either positively or negatively to the mood of an image and wind was strong enough at Pillsbury Crossing that day to move the tree branches nearly continually. My overall goal was to create an image having a mood that was strong (like the oak trees) so plenty of substance was needed in the image. Blur in the trees would weaken the feeling of strength so dealing with the wind was my major challenge that day.
The grove of trees was deep so the depth-of-field for my image had to be deep. I didn’t have the option of relocating the lens’s plane-of-focus using traditional view camera lens or film swings/tilts because the subject matter required sharp focus from top-to-bottom and left-to-right.
Since I intended to expose only one negative, I had to rely on a small lens f-stop to achieve adequate depth-of-field for the scene. I judged the movement of the blowing branches closest to the camera and concluded that a shutter speed of 1/16 sec or faster was required to safely avoid blur in the branches.
A few quick light meter readings indicated that a shutter speed of 1/16 sec necessitated an f-stop of f/11. However, I feared that the depth-of-field provided by f/11 was insufficient to focus the whole grove sharply and trees that were not focused would not feel solid. That problem introduced a risk that could substantially detract from a mood of strength. This was a scene where I wish I had a faster film but I carried only moderate speed Tri-X (ASA = 320).
To minimize image blur but achieve adequate depth-of-field, a compromise was needed between shutter speed and f-stop so a shutter speed of 1/8 sec with an f-stop of f/16 was selected for the exposure. Although I wanted to stop down the lens even more, a slower shutter speed was certain to show blur in the tree branches which would reduce the tree’s feeling of strength, substance and solidity.
Placing the dark, shadowed foliage on Zone III (dark with some detail) caused the bright, sunlit foreground to fall on Zone VII (bright with some detail) and key tree trunks to fall on Zones IV-V (mid-range with lots of detail). These values were fine and would communicate plenty of substance in the image.
My only other option was to wait patiently for the wind to calm a bit so I prepared my equipment and waited. After 15-20 minutes, I pressed the cable release and exposed the 4inch x 5inch film. It was marked for normal development and I departed the scene.
When I initially approached the oak grove, I looked through my viewing frame to locate a good composition. I consciously placed bright sunlit areas of the ground in the image foreground to help develop the presence of bright sunlight. I thought this was important since Kansas enjoys an especially large number of sunny days each year and I wanted the photograph to be true to its location.
I noticed that the upper portions of some trees in the foreground tilted toward the camera. This was good since it could allow me to make the oaks feel more dominant if I tilted the top of the film slightly forward. That is, tilt would have changed the perspective so objects at the top of the image would appear slightly larger while objects at the bottom of the image would appear slightly smaller. This would cause the oak trees to seem to reach upward and loom overhead and would enhance the feeling of strength. However, it was not possible to incorporate this adjustment that day since it also would have tilted the depth-of-field away from important scene components so a smaller f-stop (and thus longer shutter speed) would have been required to thicken the depth-of-field enough to focus important scene components adequately. Unfortunately, the wind was steady so a longer shutter speed simply could not be tolerated.
Instead, I deliberately preserved the location of the focal plane by carefully setting my camera accurately vertical to position the lens depth-of-field at the most effective location of the scene. My camera contains three levels so it was easy to be certain the film plane was vertical. After looking at the final printed image, I think the photograph would have been slightly stronger if I had been able to incorporate slight film tilt as I desired that day.
A low resolution digital proof of the negative was acquired on my drum scanner and evaluated on the scanner monitor. Since the shutter speed at the scene had made the image susceptible to wind blur during film exposure, I was relieved to see that trunks and large branches were indeed sharply focused in the proof. Only a few clusters of leaves were blurred and they did not detract from the image mood.
Next, I obtained a high quality digital working file for the negative at 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth. No scanner hardware adjustments were required during scanning.
The high resolution digital file needed only a few tweaks with PhotoShop. First, I performed a small levels adjustment to help the oaks feel stronger by enhancing their dark tones. Then, I performed a minor curve adjustment to nudge some image tones to slightly better values.
I performed local dodging to lighten a few important image areas. For example, I thought that it was important to feel sunlight on the trees and ground so I lightened a few sunlit areas slightly. It was especially important to lighten sunlit areas of the tree nearest the camera to help viewers feel luminous sunlight most readily.
I do not generally perform global sharpening during image acquisition, scanning or editing and usually wait until printing to sharpen globally. As test prints are produced, the amount of sharpening is varied until I determine the amount that is optimum for each print. Test prints of this particular image showed that its mood was improved considerably with moderate sharpening during printing because I think it emphasized texture in the tree trunks which, in turn, helped develop substance in the trees.
I have printed this image at several different sizes and it looks good at nearly any size. The mood of the scene is well-preserved, oak trees definitely feel solid and the presence of luminous sunlight is evident. Larger prints are most impressive since they reveal additional detail that is present which is not visible to the human eye at smaller enlargements.
I think this photograph is a beautiful image of a splendid grove of oak trees. The mood is strong and the direction of illumination is clear. Prints reveal considerable detail which helps the trees feel solid, substantive and strong. 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
One thought on “Oak Grove”
Wow! These images are fantastic. I appreciate the written description of the process; very knowledgeable. I think this blog is a significant contributor to the knowledge base of large format photography.