The Smoky Mountains are called smoky for good reasons. While driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at elevations above 5,000 feet on Clingmans Dome Road, I encountered heavy cloud patches at ground level. The mountains changed dramatically when passing in-and-out of the heavy clouds as if I was alternating between two different worlds. Bright mountains in warm sunlight were full of activity but areas immersed in clouds were quiet and intimate. In contrast to sunny areas, the low thick clouds seemed to capture all of the noise and most of the light in the forest. I drove slowly while searching for a good photographic composition to capture the mood of the heavily clouded forest and it didn’t take long to find one.
Photographically, light at the scene looked remarkably flat so I immediately considered options for increasing visual contrast in the film. That idea was abandoned, however, after reminding myself that the photographic goal was to capture the mood in front of me. Since that mood included a soft, intimate and quiet forest, flat light was not inappropriate.
I secured my 4 inch x 5 inch camera to a heavy wooden tripod and attached a 305 mm lens. This was long focal length glass since a “normal” lens for a 4 x 5 camera is 150 mm. The long lens was chosen to compress the composition to achieve more intimacy as well as emphasize the thickness of the cloud cover.
The color of the scene was nearly monochrome so a color contrast filter would have no effect on a black and white image and no filter was used.
I sampled the scene with a 1 degree light meter and was surprised to learn that the scene in my image area exhibited a contrast range of only three f-stops. I placed the central tree trunk of the image on Zone IV and brighter areas of fog were on Zones V and VI. In view of the low contrast of the image, I reconsidered my original composition and decided to include a few nearby twigs at the bottom of the image to add darker tones. The light meter indicated that the small twigs fell on Zone II-III. A contrast range of five f-stops was much better than three stops, I thought.
I was certain that I wanted the photograph to be quiet and soft to capture the scene’s mood properly but decided to expand image contrast slightly to separate mid and higher tones better. This would help increase the “presence” of trees that were barely visible through the fog and could be accomplished easily by increasing film development time.
I exposed the film for 1/4 sec at f/45 and marked its exposure record for N+1 development.
The basic subject of this photograph is the mood in the Smoky Mountains that occurs when clouds descend low enough to wrap the forest in a dense fog. To me, that mood is soft and intimate yet quietly strong. It is not uncommon to experience this condition in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it is a great pleasure to immerse oneself in the clouds.
Including nearby twigs at the bottom of the image was a key compositional decision because the twigs provide an important visual anchor to the darker side of the tonal scale. Place your finger on the computer monitor to cover the twigs and you can see that the image will be considerably weaker without the twigs. Including more twigs in the image might have reduced the soft and intimate mood which resulted from rich midtones that dominated the photograph.
When I first evaluated the image in PhotoShop, I made a mental note to ensure that the twigs did not become too strong during image editing to avoid diminishing the overall mood of the photograph. Even though the twigs occupied little area in the image, I feared that tones which were too strong (e.g. pure black or nearly black) would contribute harshness to the image. Avoiding that was easy because the twigs contained texture on the negative since they were placed on Zones II (nearly black with slight texture) and Zone III (dark with good texture) rather than black with no texture (Zone 0 or I).
I previewed the film on my drum scanner and its histogram showed that the image was very flat indeed. I tweaked the histogram while viewing the image and decided to make a curve adjustment before performing a high resolution scan. The curve adjustment lightened the brightest tones without changing darker tones to accomplish two things. First, it helped separate mid and high tones to further increase the “presence” of tree branches that were barely visible through the fog. Second, the adjustment did not darken the foreground twigs to avoid “hardening” them and thus detracting from the soft mood of the image.
A high resolution digital file was recorded at my usual resolution of 5,000 dpi and16-bit pixel depth.
Viewing the digital file on a calibrated computer monitor with PhotoShop showed that the image looked good. I performed a minor levels adjustment and a small curve adjustment to nudge image tones to slightly better values and then a test image was printed at a size of 20 inch x 16 inch. I was pleased with the print and thought it captured the overall mood that I experienced in the mountains.
I performed a few additional image edits and then made a final print at 25 inch x 20 inch. After allowing one day for full ink drying, the print was dry-mounted, matted, framed and hung on a wall. I was pleased with the outcome. However, thoughts began to creep into my mind a week later that the print looked slightly muddy. I opened the digital image in PhotoShop again and brightened it slightly by readjusting the previous levels and curve data to inject more energy into the image. After that, the modified image was printed, dried, dry-mounted, matted, framed and hung on the wall a second time.
This time, I thought, I got it right and was happy with the print. After a few weeks, however, I thought the print still looked a bit muddy. I brightened the digital image a bit more using PhotoShop, printed again, dried again, dry-mounted again, matted again, framed again and hung it on the wall a third time. Fortunately, this version of the print has withstood critical eyes and I have been very happy with it ever since.
The gray level histogram (scale of 0 to 255) of the final image showed that the dark twigs in the foreground exhibited pixel gray levels in a range of 12-75 and most of the twig pixels had gray levels in the 30’s and 40’s. Thus, the print had no pure black (gray level = 0). This was fine, however, since the twigs were dark enough to be strong but not so dark that they were harsh. The gray level histogram showed that nearly all other pixels in the image exhibited gray levels between 76 and 232 so the print also had no pure white (gray level = 255). I believe that an absence of very dark and very bright pixels yielded an image that indeed was soft as desired and the result worked well.
Many of my photographs look best when printed at larger sizes because the presence of tiny details contributes to the photo’s strength. In contrast to those images, the photograph discussed in this post does not rely on small details for strength so the image looks good when printed at nearly any size.
The mood of this image is softly enveloping yet quietly strong. Importantly, the print succeeds in reminding me of the scene I experienced in the mountains that day. 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