Conifer Closeup

The Scene

I was busy enjoying the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies while driving in Kootenay National Park looking for something big to photograph. Wonderful mountains surrounded me but the light from the gray sky seemed too flat to capture the images I had in mind. I’d been driving for several hours without exposing any film and realized that I needed to change my general approach since the flat light looked like it would linger all day. While slowly winding my way along Settlers Road, I admired the trees that seemed to grow everywhere and I had a thought. Why not photograph a single tree up close rather than photograph an enormous mountain that contained thousands of trees? Furthermore, why not photograph an unexceptional tree rather than a distinctive or unusual tree?

Good idea, I thought, and the search for a suitably ordinary tree began. It may seem odd for a photographer to concentrate on a relatively small, undistinguished object when he is surrounded by grand scenery. However, experience has taught me to avoid looking at things the same way for very long. Even when I am circled by towering mountains I have learned to make a conscious effort to “look down” rather than only “looking up.” On this particular day that strategy paid off nicely.

It didn’t take long to locate a group of young trees close to the roadside in an area that was illuminated with plenty of indirect light. I wandered among the trees for about thirty minutes searching for an appropriately plain specimen and eventually located a little tree that was suitably ordinary and separated from the others.

While walking back to the car to fetch my camera gear, I pondered the scene in an attempt to solidify my photographic approach. I asked myself, “What was I really trying to photograph?” Answering that question nearly always begins with recognizing the important features of the subject.


I stared at the tree as I struggled to identify the key features of the scene. While standing there, cars and trucks raced by in a hurry to get somewhere else. The eyes of most travelers were fixed on the road and scarcely veered from side-to-side. Even though the tree and I were located only a short distance from the traffic, the scene felt eerily private. This feeling eventually lead to my basic approach to the photograph. I would provide an intimate look at an ordinary tree in a “private” setting.

To accomplish this, I decided to place the camera near the tree for a closeup view that did not include other objects and would emphasize the bare branches which were a key structural feature of the tree.

I decided that a 120 mm lens would be the best choice for my 4 inch x 5 inch view camera. A ‘normal’ focal length for a 4 x 5 camera is 150 mm and the slightly wide-angle 120 mm lens provided two advantages. First, it allowed me to position the camera extremely close to the tree (touching some branches) to obtain a better sense of depth from the bare branches and provide needed emphasis to them. Second, the short focal length lens had a fairly large depth-of-field which was required to achieve sharp focus throughout important areas of the scene.

Even with the large depth-of-field provided by a 120 mm lens, I worried about getting all important scene details in sharp focus. Numerous bare branches had to be focused sharply since they were a key structural feature of the tree. One of the major advantages of view cameras is their ability to employ swings and tilts to reposition the lens focal slice within the scene. However, those adjustments could not be used for this scene because sharp focus was needed throughout the entire scene. That is, swings and tilts could reposition the focal slice to bring some scene details into sharp focus but the action would move other details out of the focal slice.

My only choice for rendering all scene details in sharp focus was to increase depth-of-field by stopping down the lens aperture. While viewing the image on the camera’s ground glass I varied the lens f-stop and decided that f/64 was required to bring all important details into sharp focus.

I made a few quick light meter readings and placed the darkest scene areas on Zones II-III. The main tree trunk fell on Zone IV and the bright tree branches fell on Zones V-VI. The bright tree branches needed to be one f-stop brighter so I labeled the exposure record for N+1 development to elevate Zones V-VI to Zones VI-VII. The light meter told me that an f-stop of f/64 required a shutter speed of 1/4 sec and there was little wind to worry about so 1/4 sec was fine.


Tonal values of the negative were good so no adjustments were required during scanning and a high resolution digital file was acquired with 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth. The digital file size from this negative was nearly 1 GB (1,000 MB) like most digital files from my 4 inch x 5 inch black & white negatives. As you might guess, files from the scanner grow to many GB after numerous layers are added during editing with PhotoShop.

As is normally the case for me, the first two edits with PhotoShop were a minor levels adjustment and a minor curve adjustment. These were done to modify image contrast slightly and nudge image tones to slightly better values.

A small amount of local burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening) were performed to maximize the impact of local image areas. The most prominent modification involved dodging the pine cones and fern to increase their visual importance. This was done to break up the pattern of bare branches that occupied the majority of the image area.

I seldom sharpen images during editing and prefer to perform a small amount of global sharpening during printing using QImage print software. For the image discussed here, I applied more global sharpening than usual during printing because additional sharpening seemed to strengthen the print by helping the bare branches feel more real. Of course, that sharpening is not visible here since it is only present in prints.

After viewing the print for a few days, however, I noticed that my eyes seemed to fall off the edges of the print too readily so I decided to modify the image to achieve better control of eye movement. I concluded that the most effective way to help keep the viewer’s eyes from falling off the print edge was to increase the “presence” of  a dominant structural feature near the middle of the image – the trunk of the tree.

This was accomplished by selecting the tree trunk with the Magnetic Lasso tool in PhotoShop and then performing a moderate amount of contrast expansion and local sharpening within the trunk. These edits definitely helped draw eyes toward the image center and helped keep them away from the print edges. I was pleased that this relatively small image edit clearly resulted in a stronger image.

This is one of those images that has a really wonderful tonality. I love the tones of this image.

I have printed this photograph at several different sizes and it looks best to me when printed at medium size (e.g. 16 inch x 21 inch). Larger prints (e.g. 24 inch x 31 inch) seem less realistic to me. I can not explain why this is the case but suspect it may be because my walls are filled with large prints of enormous landscape scenes and a similar sized print of a single tree looks unrealistic next to the other prints. Small prints (e.g. 11 inch x 14 inch) of this image show less detail and look less impressive to me. However, I suspect that other people have views about print size for this image that are quite different than mine.


The intent of this photograph was to provide an intimate look at an ordinary tree in a setting which seemed “private.” Personally, I believe the image achieves that goal. 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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