Aftermath Of The 1988 Fires In Yellowstone

The Scene

I had a chance to visit Yellowstone National Park in early 1989 which was shortly after the fires of 1988 left their mark. The fires burned enormous areas of the park and had a dramatic impact on its terrain. The burn was very complete in many areas and changed the experience of most park visitors by concentrating their activities at unburned regions of the park.

I stopped my car near a small area that had escaped the fires and observed a few hundred people crowded around a spectacular waterfall. Photographers seemed to cling to every rock in an effort to get a better view of the falls so I decided to return later when the light was better and the crowds were smaller.

A severely burned area stood across the road and I walked closer to take a better look at it. While standing alone looking at the bare, grey ash I couldn’t help but contrast the scene with the lush waterfall that was crowded with people across the road. Most of all, I was impressed by the stark beauty of the scene and thought that its gray palette was perfectly suited for black and white photography.


I decided that the starkness of the severely burned scene should be the subject of a photograph. The first decision was to identify the best camera location and I quickly faced the general direction of the sun since strong light “hardened” the image. I located an area of bright soil which could be the visual center of the photograph and noticed a bright tree close by which further strengthened a visual center. The position of the bright tree on the ground was especially good since it pointed directly away from the sun and reinforced the direction of tree shadows on the ground. The directional “monotony” created by the bright tree and the tree shadows seemed to contribute to the feeling of starkness.

I wanted to emphasize the barren soil to further develop the feeling of starkness so I composed an image with plenty of bare soil in the foreground. The strong sunlight helped me accomplish that since long tree shadows fell across the soil and served as “extensions” of the bare tree trunks to add visual interest to the large area of bare soil. That is, the shadows allowed me to compose an image with more bare soil than I normally would and I thought it helped develop the feeling of starkness.

To further emphasize starkness in an image, I placed the burned tree trunks very low on the tonal scale (Zone I) and marked the negative for N+1 development to raise the sunlit tree branches from Zone VI to Zone VII. I was certain that expanding image contrast in this manner would enhance the overall feeling of starkness in the photograph.

An f-stop of f/32 provided plenty of depth-of-field and my light meter told me that a shutter speed of 1/30 sec was required when Kodak Tri-X film (ASA 320) was exposed at f/32. I seldom expose more than one negative at a scene unless movement makes me worry that I might not have captured what I thought I captured. Even though the scene in front of me was eerily static, I exposed a second image just for insurance since I was excited by what lay before me. I thought about the scene later in the day and even returned the following day to expose two more negatives using a slower shutter speed and a smaller f-stop to obtain slightly more depth-of-field.


I scanned the four 4inch x 5inch negatives with a drum scanner at 5,000 ppi with 16-bit pixel depth. The digital images were all quite close to the image I had visualized at the scene so I was pleased with the choices that were made in the field.

As is nearly always the case when I expose more than one negative at a static scene, there was negligible difference between the four negatives. Exposing several negatives nearly always yields several poor and nearly identical negatives or several great but nearly identical negatives. I have learned to trust my technique since that time and now expose only a single negative for each scene except when movement introduces a considerable amount of uncertainty.

I selected the digital scan of one negative for work-up in PhotoShop. As usual, the first two edits were minor levels and curve adjustments to nudge image tones to slightly better values. Very few other image edits were required to achieve the stark mood that I desired to produce.

The most important edit was localized dodging (brightening) of the bright soil and bright horizontal tree trunk near the center of the image since those edits helped draw the eye toward the image center.

I generally perform little or no sharpening during capture, scanning or image editing and perform only modest sharpening during printing. However, test prints of this image showed that it was strengthened by more sharpening than usual since it helped emphasize texture and increased the feeling of starkness.

I have printed this image at several different sizes and it looks good at small or moderate sizes. To me, the image looks best at a moderate size (e.g. 20 inch x 26 inch).


The subject of this photograph was the stark terrain which remained after the great fires of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park. I think that increasing contrast of an already contrasty scene was a good approach to strengthen the feeling of starkness in the image. 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 the photograph, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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