PhotoShop Edits – View Atop The Jasper Tram

Introduction

A blog was posted on March 14, 2011 which discussed an image called, “View Atop The Jasper Tram.” In today’s post, we will look into one aspect of that image in more detail – PhotoShop edits.

Photography printing began in the wet darkroom for me and my approach to digital editing is a logical extension of those years. There probably are as many ways to approach digital image editing as there are people who edit and I can’t claim that my way is better than others. Take a look at the editing approach (and most importantly, the result) in today’s blog and let me know what you think.

Tiny images displayed on the web show little detail and the edits discussed today are much more obvious when large images are viewed. Hopefully, your monitor is adjusted reasonably well so you can see editing effects on the small images displayed here and today’s post gives you some good ideas for your own work.

Workflow

One sheet of 4inch x 5inch Kodak TriX black & white film was exposed at the scene using a dark yellow filter to cut atmospheric haze and increase structure in the clouds. The film was developed normally to produce a negative which placed dark foliage located in the valley on Zone II (very dark with little detail) and the brightest areas of snow on Zones VII-VIII (bright with some detail – very bright with little detail). The film was scanned to produce a digital file and then edited using PhotoShop before printing with a 44-inch wide inkjet printer.

Converting Film To A Digital File

A low resolution overview scan was quickly obtained from the film and then examined on the monitor of my drum scanner. Examination indicated that no scanner hardware adjustments were needed so standard scan conditions were used to acquire a high resolution digital image at 5,000 dpi and 16-bit pixel depth. The grey scale (i.e. not color) TIFF file size from the scanner was nearly 1 GB for the 4inch x 5inch black & white film.

Initial Evaluation

The high resolution TIFF file from the drum scanner was opened in PhotoShop and immediately saved as a PSB file (large document format) since TIFF files can be saved in PhotoShop only if their size is less than 4GB. My image files usually exceed the 4GB limit substantially since several adjustment layers are typically added to the 1 GB initial image.

My first editing step involved reducing the image size by cropping to discard unwanted portions of the digital file. The 4inch x 5inch scanned film was cropped to 3.744inch x 4.747inch which reduced the size of the black & white file to 888 MB. The cropped drum-scanned film is shown below without any adjustments.


I enlarged the cropped file to fill my 24 inch monitor and spent some time evaluating the image. My overall impression was that the photograph had good potential and could be strengthened using simple, straightforward editing. I jotted down eight editing goals on a slip of paper. These will be summarized briefly, PhotoShop actions which were used to achieve the goals will be discussed next and images will be provided to show the effects of each editing action.

Image Editing Goals

I usually identify a single dominant visual element for each photograph to help make editing decisions more specific. Identifying a dominant element usually is a critical first step in planning an edit strategy since it implies that other visual elements in the image should be subordinate to the dominant one. I thought the dominant element of today’s photograph was the single mountainside which entered the image from the left and occupied 2/3 of the image area. Other elements photo should enhance the mountainside rather than compete with it.

For example, the sky distracted visual attention from the mountainside so the first item placed on my editing list was to make sure that the visual strength of the sky was less than that of the dominant mountain. Note that I did not say that the sky should be weakened. Instead, the goal was for the mountainside to command the most visual attention and the sky to be secondary and not distract from the mountainside.

Second, the scene was physically deep front-to-back so another editing goal was to strengthen image depth to communicate the physical depth observed at the scene more effectively. When the photograph was composed at the scene, I deliberately included the foreground hump in the image to facilitate developing front-to-back image depth later. Thus, the hump will be edited to emphasize its location in front of the dominant mountainside. Similarly, the sunlit ridge and twin peaks slightly above and to the right of the image center required editing to emphasize their location behind the dominant mountainside. Developing front-to-back depth in the image is important to communicate the enormous depth that existed at the scene.

Third, the scene also was deep top-to-bottom so another editing goal was to strengthen top-to-bottom depth in the image. Note that the dark underside of some clouds exhibited tones that are similar to some areas of the mountainside. This caused the clouds to feel connected to the mountains even though I know they floated above the mountains at the scene. Editing was needed to develop a feeling that the clouds hovered above the mountains and brightening the dark underside of clouds is one way to separate the clouds from the mountains.

Another opportunity to develop top-to-bottom depth is to strengthen the the feeling that sunlight spills down the side of the mountain and splashes onto the bottom of the valley floor. Brightening sunlit areas ought to help accomplish that.

Fourth, the image had an overall “heavy” feel to me. Personally, I generally prefer photographs which exhibit strong illumination and a lightweight feel. Lightening some image tones with a global edit action may be the simplest way to develop a more lightweight feeling for this photograph.

A fifth editing goal is to make the sunlit snow feel blisteringly bright. I should point out that I intentionally produced a film which had the brightest areas of snow on Zones VII-VIII (bright with some detail – very bright with little detail) to retain detail so more editing options would be available later. During my initial evaluation with PhotoShop, however, I concluded that it would be fine to brighten most sunlit snow areas to Zone X (paper white with no detail) since the areas were quite small and detail was not needed except in very large prints.

Sixth, the direction of illumination was clearly evident at the scene but was not so evident in the image so another editing goal was to strengthen the feeling of illumination direction in the image. This can be achieved many ways including local brightening of tree and rock areas that are illuminated directly by bright sunlight.

Seventh, I noticed that my eyes fell off of the image edges quite strongly at several locations. The culprits for this in most images are areas which command visual attention near an image edge. I usually view this as highly undesirable since the areas detract visual attention from the dominant image element and they pull viewer’s eyes off of the image. Reducing the visual attention in those areas was another editing goal.

Lastly, a technical defect located near the lower left corner of the film needed repair in the image.

Levels Adjustment

My editing typically begins by creating a Levels Adjustment layer to get to know the image in a way that is analogous to printing exposure test strips on different contrast papers in the wet darkroom. The Levels Adjustment allows a convenient way to modify the gray level histogram to explore its effect on the image. Changes to the histogram are implemented only after I am convinced they will reduce the amount of subsequent editing that is required. That is, the image is adjusted globally to place more image tones closer to values that will address the editing goals previously identified so fewer editing steps are required subsequently.

For today’s photograph, the white point slider of the histogram was moved to brighten light image values and the black point slider of the histogram was moved to deepen dark image values. The result of the levels edit is shown below.

Brightening light tones made the direction of sunlight more evident and nudged sunlit snow slightly closer toward the blisteringly bright values that I desired. Deepening dark shadowed rock areas caused the mountains to feel more solid and made the feeling of sunlight stronger since shadowed areas contrasted more with sunlit areas. These changes made the dominant mountainside feel stronger and the image feel a bit deeper front-to-back and top-to-bottom.

Although the lightest and darkest image tones were improved by the levels adjustment, some intermediate tones were darkened enough to cause the image to feel heavier. For example, trees in the valley were darkened so they felt less alive than before the levels adjustment. Unwanted heaviness will be addressed with a curves adjustment which provides more control than a levels adjustment.

Curves Adjustment

A Curves Adjustment layer was created and the curves tool was used to globally modify intermediate tones without altering the brightest and darkest tones of the photograph. Set points were placed near both ends of the curve to keep the brightest and darkest tones intact while intermediate tones were nudged toward brighter values to reduce image heaviness. The result of the curve adjustment is shown in the following image.

Image heaviness was reduced substantially and luminosity was improved. Most notably, the presence of light was enhanced in shadowed areas of the dominant mountainside and valley as a result of lightening intermediate image tones. Improved luminosity strengthened the feeling of sunlight reaching into the valley and helped regain some of the life in trees that was lost during the levels adjustment.

Local Retouching

I usually create a separate adjustment layer to hold local retouching actions. This is accomplished by making a copy of the original cropped image layer, naming the new layer “Retouch” and then placing it directly above the original layer.

The first local retouching task involved repairing the large film defect near the lower left corner of the image. The image was enlarged substantially on the computer monitor and PhotoShop’s Dodge tool was used to carefully lighten the dark defect until it matched adjacent image areas. I usually get best results repairing a defect such as this when dodging is performed three times to lighten shadows, midtones and highlights separately. The following image shows the result of repairing the defect. An area of sunlit trees on the left image edge in the valley became more obvious once the film defect was repaired and was important for developing top-to-bottom depth by strengthening the feeling of sunlight splashing onto the valley floor.

The next retouching task involved editing image edges to keep viewer’s eyes from falling off of the image. Attention was directed first to the upper left corner where a little dark cloud is located next to a smaller bright cloud. The area has relatively high contrast and commands substantial visual attention so it effectively pulls the eye toward the corner of the image and away from the image interior.

Contrast in the area was reduced using PhotoShop’s Dodge and Burn tools to brighten the dark area and darken the bright area. Numerous other little areas of dark cloud along the top image edge also were brightened to reduce their visual attention. Comparing the previous image with the following image shows the result of editing the sky. The small edits have a substantial impact on eye movement and make the dominant mountain feel bigger.

Next, two small areas of snow on the foreground hump were darkened to reduce their visual importance. As before, the goal is to avoid distracting viewer’s eyes from the image interior. One area is located on the vertical image edge near the lower right corner and the other area is located on the bottom image edge. The image was enlarged considerably on the computer monitor and the Burn tool was used to darken both areas. Comparing the previous image with the following image shows that the edits were effective in keeping the eye from falling off of the lower image edge and distracting attention from the dominant mountainside.

Numerous sunlit areas were locally brightened to enhance the feeling of sunlight spilling down the mountains and splashing into the valley. The first area to be edited was the valley floor where the Dodge tool was used to brighten several sunlit areas. Next, small areas of sunlit snow located slightly above the middle of the right image edge were enlarged a bit to increase their visual importance. Next, I brightened the sunlit ridge in front of the twin peaks that are located slightly to the upper right of the image center. This edit strengthened the feeling of front-to-back depth in the image as well as the feeling of sunlight spilling down the mountains. Sunlit areas on the dominant mountainside directly in front of the sunlit ridge also were brightened to strengthen the feelings of spilling sunlight and front-to-back depth. The following image shows the results of these edits.

The Sky

The sky is an important element in this photograph. I used a dark yellow filter during film exposure to reduce atmospheric haze and increase structure in the clouds. Evaluating the image with PhotoShop made me realize that haze reduction was good but the cloud structure became a wee bit too strong since the clouds detracted from the mountains. Previous editing strengthened the mountains and helped reduce the distraction but I still felt that a better image would result if the clouds commanded less visual attention. Reducing the contrast of the clouds is one way to accomplish that.

Another problem with the sky was poor tonal separation between the clouds and mountains. Reducing cloud contrast and brightening the sky is a way to deal with this since it would brighten the darkest cloud tones which are the tones that merge with the mountains.

I used PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool to select the sky and then a Brightness/Contrast layer was added. After evaluating the effects of various adjustments, I settled on a very slight contrast decrease and slight brightness increase to make the sky more lightweight and achieve better tonal separation from the mountains. The effect of this adjustment can be seen by comparing the previous image with the following one.

Adjusting tones in the sky made the clouds feel more luminous, lightweight and seemed to lift them higher above the mountains which increased the feeling of top-to-bottom depth in the image. Better separation between the clouds and mountains were achieved and can be seen most clearly for the left peak of the twin peaks that are located slightly above and to the right of the image center. The sky adjustment made the mountains feel bigger to me.

The Foreground Hump

The broad hump in the foreground is an important compositional element for two reasons. First, the scene was deep front-to-back and the hump helps anchor the front of the scene. Second, the hump represents a closeup “sample” of the mountain structure. Including a “sample” in the near foreground allows viewers to see structural detail and then unconsciously ascribe the same structure to the rest of the mountains even though they are located too far away to reveal their structure. In effect, including a closeup “sample” allows the image to communicate more structure than it actually contains.

PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the foreground hump and then a Brightness/Contrast layer was added to modify the hump. I increased contrast slightly to emphasize the hump’s texture. This strengthened the impression that the hump was less obscured by atmospheric haze than the rest of the mountains and thus imparted a feeling that the hump was located closer to the viewer. The edit definitely enhanced front-to-back depth and allowed more texture to be unconsciously ascribed to the mountains far away. The result of the adjustment can be seen by comparing the previous image with the following one.

Unfortunately, limited detail can be seen in the low resolution web images displayed here but enough detail can hopefully be seen to appreciate the texture change produced by the edit action. As stated many times by many people, there is no substitute for actually viewing original art. In this case, seeing a large print of this image would show the effect of the adjustment very nicely.

Summary

PhotoShop edits were discussed for one image in considerable detail. Editing goals were identified and specific PhotoShop actions used to achieve the goals were discussed. The edits strengthened the image mood substantially, achieved better viewer eye movement, made the mountains feel bigger, improved front-to-back depth, improved top-to-bottom depth, enhanced the feeling of light spilling down the mountains and produced an image which is truer to the actual scene.

Any comments you might have about the image, editing techniques or the result of editing will be appreciated. I encourage you to take time to view a slightly larger version of the edited image by visiting the website at here.

Randall R Bresee

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