Natural Bridge Over The Kicking Horse River

The Scene

The natural bridge over the Kicking Horse River is a spectacular example of the power of moving water. The considerable volume of the river descends into a large hole which the water cut through rock to continue flowing downstream. A thick rock ledge remaining above the hole has served as a natural bridge over the river for many hundreds of years.

For me, the obvious theme of a photograph at this location should be the enormous volume of river water descending ferociously into the hole. Another thematic element came into play however. I often try to include things in photographs which are important but may not be obviously tangible at a scene. As I admired the natural bridge, I felt that I could sense spirits of early people who crossed the river for hundreds of years. Their well-worn footpath (on the right) provided me with a way to include the presence of these early people in my photograph.


A slightly wide-angle 120 mm lens (150 mm is “normal” for a 4inch x 5inch camera) was selected and the camera was pointed directly at the big hole. Then I turned the camera left to capture the full width of the river reflecting plenty of sunlight from it’s surface to draw viewer attention to the large volume of water in the river. Finally, the camera was carefully turned toward the right until the footpath was included in the image.

I acquired a few light meter readings from the scene and placed the darkest tree shadows on Zones I-II (nearly black – very dark with slight detail). This caused the sunlit trees and sunlit rocks to fall on Zone V (middle gray), sunlit sand to fall on Zone VII (light gray with plenty of detail) and sunlit whitewater to fall on Zones IX-X (nearly white without detail – pure white with no detail).

The sunlit whitewater clearly needed considerable detail in the image since the dominant subject of the photograph was water descending into the hole. Consequently, I marked the negative for N-2 development to darken the sunlit whitewater two f-stops to Zones VII-VIII (light gray with plenty of detail – bright with slight detail).

A shutter speed of 1/125 sec was selected to more-or-less freeze the splashing water and this shutter speed required an f-stop of f/16. I was concerned that f/16 would not provide sharp focus through the whole scene so I tilted the lens of my view camera slightly forward to reposition the slice of sharp focus closer to where it was needed in the scene.

I usually spend some time watching movements at a scene before exposing film in an effort to determine if rhythms exist that can be used to “time” the exposure. Water flow into the hole at this scene, however, was far too fast and chaotic to time its movement so I based shutter release on only two areas of water.

One area was the wall of water in the foreground that pushed toward the near bank at relatively slow speed. The wall was important because it was surprisingly thick and could help anchor the foreground in the photograph. At the last moment, I lowered the camera somewhat to emphasize the foreground wall more and help create a feeling of depth in the image.

The other area was the water splash near the edge of the hole to the left of rocks which extended into the river from the right. I thought this relatively small but energetic splash might help draw visual attention to the enormous amount of energy that was spent in the hole pushing water downstream.

My plan for timing the shutter release was to wait until a nice, thick wall of relatively slow moving water began to push toward the bank and then shift my eyes to the near edge of the hole. I would release an shutter when the energetic splash at the edge of the hole reached its apex. Basing shutter release only on these two areas was a practical but effective way to deal with the problem of timing lots of complex water movement at the scene.

I normally expose only a single negative at each scene but two black and white negatives were exposed here to be certain that I captured water movement properly.


Previewing the 4inch x 5inch film on my drum scanner indicated that the negative was pretty good. I instructed the scanner to acquire a high resolution digital file at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth.

I usually open an image file in PhotoShop and display it as large as possible on my big monitor to spend time thinking about the image before beginning editing.

I was happy to see that the camera position at the scene had been quite good. Facing the sun to illuminate the river’s surface and then turning the camera toward the right to capture the footpath worked out well. The bright sunlit water seemed to draw visual attention initially upstream to the enormous volume of water carried by the river. Then the energetic descent of water into the hole seemed to pull the eye to the chaos of the hole and eventually further right to the footpath which rested peacefully near the right edge of the image. I thought the foreground was visually interesting and provided considerable depth to the photograph.

Unfortunately, I noticed one technical error that resulted from carelessness during exposure. When I viewed the image on the ground glass of my view camera at the scene, I didn’t notice that tree tops in the upper left corner of the image lacked sharp focus. To avoid focus errors such as this I use magnifying eyeglasses to scan every bit of the ground glass for problems but apparently I missed the focus problem in this negative. Fortunately, the error was not large enough to ruin the negative and was small enough to ignore.

Overall, I was pleased with the photograph and believed that it had good potential. I developed a general plan for strengthening the image with PhotoShop and began my editing work.

Image areas which needed editing most were the dark areas of shaded trees. These were brightened locally using PhotoShop’s Dodge tool with the “shadows” option selected for the tool’s range.

Next, a global curve edit was performed. A curve adjustment layer was opened and the image was sampled to identify gray levels which corresponded to areas of sunlit trees and sunlit rocks. The areas were brightened moderately by bending a narrow portion of the curve upward for the sampled gray levels. Brighter areas of the curve (whitewater) and darker areas of the curve (shadows) were not changed. This edit substantially increased the feeling of sunlight at the scene.

Several small areas were brightened locally using PhotoShop’s Dodge tool. One side of the mist cloud above the hole was brightened very slightly to add more energy to the hole. The footpath on the far right was brightened to increase its presence. Sunlit portions of some rocks were brightened very slightly. Finally, a few highlights on sunlit branches of trees were brightened moderately.

Next, the image foreground was strengthened. PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the whole foreground including shadows on the sand where the wall of water blocked direct sunlight. A Curve adjustment layer was opened for the selection and the straight line curve was converted to an S shape by bending the curve downward for darker tones and upward for brighter tones.

This adjustment increased contrast in the foreground considerably by darkening dark tones and lightening bright tones. In particular, the shadow below the entire length of the water wall was strengthened and sand was brightened near the left half of the wall where sunlight reflected off the wall. Increasing contrast in these areas directed considerably more visual attention to the wall of water. The texture of sand and gravel in the foreground also became better defined.

Next, the foreground was tweaked using PhotoShop’s Burn and Dodge tools. A few shadowed areas under the water wall were darkened more to draw additional attention to the wall. A few bright areas of sand next to the left half of the wall where sunlight reflected off the wall were brightened more to further emphasize the wall.

All of these foreground edits strengthened the foreground considerably. This was important because a strong foreground generally enhances the feeling of depth in landscape photographs.

It is worth noting that the water in this image remained completely untouched during editing. Obtaining good light meter readings at the scene and darkening bright tonal values of the water using N-2 film development worked quite well. Without these actions the sunlit water would block, shadows would block or both would block and the negative would have been unusable.

I record an exposure record for every negative that I expose. The record contains information about light meter readings, zone placements, development instructions and many other important details. This information has proven to be invaluable for improving my photographic technique. As soon as I have test prints available I examine each test print and exposure record to evaluate my technique.

For the photograph discussed today, the evaluation indicated that I should have placed shadowed areas one half an f-stop higher and then reduced film development time by an additional one half an f-stop (to N-2.5). This change would have have brightened the dark shaded tree areas and produced a slightly stronger image. Reducing negative development times substantially to achieve fairly large contrast reductions often affects darker tones as well as brighter tones. Sometimes I forget to take that into account as I did here.

I have printed this image to several different sizes and it looks great at nearly any size. The image contains much detail that is not visible in smaller prints so larger prints look more impressive than smaller prints to me.


The subject of this photograph is the entire volume of the entire Kicking Horse River descending ferociously into a large hole to form a natural bridge that was used for many hundreds of years as a crossing. I believe the image does justice to the subject matter.

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 my website at and click on the “Galleries” tab, look in the “Western Canada” gallery and then click on the image itself (Natural Bridge Over Kicking Horse River). More details can be seen in a larger image displayed on my website but it may be necessary to click on the image twice to view its largest size.

Randall R Bresee