PhotoShop Edits – Wall of Icicles

My previous blog (Exposure Records) discussed photographic exposure records and illustrated their use for a negative that was exposed on Clingmans Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The negative, titled “Icicles,” was scanned to produce a digital image file and today’s blog will examine PhotoShop edits for the image.

Tiny images presented on the web reveal little detail and many of the edits discussed today are fairly subtle but important. If your computer display is not calibrated, edits will be easier to see if you take a moment to adjust your display to show the full range of possible image tones, from deep black to bright white. It also might help to open two copies of this blog at the same time so images can be compared side-by-side or by toggling back-and-forth.

Summarizing Workflow

As stated in the previous blog, one sheet of 4inch x 5inch Tri-X black & white negative film was exposed at the scene and developed N+2 to expand image contrast two f-stops. A digital file was acquired from the negative by drum scanning and the file was edited using PhotoShop. When editing was completed, the image was printed with a 44-inch wide inkjet printer through QImage.

Acquiring A Digital Image

Standard scan conditions were used to acquire a high resolution digital image at 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth. The image file size from the film was nearly 1 GB so the first editing step involved cropping to discard unusable portions of the image to reduce the file size. The 4inch x 5inch image was cropped to 3.754inch x 4.427inch which reduced the file size to 831 MB. The cropped image of the drum-scanned negative is shown below as it was obtained directly from the scanner without any adjustments.

Image Evaluation

My overall impression of the cropped image from the scanner was that it was good technically and contained many interesting geometric shapes. However, my eyes seemed to wander aimlessly through the image so it was clear that eye movement needed more “purpose.” I concluded that the image could be strengthened with simple editing actions.

Before editing beyond simple cropping, I usually spend some time looking at the image on my largest computer display to develop an overall editing goal and identify editing actions required to achieve the goal. When composing photographs at scenes I normally try to identify a dominant image element for each photograph. Once I have time to study photographs on the computer display at home I refine my notion of a photograph’s dominant image element. This has proven to be invaluable for articulating an overall editing goal and often helps identify the need for specific editing actions which might not be obvious.

The photograph discussed today was a bit unusual because I thought it contained two (rather than one) dominant image elements. Both were composed of the same material (ice), illuminated by the same light (indirect skylight) and located the same distance from the camera. However, they differed greatly in terms of geometric shape.

One group of objects consisted of straight icicles which were uniformly aligned in the vertical direction and terminated in fine, sharp points. The icicles were geometrically simple and uniform in shape. The other group of objects consisted of wonderfully complex ice “shelves” which varied greatly in shape. In contrast to icicles, ice shelves were thick, curved and tilted at various angles from the horizontal direction.

When I was at the scene making this exposure I identified the dominant image element to be the straight, uniform icicles. I deliberately included ice shelves in the composition but only to support the icicle structures. When evaluating the image on a computer display at home, however, I realized that an opportunity existed to contrast the geometry of two distinctly different objects (icicles and ice shelves) in the photograph.

I liked this idea and defined my overall editing goal to be differentiating and contrasting the icicles and ice shelves. I suspected that this approach would have the greatest impact if neither group of objects dominated the other so I made a note to give the two objects relatively equal strength. These thoughts provided a definite direction to editing.

As I continued to evaluate the image the need to perform several other editing tasks became apparent. While making the exposure at the scene, I recognized that the subject was physically shallow front-to-back so I made a note to look for editing opportunities to “deepen” the image. I noted that the image would benefit from having plenty of light to make the ice feel clean and bright. I made a note to look for ways to help the ice look colder and harder.

Lastly, I thought that image edges were too distracting since they pulled my eyes off of the photograph so I made a note to strengthen viewer eye movement through the image.

This completed my image evaluation. An overall editing goal was articulated and specific editing actions were identified to achieve the goal. Now, I was ready to begin editing.

Levels Adjustment

I typically begin editing with a simple global Levels adjustment to reduce the amount of subsequent editing that is needed. A Levels adjustment layer was opened for the cropped image from the scanner and it showed that pixel gray levels ranged from 10 to 255 on a scale of 0 to 255.

The darkest pixels of the image exhibited a gray level of 10 so no pure black pixels were present in the image. Consequently, the first Levels adjustment to be explored was movement of the black slider and it quickly became apparent that the image was strengthened by moving the slider from 0 to a gray level of 32. This adjustment added visual weight to the dark recesses in the ice and seemed to add depth to the relatively flat wall of ice. Of course, some details were lost in the darkest areas since image pixels with gray levels from 10 to 32 were now rendered pure black. However, the areas that became pure black were small and the advantage from achieving greater image depth exceeded the loss of structural detail in the areas.

Quite a few pixels were very bright and some were pure white (255). Pixels near the bright end of the gray level histogram actually looked a bit too bright so no change was made to the bright Levels slider. In fact, I made a note to slightly darken the near-white pixels later using a Curve adjustment.

The result of the Levels edit is shown below.

The Levels adjustment increased image contrast because the range of pixel gray levels was changed from 10-255 to 0-255. The loss of structural detail in the darkest image areas was inconsequential since the areas were small. Strengthening the dark areas caused the photograph to appear to have more front-to-back depth and caused the icicles feel slightly sharper and harder.

On the other hand, the image felt heavier and this needed to be addressed with a curve adjustment. A Curve adjustment also could be used to slightly darken the near-white pixels

Curve Adjustment

A Curve adjustment layer was opened and placed directly above the Levels adjustment layer. Different curve modifications were made for dark, bright and midtone pixels.

For the dark image regions, it was desirable to reduce image heaviness while preserving the “crispness” which resulted from the Levels adjustment. This was accomplished by preserving pure blacks in the image but slightly brightening other dark tones. That is, pure black and nearly pure black pixels (0-5) were not changed but the curve was bent upward for other dark pixels (6-150). Pixels near the midpoint of the 6-150 range were brightened most (as much as 12 gray levels) whereas pixels near both ends of the range were brightened least (1-2 gray levels).

For the bright image regions, it was desirable to darken the brightest pixels without reducing the feeling of bright light that is characteristic of ice. This was accomplished by preserving pure whites in the image but slightly darkening other bright pixels. That is, pure white pixels (255) were not changed but the curve was bent downward for other bright pixels (187-254). The brightest pixels in this range (near 254) were darkened most (as much as 16 gray levels) whereas pixels near the darkest end of the range (near 187) were darkened least (1-2 gray levels).

For pixels in the intermediate image regions (151-186), the curve was not changed.

The result of the curve adjustment is shown below.

The Curve adjustment reduced heaviness in the image and caused the ice to feel more like it is the result of interconnected ice rather than a collection of individual icicles and ice shelves.

Local Retouching

The original cropped image from the scanner was copied, named “Retouch” and inserted directly above the original image layer. All of the following retouching was performed in this layer.

The first retouching task was aimed at reducing the visual weight of areas which pull viewer’s eyes off the image. For example, the small triangular bright area located at the lower left corner of the previous image was burned (darkened) to match surrounding pixels. Similarly, numerous areas near the corners and edges of the image were burned or dodged (brightened) to reduce their visual weight. These actions improved viewer eye movement through the image substantially. They also further strengthened the feeling that the photograph was interconnected ice rather than individual icicles and ice shelves.

The image required quite a bit of additional retouching to further improve viewer eye movement, enhance ice structure, and render icicles and ice shelves equally strong. Large sections were dodged or burned to encourage the eye to visit the whole canvas. That is, an effort was made to more-or-less even out the visual “energy” of different image areas.

Next, individual ice objects were dodged or burned so the icicles and ice shelves would possess similar visual strength. In particular, rounded tops on ice shelves and bright vertical lines on icicles were edited to distribute visual energy over the ice more evenly.

This image required a lot of local retouching but it was very beneficial. The effects of retouching can be seen by comparing the retouched image shown below with the previous image.

It is clear that viewer eye movement was improved substantially. Retouching allows the eye to travel easily over the entire canvas. Viewer’s eyes have a tendency to return to the center of the photograph. This occurs because the center contains a large dark area which contrasts with prominent bright icicles and ice shelves located near the dark area. I think that locating this contrast close to the image center helps anchor eye movement within the image more effectively than locating it elsewhere in the image.

I am very happy with the way retouching distributed energy over all sections of the canvas. To me, this makes the photograph sparkle with a look of clean ice as it did at the scene when the negative was exposed. Comparing the original scanned image to the final retouched image shows that the visual strength of the ice shelves was increased more than icicles. This was done to achieve similar visual strengths for the two elements to facilitate contrast between them. The overall effect for me was a photograph that is considerably more interesting since it contrasts the geometrically simple icicles (thin, uniformly straight, aligned vertically) and the geometrically complex ice shelves (thick, nonuniform, curved, aligned at various angles from the horizon).


I seldom sharpen images globally during editing and prefer to sharpen during printing instead (I print through QImage). This approach makes sense to me since the amount of sharpening that is appropriate for most images depends on print size. Sharpening during printing allows me to store a single image file and then perform the appropriate amount of sharpening to each print regardless of its size.

As I make test prints during image editing, the amount of sharpening is varied to help determine the appropriate amounts needed. Only modest sharpening is performed while printing most images but more aggressive sharpening was used when printing today’s image. Sharpening enhanced the fine, sharp points at the end of icicles. It also helped icicles look more solid because sharpening strengthened the thin bright lines that highlight each side of individual icicles. Unfortunately, these effects can’t be shown in this blog because sharpening is only applied while printing.

Please remember that all edits are much more obvious when viewing a large print than when viewing a tiny image displayed on the web. As has been said by many people for many years, there is no substitute for seeing an original work of art!

I have printed this photograph at several different sizes and it looks good at nearly any size. My personal favorite print size for this image is approximately 25 inch x 22 inch since this size shows an impressive amount of detail and the icicles look razor sharp.


This blog post discusses PhotoShop edits for an image introduced in the previous blog. Even though I was very happy with image capture at the scene, extensive editing was performed to strengthen the image. The effects of editing are shown in several images.

Any comments you might have about the image, techniques used for editing or the results of editing will be appreciated. For a larger view of this photograph, visit my website at  and click on the “Galleries” tab. Look in the “Smoky Mountains” gallery and then click on the image itself (Wall of Icicles). It may be necessary to click on the image twice to view it at its largest size.

Randall R Bresee

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