Oneonta Gorge

The Scene

During their historic transcontinental journey through the western USA in the early 1800’s, Lewis and Clark described the Columbia River as “incredible.” Much of­ the scenery they saw has been covered by water from hydroelectric dams but the river continues to drain an enormous land area and remains the largest waterway in western North America. I have always been fascinated by Lewis and Clark’s journey and wanted to take a firsthand look at the river which impressed them so strongly. I had an opportunity to visit the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area with my camera a few years ago and was delighted to see that, in spite of numerous dams, the area remains an incredible waterway that is loaded with natural beauty.

Several small gorges feed the river and my favorite is the subject of today’s blog – Oneonta Gorge. Most visitors to Oneonta Gorge hike to its far end to visit a waterfall. I focused my attention on the nearest end of the gorge where the chasm is sculpted by gorgeous land shapes and bathed by soft sunlight. I was moved most by the lush light which gently descends to the bottom of the gorge to produce opulent plant growth so I decided to acquire a black and white photograph with this theme.


Developing front-to-back depth in this photograph was important in order to provide a sense that the gorge continues far beyond the camera’s view. Consequently, a 210 mm lens (150 mm is “normal” for a 4inch x 5inch camera) was placed on my camera and the tripod was positioned directly in front of a pile of logs which were jammed across the gorge. Including the log pile in this photograph anchored the near foreground and definitely helped communicate front-to-back image depth.

Communicating top-to-bottom deepness in the gorge and developing clear recognition that light descends from high above also was important. I was fortunate that the log pile helped communicate top-to-bottom depth in the photograph. Logs in the pile look much larger than the single log which spans the chasm high above so logs on the creek floor helped viewers sense that the single log above was indeed far away. The large logs resting quietly on the creek floor also amplify the feeling that the log high above has only a tenuous grip on the gorge walls. Tension such as this usually is good in photographs.

The dominant theme of this photograph was lush light descending into the chasm so it was important for viewers to feel the presence of light as much as possible. When scenes require a strong presence of light, I often select an exposure which places tonal values slightly higher (brighter) on the tonal scale than usual.

I acquired a few light meter readings from the scene and placed the dark foliage of the near right wall on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray with well-separated texture) rather than Zone III (dark with good texture). I was happy when my light meter showed that the brightest light at the top of the chasm fell on Zone VII (bright with some detail) and other important areas of the scene fell suitably high on the tonal scale. Consequently, I marked the exposure record for normal (N) film development.

The air in the gorge was still so I was free to use any shutter speed that I desired. I selected an exposure of 1/2 sec with an f-stop of f/32 to obtain plenty of depth-of-field since it was important to emphasize details in the trees, ferns and small plants. One negative was exposed and I was confident that the scene was exposed properly and sharp focus was achieved from front-to-back and top-to-bottom.


The image from my 4inch x 5inch black and white negative looked good on the drum scanner display so I instructed the scanner to acquire a high resolution digital file with my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth. I opened the image file in PhotoShop and spent some time looking at it. I was happy to see that the camera position at the scene had been good, image tones were good and the photograph was sharply focused throughout the scene. Next, I turned my attention to developing a list of editing goals.

The theme of lush light and especially its descent down the gorge walls needed to be emphasized. The log pile in the foreground needed to be drawn forward to enhance front-to-back depth. The viewer needed to be drawn toward the back of the gorge more strongly. Finally, the opulence of plants needed to be emphasized, if possible.

A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened first and pixels in the image were seen to occupy all gray levels of the histogram (a scale of 0 to 255). I moved the white slider of PhotoShop’s histogram from 255 to 244 to lighten bright areas of the image. This added more “energy” to bright areas and increased the presence of sunlight at the top of the gorge.

Next, a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened to brighten dark image areas. Pure black pixels (gray level of 0) and pixels brighter than 154 were not changed but other pixels with gray levels darker than 155 were brightened by bending the 2-154 curve section upward. Pixels with a gray level of 43 were brightened most (brightened to 65) whereas both ends of the curve section were brightened least. For example, pixels with a gray level of 2 were brightened only to 3 and pixels with a gray level of 154 were brightened only to 155. Brightening dark pixels in this manner increased the presence of light in the gorge interior.

Next, front-to-back image depth was strengthened by drawing foreground areas forward. I employed a simple technique that I use fairly commonly for this purpose which simply involves increasing the texture of a few select scene areas closest to the camera.

A Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer was opened and PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the nearest hill face on both sides of the gorge as well as the large log pile in the center. Contrast in the selected areas was increased moderately and brightness was decreased a little (to keep bright pixels from becoming too bright). Increasing the texture of areas closest to the camera strengthens the perception that those areas are located closer to the viewer because the brain interprets the ability to see more details in the areas as evidence that they are closer.

The previous Brightness/Contrast adjustment increased the texture of foreground logs but a test print showed that the logs did not feel “solid” enough so an adjustment was performed to remedy this. Another Levels Adjustment Layer was opened and PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the foreground logs. Pixel gray levels for the logs were modified by moving the black slider of PhotoShop’s histogram from a gray level of 0 to 2 to slightly increase the number of pixels which were totally black. Similarly, the white slider was moved from 255 to 226 to slightly increase the number of pixels which were totally white. These adjustments enhanced the log’s structure and made them feel more solid.

Lastly, I strengthened the presence of sunlight on the gorge walls and creek bed. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was copied, renamed “Retouch” and inserted directly above the original layer. PhotoShop’s Dodge tool was used to manually brighten some areas of the gorge walls near the center of the gorge to emphasize light which bounced off of the walls as it descended into the gorge.

Brightening small areas of the creek bed and the larger triangle area just above the creek bed helped draw viewers toward the back of the gorge. These edits seemed to be quite effective at inviting viewers to walk into the gorge beyond the camera’s view.

Another area was dodged because of its influence on front-to-back depth. The gorge walls are basically vertical except on the right side close to the camera. Here, a nearly horizontal ledge-like portion of the wall just above the log jam curls clockwise while moving away from the camera before climbing up the wall. Brightening the sunlit areas of this ledge draws more viewer attention to it and helps strengthen front-to-back depth.

The two large plant clumps near the top right corner of the image also were dodged slightly to lift viewer’s eyes to the top of the crevasse toward the important log which spans the gorge.

I have printed this image to several different sizes and it looks best to me when printed fairly large because the image contains many floral details that are not visible in small prints. These details help communicate the opulence of plants and strengthen the feeling that soft, lush light reaches into the bottom of the gorge.


The subject of this photograph is lush light which gently descends into Oneonta Gorge to produce opulent plant growth. I believe that prints of the photograph do justice to the scene.

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 USA” gallery and then click on the image itself (Oneonta Gorge). Small details in the ferns and other plants are important to this image and they can be seen more clearly in a larger image displayed on my website.

Randall R Bresee