Johnson Lake

The Scene

Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada, is loaded with spectacular scenery. People who enjoy seeing or photographing scenic beauty should think about having a long visit there. If you are interested in seeing more photographs from this park, visit the gallery named “Western Canada” at my website

The town of Banff lies inside the park and is a source for food, fuel and lodging as well as a convenient location to launch photographic adventures. The Minnewanka Loop Road just outside of Banff town-site takes visitors to Johnson Lake where scenery offers good photographs in any season.

I drove the Minnewanka Loop one day to have a look at Johnson Lake. I left my camera and tripod in the car but had a viewing frame on a string around my neck as I walked to the water’s edge to hunt for a potential photograph. A viewing frame provides an inexpensive and convenient way to locate and refine compositions without a camera.

The function of a viewing frame is to help photographers visually isolate subject matter. This is especially useful when photographing large complex subjects like landscapes. I first learned about viewing frames through Ansel Adam’s writings where he explained that one can be made quickly by cutting a hole through cardboard with proportions that are the same as your camera format (e.g. 2 1/4 x 2 1/4, 4 x 5 or 5 x 7). I often find myself in difficult weather while photographing so I purchased a viewing frame with the hole cut through plastic rather than cardboard. I shoot 4inch x 5inch film so the hole in my frame is proportional to 4×5 and measures approximately 1 1/8 inch x 1 3/8inch. Since I shoot black & white, a yellow filter is mounted in the hole of my frame to render scenes nearly monochromatic to help visualize them in black & white more easily.

The key to the usefulness of a viewing frame is its simplicity. It allows the photographer to climb over rocks, wade in water or run up a steep hill to “try out” various camera locations without carrying a camera. Once a camera position is located, the viewing frame can help refine a composition quickly.

The convenience of carrying a nearly weightless viewing frame rather than a heavy camera and tripod isn’t the biggest advantage of a viewing frame. Its greatest value is helping the photographer make better compositions. Looking through a hole in cardboard (or plastic) rather than the viewfinder of a camera allows the photographer to concentrate on composing an image without being distracted by lens focus or buttons and knobs of a camera. As simple as it sounds, freeing the mind to more readily see what lies in front of you is a very powerful thing.

It is fair to say that I probably would not have captured the photograph discussed in today’s blog if I had not used a viewing frame.


While standing on the bank of Johnson Lake, my eyes saw an enormous scene that included water, trees, mountains, haze and a haphazard array of clouds in the sky. The scene was beautiful but a strong photographic composition did not stand out to me. Next, I placed the viewing frame a foot or so in front of my eyes and scanned the scene again. While moving the frame through the landscape, it isolated an area which included the end of a single long cloud.

The composition jilted me with its combination of top-bottom symmetry and left-right asymmetry. While looking at the landscape without the frame, it didn’t occur to me to include only a small part of a single cloud in a photograph. The frame isolated the cloud from the big landscape to create an exciting composition.

The composition I saw through the viewing frame created one of those “oooo” moments that sent me scrambling back to the car for my tripod and camera bag as fast as I could. Using a large tripod-mounted view camera definitely takes more time than using a small hand-held camera. Fortunately, the clouds were barely moving so I thought I had a chance to acquire a photograph before the scene changed appreciably.

Experience told me that a 210 mm lens was appropriate so I rapidly attached it to the camera and composed an image which looked nearly the same as the composition I saw through the viewing frame. I took a brief moment to refine the composition in the camera to emphasize the theme of the photograph – a combination of top-bottom symmetry and left-right asymmetry. I locked all camera controls and paused to take another brief look at the scene.

The bright cloud was the key to this photograph and I decided to use a medium yellow contrast filter with black and white film. I expected the filter to strengthen structures within the cloud, darken the blue sky to separate the cloud from the sky better and reduce the haze somewhat to make the mountains feel more solid.

I nervously took another quick look at the cloud and was amazed that it had not moved appreciably since I first saw it. I was encouraged but thought I should hurry as much as possible before the scene changed. I retrieved the yellow filter from my camera bag and held it over my light meter to acquire light meter readings from the scene directly through the filter.

Since I needed to hurry, I acquired readings from only two key areas of the scene – the darkest and brightest areas that required at least some detail in the image. I placed dark shadows of the dark trees on Zone II (very dark with little detail) and that caused the brightest areas of the cloud to fall on Zone VIII (very bright with little detail).

The cloud was key to the photograph and required more than a little detail so I marked the negative for N-1 development. Reducing negative development time from “Normal” to “Normal minus one zone” would move the brightest parts of the cloud from Zone VIII (very bright with little detail) to Zone VII (bright with some detail).

I glanced at the scene again and saw water moving slowly on the surface of the lake so I looked at the many exposure choices provided by the light meter and selected a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the water movement. The exposure selected was 1/8 sec at f/32-45 (read as half way between f/32 and f/45). I hastily attached the yellow filter to the camera lens, inserted a film holder in the back of the camera and exposed one sheet of 4inch x 5inch black & white film.


The preview image for the 4inch x 5inch negative on my drum scanner seemed a bit heavy and looked like it could benefit from more detail in the trees. Consequently, I opened a Curve in the scanner and bent it slightly to brighten dark and midtone areas of the image. Then, I instructed the scanner to acquire a high resolution digital file with my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth.

The image looked pretty good in PhotoShop. There were plenty of details in the dark tree areas and the bright cloud areas. I thought the top-bottom symmetry and left-right asymmetry were both quite strong. I was especially pleased at how the cloud contributed to both symmetry and asymmetry. Overall, the image possessed a powerfully awkward yet delicate mood.

I opened Levels and Curve layers in PhotoShop and made quick adjustments to nudge tones slightly closer to where I wanted them.

Next, I concentrated on darkening and lightening local image areas using PhotoShop’s Burn and Dodge tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was copied, renamed “Retouch” and inserted directly above the original layer to contain the burn and dodge edits.

The yellow filter used during exposure at the scene helped darken the blue sky but the upper left sky area remained too bright. PhotoShop’s Burn tool was used to slightly darken the left half of the sky to level sky tones a bit. This pushed viewer’s eyes lower and to the right. I dodged portions of the cloud in the sky to increase its luminosity and achieve more tonal separation from other scene components. The cloud’s reflection in the water also is an important image component.

We know that any reflection is less bright than the original object so I usually render reflections slightly darker than the reflecting object. However, that was not done for the cloud because both cloud areas (cloud in sky and reflection in lake) needed to contribute to luminosity on the right side of the image to strengthen left-right asymmetry. Consequently, the cloud’s reflection was burned to similar tonal values as the cloud in the sky.

The large rock in the lower left quadrant was dodged to increase its presence. The top of the rock was brightened more aggressively than its sides to strengthen the feeling of bright sunlight at the scene.

Next, my attention was turned to the dark trees which enter the image from the left. The trees needed more visual life but it was important for the darkest tones of this tree group to remain dark to anchor the image tonally. On the other hand, mid and light tones of the trees could be brightened to increase tonal vitality. Fortunately, PhotoShop’s Dodge tool provides a Range Menu to target shadows, midtones or highlights individually during dodging.

I opened the Range Menu and selected “Midtones” before dodging the dark tree group. When finished, the Range Menu was opened again and “Highlights” were selected before dodging some of the areas again. These actions caused the darkest tones to remain dark whereas mid and bright tones were lightened so the tonal vitality of the tree group was improved. When I was satisfied with the dark group of trees, I brightened their reflection in the lake similarly.

Attention was directed next to the group of trees which enter the image from the right. This tree group was bathed in direct sunlight at the scene and I brightened the trees slightly in the image to strengthen the feeling of sunlight. Reflections in the lake from this tree group were brightened similarly. I thought that increasing the presence of sunlight in this tree group was important because of its location between the cloud in the sky and the cloud’s reflection in the water. That is, left-right asymmetry was strengthened by increasing the presence of light on the right side of the image as much as possible.

Additional attention was directed to the right half of the photograph. Numerous small areas near the image center were brightened to visually separate the top and bottom halves of the image more clearly. Areas included two thin lines in the water, brush at water’s edge below the tree group which enters the image from the right, brush at water’s edge below the tree group to the right of image center, and the grassy bank at the center of the image. These actions helped articulate the top-bottom symmetry line better and also strengthened left-right asymmetry by increasing the presence of light on the right side of the image.

Sunlight streaked across a narrow portion of the tree group to the right of the image centerline. The Dodging tool was used to brighten the streak and its reflection in the lake to further increase the presence of sunlight in the right side of the image.

Finally, the low, broad dark hump directly above the light streak was darkened slightly to add a bit more depth.

I have printed this image to several different sizes and it looks best to me at a moderate size (e.g. 16inch x 20inch). Although I am happy with the photograph, I don’t feel I have found the best paper for printing the image. Ah, the paper chase continues!


The theme of this photograph is a landscape scene which possesses a combination of top-bottom symmetry and left-right asymmetry. I think the image is strong and has a clean look that is appropriate for the sun drenched landscape I saw from the bank of Johnson Lake. 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 my website at  and click on the “Galleries” tab, look in the “Western Canada” gallery and then click on the image itself (Johnson Lake).

Randall R Bresee