Low Clouds Near Clingmans Dome

The Scene

Driving through high elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is inspiring. I have often been amazed by the beauty of low clouds nestled in valleys but had not photographed them. Somehow I never had my camera when I saw them because I was driving visitors through the park or traveling somewhere in a hurry. I was determined to capture a good image of low clouds in the park.

I knew that early morning was the best time to view low clouds in valleys since the sun’s heat usually dissipates them later in the day. I also knew the clouds are fairly common near one of the highest areas of the park, Clingmans Dome. My camera and I finally arrived at the Clingmans Dome parking area at daybreak one October morning. A surprising number of cars were already parked and nearly all belonged to photographers. There must have been twenty people with cameras in hand watching as darkness slowly lifted. I was the last photographer to arrive.

I was familiar with the light at Clingmans Dome so I left my camera in the car and walked leisurely with my viewing frame while looking for a good place to set up my gear. Most photographers were snapping pictures in the dim, flat light and I wondered how many images they would accumulate before the sun reached the mountain crest to bathe the low clouds in bright light.

I found a place to set up and pointed my view camera toward a huge mass of clouds filling a large valley. The clouds completely blanketed the valley and no terrain was visible between the mountain tops on both sides of it. It was far too early to acquire the photo I wanted so I enjoyed watching the other photographers work.

The sun finally rose over the mountain crest to the east and splashed bright light onto the clouds in the valley. People took advantage of the speed of digital cameras and acquired images so rapidly that I’ll bet 400-500 photos were obtained during the next five minutes.

I have to admit that their high level of excitement shook my confidence and I wondered if I was missing something. I studied the developing scene but decided that a better photo would result if I waited. It is fascinating how people can look at the same thing but see it very differently.

Composition

During the next thirty minutes, the photographers departed one-by-one and I stood alone watching the scene develop before me. The warming sun caused the cloud mass to slowly shrink during the next hour and enough clouds were burned off to finally reveal the first mountain top within the valley.

I thought that waiting for more mountain tops to emerge from the cloud blanket would make the image better. Showing more mountains was appropriate for a photograph in a mountainous national park and they would visually break up the huge cloud mass. I also thought that including more mountain tops would reduce the image area occupied by the very bright clouds so image editing might be a bit easier. This thought was based on previous experience trying to produce prints from scenes having a large area occupied by extremely bright or extremely dark objects which require structure. In these cases, small tonal changes can push very bright objects into structureless white or dirty gray. Similarly, small changes can push very dark objects into structureless black or muddy gray.

Another thirty minutes passed and more mountain tops emerged from the cloud blanket. I decided that enough terrain was revealed to make a good photograph.

I collected a few light meter readings and placed the far dark hills on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray). Bright cloud areas fell on Zone VIII (very bright with little detail). The lack of adequate detail in the cloud mass meant the clouds would not show enough structure to feel “solid” in the photograph.

I sometimes “sacrifice” unimportant image areas by rendering them as pure, texture-less white if the areas are small and more important areas will benefit from increased brightness. This approach was taken in a photograph in Death Valley where I wanted to develop the feeling that blazing sunlight flooded the valley. In that photo, small rocks were exposed as pure white so other image areas could be rendered brighter. Take a look at that image here (make sure your monitor is appropriately bright).

However, today’s photo is different because its primary subject – the bright cloud blanket – also was the brightest object in the image. It was crucial to obtain plenty of structure or the clouds would feel weak and the photo would fail.

Shooting black & white film offers many options to the photographer. Controlling image contrast by varying film development time is an important option and reducing film development time was the obvious solution to the problem encountered in today’s photo. Reducing development to decrease image contrast by one f-stop would move the bright clouds from Zone VIII (very bright with little detail) to Zone VII (bright with some detail). This would produce enough cloud structure on the film to allow for ample image editing.

The exposure record was marked N-1 and one sheet of film was exposed for 1/8 sec at f/32. I packed my gear and departed. It was a wonderful morning.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

I previewed the 4inch x 5inch black & white film on my drum scanner and saw that image tones were suitably close to their desired values. A high resolution digital file was recorded from the film at 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to produce a digital image of nearly one GB in size.

Experience suggested that much editing work and many test prints would be required to achieve the mood that I envisioned for this difficult scene. Editing began by duplicating the original image layer (image from the scanner), renaming the new layer “Retouch” and placing it directly above the original layer. Numerous edits to darken and lighten local areas using PhotoShop’s Burn and Dodge tools were done in the Retouch layer. I only included edits that I was certain were needed.

Both sides of the image were darkened slightly to push the viewer’s eye inward. However, the left side was darkened a wee bit less than the right side since the sun was located toward the left and I wanted to increase awareness of it. A large number of areas that were illuminated directly by sunlight were brightened slightly, including sunlit trees and the tops of numerous small cloud areas.

Since I had invested time performing these edits but was uncertain about additional editing actions, I conducted other editing in several image layers to provide the option of deleting some but not all editing if needed.

I focused next on the mountains at the far side of the valley. The domes of these mountains are arranged in relatively straight rows that are located progressively farther from the camera. The domes provide two basic visual clues about front-to-back depth at the scene. Atmospheric haze caused more distant mountain areas to (a) appear brighter and (b) reveal less structure since their sunlit and shadowed areas were muted by haze.

Consequently, two editing goals were defined to strengthen the perception of front-to-back depth in the image. The first goal was to create more tonal separation between the rows of domes to accentuate the effects of atmospheric haze. The second goal was to enhance structural features of the closest domes by increasing tonal separation between their sunlit and shadowed areas.

To accomplish these two editing goals, PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select mountains at the far side of the valley and a curve adjustment layer was opened for the selected area. The mountains were sampled to identify segments of the curve that corresponded to each dome row as well as sunlit and shadowed areas of the closest domes. Segments of the curve were bent upward or downward to brighten or darken pertinent areas until the desired result was achieved. The computer monitor showed that these edits strengthened the perception of front-to-back depth in the image.

My workflow incorporates regular calibration of both the computer monitor and printer. Calibration is extremely useful for improving agreement between the monitor and print. However, calibration can only do so much because the monitor and print form images in fundamentally different ways. The monitor forms an image by emission of light whereas the print forms an image by reflection of light.

My primary aim for photography is to produce prints so, for me, the proof is in the print. Consequently, I made a small (14 inch x 11 inch) test print to evaluate my previous edits. The test print indicated that the mountains at the far side of the valley looked quite good and could even benefit from more aggressive enhancement.

I clicked on the previous curve adjustment layer, clicked the PhotoShop tab at the top called “Select” and clicked “Load Selection” to reload the previous Magnetic Lasso selection of mountains at the far side of the valley. Then, I created a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to provide two editing tools (brightness & contrast). This conveniently increased editing versatility for mountains at the far side of the valley since two more editing tools were added on top of the previous curve adjustment. Their combined effect resulted in considerably stronger mountains at the far side of the valley.

Attention was directed next to two mountain areas closest to the camera. These were the large, broad mountain side sloping downward from left-to-right and the smaller mountain side on the right directly behind the large mountain side.

These two areas provide another visual clue about front-to-back depth at the scene. We know that we can see more details in objects when they are closer to us than when they are farther away. Consequently, enhancing structural detail of the closest two mountain areas strengthens the perception of front-to-back depth in the image. The editing goal for the two closest mountain sides thus was to reveal structural details more readily by increasing their contrast.

At the same time, the feeling of sunlight in the image can be strengthened effectively by brightening areas of the two closest mountains that are bathed by direct sunlight. This will also help communicate the direction of sunlight more effectively in the image. Consequently, a corollary editing goal for the two closest mountain sides was to brighten sunlit areas.

Increasing contrast and brightening sunlit areas were accomplished simultaneously within a single editing layer. The two closest mountain sides were selected with PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool at high image magnification to guide the selection edge around trees in the foreground. Then, a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer was opened and both brightness and contrast were increased moderately.

These adjustments deepened shadowed areas and brightened sunlit areas. The changes revealed more detail in the two mountain sides, strengthened the feeling of sunlight, helped communicate the direction of sunlight and strengthened the perception of front-to-back image depth.

Another test print was made to evaluate editing progress so far. The print showed that editing improved the farthest and nearest mountains but the mid-range mountain tops looked inappropriate compared to the other mountain areas.

Attention was directed next to the mid-range mountain tops. The five mountain tops rising above the clouds were edited in two different layers. The first layer included the three tops at the right whereas the second layer included the more complex arrangement of tops at the far left of the image.

I chose to edit the mid-range mountain tops in two separate layers because tops at the left are located farther from the camera than tops at the right. Editing them separately provided the opportunity to address more visual clues about front-to-back depth at the scene. The approach I implemented to do this was similar to that which was done for mountains at the far side of the valley.

Thus, editing goals for the mid-range mountain tops were (a) increase tonal separation between different tops to accentuate the effects of atmospheric haze, and (b) enhance structural features of the nearest tops by increasing tonal separation between their sunlit and shadowed areas.

The three mountain tops at the right were selected with PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool and a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer was opened for them. Both brightness and contrast were increased.

The complex arrangement of tops at the far left were selected with the Magnetic Lasso tool and another Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer was opened for these tops. They were edited similarly to the tops at the right but brightness was increased more and contrast was increased less. These differences accentuated the effects of atmospheric haze and strengthened the perception of front-to-back depth.

Overall, the effects of atmospheric haze on terrain were accentuated and a good balance for these effects was achieved through the whole image. The lightest tones and least contrast are found for the most distant mountain domes at the far side of the valley, darker tones and more contrast are found for the mid-range mountain tops, and the darkest tones and most contrast are found for the mountain sides closest to the camera. The direct result of these edits was the perception of substantially more front-to-back depth in the image. Most important, the scene seems to be bigger and stretch out farther from the foreground.

Finally, attention was directed to the most important image element – the blanket of clouds. This was the biggest challenge for today’s image since unknown edits were required to achieve a delicate tonal balance for the clouds so they have enough structure to feel somewhat solid but also feel bright white (i.e. have little structure). Achieving a balance between solidity and brightness is commonly encountered with clouds. A wonderful example of successfully balancing cloud tones can be seen here.

The Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the cloud mass and a curve adjustment layer was opened for it. Clouds were sampled to identify segments of the curve that corresponded to their brightest sunlit tops and darker shadowed areas. Portions of the curve were carefully bent upward or downward to increase contrast to enhance structure while also providing plenty of brightness. A considerable amount of curve tweaking was done until I thought the right balance was achieved between structure and brightness.

It was time to make another test print to evaluate the edit. The cloud blanket looked too dirty in the print and several more rounds of curve adjustments/test prints were required. I finally achieved the desired balance between enough structure to feel solid and enough brightness (little structure) to feel like the clouds were bathed by bright sunshine.

A final Levels adjustment layer was opened for the whole image to nudge a few tones slightly. This was a final “print tune up.” I was glad to be finished.

This was a difficult scene to handle photographically and several image edits have been discussed here. A total of 14 layers were present in the final PhotoShop file for the image. After this work was completed, the file was surprisingly small – only 5.3 GB. Of course, flattening image layers consolidated all 14 layers into one layer and a flattened file that was suitable for printing had a size of only 860 MB.

Summary

This photograph was challenging because it contained a large amount of very bright area that required structure. Much relatively subtle image editing was done to develop the feeling that clouds were somewhat solid and bathed by bright sunlight. Many editing steps were performed to strengthen the perception of front-to-back depth in the image. The stronger image depth made the valley feel like it was bigger.

Overall, I am very satisfied with this image. I believe the clouds feel solid, the sunlight feels strong, the direction of sunlight is evident and the valley feels big. Large prints of this image show many details that can not be seen on a small web image and the prints are quite beautiful.

Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this image, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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