Peyto Lake

The Scene

Banff National Park presents visitors with one gorgeous scenic view after another. Driving along the Icefields Parkway allows visitors to see much of the best scenery that nature has to offer. While driving the parkway, I stopped at the popular Peyto Lake Overlook for a view of the lake and valley below.

I had photographed the lake before and simply relaxed to enjoy the scenery. However, it didn’t take long before realizing that the scene looked a bit unusual. I had seen many bodies of water under a partly cloudy sky but had never seen shadows from clouds articulated so clearly on the water before.

Peyto Lake is fed by glacial melt and its water contains a large amount of powdered rock as a result of glacier movement that grinds rock to bits. The lake surface seemed to contain more powdered rock than usual that day. The suspended white powder reflected a large amount of sunlight back into the air rather than allowing light to penetrate deep into the water where it is absorbed. Reflection of sunlight made the lake surface appear relatively bright which, in turn, caused shadows on the lake to appear relatively dark against bright sunlit areas of the lake.

This phenomenon was worth photographing.

Composition

Pronounced cloud shadows on the lake created an opportunity to make a photograph that emphasized big shadows in the valley. The same scene without distinct shadows on the lake would have a large area in the center of the image (the lake) without strong shadows. In that case, the theme of big shadows in the valley would be considerably weaker.

I found a place to set up my 4inch x 5inch camera where a few nearby trees could be included in the photograph. The foreground trees served two important purposes. First, they indirectly increased the information content of the photograph. That is, the detailed structure of foreground trees invites viewers to attribute the same structural details to other trees that are located too far from the camera to show their structure.

Second, foreground trees provide information about front-to-back depth at the scene. One way that viewers sense depth in a photograph is by recognizing that items closer to the camera show more structure and greater tonal contrast than items farther from the camera.

The scene stretched out for several miles in front of the camera. A moderate amount of atmospheric haze filled the air and greatly muted the tones of more distant areas of the scene. This was a problem since the photograph emphasized shadows in the valley and haze severely weakened shadows at distant scene areas.

Black & white film offers many options for controlling problems at scenes and landscape photographers often reduce atmospheric haze during exposure by using colored contrast filters. I selected a dark yellow filter for today’s photograph to remove much of the haze from the image. A yellow filter darkens most shadows in landscape scenes because the shadows usually are illuminated by blue skylight rather than white sunlight and thus are blueish.

A 1-degree spot meter was aimed through the yellow filter and a few meter readings were obtained from the scene. Important shadows on trees at the edge of the lake were placed on Zone III (dark with good texture) and the bright clouds fell mostly on Zones VII (bright with some detail) and VIII (very bright with little detail). These brightness values were reasonable so I marked the negative’s exposure record for normal (N) development.

Considerable depth-of-field was needed for this scene because the image included nearby trees in the foreground as well as important objects several miles away. Choosing a very small f-stop to obtain a large depth-of-field necessitated a slow shutter speed. Unfortunately, clouds (and their shadows) were moving through the scene quite rapidly so a slow shutter speed was likely to blur shadow edges rather than capture fairly “hard” shadow edges. Since the photo emphasized distinct shadows in the valley, weak shadow edges were not good.

The light meter offered numerous f-stop and shutter speed combinations and I compromised by selecting an f-stop of f/32 and shutter speed of 1/30 of a second.

I spent some “quality time” watching cloud shadows move rapidly across the scene and eventually exposed a negative when I thought the positions of shadows were good. I usually expose only a single negative at each scene but a second negative was exposed here since shadow positions were fairly complex and they changed rapidly.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

The best 4inch x 5inch black & white film was selected and previewed on the drum scanner. Happily, image tones were fairly 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.

The theme of this photograph was a group of large and distinct shadows on a spectacular landscape. Viewing the image in PhotoShop on a large computer monitor helped identify three main goals of image editing: (a) increase the impression of sunlight on the lake and trees, (b) strengthen large shadows, especially on and near the lake and (c) increase the impression of sunlight within the clouds. Specifically, I needed to darken shadows, brighten sunlit areas adjacent to the shadows and increase the impression of sunlight in all areas of the photograph.

A global Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and it showed that image pixels occupied nearly all gray levels of the histogram. I moved the black histogram slider from 0 to 5 to strengthen the darkest areas of the image slightly.

Next, a global Curve Adjustment Layer was opened to increase the presence of light in the image. Midtones and relatively bright (but not near white) tones were brightened by bending the middle of the curve upward. This increased the impression of sunlight in the whole image.

I turned my attention to the sky to increase the impression of sunlight within the clouds. PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the sky and a local curve adjustment layer was opened. The darkest pixels of the sky were darkened by bending their curve area downward and bright (but not near white) pixels were brightened by bending their curve area upward. This changed the curve from a straight line to an S-shape to increase overall contrast in the clouds. The adjustment greatly strengthened the feeling of sunlight in the sky and supported sunlit and shadow areas on the ground.

As discussed previously, a dark yellow filter was used during exposure to reduce atmospheric haze in the photograph. Reducing haze in this manner has to be done thoughtfully, however, because haze can provide useful information in photographs. For example, haze provides visual clues about front-to-back depth at a scene by (a) brightening distant areas more than near areas and (b) reducing visible structure in distant objects by muting sunlit and shadowed areas. The former visual clue is beneficial for today’s photograph since it helps communicate the enormous depth of the scene. However, muted sunlit and shadowed areas weaken today’s photograph since its theme is distinct shadows. That is, shadows must feel strong and sunlight must be clearly felt.

The yellow filter was a good choice during exposure because it reduced most haze effects but I thought it would be beneficial to decrease haze even more during image editing. I usually accomplish this by reducing brightness and increasing contrast in hazy areas of the image. My editing goal was to reduce haze enough to strengthen shadows but retain enough haze to communicate front-to-back depth in the image.

Areas far from the camera were selected with PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool and a local Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer was opened. Brightness was decreased and contrast was increased until shadowed areas were deepened but enough brightness was retained for haze to communicate front-to-back image depth.

Finally, local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Burn and Dodge tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer. Numerous edits were performed to darken and lighten local areas of the image.

Large shadows were darkened slightly to increase their visual weight. Next, sunlit areas of the trees and lake were brightened to increase the presence of sunlight.

Finally, small areas of sunlit snow on the peak at the top left were brightened. This added slightly to the impression of sunlight at the scene and helped viewers sense top-to-bottom depth in the photograph (mountain top to valley floor). In other words, this small retouch helped the mountains feel taller.

A few test prints were made and the image was refined slightly to improve print strength further. To me, this image looks best when printed quite large since more scene details are visible and the valley looks bigger.

Summary

I am happy with this photograph and believe it does justice to the exceptional cloud shadows that commanded attention in a spectacular landscape. Large prints show many details and tones that are not seen in a small web image. Again, it can be said that there is no substitute for seeing artwork firsthand rather than viewing a tiny picture of it on the internet.

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 photograph, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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