Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado is spectacular. I met a German tourist who said it well, “I’m surprised that the Grand Canyon is visited by so many tourists but so few visit the Black Canyon.”
The Gunnison River carved a gorge with steep rock walls which are so deep and narrow that it was named the Black Canyon because little direct sunlight reaches the canyon bottom. This description of blackness is a bit overstated since much indirect light bathes the canyon and photographers find that a normal range of exposures can be used.
The Black Canyon’s dimensions present other photographic challenges, at least for me.
The gorge reaches 2,722 feet deep, its walls are nearly vertical and its width is as narrow as 1,100 feet from rim-to-rim. A challenge for me was using shorter focal length lenses (wider angle lenses) without introducing parallax (geometric distortion) in the canyon walls. It was good that I had a view camera since lenses are interchanged easily and simple controls allow precise correction of geometric distortions.
Two main roads in the park provide access to numerous scenic views of the gorge. An easy paved road along the south rim provides convenient access to the viewpoints. A shorter unpaved road along the north rim also provides easy access to viewpoints. Unfortunately, the south and north rim roads are not connected and a fair amount of driving outside the park is required to travel from one road to the other. Seeing the canyon from both rims is well worth the trouble, however.
The south rim road terminates at High Point which sits at an elevation of 8,289 feet. A good parking area marks the trailhead for an easy 1.5 mile round trip walk to Warner Point where the photograph discussed today was recorded.
The air in the park was filled with heavy haze when I hiked to Warner Point. I was told that most of the haze was caused by smoke from a distant forest fire that blew into the park. I stumbled upon the wonderful scene for today’s photo and immediately saw that it was greatly affected by the haze since the scene stretched for miles. I knew I had to try to make a successful photograph of the scene in spite of the haze problem.
The effects of haze needed to be reduced to obtain the image that I envisioned. Fortunately, I was shooting black & white film so colored contrast filters could be used to reduce haze effects at the optimal time for achieving maximum image quality – during exposure. A strong filter was required since the haze was so heavy and the strongest colored filters I had were an orange-red filter and a deep red filter. I used the less aggressive orange-red filter to avoid the risk of producing an over-filtered look that sometimes results from a deep red filter.
One challenge of landscape photography is effectively communicating the enormity of big scenes. A way of accomplishing that is by including a familiar object in the foreground to serve as a “ruler” for viewers. I set my tripod directly in front a dead tree which could serve as a familiar measuring stick (pun intended).
The tree served another purpose for the photograph. For me, one of the dominant themes of Black Canyon is the exceptional texture that exists throughout the canyon and I had already made photos that emphasized texture. Including the textured tree in this photo would help convey the canyon’s strong texture even more.
The foreground tree also helped convey the perception of front-to-back depth in the photo. To maximize this effect I selected a tripod position where the tree’s base and some of its branches curved toward the camera. This “pulled” the dead tree quite close to the viewer and helped communicate the enormous front-to-back depth at the scene.
Considerable depth-of-field was essential for this photo because sharp focus was needed for the foreground tree as well as the mountains several miles away. Fortunately, a view camera provides controls to improve focus substantially. The lens board was tilted forward to reposition the focal plane so it included both the foreground tree and hills far away. This simple adjustment achieved adequate depth-of-field without using a small f-stop (and thus long exposure). View cameras certainly have important advantages.
A 1-degree spot meter was aimed through the orange-red filter to obtain a few readings from the scene and the meter offered numerous f-stop and shutter speed combinations. I selected a shutter speed of 1/15 sec and an f-stop between f/32 and f/45.
The sky contained many big clouds so much of the scene included large shadows. It was important wait patiently until sunlight illuminated the most important areas of the scene. Identifying which areas of a composition require direct sunlight is best done by visualizing how viewer’s eyes should best move through the image.
I envisioned viewers seeing the foreground tree first and then moving into the canyon and down to the Gunnison River before moving upward and out of the canyon to the mountains far away. The foreground tree and far mountains were illuminated mostly by direct sunlight but the canyon bottom and walls were completely shadowed. I was certain that the canyon bottom and walls needed some direct sunlight so I found a comfortable place to watch and wait for the clouds to move.
After only 20 minutes, sunlight streaked through the clouds to illuminate the canyon floor. I exposed a black & white film and thought it was a pretty good photograph. I continued to wait and exposed another film 10 minutes later when more light illuminated the canyon. I thought the second exposure was better.
The second film was scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to produce a black & white digital image of nearly one GB in size. The scanned image is shown below without any editing.
It is obvious that plenty of haze remained in the image even though a fairly strong filter was used during exposure. Contrast for the foreground tree was pretty good but haze reduced contrast for all objects farther from the camera. Poor contrast caused the canyon, river and distant mountains to feel soft and weak.
I had underestimated haze at the scene and realized that a deep red filter should have been used during exposure to reduce haze effects even more. However, important features were clearly present in spite of the haze so the film had the potential to become a good photograph. Substantial image editing with PhotoShop was needed and I was glad that the digital file had 16-bit pixel depth rather than 8-bit depth.
The theme of this photograph is a exceptional texture in a spectacular canyon that was carved by the Gunnison River. Three editing goals were identified for the image: (a) enhance textures through the whole image, (b) increase the river’s visibility in the image and (c) strengthen the impression of the scene’s enormity.
In PhotoShop terms, this meant increasing contrast through much but not all of the image and performing edits to move viewer’s eyes from the foreground tree, down to the river, up the canyon walls and across the width of the surrounding scene.
A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and it showed that image pixels occupied nearly all gray levels of the histogram. Although contrast was seriously lacking in mid and far regions of the scene, the near dead tree contained pixels that were almost pure black and almost pure white. Consequently, the histogram couldn’t be globally modified much to benefit the mid and far scene areas because parts of the near tree would become blocked black and blocked white. The black histogram slider was moved only slightly (from 0 to 8) and the white slider was moved similarly (from 255 to 253) to strengthen the darkest and brightest areas of the image a bit without deteriorating the near dead tree.
A global Curve Adjustment Layer was opened to try to isolate tones of the mid and far scene areas from tones of the foreground tree. Nearly black and nearly white pixels were not changed since they were present mostly in the near dead tree. Pixels having gray levels between 30 and 180 dominated the mid and far scene areas so the curve for those pixels was bent substantially downward to darken the tones. This definitely reduced haze effects and made the canyon feel considerably bigger, more solid and more powerful.
Lastly, local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Dodge and Burn 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 lighten and darken small areas of the image.
I turned my attention first to the dead tree in the foreground. The tree had terrific texture and I wanted to make sure its texture was as strong as possible to support the general theme of texture through the whole scene. I used PhotoShop’s Dodging tool to brighten sunlit areas of the tree so they contrasted more with the dark shadows in cracks of the wood.
The result was a stronger feeling of bleached and cracked wood texture and greater awareness of texture through the whole image.
Next, I devoted time to the canyon walls and bottom. The scanned image shown previously has numerous areas where direct sunlight splashed onto the canyon walls and bottom. PhotoShop’s Dodging tool was used to brighten many sunlit areas to increase the presence of direct sunlight in the canyon. The presence of sunlight also was strengthened by using PhotoShop’s Burning tool to darken some of the large shadows in the canyon. These edits definitely created a stronger presence of sunlight on the canyon walls and floor.
Close examination of the scanned image reveals narrow jagged ledges of rock on canyon walls that reflected more sunlight than other areas of the walls. The ledges were brightened with the Dodging tool to increase the presence of sunlight in the canyon. These edits also made the canyon walls seem taller since jagged ledges attract visual attention to various heights of the walls. Increasing the presence of jagged ledges also increased awareness of texture through the whole canyon.
The canyon was formed by the Gunnison River and I thought it was important to increase the river’s visual importance in the image. This was accomplished by two editing actions. First, the water was darkened with PhotoShop’s Burning tool. Second, two bright areas which flank the nearest curve of the river were brightened with PhotoShop’s Dodging tool. Increasing contrast between the dark water and bright terrain flanking the river directed considerably more visual attention to the river.
The mountains near the top of the image contained large shadows as well as areas of direct sunlight. These areas were dodged and burned to increase the mountain’s strength and increase awareness of texture through the whole image. In addition, increasing the mountains visual presence drew more attention to their full width so the mountain range felt bigger.
Next, attention was directed to the sky. PhotoShop’s Burning tool was used to darken the sky at the image perimeter to keep the viewer’s eyes from falling off of the image. Then, the Dodging tool was used to brighten some bright cloud areas, especially toward the right and left sides of the sky, to draw more attention to the whole width of the sky. These actions helped make the sky feel bigger.
Finally, a few small branches on the lower right edge of the photograph were burned and dodged to reduce their visibility. Reducing the visual weight of these distractions helped keep the eye from falling off of the photograph at the lower right edge.
The final edited image is shown below. I believe the photograph does a good job of communicating the themes I envisioned for the image. To me, the photograph shows a spectacularly textured canyon of enormous size that was carved deepy by the Gunnison River.
A successful print of this photograph should reveal the texture of the scene. Texture looks good when printed at nearly any size except small sizes (11inch x 14inch or smaller). Of course, the tiny web image displayed here shows little texture. For a slightly better view of this image, look in my “Western USA” gallery here.
I believe this photograph does justice to the spectacular landscape of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Heavy haze resulted in a film that was less than ideal but digital editing overcame this limitation. Editing made the canyon feel deeper, the river look more important and the mountains seem bigger.
Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or its workup will be appreciated.
Randall R Bresee