Options Salon, Vandalia

My mother gets her hair done at a small beauty salon on South Fifth Street in Vandalia, Illinois and I drove her to her appointment while visiting last January. I returned forty five minutes later but her hair wasn’t finished so I took a seat to watch the action. Lots of interesting Vandalia information was exchanged and many funny stories were shared between Cheryl Oertwig and her customers.

After Cheryl finished my mother’s hair, she opened a box of items recently purchased at a yard sale and passed each one around for review. I thought several of the items had nice shapes and textures and noticed that they looked good in the sunlight that streamed onto the salon floor.

I didn’t have my camera in the car so I asked Cheryl if I could return the next day to make a photograph. She graciously agreed and we noted the current time so I could return when light again streamed onto the floor.

The Scene

Light presented quite a challenge for this photographic. The window on the left wall allowed indirect light to softly illuminate the entire building interior. The window on the far wall allowed plenty of direct sunlight to enter the building and illuminate fern leaves, small areas on the floor and small areas of the chair. I liked the visual difference between areas illuminated by soft indirect light (most of the interior) and areas that were illuminated by hard direct sunlight.

Areas of black upholstery and the black floor mat which were illuminated only by indirect light were quite dark. On the other hand, areas on the white floor, fern and chrome that were illuminated by direct sunlight were quite bright. The two illumination sources along with both black and white interior furnishings produced a range of brightness that was very large.

Clearly, the scene’s large brightness range was a major challenge for this photograph. One way to deal with this problem is to place a cover such as netting over the window to reduce the amount of direct sunlight streaming through it. That approach definitely would reduce the scene’s brightness range and make it more approachable photographically but would spread the light passing through it and soften the hard edges of direct sunlight on the floor.

I thought it would be best to photograph the scene as it was rather than after altering it with a window covering. Of course, it still was necessary to account for the large brightness range or details would be lost in very bright and very dark scene areas.

One approach to this scene is to capture several images using a range of exposures and then rely heavily on software later to combine useful areas from each image. That approach is used by many digital photographers.

Another approach to handling the difficult brightness range is to use film. Film provides the opportunity to reduce overall image contrast simply by decreasing the film’s development time. In addition, the exposure curve for film is S-shaped (rather than linear like digital sensors) so the “shoulder” and “toe” of film are more forgiving in bright and dark scene areas. These characteristics historically have helped film photographers effectively handle large scene contrast using only a single exposure. This is the approach that I prefer to use in situations that have excessive contrast.


The dominant visual component of this photograph is direct sunlight entering the window on the far wall and splashing onto the salon floor. I often strive to make photographs easily digestible from a logical standpoint. For the photograph discussed today, that means ensuring that the far window is the obvious source of sunlight areas on the floor.

Unfortunately, including the actual window in the composition would have increased the photographic difficulty even more since it would have increased the range of brightness in the image. Consequently, my composition identified the source of direct sunlight only by including the fern and small areas of the window frame.

It also was important for the composition to include the yard sale items on the salon floor. They revealed the personality of the beauty salon, drew visual attention to sunlight streaming onto the floor and drew attention to the centerpiece of the salon – the chair.

The focal length of a “normal” lens for a 4inch x 5inch camera is 150mm. I normally carry four lenses in the bag for my 4×5 view camera. The focal lengths of my lenses are 90mm (wide angle), 120mm (slightly wide angle), 210mm (slightly long) and 305mm (moderately long).

Even though I seldom use the 90mm wide angle lens, I carry it in case a situation arises where it is needed. However, the only photograph I planned for this brief trip to Vandalia definitely did not require a wide angle lens so I removed it from my camera bag before I left home.

This was only the second time during the last ten years when I did not have the 90mm lens in my camera bag. I would have preferred to use the wide angle lens for this photo because it would have provided more options to locate the camera in the small space available. Instead, the 120mm lens was mounted on my camera and furniture was moved to create space as far as possible from the image area. I was squashed against a wall but felt fortunate that a good composition was obtainable without the 90mm lens.

Several light meter readings were acquired with a 1 degree spot meter. Areas of black upholstery and the black mat that were illuminated only by indirect light were placed on Zone I (nearly black but not pure black). Areas of black upholstery and the black mat that were bathed by direct sunlight fell on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray) and sunlit areas of the white floor fell on Zone X (pure white).

Film development was specified to be N-2 to move the sunlit white floor from Zone X (pure white) to Zone VIII (very bright with little detail). Reducing film development was a simple way to obtain a useable image from a scene having far too much contrast.

The Tri-X black & white film that I loaded for this trip allows a maximum contrast contraction of N-2 and I wished that I had loaded TMax film since it allows N-3 contractions. TMax film developed N-3 would have allowed me to obtain more detail in bright scene areas by moving the sunlit white floor from Zone X (pure white) to Zone VII (bright with good detail). Nevertheless, the feeling of bright sunlight streaming onto the floor was communicated well by N-2 development that rendered sunlit scene areas higher on the exposure scale.

A sheet of film was exposed with a shutter speed of 1 sec and an f-stop of f/32.


The 4inch x 5inch black & white film was drum-scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to obtain a black & white digital image of nearly one GB in size. The image that was obtained from the scanner is shown below:

Overall, the impression of direct sunlight in the photograph was fairly good although the brightest image tones could benefit from slightly more texture. Areas illuminated only by indirect light looked heavy and dark and could benefit from brightening. Simple tonal-specific editing was required to slightly darken the brightest tones (except pure white) and moderately lighten all other tones (except pure black). PhotoShop’s Curve Adjustment tool provides a convenient way to make this kind of edit.

The Curve Adjustment user interface is shown below. Note that tonal values progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner. The gray-level histogram shows that the full range of gray levels was present in the scanned film (pixel gray levels ranged from pure black to pure white).

The linear curve was (a) bent upward in the lower left of the histogram to darken bright tones (except pure white) in image areas illuminated by direct sunlight and (b) bent downward in the remainder of histogram (except pure black) to darken all other image areas. The result of the curve adjustment on the image is shown below.

A test print showed that dark tones of the image needed slight strengthening without affecting other image tones appreciably. A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and its user interface is shown below. Note that dark-to-light tones are displayed in the Levels interface below from left-to-right whereas dark-to-light tones were displayed in the previous Curves interface from right-to-left. Also note that the two histograms are different because the histogram in the Levels interface includes the previous Curve adjustment whereas the histogram in the Curves interface represented the scanned image prior to Curve adjustment.

To strengthen dark tones slightly without affecting other tones appreciably, the black slider was moved from 0 to 7 and the white slider was kept at 255. The affect of the Levels adjustment on the image is shown below and it shows that the darkest image areas feel stronger. This was important because the chair and mat are important objects in the photograph and must feel strong.

Local retouching was performed next. First, PhotoShop’s Burn, Dodge and Clone tools were used for local retouching. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer to contain the edits.

Numerous areas were brightened with PhotoShop’s Dodge tool. They included small areas of the floor, two large plant pots on the left, the plant at the upper left, the window frame on the left, dark areas of the fern, fern leaves on the floor and folds on the chair back.

Other areas were darkened with PhotoShop’s Burn tool or replaced with the Clone tool. They included small bright spots on the black mat and large bright areas above the chair on the far wall.

Next, local retouching was performed on three areas selected with PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso too. Attention was directed first to two towels on the far wall. Towels are important in a beauty salon so they were brightened and their texture was increased. The Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the towels and a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened for the selection.

The Curve adjustment interface for the towels is shown below and the histogram is comprised of two different peaks. The darkest peak on the far right of the histogram represents the dark towel on the left of the towel rack whereas the brighter histogram peak (but still quite dark) represents the lighter towel on the right of the towel rack. Towels were brightened and their textures were increased by moving the white slider substantially to the right.

This edit revealed terry cloth tufts that previously were almost invisible in the image. The edit is important when a large print is viewed since it adds visual interest to areas of the print that previously contained little texture.

Second, the dark wood bowl on the floor mat was edited. A test print showed that the dark bowl was not separated well from the black mat so the bowl was brightened and its contrast was increased. The bowl was selected with PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool and a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer was opened for the selection. The brightness slider was moved from 0 to 27 and the contrast slider was moved from 0 to 14. This edit strengthened the bowl’s outside walls, bottom and ring around its top.

Third, attention was directed to the snowman on the left of the photograph. The snowman was located in a darker area of the room so it didn’t look appropriately white. PhotoShop’s Magnetic Lasso tool was used to select the snowman and a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened for the selection.

The Curve adjustment interface is shown below. The histogram for the snowman is composed of a single peak with a long tail toward darker tones. The snowman was brightened by moving the white slider substantially to the right and then bending the linear curve slightly downward to further brighten the pixels. The snowman was brightened enough to “feel” white but was not rendered as bright as sunlight on the white floor. This was done to retain primary visual emphasis on the direct sunlight splashing onto the salon floor.

Brightening the snowman also added brightness to a dark section of the image which helped bring balance and strength to the photograph. That is, adding brightness to the dark image area shifted visual attention to the left to help balance the bright window on the upper right and bright floor areas at the near center of the photograph. In geometric terms, one could say that brightening the snowman produced a triangle of bright areas that helped emphasize the roughly triangular shapes of the chair and floor mat so they felt stronger in the photograph.

The following image includes all of the edits discussed above. The affect of each retouching edit can be seen by comparing the image below to the previous image above.

Even though it is obvious, it might be worth noting that each edit changed the image histogram. Today’s photograph was edited several ways and its histogram definitely was changed by edits as the histograms below show. The histogram on the left represents the initial image from the scanner whereas the histogram on the right represents the final image after all editing was completed. Comparing the two histograms shows that substantial changes to pixel gray levels resulted from editing.



Today’s photograph was an interior image of a beauty salon. The photo emphasized the difference between hard edges of direct sunlight and softness in the rest of the interior. Illumination created substantial brightness contrast at the scene but the contrast was handled easily and simply with film. For a slightly better view of this photo, visit here.

Randall R Bresee