Snow At Field’s Edge

Snow dresses-up the landscape beautifully and winter is a good time to take a fresh look at familiar places. After a nice snow I loaded my camera gear and went for a drive along the back roads of rural Illinois to do just that.

I drove to familiar locations where I had never stopped to photograph near my old hometown of Vandalia. During those previous drives I saw little that excited me photographically. That’s not to say that nothing deserved to be photographed but rather that I didn’t see it. Like most photographers, however, my eye has developed since the early days and I thought those locations deserved another look.

With a fresh eye and fresh snow on the ground, the old locations looked visually exciting. I stopped every half hour or so to photograph a scene where I had never stopped before. Even a barren field with grass and brush at its edge looked good. The black and white photograph discussed today was made on that winter drive in Illinois.

Composition

The side lighting looked appealing so I stopped the car to scan the scene with my viewing frame to locate a promising composition. I liked the dark, woody brush and nearby bright snow reflections in today’s photograph. The combination of dark brush and bright reflections on snow provided substantial contrast within the scene.

One of my general guidelines is to compose scenes in a way that helps keep viewer’s eyes within the image and this is usually aided by locating the area of greatest contrast near the image center. Consequently, I placed the dark brush and bright snow reflections near the center of the composition.

I mounted a slightly long lens of 210 mm (the focal length of a “normal” lens for a 4inch x 5inch camera is 150mm) on my 4inch x 5inch camera. The light and weather were stable so I took my time to carefully compose the photograph.

It was unnecessary to consider using a color contrast filter because the scene was nearly monochromatic and a color filter would have little affect on the tones of black & white film.

A 1 degree spot meter was used to acquire a few light readings. With regard to choosing an exposure for the scene, the most critical part of the scene was the brightest sunlit snow and the next most important part was the dark brush. I placed the largest brush stems on Zones II-III (very dark with little detail – dark with good detail) and bright sunlit snow fell appropriately on Zone VII (bright with good detail). Those tones were good since little blocking would be present on the film in either the dark brush or bright snow. Consequently, normal (N) development was specified for the film.

A light wind was blowing but the scene was quite bright so I was able to select a relatively fast (for me) shutter speed of 1/60 sec to prevent image blur. That shutter speed required an f-stop of f/45 which provided plenty of depth-of-field for the image. One sheet of Tri-X black & white film was exposed and I packed up my gear and moved along.

Scanning/Editing/Printing

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 obtained from the scanner is shown below.


Two overall objectives for image editing were identified. First, it was important to develop crispness and brightness in areas of sunlit snow without developing a feeling of dirtiness in shadowed areas of snow. Second, I wanted the large stems of brush to feel strong but exhibit plenty of texture.

The scanned image looked close to what I had envisioned at the scene and it was nice to know that my choices for exposure and film development were good. Starting the editing process with a well exposed and developed photograph was especially important for this image because snow is not easy to handle, especially in prints. I expected that subtle tonal adjustments would be necessary and lots of test prints would likely be needed.

A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and its user interface is shown below. Dark-to-light tones of the histogram are displayed from left-to-right.

The darkest pixels of the image had a gray level = 2 and the brightest pixels had a gray level = 255. Consequently, pixels spanned nearly the entire range of possible tones from pure black to pure white although the number of pixels near pure black or pure white were quite small. The majority of pixels fell in a large peak that represented sunlit snow. Most other pixels fell in a broad range of middle gray tones that represented shadowed snow and blades of grass. A small number of pixels from dark brush were distributed across a nearly flat portion of the histogram.

The goal of Levels Adjustment was to strengthen the feeling of bright sunlight on snow without losing texture in the large stems of dark brush. Consequently, the white slider was moved from 255 to 242 to brighten pixels in the large histogram peak that represents sunlit snow but the black slider was kept at 0 to preserve structural detail in the dark stems of brush.

The affect of Levels adjustment on the image is shown below. The feeling of bright sunlight on the snow was strengthened without losing texture in dark stems of brush.


I was happy with the overall feeling of this image and turned next to local retouching 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 to contain the retouching edits.

The entire left edge of the image was slightly weak so it was darkened slightly with PhotoShop’s Burn tool. The other three image edges were darkened very slightly by burning, too. These edits helped keep viewer’s eyes from falling off of the image edges.

The following image adds those minor retouching edits to the previous image. The effect of retouching edits can be seen by comparing the image below to the previous image above.


I thought image editing might be completed so a 20inch x 16inch test print was made. I liked the print and was surprised that only one test print was needed for the image. The print was matted, framed and hung on the wall.

Within a week I began to think that shadows on the snow felt dirty in the print. That thought grew stronger over the next month so I decided to edit the image again.

A Curve Adjustment Layer was opened and its interface is shown below. Note that tones progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner.

The linear curve was bent downward to brighten pixels that corresponded to darker tones of sunlit snow and brighter tones of shadowed snow. All other pixels in the image remained unaltered. The result of the curve adjustment is shown below. The edit reduced the heaviness of snow on the computer monitor.

My primary photographic goal is to make strong prints and making images that look good on a computer monitor is secondary. In my limited experience, prints generally are more difficult to “get right” than images viewed on typical computer monitors. Thus, the real test would be in a test print.

Another 20inch x 16inch test print was made and then matted, framed and hung on the wall. The image definitely printed more cleanly than the previous image and has a bright and crisp feeling that an image such as this needs.

Summary

Today’s photograph shows a lovely scene along a road in rural Illinois shortly after a fresh snow. Little editing was required except minor adjustments to produce snow that felt clean, bright and crisp. Comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this photo, visit here.

Randall R Bresee

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