Light Snow In The Forest

A light snow fell in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains where I live and deep snow was visible nearby at upper elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I loaded my camera gear and set off toward the park to see what I could find.

The road to higher elevations in the park was closed due to heavy snow accumulation so I parked at the visitor’s center to explore the lighter snow at low elevations. One of the photographs recorded that day is discussed in today’s blog.

Composition

I found a crooked limb that could be a good element for tension in an image and a brief walk around it revealed a promising camera position. The relatively bright limb was placed in front of the large dark tree trunk to emphasize the limb. The camera position also placed the large trunk and two narrow trunks in a cluster near the center of the photograph so the three tree trunks directed visual attention toward the crooked limb.

The three tree trunks also presented an opportunity to establish good front-to-back depth in the image. The narrow trunk nearest the camera was the brightest, the narrow trunk a bit farther from the camera was slightly darker and the large trunk farthest from the camera was darkest. Consequently, the gray tones of each of the three trees was correlated with their distance from the camera and this would appeal to human logic that trees located deeper in the forest should appear darker.

Developing a sense of depth in the photograph could be strengthened by increasing tonal differences among the three tree trunks slightly. Consequently, I needed to expose the film so that plenty of detail was retained in all three tree trunks so digital editing could be used later to darken the darkest trunk and lighten the brightest trunk.

In practical terms, this meant placing the darkest trunk fairly high on the tonal scale to retain plenty of detail but not place it so high that detail is lost in bright areas of the scene. I placed the darkest trunk on Zone IV (slightly darker than middle gray) rather than my more common placement lower on the tonal scale at Zone III (dark with good detail). This placement caused the bright snow to fall on Zone VII (bright with good detail) which would produce suitable texture in the sunlit snow.

One sheet of Tri-X black & white film was exposed and marked for normal (N) development.

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 that was obtained from the scanner is shown below:

The image from the scanner looked good with tones that spanned the whole range of possible gray levels from pure black to pure white. Important elements of the scene were captured adequately and I had a good image to work with.

A Curve Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and its interface is shown below with tones that progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner. The gray-level histogram shows that gray levels are present through the full range of tones.

The linear curve was bent in three locations to improve the image. First, the right third of the curve was bent upward to moderately darken the darkest image pixels (except pure black). The primary aim of this edit was to darken the darkest areas of the large tree trunk without affecting its mid-tones. The curve modification indeed darkened the trunk overall and increased its contrast which visually pushed the large trunk slightly deeper into the forest.

Second, the middle portion of the curve was bent downward to brighten middle gray pixels. The aim of this was to lighten the nearest narrow tree trunk without lightening other pixels in the image more than necessary. This had the affect of visually drawing the nearest tree trunk forward toward the viewer.

Third, the left portion of the curve was bent upward to moderately darken the brightest image pixels (except pure white). This increased texture in the brightest areas of snow without affecting shadowed snow areas appreciably. The edit is most important for large prints where large untextured areas generally are undesirable.

The overall result of curve adjustment on the image is shown below.

The curves adjustment strengthened the feeling of front-to-back depth, increased the feeling of image sharpness and developed more texture in the large area of bright snow near the image center. However, the feeling of light was not strong enough and the image still felt too soft.

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 to contain retouching edits. The goals of local retouching were to give the image more snap, increase the presence of light and push viewer eyes toward the image center.

First, the brightest areas of sunlit snow on the forest floor were brightened using PhotoShop’s Dodge tool. This helped increase the presence of light, draw viewer attention toward the image center and increase the overall snap of the image.

Second, attention was directed to numerous small areas near the image perimeter to weaken the pull of viewer’s eyes toward the photo’s edges. For example, a clump of snow at the center right edge was darkened. A large tree branch entering the right edge of the image 1/4 of the way from the top was removed. A tree branch crossing the upper left corner was removed. Image edges were burned slightly darker all around.

The following image adds retouching edits to the previous image and includes all of the edits discussed above. The effect of retouching edits can be seen by comparing the image below to the previous image above.

This photograph looks good when printed nearly any size. Prints exhibit a good sense of light and rich gray tones.

Summary

Today’s photograph shows a nice composition of trees after a light snow. Visual attention is directed onto a crooked limb in a cluster of three tree trunks. The image has plenty of detail, good presence of light on the forest floor, front-to-back depth and rich gray tones through the photograph. 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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