Peaks of the Brooks Range


The Scene:

I packed my old pickup truck during the spring of 2016 for a 20,000 mile roadtrip. I left home in Tennessee and drove across the USA into western Canada, crossed the Yukon Territory into Alaska and drove north all the way to the Arctic Ocean. I returned on different roads and arrived home more than three months after departing. It was quite a trip and I acquired lots of great photographs.

The Dalton Highway begins near Fairbanks, Alaska, and runs north through fabulous landscapes for 414 miles. It crosses the Arctic Circle, passes through the Brooks Mountain Range, and ends at Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. The Brooks are strong, beautiful, intimidating mountains that seemed to beg me to photograph them. The black and white photo discussed in today’s blog was recorded where the Dalton Highway climbs through Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. The scenery there is terrific and the highway provides many opportunities to photograph the higher reaches of the mountains. Today’s photo was one of my attempts to capture the cold, powerful and intimidating beauty of the Brooks Range.


I wanted the mountains in my photograph to feel formidable so I avoided man-made objects in the composition. A short section of the Dalton Highway entering the lower right side of the photo was unavoidable but was not visually prominent so that was okay (the highway is hardly recognizable in this low resolution web image but is more visible in a high-resolution image). Low clouds and their shadows on the mountains along with lots of snow and frozen soil helped the scene feel powerful and magnificent. 

The lower left corner of the composition was important. The land mass nearest the camera enters the composition on the lower right and drops out of sight near the lower left corner. I thought the dropoff helped make the image feel more dangerous and intimidating. That feeling was reinforced by (a) another ridge behind the foreground land which also angled toward the same dropoff point and (b) the mountainside entering the photo’s lower left edge which also angled toward the dropoff area. Making the droppoff visually prominent depended on having enough size for the foreground land so I included a few guardrail tops on the composition’s bottom edge to obtain more size in my photo for the foreground. I knew the guardrail tops could be removed easily during editing since they were small.

I mounted a 210 mm lens on my 4 inch x 5 inch view camera (150 mm is a “normal” focal length for 4×5 cameras). The lensboard was tilted slightly forward to position the lens plane of focus to include the near foreground as well as the far peaks of the scene. I carefully focused and then tightened all adjustment knobs on my camera.

I acquired light meter readings with my 1-degree spot meter and found that the scene was quite bright. I placed the darkest mountain areas on Zone III (dark with good detail) to record structural details to work with during editing. The brightest cloud areas fell on Zone VIII (bright with slight detail). Even though these particular clouds didn’t have much structural detail it was important to preserve as much of it as possible. In practical terms, that meant I would rather have the brightest cloud areas fall on Zone VII (bright with good detail) than on Zone VIII (bright with slight detail) to record structural details to work with during editing. Consequently, I recorded development instructions on the film’s exposure record as N-1 to lower the brightest image tones on the film one f-stop.

One sheet of Tri-X black & white film was exposed at 1/125 sec and f/32. Unless movement exists in a scene during exposure I usually expose only one film. That nearly always provides me with one good image and only one is required. On a few occasions, however, something goes wrong and I wish that I had exposed another film “as insurance.” As we shall see, this was one of those occasions!


The 4 inch x 5 inch film was mounted in fluid and drum-scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi (pixels per inch) and 16-bit pixel depth to obtain a high-resolution black and white digital image of nearly one GB in size.

The image obtained from the scanner without editing is shown below. It is clear that a light leak in my camera produced a problem on the film, most likely because I did not slide the film holder securely onto the camera back. The scanned image shows that stray light did not hit the lower left edge of the film but overexposed much of the remainder of the film. 


Fortunately, the overexposure was fairly uniform except for the lower left edge so I decided to lighten the darker image area along the lower left edge during retouching to match the exposure of adjacent areas and try to fix the overexposure in other editing steps. 

The scanned image also shows that a long air bubble was present in the scanning fluid along most of the film’s top edge. I could have scanned the film again to eliminate this defect but decided to simply fix it during retouching by darkening the defective area.

Close examination of the scanned image revealed that the film contained several scratches. Scratches can be seen on the right side of the uppermost cloud near the top middle image area. Several of the films from my trip exhibited scratches and I believe they were the result of my vehicle jostling on rough roads over 20,000 miles. I will have to think of a better way to protect film during my next roadtrip.

Finally, the bottom edge of the image shows several small guardrail tops which I planned to remove during editing.

I usually work hard to get my images “as correct as possible” in the field during exposure to minimize time-consuming editing later. This film, however, had lots of problems which required editing. Lots of problems.

My first editing task usually is to open a PhotoShop Levels Adjustment Layer to explore image tones. I move the sliders in the Levels user interface while viewing the image to identify the approximate gray level desired for each important image area (this is quite similar to making test strips during wet darkroom printing). Finally, I make simple changes to the histogram, if needed. The gray level histogram adjustment for the scanned film is provided below with dark-to-light tones displayed from left-to-right.


The distribution of gray levels in the image looks good except for the dark end of the histogram. The paucity of dark pixels was due to overexposure from the light leak as discussed previously, except for a narrow strip on the lower left edge of the film. A tiny blip at the extreme left of the histogram represents dark areas in the strip that was not overexposed by the light leak.

I reset the black point of the histogram by moving the black slider to the right thirty gray levels to darken the overall image. The result of the Levels adjustment on the scanned image can be seen below. Image tones were improved slightly but lots of work remains to be done. 


A PhotoShop Curve Adjustment Layer was opened directly above the Levels Adjustment Layer to modify specific gray tones independently. The user interface for Curve adjustments is shown below with tones that progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner (note that the histogram shown previously varied from dark-to-light beginning at the lower left corner). 


The image histogram after the previous Levels adjustment is displayed in the Curve interface since the Curve Layer was placed above the Levels Layer. Recall that the histogram displayed in the Levels Adjustment interface showed that the first thirty gray levels at the dark end of the histogram were occupied by few image pixels and the black point was reset to occupy those gray levels with image pixels. The Curve Adjustment histogram here shows that the first thirty dark gray levels are now occupied with pixels.

The histogram shows four major peaks. The leftmost two peaks (straddling the vertical white line separating the two brightest quadrants of the histogram) represent clouds and sunlit snow. The next major peak (the tallest peak) represents gray sky and shadowed snow. The shortest major peak represents darker terrain features in shadows.

The white diagonal line from lower left to upper right in the Curve interface represents the original “curve” for the image whereas the dark line with circular set points represents the final curve which was set by me.

My first curve modification was directed at the clouds and sunlit snow (leftmost two peaks). The main goal was to separate the clouds visually from the terrain by increasing the cloud’s brightness and contrast. Specifically, the brightest cloud areas were brightened and less bright cloud areas were darkened. This was done by (a) resetting the white point by moving the white slider to the right to replace some near-white pixels with pure white tones, (b) bending down the curve near the slider to further brighten the bright pixels and then (c) bending up the curve in the next quadrant of the histogram to darken less bright cloud areas. These adjustments also brightened the sunlit snow while maintaining most of its structural details.

The next curve modification focused on the tallest peak which represented the gray sky and shadowed snow. The curve was bent down to darken those areas and flattened to improve tonal uniformity of the gray sky.

The final curve modification was directed at the dark end of the histogram which represented dark terrain in shadows. First, the black point was reset by moving the black slider left to replace some near-black pixels with pure black tones. Then, the curve near the slider was bent down to brighten very dark pixels to help preserve structural details in some dark image areas.

The effect of Curve adjustment on the image is shown below. Overall, the mountains feel more solid and the clouds feel more lofty & physically separated from the mountains. The awareness of light on sunlit snow is improved, the gray sky is more uniform, and terrain shadows are a bit more dramatic.


Next, local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Burn, Dodge and Clone tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer.

The darker strip along the lower left image edge was lightened using the Dodge tool, the air bubble scanning defect along the top was darkened with the Burn tool, small guardrail tops along the bottom edge were Cloned out of the image, and several film scratches were repaired with the Clone tool. Some darker cloud areas were darkened with the Burn tool to emphasize the cloud’s structure. Areas of sunlit snow were brightened with the Dodge tool to enhance the presence of sunlight spilling down the mountains. Finally, edges of the image were darkened slightly so viewer’s eyes at image boundaries were directed back into the image. The photo is shown below after retouching was performed. 


I set the image aside for a few days before taking another look at it and it looked too heavy. I opened a second Curve Adjustment Layer and placed it directly above the first Curve Adjustment Layer so I could explore the image without disturbing the first Curve adjustments.

The middle of the second curve was bent slightly down to lighten all image tones except pure white and pure black. Then, a small section of the curve near the pure white end of the histogram was bent up slightly to darken the very brightest (but not pure white) pixels of the clouds to enhance their structure slightly.

The image below shows the result of the second Curve adjustment. To me, the added brightness from the second Curve adjustment definitely helped the mountains feel higher in the clouds. Most importantly, the image more closely resembled the brightness that I witnessed at the scene. 


“Peaks of the Brooks Range” shows a large scene which contains lots of textural details and it looks best when printed reasonably large. I have a 16 inch x 22 inch print in my living room which looks quite strong. I am confident that the image would look even stronger if printed larger.


The subject of this photograph was the cold, powerful, intimidating beauty of the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Personally, I think the image does a good job of communicating what I felt when I was present at the scene.

Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, its composition, or image workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this photograph, visit hereIf you are interested in making a trip to the far north, it might be useful to see other photos on my website here.

Randall R Bresee