Medicine Lake

The Scene

Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, is one of my favorite photographic destinations and I visited the park again during a roadtrip in 2016. I passed Medicine Lake, a shallow lake southeast of the town of Jasper, on my way to another destination in the park. I had photographed the lake before but was not enthused with my images so nothing was done with them.

On my 2016 trip, however, things were different. The lake was a bit shallower and it exhibited more textures and tones than on my previous trips. A fire had burned much of the forest on the far side of the lake so the trees were quite dark. Although I hadn’t planned to photograph Medicine Lake on this trip, I pulled off the road to digest the scene.

I envisioned a somewhat abstract image with exaggerated textures and tones. Specifically, I envisioned strongly dark tones for the burned forest on the far side of the lake and substantially exaggerated tones for the water, gravel and mud. I liked the scene and thought the photo might work.


The lake had so many terrific shapes, tones and textures that I could have composed an image nearly anywhere. I simply set up my tripod in an area which included plenty of straight and curved lines. I tried to find a spot which minimized the amount of foreground brush in the composition but some brush was unavoidable. I didn’t worry, however, because I knew that a small amount of brush could be removed easily during editing later.

A 210 mm lens was mounted on my 4 inch x 5 inch view camera (150 mm is a “normal” focal length for 4×5 cameras) and the lensboard was tilted slightly forward to position the lens plane of focus so the near foreground as well as trees on the far side of the lake were both in focus.

I acquired a few light meter readings with my 1-degree spot meter and placed the burned forest on Zone III (dark with good detail) and the brightest areas of the lake fell on Zone VII (bright with good detail). This was perfect since it preserved structural details through the entire scene to provide flexibility during editing. Consequently, I recorded development instructions on the film’s exposure record as N (normal) and exposed one sheet of Tri-X black & white film at 1/30 sec and f/32.


After developing the 4 inch x 5 inch film, it 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 digital image obtained from the scanner without editing is provided below. Plenty of details were recorded for all parts of the scene as planned, but the image did not exhibit the abstraction that I envisioned when at the lake. However, I had a concept for the image, plenty of pixels and good image details to work with. This was an image that would be “made” during editing.

My first PhotoShop editing task usually is to open a Levels Adjustment Layer to explore image tones. That is, I move sliders of the Levels interface while viewing the image to identify the desired gray tone for each important image area. This was especially important for today’s image since I wanted abstract tones for the image. The Levels interface for the scanned film is shown below with dark-to-light tones displayed from left-to-right.

Tonal exploration provided a more concrete mental view of the desired image. Identifying specific gray-tones desired for each important image area allowed me to begin digital editing more decisively, much like acquiring exposure test strips allows wet darkroom printers to begin printing more purposefully.

The first seventeen gray levels at the darkest end of the histogram (leftmost end) were not populated by pixels so I reset the black point by moving the black slider eighteen gray levels to the right where the darkest image pixels were located. The result of this on the scanned image can be seen below and it shows that darker tones were strengthened slightly.

A PhotoShop Curve Adjustment Layer was opened directly above the Levels Adjustment Layer to modify different gray tones independently. The Curve Layer interface 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 straight white line that runs diagonally from lower left to upper right in the interface represents the initial unmodified “curve” for the image whereas the dark line with circular set points represents the final curve after my modifications.

My modifications to the linear line look a bit strange and likely need a little explanation. Recall that tonal exploration in the previous Levels Layer helped me identify gray tones desired for each important image area. That information helped guide my modifications to the initial curve in this Layer.

The histogram shows four major peaks. The broad peak on the far left was composed of the brightest and light-gray areas of the lake bottom. The next peak (the tallest peak) represented the foreground gravel and mid-gray water in the lake. The third peak from the left represented darker water and shore vegetation on the far side of the lake. The smallest peak (rightmost peak) represented burned forest on the far shore.

Curve modification began with very light image areas of the leftmost histogram peak. First, nearly-white pixels were brightened by resetting the white point. That is, the white slider was moved slightly to the right to replace some nearly-white pixels with pure white tones. Second, slightly darker (but still quite bright) pixels were darkened a bit by bending the curve upward strongly. This darkened large image areas of light-gray and enhanced texture in other image areas by darkening small light-gray pixels within the areas. Third, even slightly darker (but still bright) pixels were brightened a bit by bending the curve strongly downward to brighten large image areas slightly and enhance texture in other image areas.

The next curve modification focused on the foreground gravel and mid-gray lake water of the tallest histogram peak. As before, the curve was bent strongly up and then strongly down to darken large areas and develop texture in other image areas.

The third peak of the curve was modified similarly by bending the curve strongly up and then strongly down to darken and develop texture in dark water and the shoreline on the far side of the lake.

The fourth modification was directed at the burned forest on the far shore. I wanted to strengthen the forest or, in other words, change trees from Zone III (dark with good detail) to Zone II (darker with slight detail). This was accomplished by resetting the black point of the histogram. Moving the black slider to the left (a) replaced some nearly black pixels with pure black tones and (b) darkened other nearly-black pixels by bending the curve upward to the new black point.

The effect of Curve adjustment on the image is shown below. Ah, it is beginning to look like the abstract image that I imagined!

Local retouching was performed next 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.

Brush at the bottom of the image was cloned out of the image. Several areas of bright texture were brightened even more using the Dodge tool. Small areas of gravel in the foreground and vegetation on the far shore were darkened using the Burn tool. Finally, small distracting spots were de-emphasized.

The image shown below includes retouching.

I really liked the image at this point but thought that it needed to have more life. I opened a second Curve Adjustment Layer directly above the first Curve Layer to explore additional image adjustments without disturbing adjustments of the first Curve Layer.

One point near the center of the curve was bent down as shown below. Comparing the white diagonal line (the original unadjusted “curve”) and the dark line with one circular set point (the adjusted curve set by the me) shows that the amount of adjustment differed for each different image tone.

That is, the curve adjustment brightened mid-tones the most whereas darker and lighter tones were brightened less and pure black & pure white pixels were not brightened at all.

The histogram displayed in this adjustment layer shows the distribution of pixel gray tones after all prior editing since this layer was placed on top of the other layers. Recall that histogram peaks in the first Curve adjustment layer were bent strongly up and then strongly down. The effects of those modifications are quite visible in the histogram of the second Curve adjustment displayed above. That is, the histogram shown above is shaped quite weirdly and is evidence of the somewhat abstract nature of this edited image.

The image below adds the result of the second Curve adjustment. Overall brightening provided by the second Curve adjustment definitely helps the middle tones and adds more vitality overall to the image.


This photograph is a somewhat abstract representation of Medicine Lake in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. This park is one of my favorite places to visit and it always provides me with good photographs. After acquiring uninspiring photos of Medicine Lake on my previous trips to the park, I am happy to finally have a photo that I like!

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 here.

Randall R Bresee