Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River

The Scene:

The small community of Telegraph Creek is located on the Stikine River in northwest British Columbia, Canada. The community is accessible via Telegraph Creek Road, a drive with steep grades that are best negotiated in dry weather.

Most communities in the far north are closely connected to water and most of life’s activities depend on the water. The goal of this photograph was to show the close connection between the little community of Telegraph Creek and the powerful Stikine River.


Fortunately, a hilltop cemetery at one edge of town provided expansive views of both the town and the river. 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 on both the near foreground grass as well as trees on the far mountain.

I thought it was important to clearly show that the river was much larger than the town. That was accomplished in the composition by (a) including enough of the river to show that it was much longer than the town and (b) including the full width of the river at its widest point in the image (image lower left corner).

I also thought that tonal strength was needed through the entire image, especially the river, to communicate the strong forces of nature at work in the scene. Consequently, I added a Medium-Yellow contrast filter to eliminate most atmospheric haze in the scene. That allowed scene areas far away (where haze was strongest) to be recorded with nearly the same tonal strengths as foreground scene areas (where little haze existed). In particular, it allowed the river to maintain tonal strength into the far reaches of the scene.

I usually expose to record structural detail in nearly every image area to provide flexibility during editing. Image areas which have detail can easily be lightened or darkened but blocked areas without details offer few editing options. My 1-degree spot meter showed that the brightness range of the scene was very large. To accommodate as much of the brightness range as possible, the most important areas of dark foliage were placed on Zone III (dark with good detail) but small, less important dark areas were allowed to fall in lower Zones where little image detail would be recorded. The brightest areas of water fell on Zone VII (bright with good detail). The lightest sky areas were problematic because they fell in very bright zones that would retain little detail in the image.

Black & white film users know that the contrast of an image can be reduced on film by decreasing the film’s development time. However, many key objects in today’s photo were tonally quite similar and I knew that reducing the overall contrast of the film would reduce tonal differences between objects even more. The scene needed contrast within the town, river and trees and reducing overall image contrast on the film by decreasing film development time would make it more difficult or impossible to adequately separate many important objects during editing.

Instead of decreasing film development time, I decided to try a seat-of-my-pants approach to the high scene contrast. Although the brightest sky areas would contain few details on a film that was exposed normally and developed normally, I decided to deal with the sky during editing rather than exposure and development. If necessary, I figured I could crop out parts of the sky which couldn’t be salvaged by editing. This approach allowed me to develop the film normally so image contrast in the largest and most important parts of the composition would be good. Consequently, I specified N (normal) development on the film’s exposure record and added a note to deal with the sky by cropping parts which were too problematic for editing.

One sheet of Tri-X black & white film was exposed at 1/15 sec and f/22-32 (read as half way between f/22 and f/32).


After development, 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. Image tones were pretty good except for the brightest sky areas. The problematic area of bright sky was too bright and appears to contain few structural details in the scanned image.

To start thinking about my options for dealing with the sky, I viewed the whole image on my computer monitor and then reframed the image by scrolling to simply eliminate the brightest sky areas. Unfortunately, the image definitely looked weaker when the brightest sky areas were excluded. The sky seemed to help the whole scene feel bigger and excluding some of the sky almost made the town feel as important as the river. Cropping out sky areas also cropped hilltops on both sides of the river so the presence of a river valley was reduced and greatly reduced the feeling that the town was located within a large river valley. You can appreciate the effects of cropping the sky yourself by scrolling the image on your display device.

My overall goal was to show the close connection between the little community of Telegraph Creek and the powerful Stikine River. Cropping the sky clearly detracted from that goal because it increased the visual importance of the town and weakened the power of the river. Consequently, I decided to work extra hard to keep as much of the sky as editing would allow.

The first step of editing for me usually is to open at least one temporary Adjustment Layer to explore the image file. I typically use a Levels Layer, Curve Layer, Brightness/Contrast Layer or some combination of those. Layers opened for exploration are viewed as temporary layers and usually are deleted before image modifications are done.

Image exploration helps me identify gray tones that I want for each object in the image. Exploration also invariably reveals structural features in an image that I did not notice previously. Finally, exploration provides information that is helpful for developing an overall editing plan.

Benefits of image exploration can be appreciated by comparing the river’s structural features in the scanned image above to the completed image at the beginning of this article. The scanned image showed little river structure but image exploration with enhancements using various adjustment layers revealed many structural features in the river which could be enhanced during editing.

With my editing plan in hand, I opened a Curve Adjustment Layer for the scanned image. The Curve interface is shown below with gray tones that progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner. The thin diagonal line from lower left to upper right represents the original linear “curve” for the image whereas the thick dark line with circular set points represents the final curve set by me.

The image histogram shows that every possible gray tone including totally white and totally black was occupied with pixels. The largest peak in the right half of the histogram corresponds mostly to dark vegetation. The image contained very few pixels that were totally black (extreme right of histogram) so the black slider was moved left to increase the population of totally black pixels.

The left half of the histogram mostly represents the sky, the bright parts of the river and a few buildings. As discussed previously, some sky areas were severely overexposed and the tall, narrow peak at the extreme left end of the histogram corresponds to the brightest sky areas.

My first curve modification was focused on the sky. The curve near the left end of the histogram was bent upward very sharply to darken the brightest sky areas. Some bright buildings in town also were darkened by that action but I knew that I could brighten them again later using PhotoShop’s Dodge tool. Note also that I moved the white slider (at the histogram’s extreme left end) slightly to the right to increase the population of totally white pixels. That adjustment was not done at this time, however, but was done after retouching to emphasize the low, bright cloud above the river.

Next, attention was directed toward the middle region of the curve which represented some areas of the river and some of the town’s buildings. My main goal was to enhance the river’s structural features which previous image exploration had revealed. Two curve areas which corresponded to slightly darker areas of the water were bent upwards to darken those areas more and two curve areas which corresponded to slightly brighter water areas were bent downwards to brighten those areas more.

The effect of Curve adjustment on the image is shown below.

Curve Adjustment enhanced structure in the river considerably, darkened parts of the sky and darkened the vegetation. Since I wanted the river to feel powerful, I was particularly happy with how the Curve adjustment added body to the river and helped it become visually stronger. I also was pleased to see that usable tones in the sky were within reach. However, vegetation was darkened substantially and felt far too dark and heavy.

I opened a second Curve Layer to adjust dark tones so the image would feel more vibrant. This Curve was placed directly above the first Curve Adjustment Layer. The second Curve adjustment interface is shown below.

The large population of dark pixels (the biggest peak of the histogram) corresponds mostly to dark vegetation. The curve in that area was bent downward a bit to brighten all dark pixels except for near-black pixels close to the black point. It was necessary to maintain a large enough population of the darkest pixels to tonally anchor the vegetation.

Also note that the white slider was moved to the right to increase the small population of totally white pixels. As for the first Curve layer, however, that was not done at this time but was done after retouching to provide more structure to the low, bright cloud above the river.

The image below includes the second Curve adjustment.

At this point, the image was about as good as I could get using broad tonal adjustments with curves. However, the image still lacked liveliness and vitality. It was time to perform a lot of localized retouching using PhotoShop’s Burn, Dodge and Clone tools. The original image layer from the scanner was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the scanner layer.

First, I used these tools to fix a few distractions. When exposing the film at the scene, I hadn’t noticed that a thin, low cloud floated into my composition above the river in the upper left quadrant of the image. The cloud partially obscured some trees on the opposite side of the river so the obscured area was burned darker to reduce the visual prominence of the cloud until it could no longer be recognized.

Next, I focused on the metal object on the right edge of the image near the lower right corner. The clone tool was used to replace pixels of the metal object with pixels of nearby grass. Next, the tiny white object entering the bottom of the image near the lower left corner was burned darker to reduce its visual prominence. A few other small distractions were edited as well.

Then, I spent considerable time on foliage. Image exploration previously showed that large groups of conifer trees were slightly darker than other trees. I used Burn and Dodge tools to enhance the differences among trees by darkening large areas of darker conifers and brightening other trees. That added considerable visual vitality to the trees, especially on the far side of the river.

Grass in the foreground also needed more visual vitality so shadow areas in the grass were burned darker. Road surfaces and areas covered only by thin vegetation in the town below were brightened with PhotoShop’s Dodge tool.

Several of the buildings, especially their roofs, were brightened with the Dodge tool. Areas of water in the river which reflected light from the bright sky were brightened a bit more.

Finally, attention was directed to the sky. Even though a large white area of the sky initially seemed to be hopelessly blocked, previous image exploration showed that it actually contained some structure. When a problem area contains structural details, there is always hope! The Burn tool was used extensively with the “Shadows” range selected to burn the brightest sky areas and structural details slowly developed. Then, the “Midtones” range was selected and the area was burned more. Finally, the “Highlights” range was selected to finish burning the sky.

I was very happy with how the sky turned out. It was not perfect but it was good enough to keep the sky in the composition. I tried one last time to improve the sky, however. Both Curve Adjustment layers were reopened and the white sliders were moved slightly right (as noted previously) to strengthen the sky by brightening some cloud highlights.

The image after all retouching is shown below. The retouched image definitely is more lively and has more vitality than the unretouched image. Quite surprisingly, the sky looked pretty good.

Like most photographs, “Telegraph Creek on the Stikine River” looks much better as a high resolution print than as a low resolution web image. Looking at low resolution images on the web is great but there is no substitute for seeing a high resolution print.


The subject of this photograph was the little community of Telegraph Creek and its close connection to the powerful Stikine River. 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