The Glenn Highway in southern Alaska offers spectacular views of mountains, water, trees and sky. The black and white photograph discussed today is a view of the Matanuska River which was recorded from the shoulder of the Glenn Highway during 2016. To me, the scene gushed with the bigness and richness of natural beauty that is Alaska. My goal was to make a large print that communicated those qualities, especially, its grand scale.
The essential elements of the scene were mountains, water, trees and sky. Traveling along the Glenn Highway provides plenty of opportunities to photograph those elements and today’s photo was an attempt to communicate the bigness of those elements.
A slightly wide-angle 120 mm lens was mounted on my 4 inch x 5 inch view camera (150 mm is a “normal” focal length for 4×5 cameras) to capture the enormous scene. The camera’s lensboard was tilted slightly forward to position the lens plane of focus so it covered both the near foreground trees and the far mountains to sharply focus the entire scene from front-to-back.
The scene was quite expansive and natural haze obscured distant objects enough to weaken the mountains visually. I wanted to reduce haze enough so the mountains felt more solid but retain enough haze to contribute to the sense of depth in the image so viewers appreciated the enormous size scale of the scene. I retrieved several color contrast filters from my camera bag and viewed the scene through each one to select the appropriate filter strength. I decided that a medium-yellow filter was best.
The medium-yellow filter slightly darkened blue areas on the film and was expected to produce three important changes in the film’s image. (a) The filter reduced the effects of atmospheric haze (haze was slightly blue) to help the mountains feel more solid. (b) The filter darkened areas of blue sky between clouds to add visual interest and visual weight to the sky. (c) The filter helped articulate structure within the clouds by darkening the cloud’s shadowed areas (shadows within clouds were slightly blue).
I placed the filter over the end of my 1-degree spot meter and acquired a few light meter readings. Dark conifers in the foreground were placed on Zone III (dark with good detail). When that was done, the light meter indicated that the brightest cloud areas fell in Zones VIII and IX (bright with little detail – nearly white with no detail). The lack of structural details within bright cloud areas was a problem since the sky was a large and important element of the photo and adequate structure had to be recorded in the clouds.
The scene contrast was clearly more than the film could handle so it was necessary to reduce image contrast on the film. In practical terms, I wanted the brightest cloud areas to be on Zone VII (bright with good detail) rather than on Zones VIII or IX (bright with little detail – nearly white with no detail). Consequently, I wrote development instructions on the film’s exposure record as N-1.5 (normal minus one and a half) to reduce the brightest cloud areas on the film by 1.5 f-stops to about Zone VII. The ability to easily develop different amounts of image contrast for a scene is a big advantage of using black & white film.
I placed the medium-yellow filter on the camera lens and exposed one sheet of Tri-X black & white film at 1/30 sec and f/32. I believed that I had a good photograph of Alaska.
After the 4 inch x 5 inch film was developed, 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 image obtained from the scanner without editing is shown below. Reducing image contrast on the film by decreasing film development time worked well as plenty of details can be seen in both the conifer trees of the dark foreground and the brightest cloud areas. I definitely liked the photo and thought that editing would be relatively straightforward.
A PhotoShop Curve Adjustment Layer was opened first to explore image tones and modify some image tones independently of others. The user interface for the Curve Adjustment Layer is shown below with tones that progress from light-to-dark beginning at the lower left corner. A faint white diagonal line from lower left to upper right represents the original “curve” for the image whereas the dark line with circular set points represents the final curve set by the me.
The histogram in the Curve interface shows the distribution of gray tones among pixels in the scanned image. The histogram looks good except for its bright end (left end) which shows that few or no image pixels occupy the brightest tones. That is, I had erred during exposure & film development in my concern about preserving structure in the brightest cloud areas.
I reset the white point of the histogram by moving the white slider to the right until a small population of pure white pixels were present in the image. Then, I bent the curve strongly upward so nearly white (but not pure white) pixels were darkened a bit to enhance structure within the clouds.
The largest peak of the histogram represented the sky and water. The curve was bent up and down very slightly to help achieve more desirable gray tones in those areas.
The dark end of the histogram shows a multitude of peaks that represent the dark conifer trees and dark shadowed areas of the foreground. Image pixels populated all of those dark gray levels including pure black.
Preliminary exploration done earlier showed that resetting the black point of the histogram achieved many desirable changes in the image even though it would replace many near-black pixels with pure black tones so details in some important dark areas would be lost. However, the overall benefit was substantial so I reset the black point and made a mental note to lighten critical pure black areas later using PhotoShop’s Dodge tool. In particular, I needed to lighten dark conifer trees in the foreground.
Next I tried to increase tonal separation within the river bluff and mountain foothills. Those image areas are represented near the double topped peak to the right of the histogram’s center. Specifically, brighter areas within the bluff and foothills lie in the rightmost peak whereas darker areas lie in the right shoulder of that peak. This histogram illustrates that bright and dark areas of the bluff and foothills were quite close tonally and more tonal separation was needed.
To increase tonal separation, the curve at the top of the rightmost peak (brighter areas of bluff & foothills) was bent slightly downward to brighten those areas and the curve at the peak’s right shoulder (darker areas of bluff & foothills) was bent slightly upward to darken those areas. These Curve adjustments were small but they increased tonal separation an important amount.
The next curve modification focused on the low region to the right of the largest histogram peak. This histogram region represented sand in the river and hazy areas of the mountains. The curve was bent moderately upward to darken the sand and mountains.
The effect of Curve adjustment on the image is shown below. It may be difficult to see some of the image changes when viewing the poor quality, low-resolution images made for the web but the changes are obvious in large, high quality prints.
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.
The Burn tool was used to darken many pixels in the sky and the Dodge tool was used to lighten bright and midtone pixels in the remainder of the image except riverbed sand. Then, the Dodge tool was used to lighten some pure black and near black pixels, especially dark conifer trees in the foreground.
The image shown below includes retouching.
A second PhotoShop Curve Adjustment Layer was opened to tweak specific gray tones a bit more. The most important objective of the second Curve Layer was to further increase tonal separation within the river bluff and mountain foothills.
The user interface for the second Curve Layer is shown below.
Note that the histogram of the second Curve Layer looks quite different than the histogram of the first Curve Layer. The difference reflects tonal changes that were implemented in the first curve adjustment and retouching. Specifically, the double peak region of the first Curve histogram shows more separation in the second Curve histogram.
Increasing tonal separation within the bluff & foothills for the second Curve Layer was done the same way as for the first Curve Layer. That is, brighter tones within the bluff & foothills were brightened and darker tones were darkened. Areas of the histogram that corresponds to those image areas have moved, however, because of previous curve adjustments and retouching. In the histogram for the second Curve, those areas were found in the three tallest and narrowest peaks. Specifically, brighter tones within the bluff & foothills were located in the left shoulder of the middle tall peak and darker tones were located in the rightmost tall peak.
Consequently, the curve for the left shoulder of the middle peak (brighter areas of bluff & foothills) was bent slightly downward to brighten those areas whereas the curve for the rightmost tall peak (darker areas of bluff & foothills) was bent slightly upward to darken those areas.
The histogram black point also was reset to increase the sense of depth in the image. The black slider was moved left a bit to strengthen dark tones in the foreground. That increased the sense of depth by increasing tonal separation between the foreground and lighter tones of the hazy background.
The effect of the second Curve adjustment on the image is shown below.
A print measuring 23 inch x 18 inch hangs in my living room and looks quite strong. I am confident that the image would look even stronger when printed considerably larger.
“Matanuska River” shows a scene of mountains, water, trees and sky along the Glenn Highway of Alaska. I attempted to communicate Alaska’s bigness and natural richness in a large print to showcase the grand scale of 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 here.
Randall R Bresee