Talk About Images

  By George Barr

Welcome to the first of what may turn out to be a series of brief articles focusing on a single image I have made, and the lessons learned from the making. If you find this useful or interesting, be sure to let us know and we can prepare more articles.

Today’s image is from Writing On Stone Provincial Park. It’s located south east of Lethbridge, Alberta; some 5 hours drive from Calgary. One drives to Lethbridge from Calgary, then take highway 4 from Lethbridge to Milk River. From there it takes about 3/4 hour to drive east to the park.

The circumstances of making the image were that in 2010 we had a nasty freeze in September, damaging trees, but then the weather warmed and we enjoyed one of the longest Indian Summers in memory.

Two of us took advantage of the unseasonably warm November weather to head to Writing On Stone. We photographed in the late afternoon light, lightly overcast but with no sign of the sun until almost sunset when a few rays peaked from under the western clouds and lit the scene in the photograph.

The image is lucky because I had only seconds in which to make it. I tried to make a more detailed stitch once this shot was complete, but made the mistake of thinking the sky wasn’t important to the image and so cropped it for the stitch, and besides, the magic light had already started to fade, and no amount of editing would bring it back.

I remember seeing the light, and running backwards some 40 feet to get the right composition and take advantage of the nearby features. I used the lens I had on the camera, fearing (accurately as it turned out) that the light that had so unexpectedly appeared, might also fade just as quickly.

 The single image here was made with a Canon 5D2 and 24-105 mm. lens at 24 mm. This was a convenient lens, but hardly stellar in performance. There were considerable aberrations, with bright cyan outlines to the edge of the sky that I had to subsequently clone out by hand (built in corrections to Camera Raw did not do the job), and sharpness that was considerably less than ideal. I can make 20 inch prints, but I can’t make 30 inch, which the same camera and better lenses has happily done for me in the past.

Making a good print at home was challenging as even with a profiled monitor and custom printer profile, there were discrepancies in the colour of the rocks that spoiled many prints, and getting a good commercial print on canvas was unusually frustrating, from a printer who had no difficulty making excellent prints of other images for me. I had to get the image reprinted before I was happy with the result. The more subtle the colour, the harder it is to print well and accurately.

Lessons Learned:

– Timing was critical. Be ready to take advantage of even a few seconds of unexpected perfect light.

– If a lens has proven borderline, replace it. A different lens of the same model may be fine, but you might just have to use a better lens. Had I the time, I would have switched to my 17-40 mm. lens which at 24 mm. is noticeably sharper than the 24-105. Better yet would have been to stitch in the first place, but I might not have had time.

– Given that this image makes a very nice 20 inch print, perhaps the most important message is that getting the image always trumps using the best equipment – better a good modest size print than a pristine large one that missed the light entirely. Still, a 6 foot print sure would have looked great.

– I don’t often include the sky in images but here, that small strip of gray sky turns out to be quite critical to this particular image. Cropping it out just doesn’t work as well. Of course, the same evening sun gave the cloud a hint of warmth it didn’t have two minutes before, but it’s more than that – somehow those distant hills lose dimension when cropped below the horizon – where I would have expected it to reinforce the composition, what really happened with the crop is that the sense of scale and distance was lost in the cropped image.

– I was able to bring out local contrast in the sky by a combination of ‘burning’ actually using a curves adjustment layer in photoshop and painting into the mask, and then applying Akvis Enhancer to bring out separation in the clouds. This filter opens shadows, increases local contrast throughout the image (not just in midtones) and controls highlights.

– We returned to photograph the next morning but the sky quickly cleared and by 10 AM the light was harsh and photographic opportunities were getting scarce. I did manage to crawl into a cave to photograph the roof, and at one point photograph the east wall of a narrow canyon that remained in the shade, yet was lit by the glow from the west wall.

Writing On Stone is a wonderful place to photograph and despite its distance, is well worth visiting. I’ll be back.