Clouds Draw the Wind
The following post is the first in a series I will write from time to time, depending on interest and feedback. In the past I have tended to tallk about the how of photography and the why of photography, but rarely if ever together.
In these posts I want to talk about the journey from pre- to postvisualisation and the steps I have followed in making the image. I intend to offer workshops that explore this in the future and which marry concept and technique. Let me know what you think.
Clouds draw the wind
You never really finish a piece of work; you abandon it
I am in haste. I can feel the land watching me and I am on edge, but I stop for a coffee anyway.
Make sure you are in four-wheel drive, the publican tells me. It’s slippery past the second ford. A guy came off the track. He was in rear-wheel drive and he slid off. He had to walk 12 miles out in the middle of the night to get help. I take it in. Are you by yourself? I am. The subtext and the pitch of his eyebrows tell me he doesn’t think I should try it.
But the wind is picking up and flaying the new snow from the sides of the Hawkduns, and something is pulling at me, dragging me towards them. I can feel an invisible hand between my shoulderblades, urging me up the Manuherikia Valley.
I have to go. My cup of tea and catch-up with poet Brian Turner an hour before has only made me more restless, more determined to push up to the head of the valley. I could turn and run down-wind, but I need to face it, to take the challenge. So I turn up into the wind.
The snow that fell yesterday has had no chance to freeze, and the nor’wester is growing in confidence. From time it shakes my truck like an angry dog. All the time it is picking up the snow and throwing it into the air. The landscape is being uncovered before my eyes.
Down through the first ford and my truck shakes its head in disbelief. Is that it, it seems to scornfully? But we are close to the second ford. On the other side the track winds across a new cattle stop and up a cutting on the shadow side of the hill. The warm wind has loosened the surface and it is slippery. I come to where the other guy came off, and see the scars in the road surface where he did battle. My Toyota steps across it disdainfully and we climb out onto the long ridge, where the full force of the wind throws itself on us. I am nervous, acutely conscious that I am on my own and that any error will mean a long walk in weather where the wind-chill factor will be ferocious.
I have been in the city too long. Get over it. I push on. This is way too special a day, and I am blessed to be here. This is Central Otago in all its feral beauty and I should give thanks. Get over it.
The light is coming and going, an eye that opens briefly and then closes, courtesy of the wind that keeps herding clouds across the ranges at the head of the valley. I am looking, assessing, discarding. There is an image here. I just haven’t seen it yet. But I will. I can feel it.
Then, as we climb out of a ford, and the truck, my journey companion, shakes itself dry, I see it; that mysterious combination of light and space and time and shape and meaning that forms a photograph I want to make. The light is at a perfect angle. I turn the truck and park it across the road so that it forms a windbreak, and set up my tripod in the lee.
I shoot in RAW at 200 ISO, making sure I turn the Image Stabiliser off. The 1Ds mirror up function now allows me to leave the mirror up until I use the Set button. Thus, while the first image in a sequence may still suffer from Mirror ‘slap’, hopefully subsequent ones will not. It means that I have to frame the image then , because the mirror is blacked out, look at the scene past the camera and rely on the LCD to show me what has happened. Ten exposures in two brackets of 5, using the viewfinder after the 5th to check composition, and I pack up and move on. I feel a sense of deep satisfaction, a joy that the journey of the last years have brought me to this place and this time.
And there is a sense of something captured, something expressed, a journey begun. The idea is in my head, the raw data on the card. I am already planning how I will realise it, which options I will take in post-production. Deep down I know this is one for the wall. I am already planning the framing…
My first step is to download the shoot to my laptop and duplicate the files to the USB-powered hard drive I carry as a backup, using Lightroom. Because the screen on my HP is well-nigh impossible to calibrate, the fine work will have to wait until I get home to my desktop. The Library in LR makes naming, keywording and labelling easy and fast. When I transfer the files to my desktop I will import them using the ‘new location function rather than drag-and-drop them into a folder. The laptop connects to the big machine through a LAN, so transferring files across a network is relatively easy. It also enables me to keep my large-format printer at the other end of the house (in the garage, actually). This means that for a time I have 4 copies of everything. When I am satisfied that the re-import has gone smoothly, I will copy the ‘picks’ on my laptop to another folder, for future editing or as sample material for workshops, and delete the folder on the laptop. Then I will clear the laptop backup drive.
Keywording and labelling done I prefer the colour labelling to stars or picks (it is a visual thing for me), I open my selects in the Develop module and reflect on what I felt at the time I made the photograph, and where I want to take the image. My memory is a tonal one, and while I find the blues in the original scene seductive, the harshness of the climate and the bitterness of the wind are still with me. Somehow I want this to be a black-and-white image. My initial playing in LR shows me there is more here than LR is capable of delivering.
This is a job for PhotoShop’s Basket of Infinite Subtleties.
Across to Bridge and I open the image in ACR. Fullsize, 16 bit to hold the tonalities and open it as a Smart Object in CS3. This will enable me to readjust exposure without having to reopen the image.
I apply an initial pre-sharpen and, while I know I am going to make a black-and-white image, I don’t do it here. Nor do I adjust the tone curves. So the image opens in CS3 in full RGB colour mode.
At this point I create a duplicate layer (Ctrl-J), and this where my Wacom comes in handy. I am going to
make a printing plan. This is a holdover from my darkroom days, when I would make a trial print then write notes on it with a Sharpie. Most master darkroom photographers would do it. So I am working on specific areas of the image. You can see an example at right.
Then I begin to work on the image.
Firstly I apply a curves adjustment layer. I apply strong contrast and pin the lower part of the curve to hold the shadows on Zone II1/2. The lower area falls below this threshold but I will come back to it. I also pin the highlight areas in the upper right-hand of the photograph so that they hold the merest trace of detail (Zone VIII). Then I tweak the shadow areas to just hold texture.
Now I apply a B&W conversion adjustment layer, using the red filter. This increases the contrast in areas where the snow is blowing from the sides of the mountain. All the time I am watching the mid-tone area at upper left, to ensure it doesn’t start breaking up. This drops the lower area into shadow.
Now I use a 250 radius soft brush to open the area along the bottom of the image, to reveal the tussocks. I lower the opacity of the brush to blend it into the deeper shadows I wish to keep.
Then I use a softish brush to clone out the marked areas.
Back to the burn tool. I add a little darkening to the sky area to provide subtle separation to the ridge and sky.
Two steps to go.
I reach for the high-pass filter, which applies an adjustment layer. I lower the radius to just around 11 px, so the edge are revealed, and select the Hard Light blend mode, then lower the opacity to around 40%, to hold the sharpness in the tussocks without haloing the ridgelines. When this is OK, I make a copy, then flatten the original and move to the last step.
The image has been printed on Canon Archival Photo Satin, and already I am aware that an initial assessment of the result has to wait an hour or two, until the ink has dried. Watching the finished image, I can see the shadows opening as it dries.
As is study it, I realise that the screen is one thing. A finished print is another. Already I can see subtleties that I will work on again.
I am not quite ready to abandon it yet.