Clouds Draw the Wind

Kia ora tatou:

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

Brian Turner

You never really finish a piece of work; you abandon it

-Brian Turner

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.

Hawkduns and Snow-Printing Plan

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.

I open my Xhibition action, which upsizes the image to 20 x 24″ in 10% increments and adds a 25mm white canvas.  One last check using the soft-proof function, then I send it to the printer.

And wait.

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.

16 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    So you settled on the Archival Photo Satin rather than the Fine Art Archival Matt (or was that just due to necessity as the Fine Art box did not contain a 24″ roll of the correct stock?) I have a plan for reprofiling the Satin stock so it prints a little lighter (so print and softproof match more accurately)… just let me heal for a few days…

    Nicks last blog post..It’s coming out today!

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi Nick:
    How is your face (the rest of you may not know but Nick has just had all four wisdom teeth out ( ouch)?
    Well, I am still waiting for the Archival Matt….
    The Satin really brings out the clouds and flayed snow…
    O, and you may be interested to know that I have already had a query from a framer to use me instead of a local lab for FA printing… looks as if the 6100 may earn its keep.. if Linda will let me near it!
    take care and be kind to yourself!
    As an aside, making a 24 x36″ print requires adjusting print density to hold the tonal intensity.. but you knew that anyway…

  3. meg says:

    Good stuff Tony, it looks as cold as I remember it! Thanks for the insight.

    Nick I had a wisdom tooth pulled here in Nadi, she did a great job and it cost…. $FJD 20!!! That leaves me hundreds of dollars to play with printing…

    megs last blog post..Once upon a time…

  4. Thanks Tony — an excellent post which has given me much to mull over and try out (when I get time to take a breath after an intense few weeks of contract editing…)

    Catching up with Brian Turner sounds like fun. I assume you know he’s a mate of Grahame Sydney? In October this year, Grahame will be releasing a book of his photos from Antarctica; apparently Canon supported him and has also supplied him with video gear for a documentary film about Central Otago.

    The quotation from Brian echoes Paul Valery’s statement: “Writing is never finished, only abandoned.” Given the standard of some of the work I’ve edited recently, the writing was abandoned far too soon ;^P

    Cheers Tony — and step away from that printer, slowly, with your hands in the air.

    pohanginapetes last blog post..Nepal: towards Annapurna (Part II)

  5. Nick says:

    Tony, interesting comment: Are you saying that you need to print denser or lighter the larger you go? I can’t say that I have thought too much about print density being a function of viewing distance but the more I think about it, the more logical it sounds (though I am afraid that colour management can’t help much in this area). Me, I am a fan of the more intimate print size and seldom go about about 11×14″ (though your grand landscapes are impressive large)

    Meg, wow, less that $20NZ that is good value! Mine, $1500! ($375 each) I could get a nice new lens for that price! Damn good job though – can’t remember a thing and very little pain.

    Nicks last blog post..Light / Form IV

  6. sg says:

    Hi Tony,

    That’s a great lesson online. I wish things are that easy. Thanks, Stojan

  7. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi Pete;;;
    standing well awy…for the next 10 minutes or so!
    many thanks. Good things take time….
    Yes that is exactly what I am saying. I made a 20 x 24 and the tonalities were much broader. It had lost its passion, so obviously it is important to rework the finished file with output size in mind..I had forgotten that I used to do it when in the darkroom.
    A little revision and practice is needed….
    Glad to hear your mouth is on the comeback trail!

  8. Nick says:

    You did not really have a choice when working in the darkroom, you always had to work to the output size. You could not really print a 8×10 then scale up the enlarger settings to a 20×24, you always needed to come up with new exposure times, change lens aperture and change the paper grade. The reference was always the contact print, and getting an enlargement that looked as good as the contact print was always tricky.

    I am still thinking about this print viewing distance vs apparent density as if you get the viewing distances correct, an 8×10 can look the same size as an 20×24. In this case, under controlled lighting, will the exact same file look the same when printed as 8×10 and 20×24?

    I am thinking that as you get closer to a 20×24, you start to concentrate on smaller details, hence your eye starts averaging the apparent density and the density looks lower the closer you get (as you no longer see the image as a whole).

    I am looking forward to seeing your tests.

    Nicks last blog post..Light / Form IV

  9. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi Nick:
    It is true that when making a darkroom print the contrast needed to be shifted as you made larger images. The issues of exposure are irrelevant (it was a matter of printing distance affecting exposure (the Inverse Square Law applied).
    That said, I am trying to make prints that hold their meaning viewed both up close and from a distance. This is the first time I have had the ability to do this. Before that I had to put up with what the lab delivered.
    I ma interested in what you have to say, and I intend to make a variety of tests using the test-strip method ( a darkroom back-to-the-future thing). Hopefully at the end of this I will be able to make some sort of informed comment.
    In the meantime it is off to the Net for some guidelines…..

  10. bb says:

    Hi Tony
    I have read and “enjoyed” this post a number of times. I follow your way of working. Being out in those snow conditions is just awesome if just a smidgeon “cold”!!! I understand just about everything you have said (as a former dark room worker it all makes sense to me!) There are some new bits for me so I will be trying them out! (like using the high pass filter)

    One thing I will never forget. When talking about images appearing to be “blurred and not a correct density” Derek Hearn once told me that the correct viewing distance of an image (whether it be a print or a projection) to get your detail etc to appear appropriately was two and a half times the diagonal of the image away from the image. You may or may not agree with this.

    Enjoy your “back to the future” activities.

    Thanks for this post and its “at the post production coal face” help

  11. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi BB:
    Many thanks for that. Yes, that is true, if you intend the image to be viewed as a single entity, i.e. from a single distance.
    What intrigues me, however, is to be able to produce an image that can be read in its entirety ( ie from the ” correct” viewing distance) and also writ small, (ie with one’s nose pressed to the glass), whic of course means an image with a multiplicity of interpretation.
    A sense a windmill ready for the tilting, just over the horizon….

  12. bb says:

    Go Cervantes!

  13. bb says:

    Or was that Don Quixote!!!

  14. Tony Bridge says:

    Putting on my BA in Literature hat…
    Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha”) and it was published in 1605(coughs gently behind hand)
    You probably didn’t need to know that. I did, so I went away and brushed away the cobwebs of 35 years….

  15. bb says:

    What fun Tony. Your brain is younger than mine so you can remember further back!!!!! and English wasn’t my best subject so I bow to your knowledge!!!!!!!

  16. Tony Bridge says:

    Mind you, you have forgotten more than I will ever know about pharmacology…

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