Softly in a scene I walk

Glacier National Park, ISO 100, 108mm, f/16, 3 image HDR

Glacier National Park, ISO 100, 100mm, 1/125 sec., f/13

I have two preferences for landscape scenes:  the acutely sharp, highly detailed ones and the soft, ephemeral ones.  Of the two I find the latter much harder to create in a way to show what I was seeing at the time.  Our eyes are so good at extracting contrast within a scene:  looking at fog winding through a grove of trees we see both the fog tendrils as well as the pine needles in almost equal detail.  A camera, be it digital or film, has a much harder time discriminating all those little aspects that make such a scene captivating.  The light has to be perfect, the amount of fog versus the background has to be just right, the details in the scene must still be visible without being too obvious – all these things to look for and you still just part way there.

Weather changes quickly in Glacier NP which makes the opportunity to capture scenes like the two above pretty good.  I was fortunate for both in that the cloud cover was thin, giving me enough light from above to light up the ground details but not so much as to wipe out the fog details.  My camera is set to capture a flat image to give me more to work with in post-processing, which I’ve found is important for these type images.  The picture on the back of the camera is usually not very great but I’ve learned to ignore that, knowing it will be better after running it through my software.

With the RAW image in Photoshop I’m interested in improving the local contrast where I want edges to be a little sharper and increasing the difference in luminance between light and dark areas to bring some depth to the image.  I’ve recently started reading George DeWolfe’s approach to this based on his research about how our eye perceives contrast and edges.  He instructs using the History Brush in PS to make local adjustments to the image, a technique that works really well for these type images where adjustments to small areas can really help deliver the look I want.  It’s pretty simple – create a duplicate layer and use the History Brush on the duplicate, painting right on the image itself rather than a mask.  He focuses his technique on B&W images to maximize the impact in the print; I’m finding it works very well on color images as well, either for screen display or printing.

For the first image, since the light is coming from the upper right of the scene, I lightened up the top of the ground cover along the bottom left while darkening the areas just below where I lightened.  This brought out the curve of that little ridge running down the hill.  Then I increased the contrast in the trees to make them stand out in the fog, but didn’t adjust the lighter fog areas at all as they already had the contrast I wanted.

In the second image I increased the contrast along the ridge lines just at the edges to make them stand out against the clouds more.  I also lightened the snow areas so they would pop out of the picture better.  Finally I lightened the areas of grass at the bottom of the image to better define the trees down there.  Again I made no changes to the clouds as they work just the way they are.

Soft, dark, brooding, ominous, ephemeral – I really like this style of image because of the mood it projects.  Once you’ve stood looking at such a scene and taken in all the aspects of what’s around you there’s a desire to capture it and share with other like-minded souls.

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