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Simplifying the Complicated

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Making a print of this seemingly straightforward scene helped me realize how advances in technology have made easy what used to be very difficult.

PIÑON PINE AT HELL'S BACKBONE. The final result. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Last April, I took the scenic back country drive from Boulder, Utah to Escalante. The gravel road was constructed in the 1930s and features a bridge that spans a gorge connecting the upper reaches of Sand Creek and Death Hollow canyons. On both sides of the bridge, canyon walls drop precipitously for 1500 feet.

I have traveled this road nearly a dozen times, but I made only one photograph on Hells Backbone, and that was twenty years ago. At the time, I was using a medium format camera and was fortunate to have even light because the slide film I was using had a usable contrast range of only 5 stops.

The scanned slide film yielded a photo of a tree trunk that was twisted in circles by the wind and overlooking the head of Death Hollow . I find the shape of the tree interesting, and I think a viewer can appreciate the relationship between the tree and the distant canyon. The flat light isn't that interesting, but it does makes the image easy to print. However, even with the flat light, I still struggled with the bright upper left corner where light spilled into the image from above the horizon,

TWISTED TRUNK, DEATH HOLLOW. Made using a medium format camera and slide film twenty years ago on a cloudy day. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

On my recent visit, I parked the car on the side of a narrow hogback of land — just before the bridge, and just below 9,000 feet altitude. The air was thin but pleasantly still and warm in the brilliant sunshine.

The hogback was only twenty yards wide and bordered by precipices — Death Hollow to the left, and Sand Creek to the right. I explored the Death Hollow side but was unable to find my old twisted subject and couldn't settle on another composition.

Turning to the Sand Creek side, I was attracted to the mature piñon pine perched just a couple of feet from the edge of the cliff. The sun was off to the right, partially backlighting the tree and its needles, but bathing the whole of the sandstone basin in brilliant light.

As with my earlier photo, I liked the relationship of the tree to the expansive sandstone background. I could see a story here — one of place and time surely, but also one of the lonely struggle of this elevated tree.

I composed the image and hoped I could realize my vision in the digital darkroom.

Here's the RAW file:

PIÑON PINE AT HELL'S BACKBONE, The RAW file. The white sandstone in the bottom left of the image is almost paper white, the dark tree trunks are nearly black, and the needles are not luminous. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.

In the twenty years between exposures on Hells Backbone, I have changed cameras. For the past decade or so, I have been using digital cameras with full-frame sensors, but in the month before this photo was taken, I began using a medium format digital camera. This is one of the first serious exposures made with that camera.

I wanted a sense of brightness and delicacy in the final photograph — light, but detailed — and I wanted the pine needles to be luminous — like they "felt" in person. The challenges to accomplishing my goals in the final photo are obvious in the RAW file. The sandstone in the lower right is almost. (but not quite) clipped at pure white, while parts of the tree trunks are nearly clipped at pure black.

Twenty years ago, my camera may not have been able to record a scene with such a great range of luminosities. But even if It could, I couldn't get both the darks and the lights in a print without some serious masking. it was certainly beyond my ability at the time to create a precise mask in Photoshop that would selectively darken bright sandstone without also darkening the overlying branches and needles. I would have similar, but opposite problems with any attempt to lighten the tree trunks and needles.

Today, my digital camera can deal with a huge brightness range — recording, in a single exposure, plenty of highlight and shadow detail in all but the most challenging situations. Furthermore, advances in software have made it much easier to "map" those darks and lights to usable and believable tonalities in the image and the printed photograph.

For my purposes, one particularly effective software tool is luminosity masking. With that, I can select a range of brightness to modify, leaving unaffected other parts of the photo that are outside of that range.

PIÑON PINE AND HELL'S BACKBONE. For this photo, the brightness of the sandstone was controlled by luminosity masking without affecting the branches. The same is true of the dark tree trunks. The luminosity of the needles was accomplished by selecting only that color and modifying its brightness. These things may have been possible with slide film twenty years ago, but it would have taken special expertise, and was certainly beyond my capabilities at the time. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

In this photo, for example, I can select the brightest areas of sandstone in the lower left corner and use an adjustment layer to decrease its brightness without affecting the overlying branches or needles. Or, I could select the dark tree trunks to selectively lighten only them.

It is also possible to modify a single color, or a range of colors. In this photo, I can get achieve the degree of luminosity I want from the needles by selecting that color range and using an adjustment layer to lighten them,

The combination of the great dynamic range of modern cameras with luminosity masks and other software advances not only saves time, they expand my creativity by making the formerly impossible possible, and the formerly difficult, easy.

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