Comments On Thunderhead Over Yosemite Falls

Thunderhead Over Yosemite Falls

I recently shared this image on Facebook, in several page forums, with a great deal of attention in one or two of them. I can’t say it didn’t feel pretty good to be appreciated.

So thanks to all those who liked this image on Facebook. And thanks to those who’ve made the great FB photographic venues possible, and all the others who share great images. I’m constantly watching you in that latter group, half the time with jaw open.

A number of individuals asked questions about the shot, more than I could possibly answer in FB page comments. So here's some background, and a few technical hints about the final image.

While I can’t claim to be one of the truly great photographers, I’m confident I’m not among the worst. I’ll keep working on that greatness angle it until the lights go out.

I posted the image with this caption: “Thunderhead over Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park. Constantly photographed, so very difficult to find something different. Digital simulation of 25R and Polarizing filters on B&W Panchromatic film, RGB channel managed in several RAW conversions, then hand blended using luminosity masking and blend-if methods”.

This Thunderhead Over Yosemite Falls is a lucky shot to be sure, from a single camera setup. I was actually busy shooting mediocre clouds from a setup in the other direction when I turned around and there it was. I mean it wasn't there just ten minutes before, and it was moving that fast. I had been busy shooting multiple exposure shots of Yosemite Falls reflections in the Spring water overflows (like everyone else), and had figured I had finished with it as a subject, so I wasn't even paying attention to the falls. I was just fooling around with thunderheads in the opposite direction over the meadow, until ready to head home. So it's one of those right places at the right time, which over the years, I've mostly NOT been. I knew it might be a reasonably cool shot. But it wasn’t until I reviewed the work in Bridge that it hit me that I might have a great potential for a black and white conversion, especially if I really dug into it.

And it looks like an easy B&W. But NOT so.

Years ago the great B&W photographers like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Bill Brandt, some of the great Western Movie Cinematographers (think the Monument Valley Classics, or maybe Stagecoach, or better yet, Red River), and many more, worked in film of course. After the advent of panchromatic film, some of them landscaped with B&W pan stock, deep red filters, polarizers, and even with infrared stock, producing the stunning super contrast images many of us know as iconic.

I’m old school and remember Conrad Hall reminding us that, “Contrast is what makes photography interesting”. So to me, it’s all subjective, something like fashion trends. No one wants to get caught wearing something out of style. But worrying about what others are thinking of us can also get in the way of personal creativity.

What I wanted from this image was a sky as done as in B&W infrared, and the landscape as done with regular panchromatic film, both covered by Red and Polarizing filters. Tough to have done in film, but we can do that today in digital. So from the single setup I processed three separate exposures in a number of variations, for a number of purposes.

But in digital, we don’t have the gentle dynamic range roll off of film, or the smooth gradients. We’re almost all working very limited at the end, even in color. And in B&W we don’t have a billion aRGB colors, not even millions of sRGB colors. Just 256. That’s it. So banded gradients, posterization, noise, and extreme contrast hotspots, bright lines, and clipping are really a problem. In the past I figure out a few ways to deal with solid gradients like sky, within limits, but in this shot there are gradients everywhere, and most of them had problems. There are also very dark areas and very bright areas because we have sunlight and deep shadow. So we’re likely to get a ton of noise in the shadow areas when we try to reveal detail, which in limited bit depth can look like greasy oil spots just everywhere.

And while I’m not sure, I think there could be as many as 16 stops or more of dynamic range of subject detail somewhere between the 0's and 255's. If true, that’s more than any camera can handle, even the Hasselblad X1D-50c or the new Nikon D850
. Well maybe not ANY camera. If you've got $79,500 to shell out just for a body, the Red WEAPON BRAIN Monstro 8k pulls off 17 STOPS of dynamic range. But still.

So the Thunderhead required some HDR. But HDR has an inherent tendency toward low contrast, and what I wanted here was extremely high contrast without losing detail and without problems that might make it unusable.

I’m always looking up to the work of others, always, both out of admiration and a hunger to learn. And maybe even out of compulsion to see just how crazy and brilliant the next great image might be. And I’ve seen some other great photographers create similar B&W images, so I figured it could be done. 

I knew HOW the old high contrast panchromatic processes worked, because I learned to do them in film, more years ago than I’d like to let on. So converting this image from color to extreme B&W was easy. If I had just converted it to B&W, saved it as an 8bit JPEG, and posted it, it would have been cake. But with the extremes I was after, 100% editing for printing revealed it to be very, VERY problematic. So it was a challenge. I had to dig pretty deep into my little bag of tricks.

But then I read David Fokos spends up to 100 hours on a B&W image. So the half day I put into this one wasn’t all that much.

Still, I figured out some solutions that may help if I ever get a lucky shot like this again.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking of the quote by the great photographer, Bill Brandt: "I am not interested in rules or conventions. Photography is not a sport."

Comments On Thunderhead Over Yosemite Falls

Thunderhead Over Yosemite Falls I recently shared this image on Facebook, in several page forums, with a great deal of attention in ...