Dealing with High and Low Contrast in the Same Image

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


The Resting Place, a photograph of a Great Basin rattlesnake curled up on dried mud, was made in 1987 in Peekaboo Canyon, one of the many extraordinary canyons within the Escalante River complex of canyons in southeastern Utah. Peekaboo Canyon’s lower portion becomes a series of relatively circular hollows, perhaps 10 feet in diameter and several feet deep, with upward-curving, steep-sided walls that become vertical. So standing in any one of them is like being in a deep salad bowl.

The rounded bottom of each hollow was covered with plates of dried mud, which continued up the lower curved wall as high as the water level stood at full flood. I knew there were rattlers in the canyon, having seen three of them together in one spot up canyon, so as I climbed from hollow to hollow in the lower canyon, I carefully looked for snakes before entering each.

Sure enough, one was slithering around in one of the hollows; it may have been washed in, and it appeared to me that short of another flash flood, it had little chance of ever getting out. But it was moving very slowly due to the cold. So while I was searching for photographs from the hollow, looking at the archways above and the amazing patterns of sandstone up canyon, I kept my eye on the snake, making sure it didn’t get uncomfortably close. Great Basin rattlers are small, but they’re potent, so you don’t want one to latch onto you. It was a very cold day, and on one of my glances off to the side to check on its whereabouts I noticed that the rattler had finally given in to the weather, curling up to maintain its warmth.

It suddenly occurred to me that that was the photograph. Not the arches, not the receding rock patterns from hollow to hollow, not anything else, but the snake on the dried mud.

After pushing it a few inches to the side to get it fully on the plate you see it on (because of the cold it had already been moving slowly, so I felt my repositioning of it was not a dangerous move), I set up to compose the image. Then I set up to make the photograph on Tri-X film, using my 4×5 Linhof Technika Camera and a 150mm lens. I wanted to include a good deal of the broken mud plates on the canyon bottom as well as a considerable amount of the pristine plates stacked up the wall, each showing the receding water levels at semi- regular intervals. To me the context was as important to this image as the snake.

But I quickly recognized a difficult problem. The snake, with its magnificent near-white scales with gold spots out- lined in black, had a considerable amount of contrast, while the dried mud was quite flat in tone. So increasing the negative contrast could have lost the critical detail on the snake, but maintaining the existing contrast could make the mud a huge expanse of dull gray.

In this case I chose to increase contrast just a tiny bit, choosing the option of working in the darkroom with printing options more than trying to increase contrast at the negative- development stage. I think I made the right decision. In printing this image, I go to the highest level of contrast that the paper allows, printing everything a bit too dark intentionally, but dodging the rattler during the exposure to prevent him from getting too dark.

The high-contrast filtration gives the dull mud some life, but not enough. So I start bleaching the mud, while preventing any bleach from hitting the snake. Potassium ferricyanide reducer, as bleach is properly called, increases contrast as it lightens an image by removing developed silver from the emulsion. This is a property of bleach that I’ve often used to advantage, providing an effect easily achievable through standard photographic techniques but very tedious through digi- tal procedures. Bleaching not only lightened the dull, dark mud, but it also enlivened it, giving it an almost metallic reflectivity and sheen. I also enhance the feeling of light by selectively bleaching the subtle highlights still more, thus imparting an even greater feeling of metallic reflectivity.

I pay particular attention to two areas during bleaching: the upper plates, with a slight emphasis on its center area, and on the section of mud immediately above the snake, which first curls upward and then back downward as it narrows.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.