Reimagining an Image

Sometimes your first composition isn't the best one

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


In 1991 Don Kirby and I started a series of workshops in the Utah backcountry that we called the Canyon Country Exploratory. We would drive to remote locations to camp overnight, then hike and photograph in even more remote locations during the daytime. The workshops ran for 10 years, and we roamed through a lot of spectacular country during that decade.

The first year we presented the workshop we drove into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. One of our hikes within that region took us high into the slickrock expanses, well into the backcountry.

The weather had been variable throughout the week, with a few sudden downpours at night. But the days were clear and crisp, while the heavy nighttime rains put water into the normally dry creek beds and pools into the slickrock hollows. The photographic opportunities were enormous.

The morning, we hiked far up onto the domelands above the needles, a student came up to me and asked, “What do you see up here to photograph?” I nearly gasped in amazement at the question because I felt I was seeing possibilities almost everywhere I looked. In fact, the timing of the question couldn’t have been more opportune, for I was just starting to take off my backpack to get out my camera for an image I had just seen.

Looking back toward the starting point of our hike I saw several pools with water reflecting the deep blue sky and some of the brilliant cumulous clouds. The shape of the near pool was almost that of a guitar, violin, or cello, giving it a particularly strong calling for me.

So with a group of students now participating in the discussion, and curious to see what I had in mind, I set up my tripod, placing my 4×5 Linhof Technika camera on it at about eye level. I used a moderately wide 90mm lens to accentuate the size of the near pool while creating a greater feeling of distance to the tops of the pinnacles in the background. I also chose an orange filter to help separate the tonalities in the clouds and the sky, to further darken the reflection of the deep blue sky in the foreground pool, and to marginally lighten the orange/coral color of the rocks.

Each of the students had the opportunity to look through the ground glass at the composition prior to my exposure, and we discussed it at length. It was late morning—nearly noon, the sun was just over my right shoulder, and the lighting was not about to change significantly at that time of day. The only real variable could have been the shape of the reflected cumulous clouds in the near pool.

When I made the exposure I was unaware that one of the students participating in the activities had moved into the image area, thus accounting for the formless blob you see in the straight print on the right edge. I’m sure the student was also unaware of that incursion. It appears to be a sleeve of a sweatshirt or jacket just a few feet from the lens, and totally out of focus.

I gave the negative a plus development to increase the contrast. Aside from the blob on the right edge, it’s a great negative from a density point of view, with good densities and rich tonal separations throughout.

Clearly I had to crop off the right edge. So my hand was forced to alter my initial seeing. However, upon further analysis, I decided that I already had too much sky in the image, despite the fact that the sky is a rather small portion to begin with. By cropping down on the sky, I felt the sunlit pinnacles in the distance became more pronounced, and therefore a more important element of the image.

Then a second cropping occurred to me: while not coming down any lower on the sky, what if I cropped out a good deal of the left side and more of the right side, even more strongly emphasizing the guitar pool. After going back and forth mul- tiple times weighing the merits of a horizontal versus a vertical composition, I chose the vertical. Each cropping approach had it own strong points, but I felt that the vertical image was the stronger. The student’s incursion into the image may have been a blessing in disguise.

Interestingly, in last issue’s Master Printing Class I debated between a vertical and a horizontal image made by simply rotating the full image. In that case, I aimed the camera straight up, so I had four choices of how to present the image to the viewer. This should tell the reader that sometimes the choices are not readily apparent. They are clearly debatable. My ultimate choice is simply my choice, but not necessarily your choice.

In making the final print from the straight print, I slightly increase contrast, I burn the area of the distant pinnacles and the clouds in the sky above them, and I also burn the rocks all around the pools. But then I do a very interesting thing with bleaching: I very slightly lighten the rock immediately to the right of the two closest pools, and then do a bit more bleaching farther to the right, but none on the section of rock between the two bleached portions. In bleaching I carefully feather the bleached portions down to nothing at their edges. This gives the subtle feeling of a bowl-shaped curve in the rock to the right of the pool, thus imparting a feeling of three-dimensional depth to the image. This is a very easy effect to accomplish using potassium ferricyanide bleach as a standard darkroom tool.

It’s one of the simple, yet effective, methods I tend to employ to create, or expand, the feeling of three-dimensional depth in my imagery. And isn’t one of the delights of photography to turn the photograph’s two-dimensional surface into the illusion of three-dimensional depth? I think so, and I find it fun to do just that!

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.