The wheat-growing area in Washington State consists of rolling hills of loess soil blown in as dust from retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago. The soil is rich and deep, with top soil up to 100 feet thick in places, making it one of the most productive wheat- growing areas in the world. The hilly terrain causes the wheat growers to plow their fields in serpentine patterns, which are quite intriguing to look at and photograph. However, finding the most interesting areas usually requires many miles of driving on dirt roads.
This photograph was made in 2005 from a high vantage point, with a spectacular view, and is another of my wheat/corn field photographs. (See “Portfolio: Images From the Heart- land,” PT, November/December 2004.)
Capture and conversion
I used a Canon 1Ds digital camera with a Canon 70–200 ƒ/2.8L Image-Stabilized lens. It was shot, handheld, in a gusty wind, at ISO 400, focal length 75mm, 1⁄160 second at ƒ/16. After studying the image I found only a small part of the original (figure 1) that really worked for me. One might expect that such a cropped original would not be sufficient for a fine print. However, the high-quality 11MP capture made this possible. I had taken some shots at longer focal lengths, which would have been preferable, but none of them completely covered the area I was interested in.
I converted the image to black-and- white using Adobe’s Raw Image Converter. Saturation was set to –100, rendering a grayscale image. I adjusted the Temperature slider to simulate the application of a filter on black-and-white film. I tweaked the Exposure and other sliders to optimize the image in its 16-bit RAW mode. Once in Photoshop, I converted it to grayscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale).
The cropped image became the raw material from which I hoped to make an exciting image, what Ansel Adams called the “performance.” This image is flat and its potential has not been developed (figure 2). The next part of the process was to develop the proper tonal range for each part of the image, with the whole making an artistic statement.
My plan was to darken the image, but have a bright path, starting from the bot- tom right, proceeding to the vertical stripes at left center, and then up to the striped region at the top right. I also wanted to bring out the curved road at the top left. This gives the image harmony and movement.
Photoshop Adjustments and Snapshots
I began by choosing a region of the image to explore, such as the vertically striped region, center, left (figure 2). I made a Levels adjustment using Image > Adjustments > Levels. I moved the black, midtone, and white sliders to create the desired tonal range of this region. I created a Snapshot using the History Palate, then Edit > Undo Levels. In the History Palate, I checked the box to the left of the Snapshot, and selected the thumbnail of the background image Snapshot in the History Palate, causing the image to revert to its previous condition. I then selected the History Brush and used it to paint in the previous Levels effect (figure 3a–b). Where the painting bled over into the surrounding region, I checked the box to the left of the thumbnail of the background image Snapshot, and painted out the error. In both procedures, the Opacity value was changed to fine-tune the adjustment.
I applied this process to other regions until almost all regions of the image had the desired tonal range. Even small areas, such as the curved road at the top, were optimized in this manner.
Cloning another conversion
Some parts of the image initially were too dark or too light to correct using the above method. Details were lost in these regions. One such area was the light area at upper left (figure 2). The RAW image has a much higher tonal range than a converted image, so I opened Bridge and re-imported the image into Photoshop with different Camera RAW settings that improved the tonal range in the region of interest. The next step was to clone this area from this new image onto a New Layer on the working image. When cloning, it is helpful to choose an initial cloning point that is small and distinct. In moving over to the working image, it is helpful to hold down the Alt/Option key temporarily prior to cloning, turning the clone indicator into a cross as an aid in locating the same point on the working image.
I easily shifted and moved the cloned region by choosing the Move Tool, and pressing on the Arrow keys to bring the cloned image into registration with the corresponding part of the working image. I removed spillover areas using the Eraser tool. In some cases, I reduced the opacity to feather the edges. Additional tonal adjustment of the cloned image proved necessary. I accomplished this by selecting the Clone layer, holding down the Alt/Option key, and clicking on the Adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palate. While continuing to hold down the left mouse button, I chose Levels > Use Previous Layer. In this way, I fine-tuned the Clone layer (figure 3c–d). I applied this technique to several other areas as well.
After the image was enhanced and had the desired tonal ranges, it needed to be cleaned up. I used the Burn tool to darken the distracting light areas, such as the extra roads and paths, and darkened the light areas at the top of the image. This simplified and improved the flow of the image. I did some cloning to remove unattractive artifacts, and sharpened the image using the Unsharp Mask filter. Finally, I applied overall Levels and Curves adjustments to tweak the final image.
To achieve the final result (figure 4), I used 36 Levels adjustments, four Curves adjustments, and 16 Layers. No individual selections or masks were made. Most of the adjustments were done using the Brush tool to paint in the desired result. This was a very satisfying and useful way to achieve my goals, and it is a close parallel to darkroom printing using variable-contrast paper with dodging and burning. Keep in mind that the same sort of method that I used to restore tone to an overblown highlight area could have been used to restore lost shadow detail.