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Sunday, 04 January 2015


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I see photographs of fields of corn in the future!

I'd love to have a field like this in back of my house. Fun to watch it change throughout the year, and the rotation of crops. Fun to walk through with just my thoughts when empty and fallow, fun to photograph corn and soy leaves and shoots other times of the year.

When I lived in South Milwaukee, it would snow like a banshee for days but, because of the wind, it rarely had any substantial accumulation.
We often remarked that the poor folks in Waukesha must be BURIED in the stuff! It SNOWS your way, Mike.
My two useless pesos.

I never take any good pictures in the snow, but that doesn't stop me.

That sounds familiar!

Dear Mike (and Steve),

Harking back to your column on black-and-white conversion tips, I don't think your problem is that you never make good pictures of the snow, but that you may not know how to print them well.

For snow to look good in a photograph, it needs to be very, very high key but at the same time maintain good tonal separation. In the darkroom this was exceedingly difficult (although not impossible). It's pretty easy on the computer, once you figure out the general schema.

First, you need to apply local contrast enhancement to the near-whites. Within Photoshop/ACR itself, clarity, wide-radius unsharp masking or shadow/highlight can do that. or even all three in combination. Fiddle and see what looks good. Third-party plug-ins like your Structure or ContrastMaster can do a lot more, but they may not be necessary (and may even be overkill).

Second, create a curves layer that strongly increases brightness in the highlights. Anything below, oh, say, 200, don't mess with. In fact, pin those points down so that part of the curve doesn't change. Above that, bring up the curve steeply. You might want 220 to map to 235, for example. Above that, depending on the scene, you can either let it roll off to 255, 255 or you can pull back the 255,255 point so that the curve rises steeply and actually clips, giving you some specular whites (e.g., mapping it to 240, 255). People expect snow to be white, so the usual rule about not blowing out your highlights (or blocking up your shadows) in a good print doesn't apply as rigorously. Especially not if it produces a sense of sparkle and modeling in the snow.

Don't take those numbers as gospel, they are just guides to the effect you're after.

And, as always, layers are your friend.

It's hard for me to tell from the online JPEG's whether those would both make good prints. I'm less sure about the “soybean” field, but I am pretty certain that a lovely print could be made from the white frosting photograph.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

"I never take any good pictures in the snow..."

Up to you to decide this, of course, but I think you might just be incorrect.

OT, but - how went the closing? Is all your "stuff" in one house now?

Today, a little West of you in Duluth, I took a 15-20 minute photo walk in a nature park.We missed your snow but got the cold. Even with a facemask, multiple layers, gloves under mittens, the works, by the time I returned to the car my fingers felt a little like this tree looks (taken at the scene today)...


Having been raised in New York City, all corn came from the grocer (few supermarkets then). When I took my first job in a small town (Rome, NY) I had a corn field behind the house. We would start a big pot of water to boil, and one of us would go out and get corn fresh off the stalk. Cost a nickel an ear. Ten minutes from stalk to mouth. WOW what a difference! Enjoy that fresh corn. Its the greatest.

It snowed here in Chamonix too: http://i.minus.com/ibkDAZaEg8htev.jpg

Your lovely, quiet winter landscape reminds me of the late John Cowan's 1964 image of a camel train in an Oman desert. (As seen in several scenes in the Antonioni film "Blow-Up".)

Yours is rather a Wisconsin version, eh?

The soy/corn field shot.

That's a fine picture. Move the horizon line a smidge is all.very soothing ad peaceful.

"I never take any good pictures in the snow, but that doesn't stop me."
That might be true about the soyfield, but it's certainly not the case of the picture on top!

Thanks Ctein.

Today we had 93 Fahrenheit here in Santiago-Chile

Dear Marcelo,

Under those conditions you have to work extremely rapidly before the snow melts!

Helpfully yours,


A snow job of the first order. Problem may be the corn your neighbours grow may well be silage, not fit for us.

And to echo another comment, did you close on the house?

Now to move the pool table?

It's just crossed over to 39C (102 f) here in Western Australia Mike, but I did manage to find a few snowflakes while doing a little holiday Autocording.

The first has more of an emotional impact.

The first is complete bleakness. Anything other than the snow is far away.

The second photo implies a photographer who chose the framing...and it's about the framing. Not as interesting.

"Do you like this one better, or worse?"

As for me, worse. Too sentimental, too amateur-landscapey.

'People expect snow to be white'

Ctein, indeed people do, but very often it's not white. If it's overcast its grey (neutral colour but lower luminosity than white). The shadows are often profoundly cyan-blue, especially when in brilliant sunshine. I certainly take your point though, regarding key and tonal separation. I simply find it difficult to reconcile what I see with what I want to express in the print

Rather liking both photos, actually. Maybe a little on the warm side for the subject matter, but both have something to say for themselves.

Oh, I'm staying warm alright - 44.4C here in Perth, Western Australia today (Monday). That's following a December with zero rainfall.

I am not Mim, but no, I do not prefer the second variation of the field shot. The attraction of the first one is the bleakness, the simplicity of it, the subtle gradations in the sky, and "prettifying" it with branches kills that. It works for temples, churches, some landscapes and so on, but not for something which has simplicity as its main virtue.

I like the shot, by the way.

Following Ctein's comments on printing snow, in film-based photography the combination of a straight-line film/dev. combination without much of a shoulder plus a paper with a really short toe works pretty well - as one example, for me the combination of TMAX 100 developed in TMAX RS developer together with the long defunct Kodak Polymax FA paper did the trick (here is an example of that combination, scanned off of an 8x10" print: http://www.arnecroell.com/p1029359503/h2aa5d8e3#h2aa5d8e3). The street photography mainstays of Tri-X/HC-110 or Tri-X/D-76 are not optimal for snow for that reason.

I think I like the processing in the second (Ctein) version, but the composition of the first. On screen at least.

Mike --

May I suggest another arrow in your quiver of Photoshop tools for snowy scenes? Piggybacking onto Ctein's excellent lesson, I recommend the Selective Color tool. Select Whites from the Color menu and drop the Black slider to the left -- it's essentially similar to the narrow curves work that Ctein recommends, but it's very quick and simple. You can often take the Black slider all the way down to -100%.

Of course you'll want to use it as an adjustment layer so you can paint the changes only on the snowy areas and maybe on the sky.

Give it a try and see if you like it. I think Selective Color is grossly unappreciated and underused for much more than just snow.

In answer to your question to Mim. These are two very different compositions. The original, minimalist, composition has the treeline as the subject and uses the curve of the hill as the gesture. It is very effective because the eye is immediately drawn to the subject and gesture. While Ctein's remarks on post-processing the snow are bang-on, the composition of the first image is striking.

The second image is a more complex composition. While the hill and treeline are still there, the shrubbery in the border is very prominent and grabs the eye first. The eye tends to process images in an "F" pattern, looking top left first. The tree branch at the top left, whether you intended it or not, becomes the de facto subject of the brain's first pass.

Personally, I looked at this image a few times and the lasting impression for me was of a white hole surrounded by a pattern of trees and branches. I'm not sure this is what you intended, but it's what was communicated to me.

My vote would be for the initial image with the snow adjusted to a gleaming white.

Love the snow branches and the first version of the soybean field.

Good stuff, Mike!

I don't like to comment a TOP entry twice, but Ctein's excellent comment urged me to complement the rather succint appreciation I expressed earlier.
I have a shy nature; I didn't want to elaborate any further on the cornfield picture because it might be read as a freshman making a fool of himself by trying to lecture his teacher, but the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw that picture was something like 'it needs some exposure compensation.'
Given that photo editing can be a bitch sometimes, the best thing to do is to get the shot right before actually shooting. I have learned that, if you want to retain the right tonality when shooting a black subject, you need to compensate exposure by about -1 EV. It's the opposite with white subjects: here we need to overexpose by +1 EV (or more, depending on several factors). Snow is the classic example of a scene that must be overexposed in order to bring up the highlights.
While this might sound counterintuitive to someone new to photography, it is needed in order to counter the readings of the light meter, which, left to its own devices, will turn snow white into a pale gray.
If you get the shot right, editing won't get to be the gruelling task that reading Ctein's comment might lead you to think it is. It's as simple as this: get it right before pressing the shutter button and you won't have to fiddle with too many sliders and layers.
Wish y'all a happy New Year!

The field picture reminds me of Harry Callahan's snow pictures when it is in the larger size, and it should be much larger, but it isn't "sharp enough" small.

A prime example of how monitors and prints are worlds apart, a 4x5 contact print would be just right.

I get the feeling from a lot of the comments that most people are not seeing all the twigs and branches in the foreground. To me it's quite jam packed.

For what its worth I don't think anyone does snow better than Harry Callahan.

I like the first snowfield pic best. Can't say exactly why, but it somehow "feels" better to my eye; there's some kind of flow to it that pleases my eye more than the others. My eye wants to slide left to right in a "pleasing" way.

Oh, and BTW, if you're going to shoot trees as RAW files with the X-T1, I'd like to suggest again you seriously consider using Iridient Developer. LR/ACR does really wonky stuff with the tips of the branches of bare trees, and I can see it even in your small JPEGs here. Iridient does a markedly superior job on this kind of fine detail.


Maybe I've been "imprinted" by the first image, but I think I still like the original composition best with its placement of the line of the hill. That little rise sits so nicely at about the 1/3 line, along with my favorite trees (those 2 lighter, very rounded ones) that seem to be huddled together against the cold. My eye gravitates to those 2 trees every time I look at the image.

In your latest version, the line of trees has nice bookends formed by the taller trees on the LH and RH edges, but I think I really prefer the way my eye flows more easily back and forth across the horizon in the first image. I like the fact that the edges are more open in that one, with the really interesting details being more central. The bookends slightly diminish the lovely feeling of open space that I enjoy so much in the first version.

I also see you changed the tonality from a slightly warm tone to something more neutral; I like both images equally well in that regard, though if I had to pick I think I'd still go with the tonality of your earlier version (perhaps another case of imprinting?)

I like your shots.

however I thought i'd let you in on a cultural aside.
the soybean field is too specific for crop rotators.
the bean field lets your target know you know what you're talking about.
the field is safe for general consumption.

never a street always a road.

no matter what it says on the map if it's smaller than a river it's a "crick". a pond is almost always safe when naming lakes, tanks and of course ponds.

if you are close enough to bean fields there is neither right nor left. it's north, east, south or west. all distance is in whole or fractional miles.

if you own less than a section, you have some ground. a section or more and you have some land.

lastly, if they start telling you how many rods long something or somewhere is. ask them to covert it into city blocks.

there is no joy in hiding what you are all the time. however if social camouflage is required wear your seed cap backwards when you shoot.

My favorite of the three is easily the first image in the post, with that nice diagonal coming down and dividing the sides, and the small intrusions of brightness into the dark side, and vice versa. I would enjoy the spy/corn field image more if there were enough snow to cover all the vegetation & detritus. More bleak, please! ;)

Dear Nigel,

I'm guessing that Mike is not much concerned about the color cast in snow [obvious grin].

But, yes, the camera frequently records things like shadows with much more saturation than we expect to see. A good trick for bringing that under control is to create a hue/saturation adjustment layer, go to the blue/cyan subchannel (adjusting the spectral bandwidth as needed) and pull down the saturation slider until it looks right. For further tweaking, one can paint black or white into the layer mask.

Even on an overcast day the snow is white; you're not likely to find anything whiter. You may want to print it lower than a bright white, that's an artistic choice; but, if you take it down too far you will create an impression of gloom that may not be (0r may be) what you are looking for. Furthermore, improving the separation and the highlights becomes even more important to avoid creating the impression that you've simply made a muddy print.

It's always about artistic intent. No printing procedures are meant to be followed slavishly. Anybody who does will make lousy prints. That's a guarantee.

I made some fabulous snow pictures two years back at 2 AM in the morning. There's just about nothing in the prints that is above the Zone III, because that's what the world looks like at 2 AM. Intent.


Dear Arne,

That is a really excellent example of what master printers are talking about when they talk about matching the film and the paper to the subject matter.

It doesn't entirely solve the problem in the darkroom. Even TMAX 100 processed that way may have trouble separating specular highlights from the diffuse whites. More critically, the Polymax paper does have a low contrast toe, even if it is a relatively short one. To make a REALLY good print, even with this combination, one needs to make a “bump-up mask.” That's the opposite of a contrast-reducing mask, and you make it to only kick up the negative densities in the highlights. In other words, it takes the TMAX curve in the highlights and bends it upward to give it even more contrast there.

Bump up masks are well known to people who printed slides and made separations; they're not so well-known in negative printing.


Dear Manuel,

No, getting the exposure right doesn't eliminate the need for the adjustments I talked about. I was assuming that people got that right to begin with!

Indeed, for photographing a primarily white subject, you can set the exposure compensation to +1 or even +2 stops. If you fail to do that in the camera, you'll want to do it in ACR when you do the RAW conversion. (Better to do it in camera, but either works.) The idea is to get the overall snow whiteness up around 80% or so when you bring it into Photoshop.

THEN, you do the stuff I talked about to get it to look really good.

If you don't, you're still going to end up with less than satisfactory tonal separation and brilliance in the snow in the final print.

It's not really grueling. After you have done it once or twice it's quite easy. Takes almost no thought or fiddly work. Honestly, once I'm in the zone, snow pictures like that print really fast.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

Mike, I prefer the 1st picture by far. The 2nd has no compositional balance: the empty white space in the upper right hand corner is too big, and my eye wants to escape out the frame that way. Our attention is also directed towards the empty spot in the middle, so it's not clear what the subject is. If it's the blank white sky, then all those branches and the horizon line are distractions. I also don't like the edge intrusion on the lower left hand corner with the little branch intersecting the distant line of trees.

Switching subjects, I made something for myself when I started the print-for-a-while (3 months in my case) project that others may find useful, and Ctein's snow-printing tips above reminded me of it. It's a printer threshold chart with the darkest and brightest values as patches.

It's great for testing out printers and curves and other stuff. You can see how the tones separate (or more often, don't separate) with your adjustments. You should be able to download the full-resolution version of it from the Flickr page.

It's scaled for 300 DPI for an 8x10-inch image, but I imagine it works bigger or smaller, as long as your scaling only does pixel duplication and no averaging or antialiasing, which may affect the edges.


I think Elizabeth's explanation of the compositional differences between the two versions of your photo are right on the mark, especially as regards the 2nd of the two. I make a mistake occasionally with my own photographs that I refer to as either the 'more is better' or 'too many subjects' syndrome.

But I have used foreground branches like you have successfully on a few photographs, and they seem to work best (for me) when they 'decorate' the main subject, which is usually somewhere near the center of the frame. The two photos I have that please me are both of birds, one on a wire, one on a fence, and the branches do a good job of filling in what would otherwise be a lot of dead space, but they don't distract my eye from the birds (which are fairly small in both).

I like the first image but love the second. It has a good rhythm to it. You placed the curve in the horizon perfectly. The picture doesn't feel "arty" me, just nice and spare, like winter makes me feel sometimes.
I also think the stover gives it nice texture in the foreground.
I suspect this is going to be a very tricky image to print. Too much contrast and it will degenerate into charcoal and chalk, too little and it will be dreary and flat.
Being from North Dakota I have some experience with snow. It not easy to photograph.
You should consider yourself fortunate that you are looking at this on a monitor and not a lightbox. My snow pictures had a bad habit of looking great in the wash and then drying down just enough to knock the life out of them.
Still if you can get the sky to read and the snow near white but still holding texture then you have a major keeper here.
A 16x20 would be very nice I think.

Quite like the field, but to my eyes, more sky would enhance the the feeling of openness, making the field feel larger and the viewer more lost in the winter.

You often talk of being most interested in tones over color and now I see a subtle hint at the difference in "eyes". I liked the "snappier", whiter version better on first viewing, but on reflection I can see the loss of gentler tones. This helps me in my own understanding of color/mono taste. I wonder if the colonists generally respond to a more dramatic black and white?

I really dislike the field with branches. It feels contrived, as do too many shots where framing has been added formulaically. (That probably sounds mo re harsh than I intended.) On the other hand, the non-framed field expresses a well-defined theme with no extraneous frills. I like it quite a bit.

Snow pictures...have you forgotten that great shot from your old house of the single street light in the middle of the winters snow.....love it

Dear Ctein, thanks for the tip with the bump-up mask. You are right, not common in silver printing. Other things that I found helpful with snow in traditional silver printing are a) the combination of a staining negative developer like PMK and graded papers (the yellow stain unfortunately reduces contrast with multigrade papers), b) a short(!) dip of the print or parts of the print (cotton ball/Q-tip/brush application etc.) in diluted Farmer's reducer.
In my opinion an important part of the impact of any print, but especially snow, is the lighting level under which it is viewed. I have seen snow prints by Ansel Adams under museum lighting conditions, i.e. way too dim, and the snow looked positively gray. Under stronger lighting, it sparkled. He apparently solved the problem of the low contrast paper toe by moving everything a bit further up the curve, and then a strong enough light brings everything back to normal (visually).

About snow pictures we here have no experience but I have seen Michael Kenna,s analogue prints of snow felds. Yet to see anything more beautiful.

This yuletide saw similar conditions in Norway. I went out to shoot one of my re-occuring themes, Trains:


Dear Arne,

Yes, I can see that both of those techniques would make a big difference. A lot of the staining developers produce super-proportional intensification–– the printing density increases faster than the baseline density, so you get more contrast in the highlights. Similarly, Farmer's Reducer (the version with fixer and ferricyanide mixed together) is a cutting reducer–– it removes silver equally from all densities. So, it makes the highlights lighter without reducing their contrast (which is what would happen if you simply printed them down more on the toe of the paper curve).

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

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