When the editor of ISO500px first approached me to write a few articles for the blog the first request was for a behind-the-scenes account of my image Khumbu Night Fog. D.L. thought the story of how this shot of the Nepal Himalaya was created would be an interesting read. Sounded great, BUT the image is actually derived from a slide scan. How could this in any way be relevant in today’s digital age. I was assured it would be both relevant and interesting. With so much that has changed in the photography world with the advent of digital technologies I thought I’d break this post in two sections: the first covers the behind-the-scenes of creating the image; the second delves into similarities and/ or differences between how I approached shooting film vs. digital.
Nepal’s Khumbu region is known world wide as the home of Mount Everest, also known as Chomolungma to the Sherpa people who populate the Khumbu’s high altitude valleys and pastures. Each spring and fall thousands of trekkers spend two or more weeks trekking slowly toward the upper reaches of the Khumbu valley, acclimatizing slowly to increasingly higher altitudes. Most set their sights on Everest’s base camp or the famous viewpoint of Kala Pattar. In 2003 my wife and I joined this seasonal pilgrimage. At that time I shot, like a majority of photographers, solely film and slides. I did bring along my first digital point and shoot, a 3.2 megapixel Canon A6000, but the low resolution made it more appropriate for on-the-go, everyday documentation of the trek rather than creating images to last a lifetime. For those images, including Khumbu Fog, I used a Nikon N80 loaded with Fuji slide film. As this was my second trip through the Khumbu I had mental tick list of images I wanted to capture. Near the top of the list was capturing golden, pre-sunset sunrays striking Everest and its neighbors, Nuptse and Lhotse.
Kala Pattar is a “small” 18,541 ft hill rising 1500 feet above Gorak Shep, the last outpost of teahouses positioned at the far end of the Khumbu valley. Go any farther and you’ll be in Tibet. From its rocky, prayer flag strewn summit, Kala Pattar offers commanding views of one of the planet’s classic mountain vistas — the Everest group rising above the great sweep of the Khumbu glacier. My wife and I decided to make the trip up for sunset when I knew the direct rays of the setting sun would illuminate the summit regions of several of the Himalaya’s most famous peaks: Everest, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam. The plan went off without a hitch and I came away with the shots I’d been after. Before packing the gear up I took one last long look down the Khumbu valley and noticed the daily encroachment of fog drifting up valley. The soft post sunset colors sweeping over the scene were too much to pass over. I unpacked my gear and fired off a few more frames. While shooting film I always metered scenes much more thoroughly than I do currently. This usually entailed following one of Galen Rowell’s old maxims of “expose for your most important highlight”. For the scene before me this meant using center-weighted and spot metering to determine the relative brightness values of the mountains/ fog and sky. I didn’t mind if the rocky moraine in the lower portion of the frame was silhouetted as long as all of my highlights were in check. As I was working with post sunset light the contrast of exposure values was well within the exposure latitude of slides, so no additional filters were required. I released the shutter, packed my gear up, then started the long descent back to Gorak Shep through an amazing, cold Himalayan twilight.
Yes, post processing. Post processing of film and slide scans was gaining traction among photographers even before the onslaught of affordable digital camera bodies flooded the market. Galen Rowell, before his untimely death in a plane crash in 2002, had written several articles related to the potential benefits and pitfalls of the looming digital revolution. In his words “Digital is the major difference between the clean reproductions in magazines of the nineties and the murky ones of the not-so-distant past.” (Digital Decisions, Galen Rowell, Outdoor Photographer, April 1998). Galen even experimented with blending more than one exposure to bring back detail in an overexposed moon, although he ruminated over public perception and whether ethical lines would be breached. Although he appreciated how Photoshop could help produce a final result more closely in tune with what the eye can see, he felt the general public, ironically, would find it too unbelievable and, perhaps, no longer consider it a photograph. Pro photographers were already digitally enhancing images in a multitude of ways and, if it had taken another five years for consumer priced DSLRs to become readily available, there is little doubt digitizing and then processing film and slides would have become a normal part of many photographer’s workflow. Cleaning up dust spots, adjusting white balance, contrast, sharpening, dodging/ burning, etc. are all helpful tools to employ when working with a slide scan. The ability of Photoshop to enhance scanned slides merely took many darkroom tools an allowed them to be applied to color images, although today modern Photoshop techniques have advanced well beyond that point. The result of all of this is the continued debate over where the line exists between a photograph and digital art. This debate is nauseating in its omnipresence, but nonetheless remains an important discussion for the photography world to openly hash out.
So, after having the slide scanned at a local photo lab I imported it into Photoshop where I ran it through a series of very common adjustments. First job was to clean up any dust, scratches, or other unwanted artifacts using the healing and clone tools — tedious. The color of the scan was cooler than the slide so next I adjusted the color balance to bring back more of the warm tones, especially in the sky. I then used localized selections and luminosity masks to accentuate color, increase exposure on the mountain faces, and bring exposure differentials even closer. Finally, I de-speckeled the sky portion of the image, sharpened the edges, and called it finished. That’s it.
Lessons from the analog age
Every once in a while I get asked if there are any habits or relics of knowledge I still employ which I learned while shooting film. The simple answer is no. I no longer spend time center or spot metering a scene to determine proper exposure. Checking histogram provides immediate feedback so I can adjust settings quickly, eliminating the need to bracket and much of the exposure guesswork. I no longer spend long minutes trying to decide if pushing the shutter release would be a good use of money. Because money is no longer an issue I don’t play as safe as I once did. Digital allows me to push creativity to another level. If a particular composition doesn’t work, no huge loss. Digital allows me to push harder, freeing me to shoot compositions which have a long shot at working, but if they do, might just be magical. I can react to the environment around me without the slow down of technical and financial choices. This in turn places me more deeply in the creative process.
The advancements in digital technology and techniques have essentially buried much of my approach and thinking from film-days. The lone holdover is the continued appreciation of a more deliberate, contemplative approach rather than arriving on a location then spraying and praying. Shooting without first sensing and seeing what it is I want to shoot almost never produces results which satisfy. I still find myself going through a subconscious vetting process when determining whether to pull the camera out or not. This often means initially walking around the location without a camera in hand, absorbing any bits of visual information which might be useful to incorporate when putting an image together. If I do have my camera out I usually notice myself focusing more on what the camera is showing rather than sensing what the scene can be about. There’s a lot to this process and this post isn’t the best forum to go deeper, so I’ll leave it at that.
I know I’m not the only landscape photographer to witness the change from analog to digital. If you have as well, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.