AN INTIMATE GORGE LANDSCAPE
Twelve years ago Fran and I took a walk in the Columbia Gorge. If I was a more organized individual, I could actually tell you exactly where it was, but at least through the power of my photo archive I went back there this morning to rescue a few more images. I'd like to show you several of these images to show how a small amount of time spent post-processing can improve an image enough that I am not embarrassed to show them to you. In this way a twelve-year-old snapshot can become a new image worthy of closer inspection.
People travel from all over the world to visit the Columbia River Gorge, an incredible collection of waterfalls, cliffs, vistas, and woodland. But since it is a slow hour drive from Portland, we tend to take it for granted - until we take time to try another hike. Then we realize how lucky we are to live so close to this treasure. On this day in July a dozen years ago the hike took us past a roaring stream with a lonely tree on a stubborn rock.
THE LONELY TREE, 2012
The original snapshot is not bad. It captures the isolated tree on a rock that somehow usually withstands the stream flow. I didn't see the value in any cropping, but the image can be improved by adjusting the white balance and increasing the contrast. As usual in the Gorge, the overwhelming greenery tends to manufacture an overall green color shift. The thing to do is warm up the image, which reveals the browns amid the greens, and in this case brings the dark stream and it's white rapids a little bit back to a neutral color tone. By raising the white point and lowering the black point, the overall contrast of the image is increased and the image begins to pop.
A MORE DRAMATIC ISLAND IN THE STREAM, 2024
I then used more selective changes to refine the image. I first increased the sharpness and saturation of the tree so that it would stand out against the background of the stream. Then I backed off on the whites at the central rapids to reveal a little more detail in the water. Finally I subtly dodged and burned the dark and bright areas in the stream to further increase the contrast. The brushes used are at such a low intensity, around only 10%, that you don't even see the changes while you are brushing, Yet a "before" and "after" will reveal a truly dramatic transformation.
VIEW FROM THE TRAIL, 2012
The Gorge is not just a feast of intimate landscapes. On most hikes the woodland will eventually open up to reveal incredible vistas with hundreds if not thousands of feet of elevation gain to admire. The trick is to figure out hikes that reveal these awesome vertical overlooks without making you climb them, unless that floats your boat. This hike overlooked a mountain across the way on the Washington side. I'm sure it has a name, but like most of the prominent points in the Gorge it is just treated as another segment of the fiord's rim. In this snapshot I tried to set up a classic landscape strategy of bringing some depth to a two dimensional image by including a foreground along with a distant subject. As usual, I was not very successful. There is not enough Rhoddie in the foreground, and the middle-ground is missing probably another thousand feet down to the river before you encounter the cliff face on the other side. The result is either a mediocre perspective, or as I prefer to see it, another example of my tendency to create my own Asian screens. This other great tradition of the landscape arranges flat planes of subject matter with no attempt to create a three-dimensional illusion. Like in this image, the viewer sees a compressed series of planes, as if one were scanning segments of the entire scene independently of each other. My love of the telephoto lens, which increases this distance compression, also tends to move me in this direction.
ACROSS THE COLUMBIA, 2024
No matter how you feel about my composition, there are certain things that can be improved. I warmed up the white balance and lowered the blacks and lightened the shadows to increase the detail and contrast in the mass of the green hillside. I felt there was a little too much gray sky, so I cropped some away. I then lowered the exposure of just the sky by one stop to reveal a small amount of variation in the overall gray. I used Lighroom's new "Dehaze" tool to great effect to bring up the overall contrast - the tool was obviously made for situations like this, since the mountain is probably miles away from where I am standing on the trail. Finally I tried another new tool from Lightroom , the "Texture" slider, after brushing a selection confining its effects to the shear rock cliff face on the right side of the mountain. I think that these changes vastly improve the image - it might still not be an award-winner, but it's not half-bad by any measure.
A GORGE WITHIN THE GORGE, 2012
This final image of the day showed me that I could handle a vertical gain far larger than I thought, at least twelve years ago. That's Fran down there on the bridge, multiple switchback below my current position on the trail. Since I don't shoot for National Geographic I neglected to outfit her with a red shirt, but she still shows the scale of this gorge within the Gorge. While it took an entire Federal program to build that bridge, one can see that the Civilian Conservation Corps only barely touched the entirety of the Gorge. But that slim sliver of trail and bridge allows ordinary people to enjoy this incredible environment without bushwhacking like the original hikers had to do for the first few thousands of years that men and women walked near this spot.
I adopted similar strategies in dealing with this snapshot as I did with the others. The change in white balance removed the green color cast and revealed the brown and grays of the river. As I tried out "Dehazing" and "Texture", I realized that good old "Clarity" and sharpening helped most on this image to bring out the mid-tone contrast. Each image responds differently to different algorithms, and the skill that you gain is knowing what works best in which situation. But the humble truth is that there is a lot of trial and error involved in post processing, along with an adherence to the Goldilocks principal of moderation in all things. Finally I used my judicial powers to remove that annoying highlight just above Fran by cloning in an adjacent part of the forest. All of the images on this day benefited from our typical Oregon weather - the last thing you want during a walk in the woods is bright sunlight which will bring on chaotic light shafts and shadows that will lead to visual anarchy. There is already enough visual chaos in a typical woodland scene, and the prime directive for the photographer is to try to bring some order to the very complicated environment.
WAY DOWN THERE, 2024
I hope you have enjoyed this brief walk in the woods, and I encourage you to get out there, even if your neck of the woods is not as spectacular as ours. While Fran and I are twelve years older, these images show that the Gorge is eternal.