February 09, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                ACROSS THE GORGE

This week I would like to return to the Columbia River Gorge, the incredible natural area just an hour East of Portland. Fran and I spent a day there last week, which included a two-mile stroll along the waterfront, a few art galleries, some fine coffee, and a very nice dinner in an historic hotel. The fact that it was not a walk in the woods illustrates just how unique the Gorge is a part of America's public lands. The Gorge is a National Scenic Recreation Area, which includes everything from actual wilderness to small and growing cities along the same river gorge. We spent the day in Hood River, whose fame began when some athletes decided that it might be fun to surf with the aid of the wind, combining surfing with sailing. Hood River's location at the heart of the Gorge provided seemingly constant 20-30 mile-an-hour winds whipping past the small town. Formerly known for access to orchards and Mt. Hood, the small town now resembles nothing less than a simulation of Santa Fe brought to the Pacific Northwest. A short walk in downtown brings you past almost a dozen places to drink fine wine, artisan coffee, and more art galleries than the ones still open in Portland.

We spent most of our time in a new riverfront park down the hill from Downtown. The park does a very nice job in providing locals access to about a mile of waterfront with beaches and picnic areas existing somewhat unexpectedly next to a growing office/warehouse park. The new buildings in the complex include restaurants, coffee houses, and at least three new breweries. Somehow it all works, with more of an industrial than cute vibe, even though it is clearly brand new. And what other municipal park in the world enforces leash laws because "dogs and windsurfing gear don't mix."

The two images I'll show you this week were both taken right from the park path, which just goes to show you how spectacular the surrounding Gorge can be without climbing a single switchback. This first snapshot shows the view right across the river in Washington State.

                INITIAL SNAPSHOT

I have already exerted my editorial control by excluding the opposite riverbank to avoid the freeway and the train tracks on the Washington side. These small hills at the edge of the Gorge piqued my interest, and I was far enough away to reasonably ignore any signs of man besides the snow covered farms and clear cuts across the way. The mission now was to cut through the haze and add enough contrast to bring back the scene available from the path. Even though I knew that the sky would provide some more detail once I had reduced it's exposure to match the hills, there was still way to much sky, so the crop tool was the first I grabbed. The white balance was also clearly off a little. "Auto" went too far, but "Cloudy" brought back enough browns to render the scene in a much more realistic manner. Reducing the exposure of the sky by one stop did reveal the detail I had hoped for. Lightroom's new AI Selection tool which can pretty accurately select the "sky" worked very well in this case, reducing the amount of work formerly required in brushing the areas on the edge of the hills. But cropping to a panoramic 2:1 ratio seemed to be the move that the scene required.


I'm pleased with this result, which adds some pop without passing through to postcard vibrancy. The sky is clearly more dramatic and represents the reality of the day's light much better. But I was still a little troubled by the colors, so it was time to go for black and white.


While this is not for everyone, it is much more attuned to my sensibilities. Black and white allows me to add drama and detail by pushing exposure boundaries without worrying about "ruining " the colors. The result is a lot closer to what I saw and felt that day, even though the real world is in color.

The other image I found that day on the waterfront involved a lot more work. You can be the judge of how much it was worth it in the real world. The first snapshot is what I saw looking East down the river looking through the Gorge. It captures the expanse of the Gorge, even though my lens cant go wider than about 45 degrees.

                EAST UP THE GORGE

This conveys the majesty of the Gorge, but it is clearly too dark on the river and too light in the sky. The light is too blue, which is no surprise considering the blue sky, blue river, and green-blue hills. My anal brain also insisted that the river was tilted down to the left. After investigation, it was only two degrees off straight, but correcting that small tilt at least please yours truly.


As usual, correcting the white balance and lightening the foreground and darkening the sky have gone a very long way to rendering the scene in a much more realistic manner. The sky is much more detailed without edging into moody. The river and the hills all show far more levels of detail now that the blacks have been strengthened while the shadows have been lifted. And notice how trees on the right have now turned from blue to their natural brown. What still gnawed at me was the idea that there was too much sky, especially since the upper portion clearly lacked the drama of the lower clouds.

                CROPPED 2:1 PANORAMA

The 2:1 panoramic crop certainly seems to be more in the spirit of this image. Our eyes are telling us that this view is "wider" even though our brain should be insisting that I have just cropped the top third of exactly the same image. Know you know why movies are shot in a 16:9 ratio that is "cinematic"; this is just a hair under the 2:1 ratio shown here. I cannot get any wider without eliminating most of the sky, and losing even more pixels. I could print the original shot at about 8 x 12 without any computer hocus pocus. This panorama could be easily printed at 8 x 16 because that blue sky we eliminated contained few of those pixels - but how could we get a bigger print?


The answer is stitching, which uses the computer to combine multiple overlapping photos of a scene to create a wider image. In this case I took eight vertical shots across the Gorge, which combined to form this 3:1 ratio panorama. The image now contains more than 3 three times the pixels as the 2:1 crop, and I could easily print it 12" x 36" wide - and the expanse of the Gorge that is shown here almost justifies this crop. But I have found that realism in both cost and wall space argues in favor of the 2:1 crop. So what will cropping this stitch down to 2:1 get us for our trouble?

                A 2:1 CROP OF OUR 3:1 PANORAMA

There is much more detail here, even though it might not be apparent on the web. The image could now be printed at 11" x 22" because it contains almost tice as many pixels as the cropped 2:1 panorama. The trouble is that the scene has shifted to the right, and our "V" is not as prominent.

                THE GORGE RE-CENTERED AT 2:1

But this is a crop of the 3:1 panorama, so we can just take a different portion of the 3:1 to get a different 2:1 with the "V" back closer to the center. Notice that this 2:1 is actually a "wider" view than the cropped 2:1 we achieved without stitching, which allows for more trees and hill on the left side. Since the image is "wider", the central elements in the image have gotten a little smaller - but they are much larger than they would be with a conventional wide angle lens. Since the computer is doing most of the work, it certainly seems easier than shelling out $1500.00 dollars for the wide angle lens. Not to mention that if you so desire, the 169 megapixels in this file would allow you to easily create an 24" x 48" print, if you could afford the printing costs and the wall space.

                BLACK AND WHITE 2:1 PANORAMA

And for the inner Ansel Adams in all of us, just convert to black and white and step back to view a print like this, which will allow even more exposure manipulation. While I might never be able to print like Ansel, this file contains enough information that the detail can easily challenge the results that Adams could achieve with a large format negative.

I hope you have enjoyed another foray into the Gorge. I think you can see how easy it is to elevate a simple snapshot into something far more worthy of your attention.