Christmas Card 2002

Clearing Snowstorm, Yosemite Valley

About the Image

Photography of what you might call the "open" landscape is something I don't show very often. I get the same urge to make photographs as anyone else when I see some huge impressive vista, but very few of them ever get seen. I think the main thing that is missing in photographs of grand vistas is the feeling of scale; this photograph, to me, is one of the few in which I've managed to get some of that across. Yes, those are clouds. Bridal Veil, the teeny tiny waterfall on the right, is a 620ft drop; the cliff of El Capitan, on the left, is about 3000ft tall.

Clearing Snowstorm, Yosemite Valley is a pretty common title if you've seen any photography of the American West, and I won't bore you with a list of other photographers who have used it.  What I will do is tell you something that a lot of them might not mention, which is that despite the opportunities for strenuous exercise available in the park, this particular common view (the so-called Valley View) is from, well, the car park.

I like this image for its feeling of scale and because it reminds me of just how different Yosemite can be at different times of the year.  This image is from the first time we went there, in May 1991, when the waterfalls were full during the day and partially frozen at night; in the morning, you could hear the ice cracking.  We visited in 1993 and again in October 2002: almost empty waterfalls, but a wonderful display of autumn colours to make up for it.

The 1991 vacation was the first one where I travelled with a view camera (big tripod, dark slides, black cloth over head, the whole thing) and I started out quite nervous about going out and taking pictures using one of these.  My fears did materialise to a certain extent, as I certainly got a few odd looks (and some German tourists at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, ignored the stunning landscape to take photos of the strange guy with a bag over his head...) but I did feel a bit better when I noticed that the person standing a couple of places behind us in the accommodation check-in line had a tripod and wooden 5x4 camera slung over his shoulder.  There turn out to be a lot of large format people around in Yosemite and at the other "photographic pilgrimage sites" in the area: Mono Lake, Death Valley, Point Lobos, etc.  So you feel like a fool, but a fool in good company.

The other thing I like about this version of the valley view is that, for a change, the great iconic landmark of Yosemite valley isn't visible.  Half Dome would be visible in the centre of the image, more or less, if the clouds weren't there.  But then, you'd be looking at a different picture, and both I and everyone else have plenty of pictures of Half Dome.

About the Cards

It turns out that, at least from the point of view of a traditional monochrome photographer and printer, digital monochrome is a lot harder to do well than digital colour.  One of the reasons desktop colour printers do a mediocre job of monochrome printing is that balancing the colour inks to produce a neutral tone is almost impossible: even if you seem to have got it right, the balance will change in a few weeks or in different lighting; the results can be downright ugly.  The technique I have used here is to replace the standard 4-colour ink set with a so-called "quad black" set: there are still four inks, but now all of them are shades of black and this means that the result has a more stable and acceptable colour.  The presence of multiple shades of black instead of the single one used in the conventional "CMYK" ink set allows a full range of tones to be produced with a nearly "dotless" result.

Technical Information

The original negative was made on Ilford FP4 roll film developed for higher contrast ("N+1" in Zone System terms) to compensate for the rather flat lighting on the day. The camera is a Linhof Super Technica IV 2¼ x 3¼ camera. Although history does not record the lens used, it was probably a Schneider-Kreuznach 100mm Symmar lens; this is the standard focal length for the 6x7cm format this camera uses.  Linhof still manufactured this camera until very recently; my camera, on the other hand, is probably older than I am.  You can see a picture of it at the top of my home page The exposure in this case was 1/30 second at f/16, as if anyone cares.

A 1600dpi, 12-bit-depth scan of this negative yields a Photoshop file size of around 30MB; this goes up to around 40MB after a number of layer masks have been added.  The different masks allow better separation to be made between the sky, the various objects in the middle ground, and the foreground.  There is a little mask over the waterfall, as well.

The amount of information in the image is obviously more than enough for use on the cards; it would probably make a decent print up to around 20x16 inches or a very good one up to around 12x10 or so.

The first processing steps on the image were initial contrast correction and a little retouching.  Then, a number of layer masks were added:  the different masks allow better separation to be made between the sky, the various objects in the middle ground, and the foreground.  There is a little mask over the waterfall, as well.  Everything is done at full resolution just in case I want to reprint this at a larger size.  Only when I was happy with the image did I downsample it to the size required for the card, and sharpen it slightly to compensate for the blurring that occurs in the scanning and printing process.

The text on the back is in Microsoft's "Comic Sans" font; the font used inside the card is called "Coronet".

The cards were printed on an Epson Stylus Color 1160 desktop inkjet printer using MIS Associates quad black inks.  It takes a little under five minutes to print each card.  The paper is Imajet Photo-Gloss Card Blank stock, a 240g/m² product (yes, it's heavier stock this year) that comes pre-creased, for which my supplier was Chris Burslem at on-line.p@per.co.uk.  The two disadvantages of this paper and ink combination are significant "bronzing" in the shadows (you can see this if you hold the card up to the light at an angle) and a tendency for a slight "dusting" of loose pigment to come off on your fingers if you wipe them over the print.  So don't do that.

All imaging work was done in Adobe Photoshop 7.0 (yet another upgrade this year; I've found the healing brush to be particularly useful for retouching dust from scans) under Windows 2000 Professional.  The conversion from monochrome to quad black was performed using Chris Brandin's four-colour workflow as described on the MIS Quadtone workflow page.  I used Chris' profile for Epson Photo paper in lieu of a profile for the Imajet cards. Oddly, this year I found this worked better than the profile I used last year; I have no idea why.

The next year looks like being pretty interesting for anyone working with digital monochrome.  For some time, Jon Cone's Inkjet Mall have been selling a system they call Piezography, which involves proprietary quad black inks plus software that bypasses the system's printer drivers and ties everything together seamlessly. My problems with this system started with the high price, but my real issue was that the samples I saw a couple of years ago were beautiful if you liked what I might call "Ilford Multigrade RC Green" tones.  Maybe that's too harsh, but I just couldn't get to like the original Piezography tones.

Recently, Piezography has evolved technically, dropped in price and acquired a UK dealer in the form of MWORDS Ltd.  I've seen some samples of the new Piezotone inks and been very impressed.  Even the "warm neutral" variant is much nicer, in my opinion, than the original Piezography inks and the "Selenium" variant is really very much the sort of thing I've been looking for.

The new system isn't cheap in capital terms, but the inks are available in bulk so that the cost per print isn't as scary as you might initially think.  I'm definitely considering this for my monochrome work, starting early in the new year.  All I need to do is pick which of the three variants of pure black ("Museum Black", "Portfolio Black" or "Black Black") I want to use...