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Behind the Scene — Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves

May 1, 2014
Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries

A couple of months ago I started a new category of posts called Behind the Scene. (Here’s a link to the first in the series.) Today I’m technically on vacation in Barbados with my wife; she’s down on the beach right now. But since I have only two states — pale and sunburnt — I thought I’d take a bit of time in the hotel to make a new BTS post, rather than grilling myself like the nice Mahi Mahi I had for supper last night. 🙂

The photograph I’ll talk a little about today is a newly developed one from my on-going series made at the Brazeau Collieries abandoned mine site in Nordegg, Alberta. One of the things I really like about this site is the play of light across the industrial subject matter found inside the buildings. There’s little or no artificial light inside, however; these buildings are mostly relics. What natural light exists tends to be either a diffused light that seeps over surfaces while still leaving everything pretty dim, or else very strong, bright light that blasts directly through openings onto interior surfaces. There’s very little in between.

Visiting the mine and making photographs one day, I came across the situation pictured here. Since I love angular lines and repeating patterns, I was instantly taken by this patch of wavy bright light shining on a grime-covered corrugated tin sheet wall. There was a bunch of other chaotic material immediately surrounding the spot, but I waited until the light moved a little bit with the changing angle of the sun. Combined with my choice of focal length, I was able to isolate the pattern of light but still have enough of the surroundings to convey some kind of industrial location.

One other thing I often try to do in my compositions is to have “something else”, not just strictly the literal detail of what’s on view. As I prepared this composition in the field, and then later worked on developing it, I was turning around several ideas in my head. There’s the literal subject matter of the metal surfaces, covered in rust, dirt, coal dust, and tar. There’s the fact that coal comes from ancient biological matter, with the possibility that the coal mined at Nordegg came from vegetation associated with a prehistoric sea that left fossilized beds of rippled sand in various strata of rock that can be found in the surrounding area. There’s the fact that light itself has properties of both particles and waves.

All of these things knocking around in my head were making my imagination play with a contrast of the dusty, coal grime-covered surfaces vs. the wave-like shapes made by the light falling over the corrugated tin wall. So I knew I wanted to show both the light waves and also the gritty grime of the metal. Problem — the building itself was largely very dark, while the light creating the wave pattern was extremely bright. The contrast ratio was extreme, and a single exposure could not capture both the light and dark tones with very useful detail in both.

So as I often do, I used High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique, or what I really prefer to think of as high fidelity imaging. Making a series of separate exposures at different shutter speeds, I captured frames that accurately sampled the light from darkest shadows to brightest highlights. I used Oloneo PhotoEngine to merge these together into a single master file giving clean detail across the (compressed) tonal range. From this, I could create a final version of the image… which I titled “Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves”.

None of the photography or digital darkroom process stuff matters as much to me as the ideas that I’m trying to put together to create a final image. I don’t expect the vast majority of viewers to know, think or care about the creative process. The technique is simply in service to the ideas, not the other way around. But in many ways, I don’t even necessarily expect viewers to “get” the mix of ideas that I was thinking of when I created the image. I put the ideas and the work into the photograph not so that an audience will definitely see all of it… but so that there is at least something more than just the obvious, literal details for viewers to see if they want to look for it. And occasionally a fun thing happens when somebody sees something that I didn’t realize was there… but that’s a topic for another day. 🙂

If you’re interested in visual story-telling, photographing old industrial sites, learning HDR photo technique, or all of the above, I’ll be a guest instructor at a photography workshop that may interest you. From May 29 – June 1, my good friends and colleagues Samantha Chrysanthou and Darwin Wiggett of oopoomoo are putting on the “Coal Mines, Canyons and Canadian Rockies” workshop. We’ll introduce a small group to the Brazeau Collieries mine site, the surrounding front ranges of the Canadian Rockies in David Thompson Country, and our techniques for working with HDR. Click this link for details on how to join us!

What do you think — are industrial sites cool places to photograph, or should they all be scrapped out and reclaimed? Is HDR just a fad that will pass (the sooner the better) or do you think some form of it is here to stay? Do you create your images primarily in the camera, or also in some version of the darkroom? Is light a wave or a particle? Feel free to share your thoughts…

Here’s the darkest frame from the exposure sequence, pretty much “as is” with minimal processing. This one is exposed for the highlights, but there’s such strong contrast in the scene that most of the frame is virtually blacked out. It’s far too dark to rescue, even from a high-end medium format digital camera that produces excellent tones across the range. If I tried to pull up these shadows, they would be swamped in digital noise, totally obscuring the actual detail I want to show in those dark shadow tones.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The darkest single original frame.

Here’s the brightest frame from the multiple exposure sequence, again pretty much “as is”. This is 5 1/3 stops brighter exposed than the darkest frame shown above. It’s bright enough to see and work with the texture and detail on the metal wall of the building, but the highlights and surroundings are completely blown away. Blown highlights are not always bad, it’s all about artistic intent. But these are too bright for what I wanted to do.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The brightest single original frame.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The brightest single original frame.

Following the basic HDR merging and toning work, this is the result. I now have a rendition of the scene that compresses the full range of tonality from darkest shadows to brightest highlights into a workable range. It’s not finished, but from here I can finish it.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The HDR frame.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries. The HDR frame.

Finally, this is the finished version. To the basic HDR treatment, I added more tonal work via Curves adjustments and some dodging & burning; a bit of cropping and cloning to tighten up the frame and remove minor distractions; and a B&W conversion including corner vignetting and sepia toning.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves, Brazeau Collieries

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Russ Scullen permalink
    May 10, 2014 06:35

    Great article. Enjoyed your thinking and explaining the vision behind your finished picture.

    HDR, to me, is not a fad. It is a method or another tool to enable a photographer to bring his/her vision to a photo.

    • May 10, 2014 06:46

      Russ, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree with your sentiment about using tools to bring personal vision to a photo. I think we sometimes obsess too much with arguing over tools & techniques… without wondering if the results are actually worth looking at regardless of the process. 🙂

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