Spring In The Canyon

Redbud and Merced River, Merced River Canyon, California, 1989.

On Earth Day this year, my daughter and I visited the nearby Merced River Canyon, where I lived for 20 years. Although it was a little late in the blooming season, there were still a few beautiful redbud trees, lupine and poppies to enjoy. It felt great to return to my “home” canyon, and it brought back many memories, including some for my daughter when she was very little. When I built my current home near Oakhurst and moved away, I used a few granite boulders from the MRC to construct my hearth, to keep the Canyon “near” us every day.

I love the change of seasons there, as subtle as they are compared to most places, and the spring season is my favorite. Most years, the flowers start blooming in February, and finally they all turn brown in May. Besides the flowers, the river is exhilarating in its moods, especially during the high waters of spring. In my El Portal home, I could see the river from my living room only in the height of the spring runoff. Its rumbling sound was very loud, and soothing, at night.

I’ve made many images in the Merced River Canyon over the years, and one of my favorites was of a special tree overhanging the river. I’ve included my previous favorite redbud image from the MRC, photographed with a 4×5 camera in 1989. Part of the growth process in photography is to rise above previous work. It’s exciting and challenging to compare these two images and judge whether I’ve succeeded.

Redbud, Merced River Canyon, photographed with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, 1.5 sec. at ƒ/22, ISO 100.

Back at home, I edited the new images in the latest version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4. I had dozens of similar frames to assess. I find that it takes me several days to edit down to the best few images. It’s hard to imagine not having LR to manage this process. Using the rating stars, I mark the images that show the best sharpness. Capturing sharp images was especially difficult with these branches hanging over the roaring river! I used the Compare function of LR to readily judge one image next to another, seeing the difference between the overall images, as well as comparing them at 100%. This helped me find which frames were sharpest throughout the frame.

Once I narrowed down to the sharp images, I also looked carefully at the effect of the various shutter speeds I had tried on the rapids. The two editing steps narrowed my “selects” down to 10. The next phase of my editing workflow makes use of LR’s Survey View tool. I selected all 10 of the highest-rated images to see them on screen at one time, then culled down to the final one or two. My final selection showed the best sharpness, plus the most graceful flow of water in relation to the redbud branches. As I compared the subtleties of the lighting on the water and redbud in each frame, I also could see stronger backlight in the leaves and flowers. These differences are hard to see in a small print or an online JPEG, but I often make large prints for my clients where these nuances stand out clearly. I’m always in pursuit of excellence!

I finally found my favorite photograph, and I started processing in LR4. Although I’m still an advocate for final finishing and printing in Photoshop, Lightroom has become a more and more powerful postprocessing tool, especially with the latest version. I make many of my global adjustments in LR that I used to make in PS. My basic sensor dust cloning is done in LR. The new Develop module in LR4 is a great leap in quality and adjustment control.

For the finishing touches, I sent the file to Photoshop CS6 where I worked with layer masks. There were two highlight areas that needed separate degrees of refinement, so I used two Curve Adjustment Layers to pull out the subtle separation of tones in the white rapids in the middle of the frame and made a similar adjustment in the reflected light in the upper right (see my last column at www.outdoorphotographer.com/columns/on-landscape/experience-and-perseverance.html). Although one can make local adjustments in LR4, Photoshop is what I’m used to and where I have the most precise control. For my final master file, I have four Adjustment Layers that allow me to make changes at a later date. In fact, I’ve already tweaked one of the Curve layers to further improve the image. For more on my perspective on postprocessing, see another of my columns at www.outdoorphotographer.com/columns/on-landscape/interpretation-and-refinement.html.

I love my new image, as well as my 4×5 redbud photograph, which has been in my portfolio for 20-plus years. Which do you prefer? Let me know which one you vote for and why on my Light on the Landscape Blog, www.williamneill.com/blog/index.php/2012/04/3011/, or on one of my social media pages!

To learn about William Neill‘s Yosemite workshops, iTunes app, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and online courses with BetterPhoto.com or visit his PhotoBlog, go to www.williamneill.com.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.