The Big and Gritty Black-and-White Sky

I celebrated the New Year with a winter sports vacation through Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Big Sky, Montana. Folks call it Big Sky Country, but between you and me, the tall mountains leave a narrower-than-average glimpse of the sky. (Pancake-flat Nebraska, now that’s some big sky.) But the land is huge. Vast and sparse. Peopled but underpopulated. Earth on an almost antique and undeniably humbling scale. And the sky aside, ultimately enormous.

In this post, I present you with 13 black-and-white images, all but one captured with an Olympus E-30 or Stylus 1030. Some might call it a travelogue, but I see it more as an experimental portrait of space. I say “experimental” because many of these images exhibit flaws. Beautiful and purposeful flaws. My idea is that a digital image, like a painting, tells a story beyond that of its subject matter. A story of process and approach, one of development and media, a documentation of the power and limitations of tools.

Consider the Grand Tetons below. Comprising 11 vertically oriented telephoto photographs, this 500MB composition is a testament to the power of Photoshop’s Photomerge command. But the moment I attacked the image with the Color Range command—with the sole intention of enhancing that big sky—I revealed a series of striations across the clouds and foreground snow. (Click the thumbnail below to reveal the image in detail.) Normally, I would retry the effect to avoid these artifacts, but this time, I added Levels, Black & White, and Smart Sharpen with an eye toward exaggerating the effect. I did everything with layers—nondestructively, as it were—and yet plainly the image is stressed.

That said, I for one like the results.

My reason for visiting Jackson Hole was to enjoy a snowmobile adventure. Here’s a tight (and slightly oversharpened) shot of our guide nearly entirely airborne. This very guide gave my group a laudable (and, at times, insane) amount of latitude. I regard myself as fairly gifted on a sled, but during our play, I dumped my machine and later jackknifed it, spilled over the handlebars, and wedged the damn thing between a pair of hills. I took four of us to dredge the sled out.

I had originally hoped to sled into Yellowstone, which has reduced the number of snowmobile licenses in recent years. (The park may finally ban the machines, and I can’t argue. Sleds are wild fun, but they’re about as nature-friendly as six leaf blowers duct-taped to a lawn mower, all moving at 4 mph.) We instead landed on more remote soil, southeast of Jackson. And despite the unhampered sledding, the ground was largely untouched. Witness this macro image of the snow (in JPEG with the waterproof Stylus, no less). The snowflakes fell unbroken an grew upward to our mittens.

The following is not a panorama, but rather a single raw shot from the E-3. And yet I had a delightful time stressing it. A series of Camera Raw and Levels adjustments reveals this image in high noise. And what exactly is wrong with noise? It’s the pointillism and film grain of digital photography, is it not?

Thanks to road closures, the winter traveler must cross from Jackson Hole west to Idaho if they desire to eventually wind north into Montana. And Idaho is where I found the bleak scene below. With sun and barn 18 degrees apart, I had to rely on several photos (12 in this case) to capture the scene. What I love about this image (click the thumbnail to see what I’m talking about) is that it goes to hell right in the center. That plume of smoke rising off the hill is actually an auto-blending error. But to my eye, the flaw recommends the result. The faded barn, the curtained sun, the shimmering trees. Punctuated by a streaked sky and strange patch of blur.

I love the next image. For one, it demonstrates why a Colorado boy would venture 12 hours north of Boulder to ski: No lift lines! Even on the resort’s busiest day, December 31, Big Sky is wide open. Second, Photomerge stitched together 9 images from a JPEG point-and-shoot, complete with moving people. And third, of course, the delicious flaw: Dead center, there’s a guy with a kind of light pistol cleaving his midsection, plus he happens to have six legs.

Here’s another ambitious Photomerge shot. (Have I mentioned how difficult these are to shoot when you have to shed your gloves in subzero wind and your index finger feels like you hit it with a hammer?) While editing this image in Photoshop, I was listening to an interview with George Lucas who said he once bet Steven Spielberg a cut of “Star Wars” against a cut of “Close Encounters.” Those kooks—it’s like “Trading Places”! Can I join the pool for a cut of Photoshop Elements 8 One-on-One?

The peak of Big Sky is a 3500-foot gain from the base. Below we see the tram that takes you to that peak, which was more often than not shrouded in a snowy fog. Although such weather lends little by way of luminance to the photographer, it is heavy with atmosphere. The resulting image—which originated with a lone JPEG—is a noisy, jagged sketch.

This image is a thrilling case of inverted reality. The trees and snow were shimmering and cozy. But silhouetted against a bleak, bright sky, the central tree appears malignant, the snow resembles a swarm of locusts.

A friend of mine, Rebecca Peizer, shot this one as I art directed. We’re at the base; a man-made lamp backlights the trees. This long-exposure shot (braced on a ski rack) affords long and winding tendrils of snow. That said, I’ve no explanation for the long and articulated vertical line toward the left.

Big Sky was by no means crowded. There were perhaps a few thousand of us meandering about 3+ acres. Even so, there were an astounding number of experts. Witness the image below. You see before you a harrowingly steep incline. My recollection is that the hill goes more down than out. And yet hundreds of patrollers and expert skiers have wound their ways through this virgin territory. So many rocks and trees, so much chunky noise and JPEG compression. I ask you, how in the hell does one screw up the courage to ski through compression?

Those of you who saw my recent Photoshop Top 4, Feature #15:Alpha Channels (dang I love linking my own shit) have already seen this image in color. I shot this image of Big Sky’s breathtaking Lone Peak at the end of five days of skiing, about an hour after altogether wiping out maybe 50 feet from the mountain’s top. Lone Peak is riddled with expert freestyle runs (double black diamond) and, frankly, I was slightly out of my depth. (In my defense, it was my second time down!) When I hit a field of rocks, the skis came off, and I went more than 100 feet down the hill in a combination rolling, skidding, and occasionally screaming free-fall. When I finally locked my boots into what seemed like a vertical cliff, my left knee felt like I had taken a field of rocks to it. A few kind travelers lended assistance and one, as I crammed my knee in the snow and quietly cried, told me, “I can get the ski patrol. It’s no shame.” That was all the encouragement I needed to buck up and ski on down.

The earlier mentioned Rebecca also shot this one, with her ancient Fuji FinePix-a-whachamacallit. That’s the Lone Peak tram in the background. The guy whose goggles frame the image originally offered to get out of the way; she said (quite casually) that he was part of the shot so stay in. I had no idea what the heck was going on, and yet there I am. Looking just like me only in my seventies. And in gloriously ripped pixels, no less.

So there they are, in black and white, all pixels present and accounted for. What’s amazing to me is the scant attention I paid to the act of photography during the trip. (I captured at most 300 photos in 7 days; a real photographer would have captured 300 in the first 2 hours.) My battery was giving me the red, blinky BS-still-lasts-for-3-days warning for the first 3 days. And yet, I had a field day in post. A really warm, hot-chocolatey field day, I might add. And really, wouldn’t you rather have a field day inside, where it’s warm and your knees will be safe? With Photoshop.

Next entry:Photoshop Top 40, Feature #14: Gaussian Blur

Previous entry:Martini Hour 047, In Which Deke Displays His International Interviewing Skills


  • Again, I had comments disabled

    I was wondering why folks were posting responses to this elsewhere.

    Ug, I really have to figure out how to work my own site.

  • brrrr

    I thought you were just a sensitive guy; “I for one…” and disabling comments wink

    I like the James-bond-like guy on a jet ski and the reflection in the goggles (really feel like ‘shoppin a grizly bear raising up and liquifying a shocked expression on you!). Did you shoot the snowflakes with a dedicated macro lens?  The best one is the barn imho.

  • Not only are the photos

    Not only are the photos really cool, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your descriptions, and commentary.  Looks like you had fun, sans a little bit of spillage.  I love the “six-legged man”. 

    Thanks for a great read!


Share your feedback, work, homages, questions, wisecracks, advice, critiques, riffs, derision (within reason), frustrations, and love of all things graphical. Log in (or register) to lend your voice.