While I understand that many people view the petroglyphs of the American Southwest as nothing more than really old graffiti, I find myself captivated by the things. The rock art of the Grand Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon is seductive. The figures there resemble human forms, sort of, but not really. Speculation about what the paintings actually represent is, of course, utterly pointless. However, that hasn’t stopped me from doing it for hours on end. As a photographic subject the Grand Gallery is challenging. The light is less than ideal, the subject being in direct sunlight a good bit of the time. The color pallet is restricted primarily to red and shades thereof. Except for the brightly lighted rock surface and the inky blackness of the shadows and cracks in the rock, subtle degrees of contrast are sorely absent. What to do? Well, first, shoot RAW. Second, spend a lot of time in post. I’ve no doubt there are a thousand techniques for dealing with images of this nature. My personal favorite, only recently discovered, is black and white conversions that allow manipulation of very subtle tonal variations. For the most control of tonal separation in black and white images its hard to beat Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masking techniques. For these images I spent a lot of time working with subtracted masks and zone masks. The power of these tools is that they allow very precise tonal selections that blend seamlessly with the rest of the image. For instance, say we’re using a zone system with 10 shades of gray, absolute black to absolute white, and our image is of red rock shot in direct sunlight and we want to separate zone 5 from zone 6. Obviously the number of pixels in those two zones will be limited but they are there nevertheless. Using clever luminosity selections you can create adjustment layers in Photoshop that will target just those zones. Pushing and pulling adjustment curves based on very specific pixel selections reveals a wealth of subtle detail not visible in the original color images. To that end I’ve put together an image gallery of black and white conversions of color images shot at the Grand Gallery. Here is the LINK. Below are a pair of images to illustrate this conversion method.
Notice the animals, if that’s what they are, with the curled horns near the bottom of the frame, more easily visualized in the black and white image. Unfortunately so is the overlying, modern day graffiti.