Saturday, October 25, 2019
I looked down at my watch and we had 58 flights of stairs and were still not at the top. My Lowepro Whistler was starting to get a little heavy on my back, but it was still relatively comfortable. It was my knees that were getting the brunt of the stairs. I knew that this was going to be the least favorite part of the Fall Foliage Workshop and I joked that next year I would charter a helicopter to take us up to the summit. The hike wasn’t necessarily far to get us to the top of the trail, but it was a strenuous evolution to the day for my four participants…and me. We each had equipment of varying degrees with us which made it that much harder to gain the altitude needed to get the grand landscapes that we were after. For myself and Mike, this was the second day that we had climbed like this at Stone Mountain State Park. I had been out the day before to scout the trail and make sure that there were no surprises in store for the group, and Mike had come out and done the opposite section of the trail and hit the 350+ step staircase along Stone Mountain Falls. We were both hurting already, and I was just hoping that the rest of the group was faring better.
During my scouting trip, as you can see in the videos the color wasn’t quite as vibrant as I had hoped it would be by this time. In fact, by the best guesses of history and weather forecasts about six weeks ago, this was going to be peak weekend for color at this altitude. Well, with the droughts and very warm weather since that prediction, things have slowed and we are about two weeks behind at this point. Not wanting to change the location last minute since folks had signed up and had reserved rooms nearby, I decided that the only option was to carry on with the workshop as planned. the emphasis was going to be less about the color and more about landscape photography in general. The one thing that I did have going for me was the weather forecast for the day. Unlike my last landscape workshop on the Blue Ridge Parkway in June, there were lots of clouds forecasted. I was expecting mid level and high level clouds. This was a great help for landscape photography, and with that forecast in mind I decided to go up high to get the views for the group. My backup plan was to go down on the lower trails and shoot woodland if the clouds had no definition to them. There would also be the chance to shoot waterfalls as well.
There was another change with this workshop which I wasn’t able to offer until now. Thanks to Singh-Ray, I now have a demo set of their filters to loan out to the participants of the workshop so that they can see how the different filters will help their photography. This was very beneficial to me as I have been known to demo from my personal filters in the past, but wanting to be very careful with them, I would usually install the filters or hold a 4×6 in front of the lens for the participant. Now I don’t have to worry as much about that as these are specifically used for my workshop groups. I’ve collected a bunch of step down rings so that the circular filters will fit on many different lenses, and with that, I can utilize my Filter Holder on other lenses as well. It makes for a much more educational experience for those that have not used filters in the past.
In one such instance where this really worked well was with Sue who shares a love for dramatic skies with me. Throughout the day I would show her how one of the Singh-Ray Galen Rowell ND Grads would help to get the sky under control. She caught on quickly to how the filter was used and by the end of the workshop she was asking me for them before even setting up the shot. This picture shows her using a 3-stop hard edge ND Grad to capture a grand landscape including a distant bald. She was hooked, and I was absolutely ecstatic about being able to help her out. This is a part of the workshops that I have been missing out on, and am very thankful to the folks at Singh-Ray for making this part of the workshops possible!
The way that the day started out was fairly typical of my landscape workshops. It started early. The park opened at 7, and I wanted everyone there by then with the hopes that we would have an interesting sunrise. As the gates were opened up at the park, everyone was there and we were making our way to the Lower Trailhead where our day would start out. We got our gear and made a hasty hike out to the Hutchinson Homestead where the meadow provides some good opportunities for a sunrise capture as well as some interesting rural scenes. You know I have to get my rustic fix at this time of the year! Things were going well and we were getting some of the basics out of the way like exposure and composition with the easier subjects to work with. I knew that the landscape was about to change dramatically and I wanted to make sure that everyone was ready for the challenges that we would be facing from the top of Stone Mountain.
These early interactions with the participants are probably the most important for the day. It is these early one-on-one interactions that let me know where everyone is in their experience levels with a camera. I figure out who will need help, and who just needs a little guidance with certain things. My workshops are for everyone, and I have had very much beginners with me as well as some that I consider as good, or better photographers than myself. Neither causes me any problems at all. The logic is, if somebody signs up for the workshop, then they see that I have something to offer them. My job as an instructor is to find out what it is that I can offer and then fill in whatever blanks they might have.
I have to say that this group was fantastic. They asked the questions that they wanted answered. They were willing to try different subject matter as well as discuss different ways of capturing the various forms of landscape images. These interactive groups are so much fun for me, and there was a good deal of input from the group to help each other out. We all learned from each other during the day and that makes for an excellent experience for participants and instructor alike. In fact, the only negative to the day was that climb up to the top of the mountain. It was expected, but it was brutal….and worth every step.
Once everyone got to the top of Stone Mountain, I was very happy that nobody had the energy left to grab me and throw me off the summit. I’m sure they were plotting it though. Once we all caught our breath, we saw that the sky had come to play with us. The clouds were really great and the lighting was terrific, so much better than the blue skies that I had seen before, and happen to be seeing again the day after the workshop. I was very happy for the group that the lighting was so good for them today, but I was especially thankful that it was like this for Mike and Joe. Having dealt with lousy daylight conditions back in June during the Summer Landscape Workshop, I think that the weather owed it to them to behave better for this outing. At any rate, we were going to be able to put in some work on top of the mountain today.
Once we were at the top, my slightly less disgruntled group was met with a granite surface that is so interesting atop Stone Mountain. This bald has so many little nooks and crannies that add to the textures and interest of any foreground. There were the distant balds of Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock which I planned on visiting during the afternoon session of the workshop. We talked about things like how focal length and camera placement changes the perspective of the landscape. We learned better how to include what we loved about the scene while eliminating or minimizing what we didn’t like. In short, we talked about how to simplify a scene and create order out of the natural chaos that was around us. Lenses are a very powerful took for a photographer and it is not about how much of the scene is captured, it is much more about the relationship between the elements.
During the day, I spoke at length with Joe on this very topic. He had been considering getting a superwide lens such as a 14mm or 16mm, but hadn’t been able to decide which would work best for him. As luck would have it, I had the Rokinon 14mm lens that he was considering. One of the reasons that I carried my gear up to the top of the mountain was to use it to answer questions like this, or to demo my workflow if needed. I pulled out the camera and fitted the 14mm lens to show Joe just what the look was with it. He had been concerned with distortion going so wide which I totally understood. We discussed that as well as the difficulties of mounting filters to this particular lens. In the end, he had much more information available to help him make his decision. This is a big part of why I like to do workshops. I have used a lot of different equipment over the years and don’t mind helping somebody make a good decision for their own needs. A workshop is a very good atmosphere to have these kinds of dialogs with other photographers
Part of what I do in my workshops is to point out some different compositions to get everyone’s mind working for the scene at hand. It normally takes a few minutes to soak in a scene and be able to process what you are seeing before you can start making decisions about compositions. I feel that by talking about the elements and how they can relate to each other the participants will get a head start on finding their compositions. In many cases, the compositions that I mention are the ones that get shot. In the best cases, the participants decide to do something completely different. That was the case with Mike and Joe. They waited for everyone to get the the compositions that I was talking about before they went in closer to get a different perspective than what we had discussed. I love when that happens because my job is to facilitate a place with lots of potential compositions, spark the creativity among the participants and ultimately help them achieve the images that they are after.
I can’t stress this enough, I don’t host workshops designed to have an audience there to watch me create images. My first and foremost responsibility is that the participants all get out of the day what they are looking to get. My own photography comes in a distant second. In fact, you will notice that I haven’t captured a single image (with the exception of these cell phone images to document the day). Spoiler alert, I didn’t capture a single image with my camera. I brought bits and pieces out during the day to demo some of my equipment, but for the most part, I just carried it around the park. Some might be upset that they didn’t capture any images while being out here like this, but it didn’t bother me one bit. I was having a blast seeing the group having fun and learning as they went.
The morning actually went a little longer than I had anticipated. This was not a bad thing at all since we were having some good quality discussions and instruction. We were able to visit three different venues along the Loop Trail that included a view of the summit of Stone Mountain which we had just been on. Unfortunately, that was a bit downhill from the summit which meant that we were going to be hiking back up to get back to the parking lot. Going the other way on the loop would have taken about twice as long to get back to the parking area. Of course to be honest, I was really starting to think that I had chosen wrong starting from the lower trail head. It would have been much easier from the other parking lot, but everything that I had planned for the day was based on that side of the park which meant that the climbs were a necessary evil for the day.
While we were at the last section of the morning’s venues I had a very interesting interaction with another hiker. I had just finished addressing the group about some thing and had noticed that there was a lady a little further up that had been paying attention. When I got done and everyone started to do their thing to get set up she asked if she could ask me question. Of course, I obliged and she asked if I was teaching a class. Hmmmm, my paranoid self was wondering if this was a trick question, but I answered that it was kind of like that. She then went on to tell me that she had a relative that was interested in photography and she wanted to give her my information. She asked for a card and I pulled one out. She looked at the card and then it happened….I’ve never had this happen before so it was really exciting for me.
“Greg Kiser….I know your work! I see your photos all over Facebook”
Just like that, I was Facebook Famous!! In all seriousness though, it is a really big deal to have my name recognized out in the field like that. I spend a lot of time marketing myself through social media and it is nice to see that work pay off. It is so hard to stand out from the crowd when it comes to being a photographer, especially in the realm of landscapes. To have somebody remember my name outside of seeing my work was an important milestone for me. I know it is probably silly, but I’m rather proud of that moment!
I had planned on being back down to the parking lot around 12:30 or so for lunch and the Lightroom demo, but we were well off track for that. Fortunately, Mike had brought up bags of trail mix which he handed out to the group. It was much needed because we had really been hustling this morning and I think it brought some much needed energy for the return hike to the parking lot. Gravity helped with the hike back, but the slope was still steep and it was harder on our legs going down than coming up. We did finally make it, and I was glad that there were no cliffs that I could be thrown from for the torture I had inflicted on the group. I did experience something that I had not ever experienced on a hike before. I bonked. In the last 10 minutes or so of the hike, it hit me like a brick wall. I was done. My legs were shaky and I wasn’t able to form complete sentences anymore. My vision was failing, and my gear felt like I was carrying a Honda on my back. I recognized this because when I was a cyclist, I was very aware of the possibility of running out of fuel. I became very versed in nutritional needs for riding and you can read about that experience here if you would like. This was the first time I had done it going out for a walk though. Fortunately, we were close to the cars and for all of us that meant close to lunch. Knowing that I was going to be out here very active all day, I actually packed a lunch which I don’t normally do. It was the most tasty lunch ever eaten, and I loved every bite of it.
My mind started to come back online and I felt like I could stand up once again. It was time to look at the time for the rest of the workshop. It was now around 2pm which was a bit later than I had planned. I offered up three different options for the afternoon. We could do the Lightroom demo as planned, and possibly go to Widow’s Creek Falls after, or we could hike out to Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock for some more photos, or just go and work Widow’s Creek Falls and call it a day. There was not much debate on doing another long hike up the other side of the valley. That was out, and I was actually kind of happy about that as I think it would have been too much with us all under the loads of our cameras. Sue suggested that we do the Lightroom demo which I went for.
This was a new section to my landscape workshops, and one that admittedly isn’t all that great. I’m using an old laptop with a smallish screen to demonstrate image editing. That is really not an easy task just for the visibility part outside. There is glare on the screen, and the computer seems to have a hard time processing edits at times. Being able to show everyone what I am talking about is very difficult. It is beneficial for the instruction, but I think it would be much better inside with a larger screen. That is something that I will have to work on for future workshops because I just don’t think that the quality of that bit of instruction is up to par with the rest of day. I was able to get some good information out, and even managed to provide Mike a tip that he wasn’t aware of which was impressive since out of the group he was the guru at post processing with what all could be done through software.
Once I was done with the demo, I had filled an hour which is about normal for that presentation. Mike had to leave since he came from South Carolina and needed to try to minimize the driving in the dark part of the trip. The remaining three opted to go and try Widow’s Creek Falls for a bit and honestly, I was happy with that change. I love that waterfall, and it would be much lower key to get to than the other destinations I had in mind. It was a little over a mile away and everyone opted to drive which I didn’t blame them. I knew that the parking lot was small but hoped that we could all fit there one way or another. When we got there, my stressing was a moot point. There were large pieces of equipment in what used to be the parking lot. They were obviously expanding it, but there were signs posted at the trail entrance which was taped off with caution tape. I got out and found out that the trail was closed while they worked on the parking area. This was disappointing to say the least. There was no more time to go anywhere else in the park. Since Ron was having to leave soon, he decided now was as good a time as any. I used the opportunity to talk with Sue and Joe a bit more about some of the things that had been discussed through the day and ultimately went through my personal filter system with Joe who was looking to upgrade his filter choices. He was particularly interested in how the Lee Filter Foundation Kit and the 105mm adapter ring worked in practice. By the time 5:00 rolled around it was time to call it a day and we all parted ways after a very good workshop.
I had been in the mountains for two days now and had not shot a single image. It really didn’t bother me at all as I was totally fulfilled from the experience. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t looking on the way home…
Not wanting to get caught in the traffic on Hwy 77 on a Friday at 5 o’clock, I opted to take a back way home that took me through Rhonda where I have explored before. The GPS took me a way that I had not been before which was nice. The sun was getting low so the light was leaving me, but there was still enough that if I found something I would be able to photograph it. And find it, I did! I saw the front end of an old Ford creeping out from the background of a building and as I got close the truck developed into a really nice barn with a quilt on the face. This was too good to pass up and the soft light worked for it. There was even some definition in the sky that I would be able to work with. I got turned around and came back for a second look to make sure I liked it as much the second time. I passed by a relatively large dog sitting by the road at the house neighboring the barn. He looked old and content to be sitting there so I was hoping he would stay. The barn was everything that I was hoping it would be, so I pulled off on the side of the road and got out of the truck.
As I started to get the camera built, I was paying attention to the dog to make sure I wasn’t going to have any company. The dog didn’t seem to care, so I went ahead and put the camera together with my standard lens as I wanted to get some of the sky in the picture. Since there was a truck involved in the composition as well as a metal roof, I grabbed my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to reduce the glare, knowing that the effect would be minimal due to the clouds and the very low sun. Most of the scene was in the shadows and unaffected by the sunlight actually. I mounted it all to the Acratech GP-SS Ballhead atop my Manfrotto 055 CXPRO3 tripod and walked across the road to get the shot set up.
I was able to get a good composition from the fence at the edge of the property that included a bit of the sky. I started to look at the histogram and it wasn’t too far off, but I could tell that the truck would be in the shadows a bit more than I wanted. I needed to brighten the scene, but I didn’t want to lose my sky. I needed to get one of my Galen Rowell Grads to bring the sky back a little bit. I left the camera at the corner of the fence and ran back to the truck to grab the filters. As I was running I instantly realized my mistake as I heard dogs in the background starting to bark. Yep, I had stirred up the neighborhood dogs. I looked at the one at the side of the road and saw that he was still chilling, but there was another dog running my way. Fortunately he stopped short and just barked at me for a bit. I got my filters and walked slowly back to the camera and added a 3-stop soft edge before making my next exposure that worked very well.
As I was looking at the compositions I had been shooting I was really wanting to get one more of the truck than the barn. I knew that I wasn’t going to get that composition with the standard lens, so I walked back to the truck again and swapped out to my telephoto lens which is great for doing isolations at a distance. This is where the Lee Filter holder is so great, I just swapped it off of the one lens and put it on the other as each of my lenses has their own adapter ring attached to them. Of course, for this composition I wasn’t going to need the Gad Filter, so I pulled that off and left it in the truck. I went back to a slightly different angle on the fence and composed the shot that I was wanting. I wanted to get the face of the barn with the barn quilt there to balance and help tell the story of the setting. I also wanted the warm colors of the Autumn trees to the left of the frame included for a sense of season. The rest was all about finding that balance to the elements in the scene.
When I was all done, I had a total of 17 frames and expected to get a single keeper out of them. Much to my surprise, I liked two of them equally, one from each lens. They were basically the same composition, but different crops due to focal lengths. They told very different stories with emphasis on two different elements. Because of that, I felt that each had their own merit and deserved to be kept. I still don’t know what my favorite is, and don’t know if I will ever determine that part. I do know that out of a full day workshop, I did actually get a couple of images, but it had very little to do with the workshop. This was just me doing what I do on the back roads of NC.
Than you for joining me for this latest adventure. The workshop was a huge success, and I owe that success to each of the participants. Thank you Joe, Mike, Ron, and Sue for an excellent day and for not killing me over the climbs that we did through the day. Thanks also to Singh-Ray, not only providing a very helpful demo kit for my workshops, but for making some of the best filters out there which allow me to do what I do behind the camera. Remember, if you would like to save 10% on filters from Sing-Ray, use the discount code KISER10 at checkout. I sure wish I had that deal when I was building my filter collection! Also, if you would like to join me for a workshop, I have one more scheduled for the year at Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury, NC, on December 7th, where we will be focusing on how to photograph different waterfalls. There is still time to sign up, and there is plenty of room available.
Until next time…