A Long Exposure Kind of Morning

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Thursday, February 20, 2020

It has been a while since I have been able to have back to back treks to talk about.  I’m still fresh off of my trip to South Mountains State Park on Tuesday, and now I get to share a short adventure from this morning.  Since I realized that I was having much better fortune with the landscape images rather than focusing on the rural subjects, I decided that I should continue with that course of action.  With the weather in a very constant state of flux, North Carolina was slated to get a little bit of snow in the afternoon, but the morning was supposed to be nice and cloudy.  High clouds were going to dominate the first few hours of the morning as lower clouds moved in quickly which would ultimately bring the winter weather.  Since there was pretty much a solid overcast predicted, I was thinking that waterfalls would be my main focus once again.  Looking at the weather patterns, I wasn’t going to be able to go too far to the West as I didn’t want to get involved with trying to keep snowflakes off of the filters.  I did see this as my opportunity to revisit Stone Mountain and work Widow’s Creek Falls one more time.  The last time I had intended on seeing it was during my Fall Landscape Workshop when we found it to be closed due to the construction of a new parking area.  I was thinking that it was well past time to go and check it out once again.

I started to do a little research online towards the end of the evening to see if the trail was still closed off.  I wasn’t able to find any reference to the closure and figured that it was open once again.  As I was plotting my visit to Stone Mountain, I happened to check out the sunrise forecaster and saw that there was a really good chance of seeing a colorful sunrise with the high clouds.  That changed things slightly for me as I haven’t taken advantage of the late mornings as much as I would have liked to this winter.  I wanted to go out for a sunrise shoot and see if the color really showed up.  The question became where to go.  With the time creeping in on midnight, I wasn’t really wanting to get up much earlier than 5am which gave me about an hour’s range to get to a location.  The more I thought about it, the more I started to lose interest in doing a sunrise shoot because I just couldn’t really figure out where to go.

Then it hit me, I could go to the overlook off of US 52 at Pilot Mountain!  I have shot this scene several times over the years and have found that the best way to shoot it is just before sunrise and to include the light trails from the passing cars on the road.  With a vibrant sunrise, I was really thinking that this could work out nicely.  I was also interested in doing a longer exposure than the 30 seconds that I had done in the past.  I’m now much more versed in extreme long exposure images and knew that at least a minute would be what I was going to need to get uninterrupted light trails along the road.

I had my morning planned.  I was going to work Pilot Mountain first thing and then hop on over to Stone Mountain to work Widow’s Creek Falls and possibly do some of the lower trails along the water where there are some other interesting subjects to capture.  I was in bed by 12:15 with the clock set for 5am.  Nothing like a good night’s sleep for a growing boy!  The night went by quickly and the alarm did not make me smile, but I did get up.  I checked the weather report and found that things were pretty much just as I had left them a few hours before.  I was on track and was hoping for good color in the sky.

Race to the Knob“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Mor Slo 5-stop ND Filter, 121 seconds

It actually felt really good to be leaving well before the sun came up.  As much as I hate getting up that kind of early, it was nice to feel like a landscape photographer once again trying to beat the sun.  I was already thinking about the composition that I was going to use which was going to be pretty much a repeat of the other times that I have shot this scene.  I would position myself just off of the ramp in line with traffic as it flowed to the knob in the distance.  I would set a minimum of a minute long exposure to ensure that I had complete trails over the mile or so worth of highway that would be in the frame.  Instead of stopping the lens down too far, I was going to rely on my Mor Slo ND Filters from Singh-Ray.  I knew that either the 5-stop or 10-stop variety would do the trick depending on the ambient light.  I would likely start out with the 5-stop and move to the denser one as the sun got higher in the sky.  I had my plan, I just needed the color to happen.

When I arrived, it was right at 6:30 which was 30 minutes before sunrise.  Normally, the sky would already show signs of the sunlight, but not this morning.  The clouds were too thick and that was not a good sign at all.  The clouds were plenty high in the sky, but I was starting to doubt that there were any gaps in them to allow the sun to poke through.  I sat in the truck to see if there was going to be any chance of the sky taking on the colors of morning and saw very little clue that it would.  I did see some nice textures in the sky, and that was enough to get me out of the truck and get set up just in case.  I knew that I would be using my long 70-200mm lens for the composition that I had in mind.  It was zoomed into about 170mm or so and I found the perfect spot on the hill where I was elevated enough to avoid the headlights hitting the lens and causing flare.  Once I got things in place, I plugged in my remote shutter release in anticipation for the long exposures and then started to play with my exposure variables.  I was able to land on 120 seconds at f/14 with a 5-stop ND Filter in front of the lens.  I could have gone a little shorter, but I wanted to smooth the clouds out for that ethereal quality since they were in motion.

I did a test exposure and found that the exposure was right on the money for time.  I then waited for the light to change and hopefully show the morning color.  Sadly, the sky was getting brighter, but the colors were very muted and more in the blue tones.  I started taking some exposures as the light increased and ended up shooting six total images before the sun came up.  I never did see the color and just a few minutes after the sunrise at 7:03, the textures in the clouds faded and the main part of this image was done.  There was no sense in waiting to see if the quality of light was going to change.  I had the best that there was going to be for the morning and I wasn’t sure if it would work at all.

When I got the images home and started to look at them, none of them really jumped off of the page at me, but I did like the composition.  I decided to look at the best one to see what potential it might have.  I started to process it through Lightroom with the intention of trying to pull color out of the image.  The more I played with it, the worse it looked.  I then changed color profiles and went with a very muted one that I have used from time to time.  With that simple click, the desaturated image looked much better.  I went in and fine tuned the color tones to give it a cool monochrome feel with the exception of the light trails which were left much more vivid and warm.  I had expected the sky to take center stage here, but the image that I ended up with showcased the shape of the mountain and the light trails.  It wasn’t anything like what I had envisioned and I will be back for another attempt at this, but I have to say there are qualities about this image that I really like.  The simplicity of it is quite beautiful and my main goals were satisfied.  I was able to show the depth of the scene, the shape of the mountain, and have the light trails add a little visual drama.  The sky set the atmosphere that worked for the scene.  It was good enough to keep at least.

When I decided to pack it in, I checked the weather to see how long I would have at Stone Mountain.  I was shocked to see that they were already experiencing snow showers at this point in the morning.  With rain and snow showing for the rest of the day, I decided that I had better not bother with that location.  Looking at the radar, I was limited to going East to avoid the bad weather for a few hours.  My best bet in that direction was Hanging Rock.  It wasn’t in my top choices of places to go since I have been there so many times, but it was the most workable location that I had going at this point.  I set my course to Hanging Rock and spend the drive over there trying to figure out what waterfalls I was wanting to capture.  The two that made my short list were Hidden Falls and the Upper Cascades.  Both of which I had photographed many time over the years.

Alcove of Tranquility“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I got to the park I was still kind of torn between the two waterfalls, but ultimately decided to hike out to the Upper Cascades.  My reason behind this was I had shot one composition of this waterfall that I really liked in the past, but the lighting and exposure wasn’t as good as the composition.  In the recent attempts I had gotten much better exposures, but the composition hadn’t been right.  I wanted to try and get both the composition and the exposure in sync this time.  I was also wanting to work a bigger waterfall than Hidden Falls this time.

The hike was very quick at less than 10 minutes which is customary for the waterfalls at Hanging Rock which is why I like to conduct my workshops there.  There is no sense in doing a workshop that you spend more time hiking than capturing images and learning.  This particular waterfall is usually around the middle of the day when everyone is pretty well warmed up.  There are some interesting considerations to this waterfall.  It is set in the shadows through a thin channel in the rocks.  Composition is kind of difficult to keep balance while adding visual tension which makes this a fun exercise in camera placement.  It really comes down to small adjustments and paying attention to the elevation of the camera.  I knew from experience that I was going to need to use my wide angle lens in order to capture the foreground in the scale that I was wanting.  To that lens, I added my well used Color Combo Polarizer to remove the glare from the water and from the wet rocky surfaces beside the waterfall.  From here it was all about finding the location.

I slogged through the water trying to find the right place.  I started where I usually end up and then started to improve the composition by shifting around and going up and down.  I was able to do all of that with my phone while the camera was still safely in my bag.  I started to move further to the left than I had in the past and ended up in some deeper water than normal.  By the way, my socks are currently drying out.  However, I did find the right position right up against the left bank of the water.  Now I had to work the altitude of the camera out to get the right relationships between the elements present.  I wanted the foreground rocks in the water to fill up the lower right of the frame to give good balance to the rocky shore to the left.  By being close to that shore, I was able to get a strong diagonal element in the frame leading towards the opening which was also being pointed out by the submerged rocks. The actual cascades were situated in the upper left third of the frame which was balanced out by the vertical rock outcropping on the right.  The light was soft, but directional so I was able to get some shadow accents to really pull out the textures in the rocks.  I had finally gotten my composition that I had been trying to recreate for so long.  The last time I shot this particular composition, it was with my first DSLR, a Canon 40D and my skills both during the exposure and after the exposure were nothing like they are now.  I now had the capture that I should have had in the first place.

I shot about 20 frames of this waterfall with slightly different compositions and exposures ranging from a fraction of a second up to four seconds.  I kept the same actual exposure, I just adjusted to have some different times so that I could pick out what looked the best with the moving water.  In the end, I decided on the exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/10 which gave the right amount of silky water with just enough detail and highlights.  It also allowed the flowing stream to be completely smooth as well.  From here, I started the process of editing the image, which was actually pretty straightforward.

As I am seeing in my more recent images, I am doing more desaturation of my images and this one was no different.  That was where I have been going wrong with this particular scene in the past.  There are just not enough color variations in the rocks and the water to really support too much saturation.  By pulling it down on the rocks, I was able to get a much more natural appearance to the rocks while keeping the water nice and rich which was how it looked to my eyes at the time of capture.  This selective saturation approach gave me a much better balance to the image when it came to color rendition and I thought it suited the scene quite well.  All that was left was a little dodging and burning to bring out the depth of the scene which has always been an important element of this waterfall.  When I was all done with the processing, I was looking at my most favorite image of this waterfall that I have captured to date.  I got the composition right and the exposure was perfect.  The editing was subtle with big impact which I liked as well.

After I was pretty sure that I had everything that I wanted from this waterfall, I packed things up and started to head back to the truck.  However, since I was here, I decided to do the scramble path down to the lower unnamed waterfall which I find to be one of my favorite waterfalls in the park.  The water flow as good, and I decided to give it a few exposures to see what I could get.  The up close compositions that I really wanted I wasn’t able to do because of the force of the water which kept spraying my filter.  By backing up I was able to protect my gear, but the perspective wasn’t what I was after.  I did try quite a few compositions and when I got home to look at them, I liked them, but they were no better than what I had shot in the past.  I’m really trying to adhere to my personal rule of not repeating compositions unless they are better than what I had shot before.  I failed to reach that goal with this subject, so all of those images were trashed.

The morning was reasonably fruitful with 38 frames exposed from three different locations.  I knew that I would only have three images if they all turned out good since I basically worked just three different basic compositions.  I wasn’t upset to only have two out of the group because I felt that they were the two best from the day.  The early one from Pilot Mountain is not necessarily a stellar image, but I do like the mood and the atmosphere that it possesses.  It kind of fits in with my current thought process of less saturation is more.  It will be interesting to see if that theme carries through the Spring as the colors start to pick up around here.  I know that I am ever evolving, so I might be doing more of my landscapes with less brilliant colors than before.  I’m actually kind of interested to find out the answer to that question.

It does seem like I am back on track with my creativity and I was actually seeing things on the way home that I was able to evaluate as potential compositions much easier than I have been doing.  I even decided to give an old Impala a try that I found close to home recently.  I had told myself that there was not a good composition to be had on the old car because of the location, but I was actually feeling up to the challenge.  Sadly, the lack of answer at the door to the house prevented me from seeing if I could make it work.  I am pretty sure that I will be back though, and I have some ideas of what might work with it.

As I am wrapping this up, it is snowing outside, so there is a fair chance that I will be able to get out tomorrow and get some snow pictures added to my catalog which will be a lot of fun since I haven’t really done much in the way of snow pictures over the years.  Now that I don’t have to drive in it for work, it is less of a hassle for me to deal with now.  So, lets see what tomorrow brings.

Until next time…

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