A Morning at Doughton Park

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Doughton Dawn

It would seem that the Blue Ridge Parkway is the destination of choice these days.  I guess that is true, at least for the past month or so.  I decided to head back up to the mountains today and hit Doughton Park which was one of my goals last week.  I was looking forward to testing out a new lens that I had recently purchased, and the weather was looking decent for the mountains.  The forecast showed between 40-75% cloud cover, and quite a bit cooler than the 90 degrees that it was going to be at home.  I was excited about the opportunity to capture more clouds over the rolling hills, and felt that situation would be the perfect chance to try out the new Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 which give a good bit better field of view than the 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens that I have been using for wide angle work.

Looking at the forecasted sunrise, the potential was pretty good up around Sparta, so I decided to head off to Doughton to take advantage of the colors.  As a side benefit, I could make it to the park in an hour and a half which was nice considering that sunrise was about 6:15.  I was needing to be in place roughly thirty minutes before that time in order to get the color that I was wanting.  I left the house at 3:45, and woke up somewhere around Traphill and realized that I was on schedule for making sunrise.

Gold on the Horizon

Once I got on the Parkway, I started to look at the sky.  I was a little surprised to see no clouds at all in the sky.  When I got to the Air Bellows Overlook, I peeked around the mountain where the sun would be coming up to see if there was anything there I could make use of.  There were no clouds at all, and the city lights were just too bright to be of any use.  I just decided to continue on to Doughton where I knew that there were many things that I could use in compositions that were not quite as dependent on clouds.  When I got the park, I could see that the sky was completely empty, but I went ahead and grabbed the camera and started over on the side with the most visual interest available.

I got to the top of the meadow as the sky was starting to get the first signs of light and the sliver of a moon was dropping towards the horizon.  I figured that I would check out my favorite tree for some composition choices, but found that I didn’t really like anything that I was seeing there.  I started to mill about looking for more composition possibilities around the top of the meadow.  I found a nice bald spot which was positioned in such a way that it complimented the tree line which framed one of the distant mountains.  I went ahead and got things set up.

I was really trying to avoid using my 24-70mm lens, but this was a scene that really needed it to keep the scaling right.  I went ahead and built the camera with that lens and added the Lee Filter Holder with a 3-Stop Singh-Ray ND Grad filter.  I composed the first shot and set the exposure at 30 seconds because it was still rather dark.  With that long exposure, the sky showed up as this brilliant color which was just barely visible in the dark sky.  The camera doesn’t necessarily lie, but it will sure show you things that your own eyes can’t see.  An interesting side note, my first composition was shot right at 50mm which is the reason that I don’t like using this lens currently  It seems that I gravitate to that normal focal length, which I really don’t want to do any more.  The more creative pictures are done outside of the normal range of vision.

Off Sides

I continued to work the scene as the sun came up.  The problem was, as the light got brighter, the color faded and I could tell that the sunrise was going to be rather bland.  It seems that I just can’t win for losing when it comes to sunrises these days.  This was the closest to a nice one that I have seen, but it wasn’t anything like what I was hoping for.  However, I started to look around to see what my other options were.  I still had the lone tree at the top of the hill which I wanted to shoot.  From where I was standing, it was rather boring sitting there against the medium blue sky.  However, I could see a minimalist composition developing.  The colors were not what I wanted, but I could see it as an overexposed monochrome image.  I put the filter away, and swapped over to my 70-200mm lens.

I got a little bit closer to the tree and framed up a shot.  Since I was looking for a minimalist composition, I didn’t try to fill the frame completely.  In fact, I shot it horizontal to give a good bit of negative space on the sides.  I also was envisioning a heavy vignette on the sides to really add a bit of drama to the image.  The image flashed on the LCD and looked really bad as a color image, but the histogram showed me that I had a good exposure for the conversion that I had planned.

Pastel Dancer

As I was turning my attention the mountains in the distance, I took my attention away from the tree for about 20 minutes or so.  I shot a handful of compositions of the rolling hills in the morning haze, but there was nothing that really stood out to me.  So, after I had moved all around looking for that one composition that organized the mountains, I turned back around.  The tree that I had shot against a featureless sky now had some nice puffy clouds above it.  They were even picking up some of the color of the rising sun.

I moved back into position for that and trained my long lens back in the direction of the tree.  This time, I was wanting to get the sky in the composition as well.  The exposure latitude was not very wide since everything was evenly lit from the sun coming up over my right shoulder.  I was having no problem getting great exposures of this scene which left me plenty of time to play with compositions.

Pastel Smudge

As I worked on different compositions, the clouds moved away from the tree, and the sun was getting brighter and brighter as it climbed over the horizon.  There was still plenty of time to work different compositions though.  I was starting to have fun with this tree.  I was only wishing that there were more clouds in the sky.  At least this portion of the day was showing a little less than 20% coverage, so I wasn’t overly worried, but I was hoping that the clouds would start to roll in so I could get to work on some grand landscapes.

Morning Hues

Risking blowing other opportunities, I decided to abandon the tree and start to look for other compositions as the sun was coming up.  Again, I turned around and looked towards the West.  This is always a fun view as the sun gets a little bit of altitude.  The clouds were faint on the other side, but you could see a bit of alpenglow developing in the sky.  It was enough to justify setting up to capture it.  I kept the long lens on and didn’t need any filters for this at all.  Everything was so evenly lit thanks to the clouds obscuring the sun now.  I could tell that the sun wasn’t going to illuminate the rocks like it has done in the past though.  I’ve shot better images here, but this one had a nice serene feel to it with the muted colors in the sky matched with the low fog in the valleys.

Lofty Clouds

With the passage of time, the sky and the clouds changed.  I still wasn’t getting the warm light on the rock outcropping, but I was getting a bank of clouds moving over the distant landscape.  These were the same clouds that had been over the tree.  Hey, when you don’t have many clouds to work with, you keep working the same clouds over and over.  They were still picking up the warm colors of the low sun, now to my rear.  The alpenglow was fading which left some nice soft and warm tones in the sky.  The warmth of the sky balanced nicely with the cool Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

The sun was still climbing and I was quickly loosing the warm tones of morning.  I went ahead and started walking the trail back to the parking lot to see if there was something else I could shoot.  There was a really nice fallen tree about mid way back that I’ve shot a time or two before and thought that I might be able to get something there this morning.  When I arrived, I had decent light on the tree, but nothing of any interest in the sky above it.  There were some interesting textures though, and that was what I started to work with.

Knotted Bark

I decided to straight for the abstract shot and found an interesting section to work with.  The lighting was good and I could pick out lots of interesting textures with it as well.  Since there wasn’t much in the way of color here, I made the decision to shoot this one as a monochrome image from the beginning.  I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I only felt like a single exposure was all that was needed here.  I moved on to other sections and tried similar shots with an abstract feel.  None of the other ones turned out though.  It was all pretty much a time killer as I was waiting to see if the clouds started rolling in like I was expecting according to the forecast.

Spring Cradle

I was running out of abstracts to shoot on the fallen tree, so I started to look in the meadow for bits of the tree that had broken off over the years that it has been here.  I found several with some interesting shapes that I shot.  I was able to keep the long lens attached and pick these broken bits of branch out with relative ease.  The lighting was perfect on the wood, and the grass was a rich green that really told the story of the season.

I don’t know why this old tree is so fascinating to me.  It has been here since my first visit to Doughton in either 2005 or 2006.  Of course over the years, it has gotten smaller as decay has caused it to break apart.  It is right alongside the trail, and I would almost bet that the trail had to be cut around the tree.  Regardless of the current size of the tree, it is still a very interesting sight to see.  I’ve shot it in several different ways, but I’ve never shot it into the sun before.  Well, that was about to change.
Fallen Drama
What I was seeing was looking rather interesting.  There was a cloud bank that was moving its way across the sky and was currently blocking the sun.  While this killed the nice warm light that I had, it also provided a chance to shoot this old tree with a direction that suited the orientation of the wood.  I quickly swapped out to my 16-35mm lens and added the Lee Filter Holder along with two different 3-Stop Singh-Ray ND Grads.  The six total stops of light control that I achieved allowed me to control the exposure in the sky and still get plenty of detail in the tree.  The thick clouds did their part in keeping the primary highlight at bay, and for that I was very thankful.
Hollow Morning
I made my way around the tree picking out compositions quickly as I wasn’t sure how long the clouds would last.  The wide angle lens allowed me to get a number of dramatic compositions.  I would have loved to have used my new Rokinon lens, but there is no attachment for filters thanks to the built-in lens hood.  Also, that lens is fully manual and I didn’t want to try and learn that lens in a time crunch situation.  I did stay at 16mm for the majority of these shots which proved to me that I was going to have fun with the 14mm when I did get a chance to use it.
Three Fingers Up
As the clouds finally broke away, I had to abandon shooting in the direction of the sun.  I moved to a side position that took advantage of the same clouds as they moved off to the South.  Looking at the exposure, I going to still have an issue with the sky being overexposed.  I could continue to use the ND Grads, or I could play around with HDR images.  I opted for the latter and stripped the filters from the front of the lens and set things up for a four shot (1-stop interval) series to capture all of the tonal range of the scene.  It just took a few seconds to capture the series, and I could tell that I had all of the data that I needed to merge an HDR file.
At this point, I went ahead and pulled out the Rokinon and started to experiment with it.  Now, for those who aren’t familiar with this lens, it is a fully manual lens where you have to manually set the aperture on the lens itself.  The focus is also manual which I am more than used to.  I wasn’t sure how this would work with my live preview so I turned that on and found that I was still able to get a histogram.  I set the exposure, and focus and released the shutter.
Completely overexposed.
I checked the exposure once again and saw that it looked right on the live preview.  I went to the viewfinder and found that it was showing massively overexposed.  I dialed in a shutter speed that gave me a proper exposure based on the meter and fired it again.  This one turned out to be exposed  properly.  I can only deduce that I will only be able to use live preview for focusing, and will have to set the exposure through the viewfinder.  Not a terrible trade off for a lens that cost around $250.  The few test images that I shot turned out to not be all that great and ultimately got trashed.  However, I knew that the lens worked at this point, and I knew how I needed to operate it.
Spring Gate
I decided to pack everything up and head back down to the truck.  However, when I got there and saw that the sky was bare in all directions I wasn’t worried about getting on the road just yet because nothing was going to look good enough to justify stopping anyway.  Instead, I opted to go for a walk down the mile long driveway to the Parkway.  I knew that there were several places along the driveway that make for interesting pictures.  One such scene was a gated fence under a blooming tree.  The hints of Spring colors on the branches gave just the right amount of visual interest to the scene and that prompted me to stop and pull the camera out.
I loaded up the 70-200mm lens with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and went to work making a composition.  One of the harder aspects here was the fact that the wind was really picking up.  At least it was a gusty wind and not really a constant one.  This allowed me the opportunity to wait the wind out and hopefully get the leaves still.  I worked this area for about 30 minutes and even shot a panorama while I was here.
Doughton Park
There is just something special about this park.  Every time I come here I always find all sorts of things to photograph, even if the conditions are less than ideal.  Of course, I think that the main reason that this park is special is because Toni and I went on a date here years ago and we kissed in the clouds while eating lunch.  I just can’t come to this park and not think about that day.  It will always hold a special place in my mind and heart for that reason.
Carolina Blue
One of the things that I usually hold hard and fast to is not shooting grand landscapes with a featureless sky.  There is just something about a plain blue sky.  They are pretty to look at, but rarely make for interesting photographs.  I had been shooting a good many plain skies already this morning, so why not continue.  When I got to the main entrance to the park, I found one of my favorite scenes ready to be photographed.  The sky was relatively featureless though, but the trees looked good, and the interesting rocks outcroppings that shielded the trees were looking good.  I figured I would give it a try.
Since the exposure looked pretty straightforward, I didn’t expect to need any filters.  The rocks look really good with an extreme wide angle, so I figured that I might as well try the Rokinon one more time.  I went ahead and put it on and got into position really close to the rocks.  I was about 10 feet from the edge of it before I started to compose the image.  I was surprised at how well the 14mm focal length captured this scene.  I didn’t note too much distortion either which was a nice feature of this prime lens.  The sky was boring, but the sun was hitting the leaves and making them glow which kind of gave the sky enough visual interest to get by.  I set my focus and dialed in the aperture I wanted for the depth of field.  Switching back over to the the viewfinder, I set the exposure and waited for the wind to die down.  When it did, I fired off the shot.  Nailed it!  the exposure was right, and the trees appeared to be tack sharp.  I went ahead and did a few other compositions as well, but in the end it was this first shot that paid off.
I will say this about the Rokinon lens.  After having been spoiled by nothing but Canon “L” glass for years, I was a little skeptical about this Korean lens.  It has received nothing but great reviews for both build quality and sharpness.  The only fault that has been noted with this lens is the consistency across the individual lenses.  For $250, it was worth the gamble on getting a good example.  Considering that the Canon 14mm lens goes for over $2,000, and isn’t as sharp as the Rokinon was something that I wanted to check out on my own.  After processing the handful of Rokinon images, I can say that I think that my example is a good one.  The sharpness is there in all areas of the image.  It is on par with the “L” glass, and might be just a bit sharper than the wider end of the 16-35mm lens.  Distortion is much better controlled as well.  It is a little more fussy to deal with being a completely manual lens, but I really can’t gripe about that since I didn’t come close to missing $1500 worth of aperture control.  I can definitely recommend this lens for the landscape photographer.
Fast Lady
I made the mile walk back to the truck since the sun was getting just too high up in the sky to make for any interesting landscapes.  I set out for a brief jaunt on the Parkway to see if I could find any clouds.  There were officially no clouds to be had at this point in the day.  I diverted off of the Parkway and found myself around the area of Raccoon Hollar and Phillips Gap.  I found a couple of interesting things, but the lighting was far from good and I had to pass them by.  I was figuring that the day was done and I started to head home by way of Wilkesboro.
As I was listening to the tunes in the truck, I happened to see an old ’56 Caddi sitting in front of an empty building.  It had a good bit of rust on it, and looked very interesting.  The backdrop wasn’t my favorite, but it didn’t require any sky to be in the picture so I figured I might be able to work with it. I got turned around and pulled into the parking lot.  As I was getting the camera out I quickly realized that it was hot….I mean oven hot compared to the nice temperatures I had been dealing with.
I checked out the car and decided that I would pull out my 24-70mm lens since that is my favorite for automotive photography.  I can distort the car just enough with this lens, and I can also shoot intimate captures with it as well.  I got down to business picking out compositions.  I shot at multiple heights as well as getting lots of different angles.  I wish I could say that the lighting was good, but it was actually pretty bad.  I used my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to remove as much glare as I could and get the best contrast on the black car.
Sail Light
I’m not a huge fan of shooting back cars as they are usually a little boring.  I much prefer the light blues of the era and have lots of fun playing with the rust.  This car wasn’t too bad though.  Most of the chrome was still in place and sine it was a Cadillac there was a lot of flare to work with.  Tail lights are some of my favorite things to shoot, as are headlights.  This particular car had no headlights, but the tail lights were in place and really looked cool.  I had a lot of fun pulling details out for intimate portraits with this car.
Place Holder
I guess you could say that the emblems were here as well.  I can’t say they were complete though.  As you can see, the crest for the brand was missing, but you can’t miss the framework for it.  The nice gold color of the trim actually goes really well with the black paint, and the splash of rust helps to make this image pop.  Over the years I have really turned into a patina nut.  I love the textures of the rust, and when you add the shiny bits on top of it, you are hard pressed to make a bad image.  In this situation, the harsh lighting actually worked out and gave me some very interesting shadows, and added another layer of interest to the patina.
Cosmic Corrosion
Speaking of patina and chrome, I found some very interesting features on the rear quarter panels of the car.  I’m not sure the purpose other than to add a bit of bling, but there were some cool chrome disks inserted into the lower quarter panels.  On the passenger side, there were two large areas of rust right above the disks.  Oh yeah…I can do something with that for sure.  There is so much visual interest here, and unless you are familiar with this car, I doubt you will know what you are looking at.  I love the abstract qualities that come with rust photography.  As long as it isn’t on my own vehicles, I will always love the looks of rust.  The textures and the colors are nothing short of amazing to me.
Luxury Sled
I was dripping sweat at this point, although it might have been the fact that I was trying to outrun myself.  Every time I shot a picture that involved chrome, I had to run away from the image so that my reflection didn’t show in the car. The camera was small enough that it didn’t have a problem disappearing in the reflections.  Me however….I had to to do shuttle runs with ever press of the shutter.  I’m sure that folks passing by on the highway were wondering what this crazy dude was doing next to this car.  Funny as it looked, it did work and only a few images was I visible in.
I kept trying to figure out how to get the Cadillac emblem in a shot that made sense.  It finally hit me, and I was happy that it didn’t involve a straight on shot.  I happened to notice that if you viewed it from the middle of the bumper, you could see the reflection in the bullet on the driver’s side.  I got the camera low and close.  I positioned it so that I could see the reflection in the bullet which was used as the visual frame on the right side.  The chrome surround provided the rest of the framework.  I had my Caddi emblem as well as a token bit of rust and patina.  The grill was also well lit and exposed nicely.
When I started to constantly drip sweat it was time to pack it up and get back in the air conditioning.  I had shot about 165 frames since sunrise this morning.  I had gone through two batteries.  I was tired, and needed to get home to see what I had.  To be honest, I wasn’t all that optimistic about what I had captured throughout the day.  I was expecting about a half dozen good images, but doubted that there would be any more than that.  When it was all said and done, I was absolutely floored that there were 23 images I deemed keepers out of the bunch.  It was a fun day in the mountains, and despite the less than ideal sky, I was really happy with what I had come home with.