Saturday, August 10, 2019
Part 1: North Carolina Side
As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I was planning a trip out to the mountains for a return to my photographic roots in landscapes and rural scenes. I had gotten to sleep a little later than I had intended since I was out late capturing last light in downtown Winston. I had given up going out for a sunrise at Rough Ridge or the Linville Gorge because of the lack of sleep I would have. However, waking up at 4am would give me plenty of time to get out into Sparta, NC, and close to the Blue Ridge Parkway if conditions looked favorable for a sunrise to happen. That 4am came awful early for me though and I was not looking forward to getting up just yet. I did, because that was what a photographer had to do. Today was especially important since there were actually clouds forecasted through much of the day which would make my style of photography much more enjoyable.
I got up and did my morning posting to social media with one of the images that I shot from the first day at Topsail Island, which will show you just how many images I have left in the files ready for posting on various social media sites. I try to post at least one a day across the platforms just to keep interest up for my photography. You know what they say, “out of sight out of mind.” It was a little odd posting a picture of sea oats under a morning sky after having just spent a couple of hours in the middle of a concrete jungle and while preparing for a trip to the mountains in search of barns and rusty old cars. Yes, I am a diverse photographer these days, but I am finding that with the different subjects that I like to shoot, I am getting better overall with my photography. I also like keeping everyone guessing as to what I might be up to each time I go out.
This was going to be a “normal” day for me though. A nice relaxing drive through the countryside in search of scenes that inspire me. My plan was to drive into Sparta, and ultimately go into Virginia which worked very well for me about a year or so ago. I didn’t get a lot of images that day, but I sure did see a lot of potential in the area. I was hoping that the clouds would cooperate with me and allow me to get some interesting images, and maybe even a few that are a little different from my norm. I’m in this personal growth stage with my photography it seems and I embrace new challenges at this point…maybe more than ever before. At any rate, I was ready to get back out to the mountains for the first time since before going to the beach.
As I was traveling towards Sparta, I really had no clear picture in mind of what I wanted to capture, and had no real destination in mind. These days are kind of dangerous as the first image of the day is always the hardest to create. That is why I normally like going out with a clear vision to get started with. Then the creativity will flow from there. I was just throwing caution to the wind with this trip and hoping for the best. I was pretty sure that I would get something since I even managed to get some really good images the last time I went out there with less than ideal conditions.
The closer I got to Sparta, the more I realized that I could have stayed home a little longer as it was still very dark, and there was no indication that it would be a great sunrise. There were some interesting clouds overhead though, and that prompted me to take a quick detour on the Blue Ridge Parkway to see what I could see from a bit of elevation. Who knows, there might be a picture or two to be had on America’s Favorite Drive. I accessed the Parkway from Hwy 21 and went North towards Virginia which is an area that I don’t spend a lot of time with. As I was driving, I was looking for different ideas. One of the places that I passed by was a barn that I had seen before, but had never really considered photographing because of how elevated it was on the ridge. Plus, it looked like there was a house to the right of it, and I didn’t ever bother going and knocking on the door.
This time, I pulled off on the side of the road and walked up the dew covered hill to the barn. Now that my shoes were soaking wet I felt that I needed to see this through. The lighting was terrible at this stage of the morning, but I could see some promise with the barn. The house that I had seen was obviously vacant and it looked like the property was pretty much abandoned at this point. That was a nice surprise and allowed me the ability to come back and work the barn without too much worry. It would have to be later, and possibly this afternoon before I could return and do anything with it as it was completely in the dark right now. The featureless sky above it made matters worse. It was not a picture just yet.
I got back in the truck thankful that the shoes were keeping the water off of my socks for the time being. I continued North on the Parkway watching the sky. It wasn’t really doing much interesting at the moment, but I could see that there were clouds in different areas and that was a good omen for the day. I eventually found myself at the first overlook which was the High Piney Spur Overlook, and it happened to face to the South. I could see that the sun was coming up to the left, and it appeared that the clouds at the horizon would snuff out any color that the sun might bring. However, the vista was impressive with a lot of rolling hills and textures below. There was a bank of clouds that hovered in the sky above the landscape that I knew would make for a natural framing element for an image. I went ahead and parked the truck and got my gear out. I knew that this wasn’t going to be about color, but I was interested in how the light was going to hit the landscape below. For this, I was going to need to be able to pick out portions of the landscape which was the forte’ of my 70-200mm lens which I decided to fit on my 5D Mk3. With the even lighting and not much in the way of contrast to deal with, I didn’t add any filters and just decided to shoot some basic images and just let nature provide the beauty.
There was a section that I could get between the trees that interested me with a clearing that I could use as a foreground leading out to three distinct mountains and ultimately the sky which had just a slight magenta color to it. I framed this one up in portrait orientation to accentuate the foreground and simplify the image. There wasn’t much to this shot with the soft colors, and slightly hazy appearance. It was an effective image though, and one that I think captures the feel of the mild Summer morning there on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
While I was picking out isolations, I was looking at how the entire scene was starting to look. It was setting up nicely as a panorama with the repeating patterns and rhythms that I was seeing below. I decided that I would give a panorama a quick try to see if maybe it would be as impressive as I was thinking. I found a position that allowed me to shoot above the trees and got the Manfrotto tripod leveled in place. This is the first step to getting a solid panorama and probably the most important for the ability to stitch the images together. The next step is to mount the camera to the Acratech GP-S Ballhead which is also leveled. With the camera in horizontal orientation, I check that the double axis spirit level in my hotshoe is also level as I pan from left to right across the image. This ensures that my camera will stay level throughout the panning of the series. Now that I know that the camera is level on the ballhead, I can rotate the camera vertical with the tripod collar on my 70-200mm lens. By double checking the spirit level in my hotshoe, I can verify that the camera is still plum to the scene. From there, it is all adjusting the composition through focal length, remembering to allow a bit more room around the edges for the cropping that will have to take place after the stitching. For this, I was able to set my focus at infinity, and I made a quick sweep through the image looking at the histogram to get the exposure adjusted just right. It sounds like a lot, but it only takes a couple of minutes to do all of this. From here, you keep the focus locked and the exposure locked and take your images slightly overlapping. I shot in 5 degree increments for a total of 10 images to make this panorama. It stitched together nicely, and I processed it initially in color, but decided that the colors in the sky were just too pale to add much interest. After switching my direction to a monochrome conversion things started to look much better. I was able to focus on the textures and lighting across the scene rather than trying to understand the color palette that was present.
I spent some more time working on some different compositions that I saw, but none of them really had enough interest to keep. There was a lack of foreground interest here, which isn’t a horrible thing, but all of the images pretty much looked the same after a while and I didn’t want to spend that much time on similar images. The sky got more interesting, but ironically it overpowered the landscape and produced a little bit of an unbalanced image which I din’t particularly care for. It was time to pack this up and head out to find some rural subjects which was the main idea for the day. However, when I was going back to the truck, I saw the sun doing some really interesting things on the hill to the side of the overlook. There were a few trees that stood out as well as some interesting flowers. It was enough to convince me to give this a try.
I stopped back by the truck and grabbed my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to help saturate the colors and give a bit of contrast to the woodland scene that was in front of me. I left the long lens on so that I could isolate the portion that grabbed my attention. There were actually three trees in the scene, but they didn’t look good together. I used the foreground tree to hide the middle tree which left the one in the background as a complimenting element. The flowers on the left rounded out the odd number of visual points in the image. The sun was producing a wonderful glow on the landscape which really added to the impact of the scene, or maybe it was completely responsible for the scene that I was seeing. Either way, this was the first image I felt instantly good about from the morning. I had gotten my first images out of the way, and was now starting to create images that really excited me. I was getting pumped at this point and looking forward to getting some more images.
I loaded everything back up in my Lowepro Whistler BP350 backpack and off I went back down the Parkway in search of some more interest. I drove only a short distance before I came to a farm scene near Hwy 89 that caught my eye. Again, it was the warm light of morning that really made the scene. I could see the light dancing across the field in the foreground with a barn perched atop the hill in a golden clearing. The sky above was full of interest as well which made the image come together. I pulled the truck off the road and started to size up the composition. I knew that if I wanted to have the barn carry enough visual weight, I was going to need to keep my telephoto lens on the camera.
I started out with my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer attached and framed up a simple vertical image of the barn as it was surrounded by greenery. It was a decent image but had no real wonderful qualities. I started to look for other compositions that might work better. I decided that I could use the tree that was at the fence line as a foreground element and use the barn as a midground which seemed to work. I was shooting at 70mm which changed the relationship between the tree and the barn making the tree a little too big in comparison. I ended up backing up across the road and going up a slight hill to recompose. I was now around 85mm and the relationship was much better this way. The exposure latitude was a bit much for me to capture in a single image, and it looked like a good opportunity to use a grad filter to pull the sky down. I didn’t need much, and ended up selecting a Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad which made for the perfect exposure. All that was left was waiting for the sun to kiss the landscape in just the right way. I didn’t have to wait long for the scene to develop as you can see above.
With the compositions that I wanted in the bag with this barn, it was back on the road again towards Hwy 21 and back to Sparta. However, as I passed by the barn that I had stopped at earlier in the morning, I decided that even though it was backlit I figured I could give it a try. The clouds above the barn were interesting and while I was here…might as well. I got my gear out and started up the hill. As I was walking up, I realized that the lower perspective might actually be a good way to capture this structure. I stopped about 2/3 up the hill and found a vantage point that I wanted to shoot. I set the tripod up and added the camera which was now fitted with the 24-70mm lens for a bit better view of the sky. Since the sun was to my left, I went ahead and added my Color Combo Polarizer to get a little contrast in the sky. I got my shot set up and quickly realized what I was worried about. With the barn backlit, there was no way to capture the dynamic range that I was seeing. Looking at the composition, there was not going to be any point in adding an ND Grad as it would have to cover the barn as well. My only option, and one that I was already mentally prepared for was shooting an HDR series of images.
I paid attention to my histogram and made my first shot exposed for the sky. I then bracketed with longer exposures by a stop each until I had detail in the barn itself. This turned into a five shot series which covered a whole bunch of exposures when you think about it. Looking back, my first exposure was 1/80 of a second with my last one being 1/5 of a second. Even with all of this information I found that the blending of the images didn’t really fix all the issues. I had to get a little creative with the execution of the image to where it looked real and had a compelling presentation. I cropped it to a square crop because the tree to the left was just too heavy on that side, and I didn’t want to leave the negative space to the right of the other tree. This crop worked very well to convey the scene. I had to select a color profile in Lightroom that I don’t normally use in order to get the mood I was after with this shot. This was not one that needed to be bright and vibrant, but I did want the colors in there. Adobe Standard seemed to do the trick and allowed me to process an image that was true to what I was seeing and feeling at the time.
After fighting with the lighting, I thought that I was probably ready to leave and find something a bit more promising. However, something was telling me that I really needed to continue to explore this place a bit more. I hadn’t seen behind it, and since that was the side with the light, I owed it to myself to check it out. When I got back there, I found much better lighting as expected, as well as some interesting views. I started out trying to shoot the back of the barn, but it really wasn’t working out at all. There was an old silo that caught my eye though. It had a single vine growing down the side of it which caught my eye. I figured I might as well shoot it since it interested me. I flipped the camera on its side and shot a vertical image that I planned on cropping to a 16:9 ratio to accentuate the length and narrow quality of the vine. It was a simple image, but the polarizer really helped to bring out the color in the vine. The textures of the bricks was also another part of this image that I really enjoyed.
When you first look at this image, the simplistic mimimalism hits you first. Then you realize just how much is going on with this image. Each of the bricks is different, even though they make up repeating patterns. There is a strong horizontal quality to the image thanks to the rows of those bricks, but it is the vertical, and slightly diagonal nature of the vine which really draws the eye in. The crop really compliments that fact and leads to an image that has a really nice flow and looks much simpler than it actually is. The vine even provides its own framework at the top of the image to keep the eyes from exiting the scene.
While I was on the back side of the barn, I kept looking for other compositions and actually found one that I really liked at the end of the sloped roof. The light was hitting it just right, even if just barely. There was a warmth to the scene that I really liked and the character of the bar came through quite nicely with the existing lighting. The strong diagonal of the roof added drama to the image, and the old wooden doors gave nice repeating patterns that went with the roof. The only problem was the sky above the barn. Since the light was so weak at this point, the bright blue sky above was a little much for the image. I didn’t want to do another HDR series for such a small portion of the sky, and looking at the scene there was only a little change that was needed. I ended up adding a Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad along with the polarizer and bringing it down just slightly over the top of the image. That did the trick and brought in just enough detail to have color show through. Having a featureless white sky is something that I dislike more than a featureless blue sky. That bright tones pull the eyes out of the image very quickly. At least by having the blue in the sky, I have some color balance to the warm tones, and the blue doesn’t pull your eyes in the same way.
I was pretty sure that I had all I wanted to get from this old barn by this point so I packed everything away and worked my way back to the truck. It was time to get on with my original plan of driving through the countryside. I had really enjoyed my time on the Parkway even though that wasn’t my intention. As luck would have it, I had actually come across some nice rural scenes which was right in place with what I wanted to capture for the day. I was off to a great start and had already shot more than 100 images for the day. I wasn’t sure how any of them would turn out though since the lighting had all been less than idea for the most part.
When I got back on the road, I headed North on Hwy 21 into Sparta. These are old stomping grounds and I was seeing lots of subjects that I had shot before. I did see something that I had missed in the times I had been out here before though. There was a car nearly buried in the tall grass next to an old building. It wasn’t idea, but it spoke to me in a way that caused me to turn around and go check it out. I pulled into the parking lot and took a closer look. It was just interesting enough to warrant a picture, even in the harsh light. The building that it was beside had a great window that I could use as a balancing element. I knew that I didn’t want the sky in this image and the best way to capture it was going to be going with my long lens. I grabbed my 70-200mm lens and added the trusty Color Combo Polarizer since glare was a big issue in this scene.
I found a good vantage point where I could position the window in the upper left of the frame and started to fire off shots with slight changes to composition and exposure. It was not the easiest shot to make for such a simple scene, but I was feeling pretty confident that it would work. There wasn’t much that I could do with the scene, so after I shot a half dozen or so images of the back of the car I packed my gear away and got into the truck. As I was doing that, I saw a car pass by and then get turned around in a parking lot a little ways up the street. He was coming back this way as I was pulling out of the parking lot. I waved and saw no indication that he wanted to talk with me so I continued on my way down the road. In a short amount of time the car had caught up with me. I watched him and again saw no indication that he wanted to talk to me. I was pretty sure that he was connected with the property, but wasn’t feeling overly chatty so I just kept on with my explorations.
I did turn off the main road in search of some barns and noticed that he was following. At this point he was blinking his light at me, so I went ahead and pulled off to the side of the road and rolled the window down. He pulled up next to me and inquired as to what I had been doing on his property. I figured that was what this was all about. I let him know what I had done and why I had done it. He was ok with my answer and was just concerned that I had been there stealing from him. I totally get that, and have no issues at all answering to my actions. We chatted for a bit and I ultimately gave him a business card since he said that he has some other old cars at other locations. I’m hoping that I get a line on some more interesting old cars as I really do enjoy shooting them.
We parted ways, and I continued down the 10 mile dirt road along the river going into Virginia. Since this blog entry is getting a little long winded, I am going to take a quick break here and make this part 1. I will be back with my continued adventures in Virginia in the next installment with even more new images. I hope that you enjoy the images that I have added up to this point. I’m actually quite surprised at how many keepers I came back with.
I’ll be back after this short intermission!