A Rough Ridge Sunrise

· Reading Time: 22 minutes

Friday, August 28, 2020

Picture it….4:30am and a gentle melody starts to play.

I start to stir wondering what that sound is, and gradually realize that it is my alarm going off.

It is time to wake up and check the weather.

But I don’t want to, I’m quite comfortable in bed…not to mention it is still very dark.

I reach over and kill the sound as it is getting louder from my phone.

My day has begun, and it is time to check the weather.  The clouds are still forecast in the area of Linville, NC for right around sunrise, but currently the skies look to be clear through pretty much all of the Western NC area.  Based on my previous evening’s research there were supposed to be clouds in place all through the night and throughout the day.  This was not looking good at all for me.  It wasn’t so much that I was interested in catching a colorful sunrise, but I was looking for cloudy conditions because I was wanting to get some dramatic images from Rough Ridge and following that up with some time at Roaring Fork Falls and Crabtree Falls.  The current forecast was making that less and less likely.  My first inclination was go go back to sleep, but Toni was there to convince me to get up and go out for a morning Trek.  I might get something if I went, but I was sure not to get anything if I stayed at home.  Reluctantly, I rolled out of bed and got ready to take the much shorter drive to the mountains.  What used to take me two hours, now was only going to take me an hour and that was a very good thing!

I was on my way by 5:15 which was a luxury for this time of year for getting to Rough Ridge for sunrise.  Normally, I would have been leaving just after 4am to get there in time to hike up the trail and get set up.  I didn’t have any time to spare though so I made my way down the road at a quick pace hoping that the stars above would get covered up with clouds in the next hour of so.  Now, I didn’t want total coverage, but I wanted enough high clouds in the sky to pick up some color from the sun as it met the horizon.  In lieu of that, I was just wanting some visual interest in the sky to add a little drama to some landscapes early on.

When I arrived at the Blue Ridge Parkway, just 18 miles from my driveway, I set a course South and started to look out over the different overlooks as I proceeded.  I was trying to get a feeling for what kind of conditions I would be facing when I got to Rough Ridge and hopefully if I needed to change my plans I would find a suitable alternative before I arrived.  The lower valleys were keeping some low clouds which I liked, but there wasn’t much there to work with.  The sky was just starting to pick up some clouds in the upper atmosphere and that was a good thing.  There were plenty of holes for the sun to shine through as well which got me hopeful for a colorful morning.

When I arrived at the Rough Ridge Parking lot, I had found no alternatives and was set to make the short hike to the observation rock that I usually set up on.  There were only three or four cars in the parking lot so I had hopes of being alone on the large rock.  All the way up the trail I was listening to see if I could make out any conversation that might indicate that these cars were all representing people on that platform, but I heard nothing.  When I arrived at the boardwalk I was able to see only one person standing there with her dog.  I weighed my options here briefly.  The sky was starting to look interesting and there was already some color developing.  I could continue on and select another viewpoint that I have shot in the past, or I could ask if there was room for one more.  Not wanting to gamble with the last few minutes that I had to set up, I just asked if there was room for another photographer on the rock.  She said that there was, and I noticed that her dog was on a leash which made me feel better having already damaged one lens on this rock years ago from the tripod blowing over.  At least I shouldn’t have to worry about it being knocked over this time.

Step Into the Day“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

She was already involved in capturing the color and I needed to get set up so there wasn’t much talk at all.  I found the angle that I wanted and opened up the Lowepro bag to get the camera built.  I chose to use my 24-70mm lens because I wasn’t in a good position to use a very wide angle lens this time.  The standard lens would be just about perfect for my position kind of on the back side of the rock.  I already knew that I wasn’t going to be shooting directly into the sun as I didn’t want to deal with that contrast.  Instead, I opted for a more Southern view which would provide softer transitions of the color.  I knew that I wanted to use the large boulders as a foreground and as I was sizing things up, I decided that the boardwalk looked really good from this angle and I decided to use it as well.  As I was setting up the shot, I noticed that the sky was quite a bit brighter than the foreground so I grabbed my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad to bring the sky under control.  That gave me a much more favorable histogram and I started to make exposures.

The sky was taking on more and more color and I was actually starting to think that I was going to see a pretty vivid sunrise here for a surprise.  Well, just as the color was starting to really pop off, the clouds covered the sun and the color quickly faded.  This is the precise reason that I will make lots of exposures for a sunrise shoot as the light changes.  You just never know when you will have seen the best light.  As it turned out, the best light was just that moment that I started to think that it was going to be an awesome sunrise.  I was fortunate to have captured this single image before that happened.  The biggest stroke of luck was that I was still dialing in the right exposure and hadn’t really started to bother with correcting for the heavy winds that were blowing everything around….including me.  I was still shooting at ISO 100 when I started, but for this image, I had started to work on the wind by dialing in a ISO 400 value to give me a shutter speed of 3/10 of a second a f/9.  It was the first shot that I had fired off with that shutter speed and it was the last one with any color.  Had I made that adjustment any later, I would have missed the shot.  The early ones were worthless because of the blowing leaves and branches at the horizon which were just too much of a distraction for me to allow into a final image.

I stuck with the composition for a while longer just in case the sun came back out and showed the morning color that I was now itching to see.  While I was waiting, I ended up getting into a conversation with the other photographer about color profiles and monitor calibration.  It is funny how I will go into teaching mode if given the opportunity.  It has really been a long time since I have been able to talk photography in the field and it was kind of nice to go through some of the pointers behind getting top quality prints from your images.  As the conversation went on I was realizing that the light was changing and the color was gone.  My next opportunity was going to be looking to the West because I knew that the sun would cast a nice warm light on the mountains behind me which happened to include the Viaduct as well as Beacon Heights.

Let the Light Guide You“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

For this subject, I decided to swap out lenses for my 70-200mm because I knew several compositions with that lens that I liked.  I stripped off the filters because the lighting was getting very even over the scene and there was no need to add anything in front of the lens.  I worked on a few different compositions and quickly decided that I wasn’t liking any of them.  The real interest was in the sky above and I needed a wider approach to get that.  I swapped back out to my 24-70mm lens which was just idea for where the light was.  I used the rock that I was standing on as a foreground and elevated the tripod to just the perfect height to keep the visual balance in proportion as I framed the Viaduct and the distant hills.  From here, it was another waiting game to see when the light was the best.  My intention was to have streaks of warm sunlight on the landscape while there were still areas in the shadows.  That was going to help with the depth of the image as well as show the contours of the mountains.

By this point I had the observation rock all to myself.  The other photographer had to leave after the sun came up.  There were some groups that were walking up the boardwalk, but none of them were coming onto the rock so I had my choice of compositions at this point.  I moved all around to find the right position because it was that small slice of the rock at the bottom of the frame that was just so important to the image.  I found what I thought was the best option with a slight swell of the rock to the left which countered the swell of the mountain to the right and helped to frame the Viaduct.  It was only a matter of feet, but it made a huge difference.  I kept the tripod at roughly the same height as the proportions were nice to begin with.

As I had hoped, the sun broke through the clouds behind me and lit the landscape in front of me.  There was no color in the sky at this point as the sun was too high, but the warm light that was washing over the mountains to the West was perfect.  I had my shadows in the midground to provide the separation between the rock I was standing on and the dominant section of mountains.  The Viaduct was in the brightest portion of the mountain which was perfect.  I managed to get this one frame captured that caught that moment in time.  There were about a dozen other exposures of this scene where the light wasn’t quite as glorious which all got tossed during the edits.  This is the one that captured the mood that I wanted for this scene and the sky had just enough interest to it.

Spilling Sunlight“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

One thing that I am always doing is watching all around as I am working compositions.  While I am waiting for the light in one direction, there is every chance that the better light will be in another direction.  I was watching to the South where I had started shooting earlier in the morning because the light was doing some interesting things in that direction.  As I was finishing up with the Viaduct composition, I swung the camera around and moved the position slightly in order to get the unfolding light in front of me.  There was a good deal of contrast here, but I was hoping that I could capture it without any filters as I didn’t want to lose the light.  I used the same formula that I had just done for a composition where I used the rock I was standing on as a foreground element for the scene.  The visual anchor came in the form of the next exposed boulder just beyond the rock.  Then it was off into the sea of mountains with the warm sunlight shining in from the left of the frame.  There was just the slightest hint of color in the sky and the greens were exploding below in the morning light.  I fired off the first frame which turned into my keeper.  I then recomposed and fired off another tighter shot that I didn’t like as well.  I decided that I needed to try to use a grad filter to control the sky and added a 3-stop hard edge filter.  The histogram looked much better with that filter and the LCD showed a really nice image.  I thought that was going to be my favorite of the short series, but when I got it home and looked at it on the computer, the exposure was off because I had gone with too dense of a filter for the lighting. Fortunately though, I had that first image which was exposed correctly and I was able to bring out the details in the shadows with no problems at all.

I continued to look around after that and shot a few more frames around the Viaduct but the light was getting flat and I was pretty sure that the majority of the favorable light was done at this point.  I decided to pack it in and start towards Crabtree Falls.  The clouds were looking promising for some waterfall photography and I was hopeful after getting a few shots in the bag from my first location.  Crabtree Falls was nearly 40 miles away so I had a little bit of drive ahead of me.  I looked for other targets of opportunity along the way just in case the waterfall didn’t pan out.  Nothing was jumping out at me, but the clouds were looking good and the light was getting very diffused with the clouds.  I started going over compositions in my head and some things that I would like to try once I go to the falls.  I was just hoping that there wouldn’t be a crowd there as too many people makes it very difficult to work.

Appalachian Moods“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 15 image pano in Lightroom, No filters

A little over half way there I passed an overlook called Bear’s Den Overlook and could see that the clouds were looking rather interesting in the sky as well as the low ones in the valley below.  I immediately started to consider a panorama of the scene so I pulled into the overlook and got the camera out.  As I was setting up the camera with my 70-200mm lens a second car had pulled in behind me and another photographer had gotten out.  He told me that he was shooting with his new Nikon Z7 and was getting used to how it worked.  He was limited because of the lenses that he had with the camera but was having a lot of fun with it.

Meanwhile I was still getting things set up for the pano.  I got the tripod leveled in the position that I wanted to shoot it from.  I then added the camera and got the head level on the tripod using the dual axis spirit level attached to my hotshoe.  It was then time to flip the camera vertical and get the composition framed up the way that I wanted it.  I picked the outer edges of the composition and then made a quick swing through the entire image to check for exposure.  When I was happy that I had it dialed in correctly for the entire series, I locked the focus on one of the distant mountains and started an 11 image series overlapping by 1/3 each.  At the end of the exposure I found just a couple of images had a slight bit of clipping in the highlights so I decided to go it again. I started a little further to the left this time and went all the way to the trees to the right.  When I was done with this sweep, I had a total of 15 frames captured.  The exposure was dead on, and the composition looked great.  There had been no filters as it is very difficult to use ND Grads for a panorama, and there was no need for a polarizer in this instance.  By the time I was done with the second series of shots the other photographer was done and had packed up and left.  I was just getting started!

I was very excited about this image until I got it home and merged it in Lightroom.  It merged easy enough, but it did take a long time to stitch 15 images together.  I started the editing process and quickly found that there was a lack of color.  It is usually in these circumstances that I choose to ditch the color and go for a monochrome presentation.  That is just what I did and I worked a high contrast black and white image out of the 15 images.  I was liking it, but it lacked something.  No matter what I did the image just didn’t have the look or the mood that I was after.  I was just about to trash the image, but decided that I should do another edit on it from the ground up to see if a color image would be better.

I went with a very subdued color profile that removed a lot of the saturation from the image.  It was kind of like the black and white, but with just a hint of green and blue.  I further desaturated the image and worked on the mood of the sky which started to look even better in color than it did in monochrome.  I was now able to control the color temperature and I added a cool color cast to the scene which I thought served the image much better than the original warmer tones.  Even though it is still Summer, this image didn’t need a warm feel to it.  With the clouds and the composition it was begging for a chill and a more somber mood to be expressed.  By the time I was done with it, I was a fan of the image once again.  It wasn’t quite what I had in mind at the time of capture, but it is an example of the image actually choosing the direction of the final presentation.  I just listened to what it wanted and here we are.

Unlimited Viewing“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

As with most panoramas, there are multiple images within the large composition.  I started to pick out sections of this scene with my long lens and began capturing single images here and there.  They showed off the wonderful sky, but they all appeared to be flat and lacking when I started looking at them though the image review.  I needed something for scale and depth.  In an odd change from the norm, I decided to use the entire panorama composition as a small part of a larger image.  I swapped out lenses for my 16-35mm glass and started to work on a composition that I liked.  I needed to have a foreground when using a lens this wide and there really wasn’t anything readily available in the landscape.  The trees weren’t interesting enough, and there were no exposed elements that I could use.  The only thing that I could find was the wall on the side of the parking area.  I really didn’t like that idea because having a wall along the bottom of the frame was going to do nothing but provide an obstacle for the eyes to overcome before they could even get into the scene.  That just wasn’t going to work.

I was sure it wasn’t going to work.

No way was this going to work.

So, why was I continuing to try compositions with the wall in it?  I really can’t answer that because the wall wasn’t going to work.  But if I were to shoot it at an angle and have it only appear in the bottom right corner, that would allow the eyes to enter into the frame.  Yeah….and if I used one of the decorative elevated portions right at the corner, that would give a perfect complimenting element to the mountain in the distance.

This is going to work!

This is working out very well as a matter of fact!

I worked on my positioning and got the camera elevated just enough so that there was enough separation between all of the elements in the scene and I had the points of interest at the proper intersections for the rule of thirds.  Yeah, this was going to work out great.  The sky was starting to break up a little bit too which was showing the blue sky behind the clouds for some added depth and atmosphere.  In order to really capture that, I decided to add my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad to pull a little of the exposure out of the sky.  That seemed to do the trick and the histogram looked great as I was capturing images.  I shot a lot of this scene as the sky was constantly on the move and I wanted to make sure that I got the best sky that I could.  Had the wind not been blowing the trees in the foreground ever so slightly, I would have shot this as a long exposure and smeared the clouds above.  However, had I done that, the trees would have been in motion which I didn’t want to happen.

Photography is all about compromises and this was one that I made in favor of a sharp image.  The clouds would have looked very cool in motion, but it wasn’t worth losing the sharpness of the landscape to achieve that effect.  It was this composition and compromise that turned into my favorite image from this location and also signaled the end of my time here at this overlook.  The clouds were parting and the blue sky was getting more and more prevalent.  I was actually starting to get a little concerned about doing waterfall photography at this point.

I loaded up my gear and continued South on the Parkway until I got to Crabtree Falls.  By the time I got there, the clouds were all but gone and the sun was actually quite bright.  This is not favorable for waterfall photography at all and I was feeling less and less like making the 1.5 mile hike down to the falls.  I was almost hoping to find the parking lot full of cars so I could justify turning around.  That was not the case, as there were only three other cars there.  This is a dream for this location as I haven’t seen it that empty in the Summer…EVER!  But, I knew that if I made the hike I would have less than decent conditions to capture the waterfall.  I checked the weather real quick to make sure.  There was supposed to be nearly 100% cloud cover at this time and it was going to be decreasing over the next few hours.  Looking up, I saw no clouds and considering that the clouds were fading and not developing currently, I didn’t see any point in sticking around.  I had a bunch of images in the camera already so I decided to call it a day and head home taking back roads in hopes of finding some rural or rusty to put in front of the camera.

I set the GPS and it took me out to Hwy 181 through Pineola.  The clouds were a little thicker here and the lighting was good once again so I was on the hunt fore more compositions.  I wasn’t seeing much in the way of barns or rusted cars through here. In fact, this was a little bit of an upper class haven so I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to find anything worth shooting out here.

But wait a minute….

That looks like a waterfall over there.

Yep, that is a waterfall on a small pond at the entrance to a Country Club.  I don’t think I have ever seen a waterfall at an entrance before.

Falling Symmetric“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I got turned around and entered into the driveway to give the waterfall a closer look.  The driveway had barriers all around it it to keep anyone from parking on the shoulder.  There were also plenty of indications that they didn’t want “outsiders” on the lawn.  I was almost ready to call it quits when I saw a small pull out on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.  I parked the 4Runner over there and grabbed my gear.  Not wanting to ruffle any feathers by walking on the grass, I stuck to the side of the road, just inside of the guardrail.  The distance to the waterfall was enough to mandate the use of the 70-200mm lens which I mounted to the camera.  I also added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to cut the glare out of the water.  The neat thing about this waterfall was that it fed a nice pond that was glass smooth.  The reflection was nearly perfect and the waterfall was quite pretty all by itself.

I got the camera set up on the tripod and framed up several compositions in both vertical and horizontal.  The way that the scene unfolded there was really only one good option from my vantage point which put the horizon in the dead center to calm the image and use the natural arch of the greenery around the waterfall to frame it.  I gave the image a little more room on the left to include some stone steps that worked their way into the trees.  This provided a nice element to close off the image on the left size, and allowed me to place the waterfall along the left right third of the image.  The geometry of the scene was very symmetrical with the reflection and there were gentle curves that framed the elements of the scene.  It was just a very pleasing and relaxing scene to photograph.

I am assuming that this waterfall is man made, but I really don’t care one way or the other about that.  In the existing light and zero wind it really looked beautiful to me.  I ended up with three compositions that I liked from this location out of about a dozen that I shot.  In the end, it was this first image that I shot which had the staying power that I wanted for it.  Everything just fell right into place in the image and the colors were phenomenal to say the least.  It was also the last subject of the day as it was getting very close to noon by this point and I had some other things to attend to before going home.

It had been a very eventful morning with three different venues to photograph.  I had used each of my trinity lenses which is always fun to do.  I had met a couple of other photographers along the way, and had created a total of six new images which I have shared here.  It was a great morning and I’m very glad that Toni urged me to get up as planned even though I wanted to stay in bed.  I rarely go wrong with getting up early, but it really is no fun getting up that early in the day.  I’m ready for winter when sunrise is at 8am and I can sleep in a bit longer.

Don’t forget that if you see any images here in the blog, or in my galleries that speaks to you, I would love the opportunity to match you up with a print.  There is just no better way to enjoy a photograph than to see it in its tangible form as a print that you can hold and enjoy in person.  Also, it is looking like I will be able to conduct my final three workshops of the year, so if you would like to learn a little more about photography in the field with me, please consider signing up for a workshop of your choice.  I still have a Fall Foliage Workshop, a Fall Decay Workshop, and a Fall Waterfall Workshop on the calendar.  I don’t expect to sell out tickets at this point and I am prepared to go as long as I have a single participant willing to go.  Of course, the more the merrier, but I can’t expect to have a crowd for these in the current climate.  I’m also still doing 1-on-1 instruction as well if you want or need that individual attention to learn a certain aspect of photography.

Until next time…

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