A Trek in the Invisible Rain

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Saturday, September 12, 2020

If you have been following the blog here for any amount of time you will know my frustration with the weather forecasts.  I try my best to pick the days that are the most conducive to my style of photography to go out.  That usually includes tracking the weather patterns and picking the days that are looking to be the best.  More times than not though, I end up having to deal with sun when I was expecting clouds, or clouds when I was expecting sun.  Then you throw in the rain that just seems to happen at the worst times.  The last few days have taken that frustration to an all time high.  I actually went out on a trek on Thursday.  The weather had been calling for rain all day long so I wasn’t planning on going out, but when I was piddling around the house I noticed that the driveway was drying up and that the light was looking good.  I looked at the weather forecast for the rest of the day and saw that the rain was actually going to be staying away until later that evening.  There were just good clouds forecasted through the area.  I decided to head out and try to get some barns or old cars which typically look good in these situations.

I started out on a four hour road trip that took me North and West of my location.  The clouds were phenomenal and I was truly excited about the day.  I had great lighting, but nothing to put under that sky.  I tried and tried to find something, but there was just nothing in the area that I was exploring.  I decided to head up to the Parkway to get some landscapes which would definitely take advantage of the clouds.  As I started to climb the mountain, it started to rain on me.  I checked the weather radar and couldn’t see any green blips indicating precipitation.  That meant that this was very isolated and I was going to be coming out of it shortly.  Well, that wasn’t the case.  I got to the Parkway and it was totally in the clouds and the rain was coming down hard.  I turned around to go down the mountain where I found dry conditions, great skies, but nothing to put under that sky.

I repeated my climb up the mountain in two more locations trying to find a point that was not getting rain.  Each time repeated the first experience.  I was still not seeing any rain on the radar whether looking on the infotainment system on the 4Runner, or looking on my phone.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to get anything at the top of the mountain.  I decided to go back into the the foothills where the sky was starting to clear up.  I was losing the great clouds and had still not found anything at all to put under them.  After about four hours or so, I gave up and went home without even pulling the camera out of the bag.

Such is the life of a landscape photographer I’m afraid.

Fast forward to Saturday, when I was planning on being at the house all day long with rain in the forecast for the entire day.  However, when I woke up I could see that there was no rain falling and the lighting was pretty good from what I could see.  I made a quick check of the forecast and it confirmed that the rain was going to hold off until mid afternoon.  Looking at the radar, there were no squalls moving through the area, and none in the future forecast either.  I got ready and loaded the truck up once again.  I opened the garage door and started out of the garage and found a heavy mist falling on mist which had apparently just started.  As I was clearing the house, Toni caught my attention and confirmed that it was raining.  I was committed at this point and decided to go on the hunt hoping that the mist was going to be short lived.

Portrait of Hard Work“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I decided to head down to Boone Trail again as I have been having decent luck there lately and that was what I was needing after my latest venture into the rural countryside.  Within just a few minutes the rain was now falling heavier and it was starting to look like things weren’t going to work out in this area.  I checked the radar to see where I needed to go in order to miss the rain, but there was none showing on the map at all.  This was two different days where the stealth rain was all around me.  I’ve never known full rain showers not to register on radar before, but here we were with the wipers on full with the rain coming down at a steady pace all around me.  I didn’t know what direction to go in to avoid the rain so I just kept plowing on in hopes that the rain would slack off, or even better stop.

I started to go down a bunch of dead end roads which usually work out very well for me, but for some reason my luck was holding from the previous day and I was finding nothing at all.  Just as I was starting to find this whole thing comical, I came to a dead end and saw a row of mailboxes with an old red tractor just to the side.  It was just the kind of thing that I had been looking for.  Even better, the rain was just a slight mist again.  I got the truck parked on the shoulder and got out.  I wasn’t even feeling the mist so I was going to be fine to get a few images from here.  I opened the hatch and started to get the camera put together.  I selected my 24-70mm lens because I wanted to get in close and get a little perspective distortion on the mailboxes to make them stand out as a foreground.  As I was putting the camera together, the mist was getting heavier.  I worked faster and added my Color Combo Polarizer which was going to be very important with the glare from the rain.  By the time I had it screwed on and the camera built, the rain was coming down harder than it had before.  There I was standing under the open hatch with the camera on the tripod waiting.  I pulled out the phone and looked at the radar once again to see how long this was going to last.  Again, there was nothing at all on the screen for hundreds of miles.  I zoomed in to the street view and still couldn’t find any rain.  But yet, I was getting wet as the water was rolling off the roof and jumping over the weatherstripping at the top of the hatch.

I felt like having a big old toddler tantrum right there in the road complete with foot stomping and fist banging.  But I kept it inside and waited.  This was the first decent subject that I had come across in a while and I wanted to capture this simple scene.  I looked at alternatives which were available to me.  I could use a lens hood to protect the element, but that would make it impossible to use the filter since I am using a 105mm polarizer.  I needed that filter with the water, so that wasn’t an option.  My other option was to use an umbrella which I carry in my bag for just such occasions.  It is small and only effective in light rain without any wind.  This rain wasn’t light, and it was blowing around so that wasn’t going to work either.  Either I wait it out, or I pack up my gear and move on.  I decided to wait it out a bit longer.

Rural Route“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

In about ten more minutes the rain started to ease up enough to where I could use the umbrella.  I grabbed it and took the camera on the tripod over to the tractor.  At this point, I started the clumsy process of holding the umbrella with one hand while adjusting the camera with the other hand.  It is harder than it sounds since with the tripod, you are usually holding the camera with your right hand while working the adjustments with your left hand.  It wasn’t easy, but I have developed a certain routine in doing this that seems to work out well.  I had the first composition worked out and I made the exposure.  It was fair, but I could do better.  I moved around until I had composition that I had in mind.  Then I moved in close to the tractor just in case the mail boxes didn’t work out well in the frame.  I shot just a single frame of the lone tractor and decided that it needed the mailboxes to really tell the story.  That single image, however, did turn out to be my first keeper of the day once I converted it to monochrome.  For me, there is just something about an old tractor captured in black and white.  It is automatically a historic image with no firm timeframe on the capture.  It suited the tractor and I was happy with it.

When I was done shooting that “experimental” single image of the tractor, I moved back to the position in the street to get the mailboxes once again.  I was after something a little more dramatic and I wanted to get the mailboxes above the tractor for a bit better balance to the image.  I dropped the tripod very close to the deck and went wide with the lens.  This was particularly difficult using only one hand as I was having to wide the legs on the tripod to get it down as low as I needed it.  I managed to do it without the whole rig falling over so I was happy.  The next images that I shot of the tractor were much better than the first because of the implied diagonal that was introduced with the mailboxes.  They countered the diagonal that was brought in by the side of the roadway.  Both diagonals pointed to the tractor and the trees made for a very uniform background.  The wide angle capture gave depth to the scene and completed the composition for me.  I was finally happy with what I had captured and it was time to get the camera put back in the truck.

With the first images in the bag, I got back in the truck and was looking forward to adding to that frame count.  I checked the weather radar once again and saw that there was no rain in the area (still) and hoped that it was going to clear out since the mist had gotten rather light at this point.  I continued on my journey down the road and eventually found a nice barn just on the other side of a ridge.  There was not a great composition with it, but the sky was interesting above it so I stopped to check it out.  It was worth shooting, especially since the mist was very fine at this point.  I grabbed my 70-200mm lens because I was going to need that reach based on how deep it was on the property.  I added a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell ND Grad to pull a little of the exposure out of the sky and started to make a composition.  I wasn’t all that happy with the composition, but I kept working it.  I shot about four frames here before packing up and moving on.  When I got the images home, I realized my mistake.  Each of them was slightly blurred and just not sharp enough for me.  I had been working close to 200mm and had forgotten to change the timer to a 10 second one from my standard 2 second timer.  At that focal length, there just wasn’t enough time for the vibrations to settle down which caused the focus to go soft.  None of the images were worth keeping with that issue, but I wasn’t overly upset because the compositions weren’t compelling anyway.  Those were all trashed in the long run.

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

I did continue on my rural tour through Millers Creek and eventually came upon some of the Eller Family properties.  There was a nice barn on the left of the road underneath the mountain which caught my eyes at first.  When I started to find a place to pull off the road, I found a driveway at a gate right across the road.  There was a small building just to the right of the gate which had some of the best wood textures that I have seen in a while.  This was going to work out nicely!  I grabbed my gear and surveyed the scene to see what I would need for the shots.  I started out with my 70-200mm lens with the polarizer attached for the first barn.  The mist was light and I didn’t need the umbrella as my hat would do the trick just fine.

I set up on the shoulder of the road and started to make exposures placing the barn opposite of the low clouds that were coming through the valley in the background  I was a little worried about the sky and how it would register in the image as there wasn’t much texture to it at all.  I set the exposure to ensure that nothing in the sky was blown out and I was still getting plenty of detail in the shadow areas.  It was actually a very flat exposure for the most part.  I didn’t need any grad filters for this one since the sky wasn’t all that bright.  I was happy to see that I was able to pull out that little bit of detail in the sky and I was able to capture the slightly brighter clouds just over the saddle which helped to draw the attention to the low clouds in front of the trees which was my intention.  I would have loved to have gotten in closer to this barn, but the conditions were changing too quickly and I wasn’t going to have the time to track down the property owner.

Ironically enough, when I was satisfied with the images here, I crossed the road back to the truck and started to turn my attention to the other building only to be approached by the property owner.  The sky had changed and I was no longer wanting to get in closer so we just chatted and I let him know what I was doing.  He seemed a little hesitant so I didn’t push the issue by asking for more access.  He seemed satisfied that I was staying close to the road and not venturing onto the property.  That was good enough for me as what had prompted me to stop here in the first place was the views from the road.  After he went on his way, I swapped lenses to work with the second subject.  I wasn’t needing the reach of the long lens, but I figured that going wide would be the better choice here.  I screwed on my 16-35mm lens along with that every popular Color Combo Polarizer.

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

I started out under a tree photographing the building and the gate trying to get a composition that I liked.  It was very hard to do so, and I wasn’t really liking anything that I was capturing.  I kept asking myself what I loved about the scene which always returned an answer of…the textures of the wood.  With that concept in place I decided to fill the frame with what I liked.  I got in close with that wide angle lens and framed up a symmetrical composition with just a few elements to add visual tension.  I was hoping that this would be a color image, but knew that there was a chance that I would be converting it to black and white due to an overall warm color tone for the entire image.

I shot a couple of frames like this, but there wasn’t much I could do in order to change up the composition and the exposure was simple.  I was satisfied after those couple of frames and went back to the side because I really wanted to get an overall composition and needed to figure out the placement of the elements within the frame.  I liked the gate and there was a driveway that went through the scene just on the other side of the gate.  The problem that I was running into was the sky which was pretty much featureless white though the trees.  I wasn’t able to use a grad filter here as it would have darkened the trees and the top of the building too much.  As I elevated the camera to minimize the sky, I ended up getting the branches of the tree I was shooting under which were very blurry due to the proximity to the lens.  I had to find that fine line for the camera placement to avoid the branches and to keep the sky as obscured as possible.  I finally hit on the right placement of the camera and the right focal length for the composition that I was after and started to make exposures.  This was not all that easy because in order to keep the sky from blowing out, I was needing to way underexpose the main subject.  I had to make a choice with this, and decided to let the sky blow out in places since there wasn’t any detail in it anyway.  That allowed me to get the exposure that I needed on the wood.

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

You might be wondering why I didn’t just blend several images as an HDR or just a basic blend in Photoshop?  Well, there was a breeze and the branches were moving.  Since there was so much vegetation in the frame, stacking multiple exposures would be very difficult to pull off without odd anomalies showing up and detracting from the image.  I had to do this in a single exposure and I was able to pull it off by overexposing the sky slightly in order to bring more detail to the shadows which were more important.  This is one of the choices that I discuss in my workshops as the light meter in the camera is very often wrong for your creative vision.  When I started to process this image at home I really wanted it it to be color, but I was afraid that with the sky looking like it did I was going to have to go black and white with it.  As it turned out, color worked much better than monochrome, but there was a great deal of desaturation that went into the process.  I wanted to capitalize on the mood of the scene and vibrant colors really didn’t do that at all.  I had the great textures of the wood here, the leading lines of the gate, and even had the driveway snaking through the scene into the background.  I would have rather the gate not have been blocking the driveway, but it is a decent secondary feature to the image that does bring your eyes to the background eventually.

That turned out to be the last of my image for the day.  It was a little after noon at this point, and the rain was supposed to be starting around 2pm.  I’m not sure about that “starting” thing though as I had been in the rain all morning long at this point.  At least for the most part it had been just a mist after my first location of the day.  The funny thing was I still was showing no rain anywhere in Western NC.  The fact that it had not fully stopped raining was baffling me.  This was now two different days that the weather radar had been completely wrong in real time.  I was wishing that I still had my “Dark Sky” app, but that had been sold and was now Apple only.  It was always very good about telling me when the rain was expected to start and stop for the area that I was actually in.  I’m curious as to whether or not that radar would show the rain that had been falling.

I hope that you enjoyed this trek and the images that resulted.  It was a frustrating one, but I am pleased with the images from it.  I’m glad that I stuck it out with the tractor as those are probably right up at the top of my favorites for the day.  I really need to get more familiar with my local area because there is so much potential here.  I’m just having a hard time figuring out where my best areas are going to be.  It will come I’m sure.  It took me years to figure out where my best subjects were back in Winston and I suspect that it will be a few years here as well before I determine all the honey holes for photography.  At least it is a lot of fun figuring it out along the way.

If there are any photographs in this entry or any other entry that you particularly enjoy, don’t forget that you can own your very own print by purchasing through the website or by emailing me directly at [email protected]  I offer many sizes and media for my images and truly love matching my photography up with my clients.  Also keep in mind that my workshops are back on track for the remainder of the year and I still have a Fall Foliage Workshop in late October, a Decay Workshop November 14th, and a Waterfall Workshop on December 5th.  If you are interested in attending any of these, just let me know if you have any questions.  You can sign up directly through the website if you choose.

Until next time…

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