An Hour Makes All the Difference

· Reading Time: 13 minutes

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Picture it….I’m driving down the road in late February in 70 degree weather with the top down rolling through Elkin, NC.  It’s a road that I’ve been on many times both for photography purposes and for just recreational driving.  I honestly wasn’t paying that much attention to the surroundings as my attention was on the road.  I had just come out of the center of town and was heading East just enjoying the happy sounds that the motor was making.  There was this one road that I passed and I happened to catch what looked like a pair of silos sitting in the trees.  That’s interesting, I had never seen those before.  Had I really just seen them?  I got turned around and came back to check them out.  Hey, I’m a photographer first and foremost and this is what I do.  I turned down the road and sure enough, there were twin silos sitting off of the road tucked into the trees.  There was a really nice and expressive tree in the foreground which was a point of interest as well.  It was an interesting scene, but I wasn’t sure that it would be a good picture or not.  I carried on with my ride and later that night I was telling Toni about it.  She wanted to see a picture of it, but I hadn’t taken one while I was out there.  I had planned on looking at Google Street View to get a view of it to check on compositions, but that didn’t work.  It appeared as though the trees had just been cleared from around the silos and the last time the Google car had been through it was still fully wooded.  I could see them from the satellite in the trees, but I had no good view of them from the street.

I tried to describe them to Toni, but that wasn’t too effective because they were actually quite bland and nothing really special about them at all.  The following day was a mirror image of the previous and with more warm and dry weather, it would have been a crime not to take the Miata out again.  I set course back out to Elkin with the intention of getting a picture of the silos and to start looking critically at the scene to see if there was a way to make an interesting picture.  When I got out there again, I started to really doubt that the picture idea would work out here as there was a jumbled mess behind the silos and the lighting was always going to be difficult because of the shadows involved.  I figured that my best bet would be a black and white picture in the fog.  Yeah, I know….yawn.  That is my go to for so many complicated scenes and it does work, but there has to be a different way to do this.

I grabbed a quick shot and headed back home.  I was thinking about how best to get this scene all the way there.  I was thinking that since the silos were facing West, I might be able to get them near sunset where the warm light would be hitting the subject and the sky behind would be a little darker in comparison.  For that to really work, I was picturing dark clouds to the East.  This was getting rather specific and I wasn’t sure how easily that was going to be found.  The foggy morning seemed like my best bet, but even that was going to have problems.  The sun would be coming up to the back of the scene which would cause the sky to go really bright and put the silos in a potential shade.  It would have to be a cloudy day with fog which is a difficult thing to forecast.  Since this location is 45 minutes away that was going to make that a bit of a difficult plan.  I just knew that I needed to come up with something fast because if the trees had just been cleared there was a good chance that the property had been sold and the silos were going to be next.  If I waited for certain conditions, I might miss my opportunity altogether which is a risk in this type of photography.

When I got home, I did a little work talking with a few clients of mine about different topics which put me further in the photography mindset.  Those silos were really haunting my thoughts at this point but today wasn’t the day to shoot them because there was not a cloud in the sky and the light was quite harsh.  However, my sunset idea might work if the sky in the background retained any color at all.  If I could get some nice warm glow on the face of the silos with a deep blue in the background that could work out…maybe.

With a free afternoon, I packed up my gear and made the third trip out to Elkin in just two day’s time.  All the way out there I was watching the light and thought that it was pretty good.  We were nearing the golden hour and I had hopes that this was going to work out.  The only wildcard was the trees on the opposite side of the road which if they put too many shadows on the scene I would lose the flow of the composition.  At this point, only time was going to tell.

When I arrived, I found the silos just as I had left them a few hours earlier.  The light was softer, but there were more shadows on the scene which was not a good thing at all.  I had about hour before the sun set and I planned on using that to find the exact composition that I needed.  That proved more difficult that I had imagined.  I had thought that I would be in close to the silos so I began with my 16-35mm lens with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to try and retain as much color in the sky as I could.  As I moved around and looked for a composition I found that the trees were very confusing and I had power lines and power poles in the background which kept sneaking into the frame.  I tried from about a dozen different areas and finally started to think that this was a lost cause.  I couldn’t get a composition to work no matter what I did.  As a last ditch effort, I went across the street to see if I could use a little compression to simplify the scene.  I framed up an image and found that the wide angle lens was just too wide for this, but there was a good deal of potential from the opposite side of the street.

I went back to switch lenses to my 24-70mm which was better suited for the distance that I was shooting at.  I had liked the view that my eyes were showing so that meant that I would be around 50mm if things worked out.  I ditched the polarizer at this point because with the sun at my back it was doing very little and I needed the extra light in the lens more than the filter effect.  I went back to the other side of the road and set my tripod up in the general area that I thought would work.  From here I found my basic composition that I thought worked quite well.  I then worked on fine tuning the positioning of the tripod so that the tree on the left masked the power pole with the transformer on it to the rear.  I then worked the elevation so that I could make the one branch that insisted on crossing in front of the left silo do so in the middle of the two openings so as to keep separation as best I could.

Note 10 snapshot

Now that I was finally all set up and had a composition that I liked, I realized that the idea for golden hour was going to be a flop.  I had great light from the sun which gave a wonderful warm glow and the sky above was still quite blue.  The problem was…I had a lot of shadows to contend with that blocked up 95% of the silos.  That defeated the purpose completely.  I thought about going to a black and white capture to reduce the complexity of the scene but even that didn’t work well at all.  The shadows were just going to get worse as time went on, so I had to figure out something to make this work or just go ahead and pack up to go home.

Ironically, I had been talking the night before with a client of mine about blue hour photography.  I had been through the way that the lighting becomes much softer and the hues change dramatically after the sun goes down.  It was that soft lighting and lack of contrast that I was missing from the scene in front of me.  If I could get the sky to hold the color while still getting enough exposure on the main subjects I might be able to make this work.  It was worth a try and I only had about 45 minutes left before sunset.

So, there I was standing on the side of the street with my camera on a tripod in front of me.  My truck was sitting in the driveway to the left of the silos while all the traffic passed by on the way home from work.  I’m sure that more than one was curious about what I was doing.  I saw about 4 different Elkin PD cars drive past and I wondered if they were out there for a suspicious person on the shoulder of the road.  Either they saw no threat in my behavior, or they were hesitant to talk with me since I wasn’t wearing a mask.  Either way, they would just wave back at me and they continued on.  As the light levels dropped I began making more and more exposures and trying different things along the way.  I was still interested in making this a black and white image and kept changing the color profile over to monochrome to see how that was working.  It was actually looking pretty good and I decided that in the absence of color in the sky, I would be doing this as a black and white image.

6:13pm finally came after about an hour being onscene.  You can see from the picture above that the sunlight was not helping this scene at all and I had been standing there while everything was gradually shrouded in shadows.  The sky had turned white for a little while and then after the sun dropped, there were subtle hues of pink and magenta near the horizon while the sky further up was still a nice blue.  It was looking very promising, but I was having to slightly overexpose the sky to make sure I kept the details in the silos and the trees which were the most important part of the image.  Remember, I was planning on making this a monochrome image so I wasn’t really overly worried about blowing out the sky by just a little bit.  As I made exposures, I only had a few small blinkies showing up in the review images which actually would be easy enough to recover in post if I were to go with a color image.

Aftermath in Blue“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

At 6:21 (8 minutes after sunset) I was fully in the blue hour and the shadows were lifting in the woods.  The contrast between the sky and the ground became less and less an issue.  The sky had a great hue to it and lots of color variation between the pinks and blues.  It wasn’t the scene that I had originally considered when I had left the house, but I was really loving what I was seeing.  Part of the magic of this time of the day is that everything takes on a magenta hue which really gives another view on the world that we live in.  The rather boring silos became something different and the tree to the left seemed to be presenting them under the artificial stage lights.  The sky behind was bright enough to give a touch of drama but not so much as to be distracting.  All of the elements were there and I was able to capture them.  Looking at the histogram, I had plenty of detail in the highlights as well as the shadows and there was a much softer curve developing now that the contrasts were going away.  I kept rattling off exposures as the lighting changed hoping to catch the best light when it happened.  In just a few minutes though, the magenta hues started to fade and the electricity of the scene faded.  That was my cue to pack it up and head home.

I had been out here for a little over an hour at this point and had taken nearly ninety frames, most of which were the same composition.  There had been a lot of time and effort put to this image and I wasn’t even sure that it would turn out.  Not knowing for sure which frame I was going to use, or whether or not this was going to be color or black and white I decided to leave the edit until the following day so I could go at it with a clear mind.  That was the first thing that I did this morning was start going through the images of the day.

The culling part was simple as the first 75 pictures were trashed due to the highly contrasted light.  They weren’t even going to work well as a black and white so there was no reason to look at them any further.  I narrowed the batch down to two of the composition that I had settled on and one that I shot as I was packing up the truck from a different angle.  Of the three, this one had the most potential and was the one that I started editing.

Knowing that I was only going to have a single image from this trek I really took my time putting this one together.  I had a lot of fun with it and before I knew it, I had about an hour and a half in the edit.  To look at the before and after there really wasn’t much change except for the colors.  That was where I spent most of my time working.  I wanted to capitalize on the magenta hues and I needed to keep the blue tones in the upper sky for balance.  As I was nearing the end of the process I had Toni come and look at it and she really liked it.  She said it reminded her of Chernobyl, and I immediately saw that too.  I had considered naming this the “Twin Towers in Blue” because the silos were twins and they were shot during the blue hour.  However, with the disaster connection in my mind I could see the recently cleared landscape and the deterioration of the silos.  Suddenly, there was a very strong connection to a disaster, and the color hues that I had been so interested in again harkened to a nuclear wasteland in a way.  Aftermath became a part of this image, not of the nuclear variety, of course, but the aftermath of man on the environment.  We came, we built, we worked, and then we left.  This is our footprint on the landscape.

I do hope you enjoyed this trek and thank you for reading this far for just a single image.  It was nice to talk about this one in a little more detail than I typically would because there was a lot more dedicated thought put into this image than those when I come back with a handful of keepers.  In a way, I put all my eggs in this one basket on this trek.  If you are interested in getting a print of this image, or any of my others, please let me know, or you can visit the gallery store to order a standard sized print.  Don’t forget that I am doing my first ever online class on “An Introduction to the ‘Art’ of Photography” starting this Saturday at 7pm EST with a follow up session the following Saturday.  This four hour class covers most of the fundamentals of photography and will get you ready to capture your visions as I have here.  There are still opening available, so I hope to see you there!


Until next time….
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