Thursday, September 30, 2021
You are probably expecting another trek in Traphill at this point after my last few entries. Either that, or you are expecting me to only be posting about portrait shoots after my Behind the Camera. Well, surprise this trek has nothing to do with either of those recent topics. In fact, this trek is more about my photographic roots in the Landscape, or at least that is how it got started. The weather has been a little boring…I mean beautiful here lately with clear skies. While that makes it fun to get out in the convertible, it doesn’t do much at all for photography which I have probably mentioned a time or two in passing. As September rolled to a close I was looking for a day with some clouds so I could get back out to Traphill and try some of the locations which I haven’t been able to get anything as of yet. It was really looking like it was going to be the weekend before I would be getting any interest in the sky though.
That left me with some time to plan and think about exactly what I was wanting to photograph when the weather popped off. With the beginning of Fall hitting, I started to think about the Autumn colors and I knew that these would be happening in the higher elevations first and even still not for another week or so. However, I was starting to see some hints of color around Wilkes County which meant that up on the Parkway, I should be able to find even more color. Doing a little research I found that Graveyard Fields and even Grandfather Mountain were seeing a great deal of color. That surprised me because this was typically the time when the color was just starting to hit, but what I was seeing showed pretty good coverage. I believe that the colors are going to be about a week ahead of time this year which isn’t a bad thing at all. It did change the direction of my attention from Traphill as I had some time sensitive locations to work first. One thing that I have learned about Fall is that once the colors start, they move quickly and if I’m not careful, I will miss out on the colors.
This brings me to an issue that I have with Fall. You see, it seems that more and more the Blue Ridge Parkway has become a destination of sorts for this time of year. I guess it always has been, but over the past five years or so I have seen a huge increase in traffic in the mountains. I’m thinking that it has something to do with all the Facebook Groups and other social media platforms where the photos from this area keep popping up. You know the ones…highly saturated to where they look unlike any other location on the face of the planet? Folks will head out there with their phones in search of the colors, taking week long vacations. While this isn’t a bad thing as nature should be enjoyed, it has become the “in thing” to do and what used to be a well enjoyed area of the state has become a gridlocked destination for pretty much the entire month. Honestly, that takes the fun out of it for me and usually makes me not even want to go up to the Parkway during the Fall season. There are plenty of other areas where I can capture the colors of the season without being stuck in something resembling Los Angeles traffic.
Seeing the trees starting to change here at home gave me hope for a bit wider of a spread of colors on the Parkway though and I was really hoping that I could avoid the places that had been promoted on social media. That meant that I wanted to stay away from Mt Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, and Graveyard Fields. These are all excellent areas to visit, but I had a feeling that there was going to be just too many people out there for me to deal with. My plan was to head up 16 into Jefferson to check out some compositions that I had shot before where I was hoping for some color. Then I could pick up the Parkway and head South going towards Rough Ridge on the slim chance that I might get lucky there. I just needed some clouds to make it work for me.
Well, I got lucky on Thursday with the weather because the forecast was calling for a clear morning with clouds developing in the afternoon. That would allow me the chance to sleep in a bit and then head out around lunch to spend the afternoon and evening out on the Parkway looking for those little pockets of color. When morning came, Toni was the first to make the observation that it looked like it was cloudy outside by the way the light was coming through the blinds. It really did look that way, but it was much earlier than the clouds were supposed to appear. Looking outside though, the sky was overcast which meant that I was going to be getting to work a bit earlier than I had thought. I got my morning routine out of the way pretty quickly and gathered my gear.
As I was leaving, the sky was looking really bland which was actually worse than a clear blue sky for landscape photography. However, I was hoping that some textures would develop at some point as the clouds moved around. I started to go up 16 and by the time I got out of town the clouds were starting to get a little texture to them and they were looking quite promising. It wasn’t long before I made it to the old house that I was wanting to photograph, but the tree next to it was still green. There was nothing at all better about the scene than when I had shot it before so I just kept on driving. I passed by another scene that has haunted me for about a year, but once again wrote it off due to the lighting. There is just something about that old VW bug sitting next to the old Ford tractor that I really want to photograph. I just haven’t seen the light which works for the subject matter yet. It will happen one day, but that days wasn’t this one.
By the time I got up to the Parkway, I could tell that the trees were not ready at this elevation so there was no sense in continuing on into Jefferson to look at the two barns that I was interested in seeing. Instead, I just went ahead and jumped on the Blue Ridge Parkway knowing that I would have better luck there. My plan had initially been to head South, but that would put me square into the most popular part of the Parkway. While I didn’t expect a ton of people there, there was that little voice in my head that said to go North, towards Doughton Park. This is one of my favorite places on the Parkway and I know from history that it will change a bit quicker than the other locations due to its elevation. While not as high as Grandfather Mountain, it might have some color to it already.
My trip on the Parkway was peaceful with very little traffic which was wonderful. I wasn’t seeing much in the way of color just yet, but the clouds were breaking up and I was seeing some really nice light developing. I just looked for scenes that caught my eye which would hopefully highlight some of the early Fall color. Nothing was jumping out at me though and the only thing that even remotely caught my eye was an old Ford tractor sitting on the side of the road near some fields. There wasn’t but a hint of color in the background and the tractor wasn’t abandoned so I decided to skip it for now since my goal for the day was to capture something Fall related. I just kept on making my way North until I got into Doughton Park. Almost the minute I entered the boundary of the very large park I was seeing more color. This was going to work out well.
When I got up to the picnic area which is about the highest elevation in the park, I was seeing some nice warm tones in some of the trees. There was one near the visitor’s center right off the Parkway which caught my eye. I spent a few minutes looking at that to decide if there was a composition available. It was nice, but would be better once the colors committed to the change. I entered the picnic area and started poking around the Bluff’s Lodge which showed some nice early color, but the overall scene was no better than when I had shot it last Fall. I took a hard pass on that view and went down into the meadow to check things out there. The color was not really good at all there so I headed back out to look at the Lodge side once again to see if I could find anything that would work with the lighting I had. While driving up the road, I saw a little scene that I had photographed several years before that included a tree next to a gate in a fence. I had not noticed it on the way in because the back side of the tree was still green and the lighting was a little harsher from that direction. However, coming back out, I saw a tree that was filled with orange leaves and the sun was hitting it so nicely. The sky in the background was mostly blue, but there were some great clouds streaking across the sky.
I knew the composition was going to work, so I pulled the truck into the parking area ad grabbed my camera. The last time I had shot this scene the sky was lousy so I had used my long lens to concentrate more on the fence and the tree. This time, I wanted to get more of the tree and the sky in the composition so I opted for my 24-70mm lens. I added my polarizer to it and mounted it on my tripod. Now it was a matter of walking around to find exactly where to put the rig in order to get the picture. I knew basically how I wanted the scene to be rendered so I got in kind of close and started to look at the relationship between the different elements of the scene. When I was satisfied with how all the parts fit together, I put the tripod down and then started to compose looking through the viewfinder. This brought about some more subtle changes of tripod position as I fine tuned the focal length and composition. When I was satisfied, I started to make multiple exposures as the breeze was just enough to cause me concern with the leaves. The longer I worked the scene the more problematic it became so I bumped the ISO up to 200 so that I could get the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the leaves. As it turned out though, I didn’t need to go through all of that because it was one of my first images which checked off all the boxes for me on this scene. The sky just never got any better and I loved the first composition that I shot the best.
I had the first shot in the bag and now I was committed to finding more Fall color to get this season started right. I packed everything up and went back to the lodge to look around. At this point, the lighting had gotten worse than when I had first seen it so this was now out of the question. It was a much better scene during the early hours of the day and the colors were probably going to be even better with a few more days to pass. I might be back here to work this scene later on in the weekend. For today, I was done at Doughton.
Knowing the better locations are South from here, that was the direction that I chose to go. I knew that there was something that I had passed on the way up to the park which had interested me, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Oh well, I guess it wasn’t that important or interesting. Wait a minute, it was that tractor off to the side of the road. It was an older Ford tractor, but not quite the vintage of the N series that I have so much fun finding. It was a 4WD tractor, but a smaller one than I was used to. It had a hay rake attached to the back which added some interest for me. I went ahead and pulled off on the side of the road. I got out and looked at the scene. With the exception of a single tree in the background which had started to show some red, there was really no signs of Fall here, but the tractor just held too much interest for me to leave without trying a shot or two. The sky was great with some really nice textures to the clouds. That was the deciding factor for giving this scene a try.
I went back to the truck and grabbed my camera with the 24-70mm lens attached. I added that well used polarizer once again and started to look for a nice composition. With the tractor being right off the road, I was able to get in rather close to it without problems which allowed me to make this a very prominent feature in the composition. As I moved in closer, I would lower the camera to really emphasize the power of the tractor. I paid particular attention to the rakes and how they were positioned behind the tractor. I needed to include them, but I wanted to keep them from causing any distraction to the overall scene. I was really liking the composition and I finally found that sweet spot where I planted my camera and started to make several exposures as the sky changed overhead. Images like this really need the sky to work in unison with the main subject so that it has that polished look that I was after. It didn’t take long for the sky to cooperate and give me the proper balance for the scene. I might have spent 15 minutes here to get a picture of the tractor which wasn’t bad for a scene that I had passed by initially.
I was done with the tractor and was ready to move on to find more Fall images. However, there was a nagging sense that I was missing something here. I had shot a great composition of the tractor that even included the hint of Fall in the background. The sky had worked well, so what was I missing. I started to walk around the tractor and look at the details. No, I wasn’t missing anything there that I wanted to shoot. I looked at the hay rake and there was really nothing special about that either. But when I started to look at the end rotor I could see a relationship with the sky that I had missed before. This was what I needed to be working on. I got the camera positioned close to the rake on my side of the tractor. I aimed the camera up and started to find a composition that worked for the shape of the rake. I finally landed on an isolation that I really liked that showcased the shape of the rake and gave me repeating patterns to look at. The sky was nice and punch behind the rake when I dialed in the polarizer which added to the drama of the image.
I started to make exposures and realized that the clouds were distracting from the shape of the rake. They just didn’t support the shape or the composition. I noticed that the clouds were constantly changing and I could see that the direction was from left to right. Hmmm, that could work as a long exposure because of the direction of the wheel. I ran back to the truck and grabbed my bag because I was going to need several items out of it to make this work. I unscrewed my 82mm polarizer which I have started to use once again to allow me to use my lens hood. I then screwed on the Lee adaptor for the Lee 100 system holder. I popped on my 105mm polarizer on the front of that and dialed in the effect that I wanted. I then got a baseline exposure and went to my ND filter app to find out what ND filter was going to be my best bet. The light was bright and it was looking like I could get a minute exposure out of my 10-stop ND filter. I got that and slid it into the holder as well. For the long exposure, I removed the eye cup and replaced it with the light shield to keep any stray light out of the camera. I added my shutter remote so that I could manually control the exposure time in Blub mode. From here it was a matter of making several minute long exposures as the clouds moved around.
One of the early ones turned out very well with the clouds stretching across a good portion of the frame. I had visualized this as a black and white image to focus on the shape of the rake and the flow of the elements through the frame. It turned out very well and after the conversion I had an image that I really loved from this second thought at a composition from the tractor. I didn’t know how I had missed this in my initial observation of the scene. It was just the perfect combination of a static object with the motion of the clouds passing by.
There was another frame that I shot with the same setup which also had clouds stretching across the entire frame, but there was a dominant one at the top of the frame that caught my eye in the early culling of the images. The cloud at the top of the frame had a curve to it that really looked like it was following the shape of the rake, almost as if the rake itself was pulling the cloud overhead. It was too bright to be in a black and white image because of the visual weight it brought. However, I could see it working as a color image well enough. I ended up processing that as well with an entirely different look and feel compared to the intended presentation of the scene. I like them both equally well and think that they both have their own stories to tell. The fact that this composition and technique turned into my favorite from the day might also have something to do with the fact that I wanted to keep them both.
At this point, I was pretty pumped. I had captured my first Fall image, and had found a fine art composition in the middle of a rural setting which I just loved. I would have been satisfied to go home with just these images, but I was feeling pretty confident that I could find something else to photograph before calling it a day. I loaded my gear back in the truck and started back down the road once again. I didn’t know what I was going to run into, but I was going to head down towards Rough Ridge as my earlier plan had been.
I wasn’t seeing anything all that great as I drove and the sky was getting a little brighter as the clouds were thinning in a lot of places. The hourly forecast really hadn’t been right at all. The part of the day when the clouds were supposed to be thicker was turning into a relatively clear day quickly. I wasn’t sure if I was going to find anything else to shoot, but I was going to at least go to the Old 421 exit before calling it a day. As I got closer to the first 421 exit, I drove through EB Jeffress Park and remembered the old cabin there which I have photographed a number of times. One of the first times I had shot it back in probably 2006 or so happened to be in the Fall. There was this red tree that sat behind the cabin that just looked fantastic. I had captured the image with my old Sony point and shoot camera and that picture was used on t-shirts that I made for when I was out trekking. Since that one lucky visit, I had never seen that tree as brilliant red as it was. It seemed that I either caught it before the leaves changed or after they dropped. I came close last year when I went out in the fog, but the leaves were mostly gone by that point.
Since I was out kind of early in the season and I was seeing some good color here and there I thought that I might be in luck with this scene. While I really didn’t care to shoot the cabin again, the mission of capturing it with that bright red tree was nagging at me again this year. I was going to be driving past it, so I might as well give it a try. I didn’t have to wait long after making that decision that I came to the cabin. I could see immediately that the tree was probably 80% changed at this point and it was looking pretty much like I remembered it from so many years ago. The light was dim on it due to the clouds that seemed to be hanging onto this area of the Parkway. It was good enough for me to stop and try to make a capture.
I started out by getting my wide angle lens and getting in close like I had done last year. I really liked that composition and thought that it could work for this one. Well, with no fog, and the tree being a more important part, that same composition just didn’t work at all. I tried from the other side and decided that wasn’t going to work either. Since it was the tree that I was after more than the cabin, I even tried cropping the cabin by the chimney and using that as a foreground for the tree. That didn’t work either.
While I was firmly in frustration mode with this location a pair of hikers came by and I saw that one of them was taking a picture of the cabin. I told him I would be moving out of the way in just a second as I was breaking the camera down. He wasn’t concerned with my presence there and he struck up a conversation. He asked if I was the guy taking a picture of the tractor earlier. Yep, that was me! I showed him some of the images from the tractor and explained what kind of photography that I did. They were vacationing up here for the week and were staying down at Linville Falls. We discussed the fact that the clouds weren’t really helping this particular scene all that well and that it wasn’t looking like they would be changing any time soo. He had his picture and they continued on down the trail behind the cabin.
I was left with very flat light on a scene that needed a little punch from the sun. I was looking around and saw some trees that I had tried to do some woodland images of in the fog but had failed. I liked the shapes of the trees, but the scene was just too complicated to capture in the current lighting. I decided to make my way back to the truck and give up on this location because it just wasn’t going to work out today. But wait, the sun started to peak out from behind the clouds over my left shoulder. I started to go back to the area where I had just come from. Then I realized that I hadn’t liked any of the compositions from there at all. The scene that I was looking at was much better than what I had been trying to capture. It was also similar to how I had captured the original red tree composition so many years ago.
I planted the tripod and grabbed the camera with the telephoto lens. This time I added the Lee adaptor and fitted the Lee 100 system because I knew I would be needing an ND Grad. I popped on my 105mm polarizer and slid in a 3-stop soft ND Grad before even setting up the composition. I had to work quick because I didn’t know how long the light would last. As I finally got the composition worked out, about two minutes had passed and the light was gone. I didn’t give up though. I had seen what the light looked like and I knew I wanted to get this image so I just stuck it out as the clouds moved ever so slightly. I was hoping that the couple would come back so that they could get the shot that they were after, but they never did. I was out there all by myself which, of course was my favorite way to be. I stood there for about 15 minutes until the sun popped back out again and lit the scene so nicely. I had everything set up including the exposure since I was exposing for the clouds which were pretty constant. Once the landscape lit up, I fired off frame after frame to capture the different intensities of light as the clouds moved over the sun. It had been a hurry up and wait affair followed by a machine gun approach to getting photographs, but at the end I had the image that I had been after. It took me 15 or so years, but I finally reshot an image that I have always enjoyed. The quality of this image is far superior to what I have in my archives and that makes it a happy addition to my portfolio.
I was feeling rather accomplished after that little stop and was all set to find something else to work with. With the sky looking nice once again, I knew that there was a good chance that one of my favorite scenes a short distance down the road might work out. That was my next destination, and it didn’t take long to get there. The sky was still looking really good, but the light was starting to get kind of harsh which was odd since this was about to be the end of the day. Even with the harsh light, I was still liking the scene that I found. I’m sure you will recognize it as I’ve stopped here during my workshops before and I’ve shot it a dozen or so times over the past few years.
I was hoping that the tree was going to show a bit more Fall color than it was, but it was still mostly green. There was a slight patch of golden leaves on the left side which showed the season well enough. Looking at the scene the clouds were looking really good behind the tree and even the fallen tree was looking rather photogenic today. It was a good enough scene for me to stop and work so I got pulled over and grabbed my camera. Since I had shot this so many times, I knew what I was going to need which was my long lens. To that, I added my 82mm polarizer on a step down ring. I found the angle that I wanted to shoot from at the fence and dialed in a composition on the standing tree. I love this tree with the broken fence surrounding it. I noticed that the fence had some repairs done to it, and there was a new barbed wire fence behind it. That added a bit of clutter to the scene that I didn’t like, but I kept working the scene anyway.
The clouds were breaking up and that was throwing off my composition on the tree. In order to regain the balance, I started to look at this as a panoramic image. It was a composition that I was well familiar with from past attempts so getting it set up was simple enough. I ended up doing a series of seven frames which were later stitched together in Lightroom. I did two of these series to take into account some changing lighting. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out in comparison to one of my favorite images from this scene, but it was worth working through since it would be a much higher resolution image than I was able to create the last time.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on the panorama though because I knew there would be much less color in the sky than what I had seen here before. Instead, I chose to focus on the fallen tree which I tend to neglect when I am shooting this scene. It had been since that first time I had shot here that I had really taken the time to work on the fallen tree. Knowing that it wasn’t going to be there too much longer, I decided to have a go at it before I packed it in. It has always been a very simple composition to make and I didn’t need to do anything at all out of the ordinary to frame this one up. I shot it with the intention of making it a 16:9 aspect ratio which I was hesitant to do with my old camera and the telephoto lens because I gave up a lot of resolution by cropping. These days, I didn’t have to worry with that at all and I just went with the letter box crop knowing that I still had resolution to spare.
It was a simple image, but one that captivates me from a decay photographer point of view. It just looks like the skeleton of a dinosaur or something laying there and it is just interesting. There is no other way of putting it. It might not be a typical landscape shot, but it is what I like, and I wanted to show it some attention with the camera this time. I’m glad that I did because I believe that this is my favorite image of this fallen tree, and it was definitely the one that was the most right in camera. All I had to do was wait for the clouds in the background to move into position behind the tree. I had already realized that the general shape of the clouds mimicked the tree which I thought would add to the overall aesthetic of the image. The lighting was good on the tree as opposed to the last time when it was mostly in shadow and I had to do a good bit of recovery to get the detail out. In comparison, the 15 minutes I spent on the edit of this one was nothing like the probably hour I spent on the other one.
That pretty much was the end of my day. I was getting tired and had shot 139 frames in about five hours. I had no interest in going down to where the Fall colors were the brightest this close to getting off work time because I knew there would be a ton of people coming to the Parkway soon. I was satisfied with what I had and decided to make my way home.
I hope that you enjoyed this little sneak peak of the Fall colors in Western NC. I fully expect to have several more treks to capture the season and hope that the weather is good this weekend for a bit more poking around in the mountains. If you see anything here that speaks to you, please don’t hesitate to consider a print purchase. By requesting your own print, you not only have a tangible piece of art that is far and away better than what you see on your computer screen….or worse….your phone; you will also be supporting my art and helping me continue to bring you these images. Yes, I do enjoy getting out with my camera, but this is also my source of income which makes print sales a big part of whether I succeed or fail as a photographer. I’m happy to discuss options with you if you aren’t quite sure what you would want.
Until next time…