Tuesday, October 5, 2021
I do hope that you aren’t getting tired of these blog entries. It seems that I have been out quite frequently over the past week, but that is good for me. I love those times when I am feeling creative and the weather is cooperating. If you have been following me, you will know that I am starting to spend a lot of time up on the Blue Ridge Parkway as the Fall season is getting started. You will also know that I am avoiding the areas where most everyone is going right now which includes those higher elevation locations. Sure, that means I am not getting peak color, but lets be honest here…if you want to see peak color, there are plenty of options out there for that, and I have quite a few images in my collection that have been shot during peak color. This year I’m trying something a bit different. While everyone and their brother is following the trend of where the color is the brightest, I am looking at the weather and going to places that are likely to have some color, but not a ton of it just yet. That keeps me out of the crowds, and gives me the edge with some unique images that most photographers will pass by on their way up to their destination.
This strategy has been working out fantastically for me so far and has allowed me the opportunity to get images that I’m really liking which aren’t just so saturated in color that they stick out from the rest of my catalog. These hints of Fall that I’m capturing are giving just enough indication of the season while the focus is still on the landscape and composition. These images take a bit of thought to find and compose which makes them much more enjoyable for me to photograph. The longer that I engaged in photography, the more I am realizing that while I love Fall and the colors, I don’t really care for the complete blanket of color that seems to be most popular out there. It just lacks balance to me as the image is over the top warm in most cases. That green base helps the colors really stand out in my opinion and finding the scenes that I have been for the past week has been exactly how I should have been doing this all along. Not only do I get more opportunity to photograph different scenes, I am able to stretch out my Fall Foliage photography much more than I have in years past when I just tried to hit peak everywhere I went.
I had looked ahead at this week with high expectations because there were clouds and chances of rain pretty much the entire week which is my kind of weather when it comes to photography. Monday was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There was a bit too much sun for most of the day and when the clouds came in, they brought rain. It wasn’t until I was checking the mail at the end of the day that I saw clouds that I really liked. By that time, I didn’t have the time to react to the conditions so I was content to just stare at them for a while down at the street. Looking ahead at the weather, Tuesday was looking to be a washout with rain for the entire day so I really didn’t give much thought to going out. However, when I woke up and got moving I could see that there was no rain currently. The lighting actually looked pretty good so I went down and took care of the morning business routine before looking at the weather forecast for the mountains.
The first thing that I saw was that there was a fog advisory going through late morning with low clouds continuing through the day. The chance of rain was around 15-30% or so which I could deal with. Looking at the chance for some great atmosphere, I went back upstairs to see if Toni wanted to join me going out to the Parkway. She declined…I think I have bored her too much in the past with standing around waiting for the light in order to get these photographs. I just grabbed my gear and headed out to the Parkway.
Since the fog seemed to be a little more lasting in the area of Deep Gap, that was where I headed. I had worked around the area recently, but had gotten rained on pretty good which limited my abilities on the portion South of Blowing Rock. I figured that I would give that area another try so when I entered the Parkway at US 421, I turned South and started on my quest to find images. Knowing that there was decent fog in the area, I had my first location already scoped out. There is a tree near one of the early overlooks that Toni and I had discovered on an anniversary trip in 2018, and I knew that it would look good with a bit of fog and hopefully some color. I had been by this tree a couple of days before and hadn’t seen much if any color at the time. It had been raining that day so I didn’t stop to try for any photos at the time. Here we were a bit later and I was hoping to find a bit of Fall color in the leaves.
It didn’t take me long to arrive at the tree and I was happy to see a nice layer of fog over the area. It wasn’t overly thick which would allow for some of the background detail to show through. I could also see a few leaves here and there which had changed giving me that hint of the season that I was after. Since I had already kind of worked this scene out in my head I wanted to use it as my springboard for the rest of the day so I pulled off the road and grabbed my camera. I had shot this with everything from a 14mm prime to a 24-70mm zoom lens so I kind of knew what to expect here. For this attempt, I wanted to go for a wider angle approach so I loaded up my 16-35mm lens and added a polarizer to it to help reduce some of the glare from the wet leaves.
I spent the next few minutes finding my place to get set up. In some respects this scene is very easy to compose because the largest tree sets off by itself which makes it easy to isolate. The other side of the coin is that there are a lot of branches on the old tree which I have to organize and simplify for the overall flow of the composition. Along with that, I had to consider the background to keep the flow of the image going throughout. There was a lot of movement as I changed the relationship between the primary subject and the supporting characters of the scene. As I was moving around, every slight breeze would cause the leaves to shake the water which would then rain on me. I had my lens hood on, but the camera was pretty well pointed 45 degrees up so that front element was in danger of getting dripped on with every breeze. I got pretty efficient at feeling the breeze and covering the front of the camera with either my body or my hand. Somehow, I managed to keep all but on drop off of the filter. That drip was cleared off quickly.
I was making images and things were going pretty good at this point. I was moving around a lot since the lighting was pretty stable which allowed me to try out different composition and locations. I had started off with a vertical composition, but had transitioned to a horizontal one shortly after getting started. The more I shot, the more my image review was looking like there was more fog rolling in, but I wasn’t seeing it at all looking at the scene with my eyes. Looking at the filter, there was no indication of fogging on it so I just kept shooting. It wasn’t long before I could tell that there was some fogging happening somewhere and while it actually worked well for some of the earlier images to increase the fog that was already there, it was getting too pronounced at this point. I unscrewed the filter and found that it was indeed fogged on the back side which I couldn’t see before removing it. I could have wiped it and moved on, but since the wind was picking up and I was having to boost the ISO, I decided to just put the filter away and go with a bare lens for a few more shots.
I could tell an immediate difference in the contrast of the scene without the filter attached. The actual lens was clear which gave me the idea to embrace that added contrast and shoot a black and white version of the scene. For this, I wanted to draw the attention to the darkness of the tree against the foggy background which meant that my best bet was going to be a vertical composition which is generally my favorite for this subject. I had everything pretty well lined up with the branches from where I had been shooting horizontally so I just flipped the camera on its side and continued from there. I let the limbs outstretch through the upper 2/3 of the frame and made sure that I used the main arch of the lower left limb to frame the repeating patterns in the background. I was really liking how this was turning out and I was exposing it a bit differently than I had in the past with yielded a very high contrast black and white image. I had been wanting a bit more gradation in tones since the last time I had shot it and I was thinking that this was going to be the one.
I ended up spending about a half hour at this one tree trying different things. I kept smiling to myself thinking about how I was very close to another overlook, yet here I was taking pictures of the shoulder of the road. I seem to be making a habit doing that on the Parkway, but it really does fit the theme of my approach to Fall this year. I want the images that nobody else will be capturing, and from the looks of it, I’m stopping where nobody else seems to be. It also helped that the overlooks were pretty boring with this weather. It was pretty much like parking on a platform overlooking an empty sky as there was nothing at all to see off of the overlooks. I guess that was why there were so few people out on the Parkway.
Feeling like I had everything pretty well captured here I packed up my gear and gave the polarizer a quick wipe down to get rid of the fogging and did the same with the lens since it was exposed to drops from the tree. No sense in starting the next series of pictures with a dirty lens. Having captured my one intended location, I had to think about where to go next. With the crowds down, I felt that it was a good time to head down towards Price Lake and Rough Ridge to see what I could find there.
I started to have a sense of Deja-vu about the time I got to Aho Gap as the rain started to dot my windshield. It wasn’t bad so I just kept on driving. I had decided to go and check on a lone tree in a field near Price Park which I enjoy photographing and I was hoping that it had seen a bit of change in the leaves. As I drove, I kept my eyes out for anything that spoke to me, but I really wasn’t finding anything at all. The rain was getting a bit heavier, but still not too bad to consider getting some photos should the right scene develop. I was really thinking that I probably wasn’t going to be going much further South though which was a shame. I’ve tried to get this area now twice and have been rained out both times.
As I was clearing the Moses Cone area, I happened to drive over a bridge which I have been on more times than I can count. I saw the same dead tree poking up out of the trees that I have seen each time before. I had never stopped to photograph this tree even though it really does stand out to me. With the yellows of Fall surrounding it, it took on a different look than I had seen it before. The foggy sky also gave it a different look with no competing textures. It was just interesting enough for me to get turned around and give it another look. As I drove by even slower this time I could see a composition developing. It wasn’t outstanding by any stretch, but it was more interesting than I had seen in past. There was a small turnout on the other side of the bridge next to a hiking trail which I parked at. I walked out on the bridge in the rain with just my cell phone camera to see if I could get the composition that I had in mind and if it would be safe for me to do so standing on the small ledge of the bridge. There was just enough room for a tripod to stand and that was all I needed. I just found the position where the elements all lined up and fell into a proper position in relation to one another. I tried both sides of the bridge as they would give different amounts of sky.
Ironically, I liked the closer side of the bridge the best which gave me the most sky. Normally when the sky has no detail, I want to include the least amount of it possible. This time, I felt that the lack of detail in the sky helped to draw attention to the dead trees that were poking up above the horizon. I liked the concept and I was able to see it as both a horizontal and a vertical composition with the phone. I went back to the truck and grabbed my camera. Not having any real room to work, I left the bag and just loaded up my 24-70mm lens which based on how my phone had viewed the scene would be the right choice compositionally. I added my polarizer and screwed on the lens hood because the rain was coming down pretty good at this point.
I walked back out to the spot that I had chosen and set the tripod up. I then started to compose the image that I had seen initially which was the vertical composition. It was pretty simple to work out with the only trick being the slight overlap of branches on the right side of the frame to simplify the composition. Everything else lined up just right. I twisted the polarizer to get the right effect and started to make images. Since I wasn’t waiting on the clouds to move, I shot a couple of frames to cover any wind that might be blowing and I flipped the camera back to horizontal.
I took the same general composition as I had with the vertical shot and just extended it to the left. I found a tree on that left side which was able to serve as a bookend for the composition and I placed a cluster of green pine trees in the left third of the image for a bit of color contrast with the Autumn yellows. I repeated the performance from a minute ago with just a few exposures to cover any breeze that might be coming through. With that done, I didn’t press my luck any more since I was right on the edge of the bridge with cars passing just a couple of feet behind me. I got off that bridge quickly and got the camera packed back away in the truck. I gave a quick thought to turning back North as the rain was coming in stronger, but I wanted to make it a bit further down the road first.
I did actually make it to Rough RIdge and was impressed with the colors. I wasn’t able to do anything with them though as the rain was just too much to deal with. I did try a quick composition right on the side of the road, but the umbrella added too many obstacles to really get a composition dialed in. It wasn’t that strong of a concept anyway so I didn’t mind letting it go. I ended up with about a dozen images from that location just in case they were better than I had though. They weren’t.
The rain was just too much for me to deal with so I turned back North and decided to go and check out Doughton Park again. I had some ideas for compositions there if the trees had gotten a bit more color to them yet. The further North I drove, the less rain I was in and that made me happy. In fact, the sky was even starting to have a little detail in it as the lower clouds and the fog was starting to clear. This could open up a lot of new possibilities for me which I hadn’t been able to look into with the blank white sky. I just had to find something to put in front of my camera.
While the fog was lifting in places, it was still present in others which is the way of the world on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I kept my eyes peeled for compositions and as I came around a bend in the road I found some potential. It wasn’t much, but it had its interesting parts. There was a primarily rocky wall with some Autumn colored foliage growing just above the road. There was a bank of fog that was wafting through the air just beyond the foliage and the road was slightly curved around this area. I could see potential so I got turned around and came back for another look. This time I pulled off on the side of the road well out of the way and really looked at what I had to work with. I found that I could do a straight on shot and get the rocks and the foliage for an easy composition. There was also the possibility that I could get a bit more complex composition including the road and the fog as it was coming over the dip in the hill. It was good enough to give it a try so I got out and grabbed the camera. This time I went with the 24-70mm lens and a polarizer. I tried for the easy shot of the rocky wall to begin with. It was actually kind of hard to get a composition that had a visual flow to it, but I tried several different variations. With that under my belt, I decided to move on to the more complex option.
I aimed my camera down the road and opened up the lens to 24mm which just didn’t give me the range that I wanted for this shot. I went back to the truck and grabbed my 16-35mm lens this time and instead of screwing on the polarizer, I went with the Lee 100 rig so that I could use a grad filter in addition to my larger polarizer. Remembering how the edge of the frame looked, I opted for a 3-stop hard edge ND Grad which would sit right at the tree line and bring the exposure of the sky down significantly so that I could balance my exposure. With all that in place, I went back to my location on the shoulder of the road and started to frame up the composition again. Working the Acratech Ballhead as well as two different filters made me very happy that the rain had stopped. I had no protection for the filters in the way of a lens hood with this current setup and I was using both of my hands to get the camera adjusted into position for the shot. When I finally settled on the composition I started to make exposure after exposure as the fog changed its position over and around the hill. The light was also changing which added another variable to the equation which gave me the potential for an even better image than I had considered.
Things were going well and other than stopping every once in a while for a passing car, cyclist, or hiker I was making pretty steady exposures capturing the changing look of the scene. After about 30 frames I felt that I had everything that I needed from here so I got things packed up. I wasn’t sure if either of these compositions would work out, but I was feeling pretty good about the second one which was the most difficult to organize. When I got them home, the first composition that I worked was just too simple. There was no depth to it, and I didn’t really like it. The second one though was a different story. I really liked how that composition turned out, but there was still a sticking point for me in how my eyes pursued through the scene. I seemed to be going against the grain in a manner of speaking so I flipped the image on the horizontal axis and found that it read much better when flipped. That was the composition that I worked on and that you see here. The simple composition never made it through editing and was cut early on.
I finally had an image that I was reasonably excited about and felt that my luck was possibly changing. The rain had stopped and the sky was looking much better now. I had lost the fog, but had gained so much more so I couldn’t complain at all. I just kept making my way to Doughton Park to check on the composition that I had in mind there. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t looking out for other subjects to capture though. I came upon one of those scenes as I was driving. The Parkway curved off to the right while looking over at some mountains in the distance to the left. I really liked the idea of shooting the road and the small barrier wall on the left leading you around the distant view. It was going to be a difficult shot because of the deep shadows and the bright sky, but I was pretty sure that Was going to be able to handle it.
You know the routine by now. I got turned around and found a suitable parking spot on the shoulder of the road before the curve. Since I really didn’t know what I was going to need, I just grabbed my whole bag and my tripod. As I was walking up to the curve I was noticing some difficult aspects of the composition. Instead of facing them head on, I decided to ponder the solution while I worked on another composition. The mountain range in the distance was interesting to me, not so much for the shapes but for the dappled light that was moving across them. That was what I was more interested in capturing here so I got positioned right on the side of the road at the barrier wall. Here I was again playing traffic cone and wishing that I had a reflective vest to wear. I loaded up the 70-200mm lens and started to hunt compositions. I found myself at the long end of that lens which I knew was a little soft in focus so in order to get the lens back into its sweet spot, I added my teleconverter. That gave me the ability to work around that 200mm mark and still have a very sharp image. I liked the ability to really isolate and pick out the specific scenes that I was wanting to capture.
I probably shot about a dozen different compositions as the sun was moving around. One of them you see here which was timed perfectly with the sun illuminating a house in a small clearing. It was pretty much the only structure on this mountain which made it stand out on its own. I loved the way the sunlight curved across the mountain as well. This turned out to be my favorite image from this location and while I found another composition to concentrate on I didn’t like any of those images any better than this grab shot. I probably spent about 15 minutes working these compositions before the sun came out too strong to really keep it interesting.
It was at that point that I went back to my initial concept for a composition. I was going to shoot a scene that had the road as a leading line joining the barrier wall. It was all going to be under the trees which would then frame up the distant view of the mountains along with the clouds in the sky. My biggest problem was going to be the exposure latitude with shooting into the sky from a position in the shade. I wasn’t able to use any grad filters since I had the trees framing the scene. I managed to get two different compositions worked out one vertical and one horizontal. I was feeling reasonably good about them and thought that the concept would work as long as I could extract the detail out of the highlights and shadows of the image when I got home.
It was that exposure issue that turned out to the be the easiest to deal with. I had plenty of information to work with and the exposure couldn’t have been better. I was working both the horizontal and the vertical images side by side since they were essentially the same scene. As I was getting the edits more and more complete I found another problem that I really hadn’t considered yet. It was a rookie mistake and one that I still occasionally run into. I was looking at a great image with leading lines pulling your eyes right through the image. There was a lot of depth, but the eyes had a hard time leaving the lines and going into the area beyond the barrier. Conversely, if I looked at the scene at the brightest part to start with, my eyes just stayed on the clouds and never went to the mountains, much less the road and the trees. Essentially, I had two partial images that were fair on their own, but had no connection for the viewer. My eyes didn’t know where to go in either the vertical or the horizontal image. I knew why I shot the composition, but that had not translated in this two dimensional form at all. There was no way to fix the path that the eyes were taking so I had to get rid of the images as neither of them were successful at what I was trying to accomplish.
All in all, I spent a good deal of time at this location and none of the compositions that I spent the most time on paid off. The only photo that I liked from this series was the one grab shot that I made while chasing the sunlight on the side of the mountain. Hey, at least I got something from here. I’ve stopped places and shot a number of frames before just to trash them all when I got home. Any time I can get a keeper from a spontaneous stop along the road is a good day. I still wasn’t finished with the day though as I still wanted to get to Doughton Park to check out a couple of different compositions from there before I called it a day.
As I entered the park, I was seeing much the same conditions that I had observed at the end of September when I was out here. I wanted to check Alligator Back which I had not shot in a number of years, and I wanted to check on that tree by the visitor’s center that hopefully will be in full color by now. I also had some ideas around the Lodge near the entrance. In short, I had a lot of ideas and was really excited about working them out. When I got to Alligator Back, the sky looked good, but the leaves were boring and the light wasn’t all that great. I crossed that off my list. I worked my way further up the mountain and noted that the water was pouring off of rock wall in a couple of places. There were also some colorful trees around the ridge. It was a nice view, but I had shot that same composition a while back and didn’t feel like going through all that effort again because it was a lot of effort to capture.
I got up to the park and checked out the tree at the visitor’s center. It looked pretty much the same as I had left it a few days before. I did work on the composition a bit more and found one that I really liked and when the tree is ready I think it will make for a great image. For now though, this was crossed off the list. I made my way into the picnic area and to the lodge. The trees looked about the same which wasn’t a bad thing as they were rather colorful. The lighting was flat though, and the sky had no texture in that direction. There was no indication that anything was going to change any time soon either so that was crossed off my list as well. I had three subjects to work with on my way up here and now all of them were lacking key ingredients to make images. I was feeling a bit frustrated and it was starting to get late. I had time to shoot one more scene before heading home, but what was this scene going to be?
I decided to give that rock wall a try on my way home. I knew all of the hard parts as I had shot it before. It had been one of my favorite images of the year because of the atmosphere that it captured, but that didn’t mean that it was as good of an image as I could produce. It was late Summer when I was last there with the camera so the primary color was green. That wasn’t an issue because it was the fog that was the most important player that day. As I have lived with the image over time though, I started to think that it was a bit heavy on the left side of the the frame and it lacked a certain flow to the image. I wasn’t quite sure what the exact issues with the composition were, but there were some things that weren’t sitting right with me. I was hoping that I would be able to address those shortcomings and produce an image that was quite a bit better than that first attempt.
First things first though, I needed to get parked which I already had my parking place in mind. I did it a little different to avoid falling out of the truck like I did the last time. Once I got the truck safely off the road, I grabbed my bag because I knew there were going to be some tricky parts to this composition and I wanted to have everything at my disposal to keep from running back and forth like I did last time. Since I wasn’t worried about rain, I felt better having my bag with me.
I knew the rough area that I wanted to be in for the composition and I knew that the 24-70mm lens was the right one for the job. If I got too wide, the background would be too small and would just slope into nothingness. With the water present I knew that I was going to have to use a polarizer which would remove the glare from the rocks. That was a very important part of this composition. I was also anticipating needing a grad filter for the clouds since the landscape was pretty much in the shadow of the clouds. Before choosing the filter, I framed up the composition to get an idea of how the exposure was looking. It took me a little bit of moving around to find the right spot where the perspective of the scene all came together. One thing that I wanted to try here was to shoot a bit wider, but with a 16:9 crop in camera. That would hopefully change the balance of visual weight by adding a bit more road going off into the distance. As luck would have it, I found a tree crossing the road at the edge of my 16:9 crop which kept the eyes from leaving the scene. The flow was much better than before and I figured I was onto something.
I made a test shot to see just how bad the exposure was off. I could tell from the histogram that there was a huge discrepancy between shadows and highlights which was going to make this very difficult to work out. I started off with a 3-stop soft ND grad which was pulled down over the corner. That brought the right side of the histogram in closer and I went with another test shot. There were still pixels that were blown out in the sky and I was really pushing my luck with the shadows. I needed to add another grad filter so this time I selected a 2-stop hard edge grad so that I could get that area right at the tree line to go darker. It was roughly straight except for the ridge right above my foreground which I was just going to have to brighten back up in post. I know what you are thinking at this point. Why not just shoot an HDR series and be done with it? The thought crossed my mind, but the breeze was too much and I knew that the trees would move between exposures making it very difficult to line everything up. There was also the matter of the clouds which were moving at a fast pace with the same problematic outcome. I was already wanting to have a bit of a longer exposure to start with so the multiple exposures would have complicated things just too much. I needed to get this in a single shot and I felt that I had the right equipment to do just that.
With a total of three filters mounted, the histogram looked much better, but my shutter speed was still too fast to get the water to blur like I wanted. I was going to need about another stop slower shutter speed to get into that sweet spot. I didn’t want to stop down any more than where I was at aperture-wise, so my only option was to lower the ISO which I normally won’t do when I’m already sitting at ISO100. I do have a low option of ISO50 which is part of the expanded range on my camera. I’ve never used it before, but this seemed like the right time to give it a whirl. That stop of change gave me the shutter speed that I needed and I started making exposures as the light changed and the clouds changed. I think it took me about 10 minutes to get to this point and get all of the elements of this photograph worked out. Like I said, this is a difficult photograph to create from the composition end to the exposure end. I am very happy with how it turned out and I left the Parkway after this composition feeling really excited about how this last photo turned out.
After all of the edits were done, my excitement was warranted. This last composition was my favorite from the day and I succeeded in making a better image than I had the last time I tried. One final thing that I did during the edit to help it along was to flip it horizontally so that it had a better reading direction. This helped with the visual flow that I had been having a problem with since my last attempt. I hadn’t really wanted to stop and get this scene, so I am pretty certain that if any of the other shots at Doughton had worked out, I probably would have bypassed this completely. It just goes to show you that sometimes things just work out the way that they are supposed to. I can get those other compositions at Doughton another time, but it is rare that I get a good sky over the rocky wall with waterfalls flowing, and the changing leaves just made it that much more unique. If that had been my only capture for the day, I would have been thrilled, but it wasn’t.
I had nearly 200 captures for the day. Keep in mind a lot of that was the same composition over and over in an attempt to get the best conditions possible. I started out with nine keepers, but ended up dropping two of those because they just didn’t sing to me. I’ve reached that stage where I don’t need to pad my portfolio so I can afford to get rid of average shots. That still left me with seven images from a trek that I hadn’t planned and then spent about half of it in the rain. It took me nearly seven hours to get all of the edits done so I’m very glad I waited until this morning to get that started. Now that I’m finishing up the blog, I will get this wrapped and then go through and clean up my lenses and filters because with all of the rain that I’ve been through recently they are starting to get a little spotted and I need to deal with that before I head out again. I just don’t know when that will be just yet.
I do hope that you enjoyed this trek as much as I did and that you like the photographs. Let me know which is your favorite, and if you would like a print of that favorite, be sure to let me know that as well. There is just something about holding a physical print of your favorite photograph that looking at it on the computer will never quite arise to. Making prints is my single favorite part of the photographic process and it is the part that I get to do the least because I just don’t have the room in my personal collection for any more prints. That leaves me the option to live vicariously through your and your print selections so for those of you who have purchased prints in the past, thank you very much! You have helped to motivate me to create more photographs and have helped to fund these treks. I appreciate all of my clients, and I’m excited to be welcoming in a different type of client than I have had in the past. With the advent of my portraiture, I have started connecting with an entirely different audience. If you are in my area and need portrait services done, I would love the chance to earn your business.
Until next time….