Back to Beacon Heights

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Friday, July 9, 2021

Welcome back.  I trust that you enjoyed the slight departure from my normal content with my last entry where I shared my experiences with some portraiture.  You might also remember a recent entry where I did some work with smoke in the studio, as well as another lighting experiment in the studio.  It would seem that I have been doing a lot of studio work here lately which would be considered odd for a landscape photographer at the end of Spring going into Summer.  Well, I have spent some time out in the field doing some landscape images, but honestly, the greens of this time of year are just not catching my eye currently.  I’m finding that I am much more drawn to the starkness of Winter these days and I’ve been holding onto my decay photography much longer this season than normal.

Not wanting to loose track of my original calling into photography, I decided to put a little effort into working a landscape scene again, but I first needed to figure out where I wanted to go.  The weather has been a little odd here lately with the passing of Elsa a couple of days ago.  That has left the atmosphere a little unsettled which can be great for landscape work.  I just didn’t really have any ideas where I wanted to go.  It is just this time of year when there is a green carpet over everything that really just takes my excitement away from the landscape.  I can remember maybe just five years ago that I loved the greens of the landscape and was out in the mountains all Summer long enjoying the vibrant colors.  As I’ve aged and matured I’ve started to view it differently and really miss the textures of Winter.  That being said, I still had to have some form of love for the landscape, even in the Summer if I was going to continue as a landscape photographer.  I was tossing around different locations that I would like to shoot when the conditions were looking good and everything that I came up with just fell on its face when I started to see the color images in my mind.

I was sitting in the living room staring at one of my favorite panoramas from Beacon Heights which was shot a number of years ago.  I have always loved the simplicity of the composition and the calmness of the entire scene.  There were aspects of it that I could see working in different conditions, and I could see it with a more exciting sky above it for a different kind of mood.  The more I looked, the more I became interested in a return visit for the same composition, but with a different motivation behind it.  I checked the weather and saw that the following morning was going to have some high clouds at sunrise which would make for a pretty good sunrise situation.  That would give me lighting from the other side of the image from what I had grown so used to.  The hope for a dramatic sky was high and I started to do the math to see when I was going to need to get up and rolling to beat the sun.

It was looking like I was going to have to set the clock for 3:45am so that I could make the hour drive out there and hike up to the top to get set up.  It was early, but it was going to be worth it for this one.  When the clock rang I rolled over and checked the weather.  The clouds had moved to later in the morning and there were really no clouds expected at, or near sunrise.  I didn’t want to go out there just to get a picture of the bright sun creeping over the horizon as those pictures just do nothing for me at all.  I was after color in the sky and that was a product of the clouds more than anything else.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  I can’t say I was disappointed at that turn of events because I really don’t like getting up that early anyway.

Toni and I woke up later in the morning and I went through my normal process of getting ready for the day.  While I was downstairs on the computer I was looking at the weather and saw that the clouds were going to be breaking up into varying levels around the middle of the day which is usually a lousy time for photography due to the harsh light from the high sun.  Looking at about 80% cloud coverage in the area of Beacon Heights I was thinking that I could get some nice diffused light on the landscape and hopefully some dramatic clouds in the sky with the lower altitude clouds rolling through.  I considered my options here.  The time of day wasn’t great, but the conditions would likely be good.  It was a Friday so the crowds would hopefully be manageable, but it was a holiday week which might throw a wrench into that plan.  I might get up there and the photograph just not come together at all.  It was all a gamble, and after being in the studio where I had total control of all that happened in front of the camera this was not really all that appealing, but it was part of landscape photography.  I chose to take the chance.

I was on the road around lunch time heading out to the Parkway.  The clouds were not all that interesting at home and it was way too bright for any pictures.  Looking West, it looked like the sky was just darkly overcast.  I wasn’t holding out much hope at all.  By the time I got to Beacon Heights, the clouds were looking interesting, but the light was still rather harsh.  To make matters worse, the parking area for the overlook was filled and there were cars parked on the shoulder of the road as well.  There was only two spaces left where I could park.  This meant that I was probably going to be fighting for position on the overlook which I hated to think about.  However, my favorite picture from here was shot in the same sort of conditions so it wasn’t going to be a deal killer for the shot.  I went ahead and parked in one of the remaining shoulder areas and grabbed my gear.

As I started to hike up the trail I was met with droves of people coming down the trail.  I was so excited that there was a mas exodus I forgot to say hi several times as I passed people.  This was actually turning out pretty good.  As I neared the top the clouds covered the sun and the lighting was nice and even.  When I stepped out on the bald where I was going to set up there was not a single soul there.  This was just too good to be true.  I found the spot where I wanted to set up and got the tripod leveled.  I then mounted the camera with the 70-200mm lens attached and started to get the panorama figured out in terms of exposure and focus.  Before I could start getting images a hiker entered the overlook and saw me.  She asked if I could take her picture which I did and that sparked a conversation.  As that was going on I was keeping track of the sky knowing that the lighting was changing and I might miss my opportunity to get the picture I was after.  I ended up cutting the conversation short which I hated to do, but I needed to get the picture done.  I went back to the camera and finalized all of the settings before doing three different sweeps of the scene to ensure that I had a good collection of images to work with.

From there, I started to work isolations in the distance with the receding mountains going into the haze.  The clouds started to lose their definition and I decided I would go over to the other overlook to try an idea that I had for that side.  It didn’t take long to hike over there and I started to survey the scene and look at things critically.  The lighting was not doing this side any favors and the landscape in the distance was just not all that exciting.  The sky was starting to get a little better, but it didn’t fit this scene at all.  Without even unpacking the camera I went back to the trail.  Not wanting to be done just yet, I went back over to the first overlook and looked for something different to work with.

There were some other hikers there at this point, but they were well out of the way and not even remotely bothering my plans.  I set up in a location further to the left than I had previously and decided to try to the pano from that angle.  I leveled the tripod again and mounted the long lens once again.  I went through the scene and shot a series of images from left to right.  When I was done with that series, I went back and counted.  I had 12 frames of 50.1MP each for this single image.  That was just too many as I knew that my standard seven image pano would choke my computer.  Here I was creating something about twice that size and I doubted that I could even stitch that together.  I reevaluated my setup and decided to go a little wider and try to include the foreground rock that I was standing on.  I hadn’t done that before and with the lighting, it would balance out the sky nicely.  I swapped over to my 24-70mm lens and for simplicity I kept the camera horizontal with the hopes of making a much smaller overall panorama to make the editing easier.

I did a few runs like that with only three images left to right before flipping the camera on its side to get a bit tighter arc to the series to help with the perspective and stitching.  As I was doing this, I could see the sky getting brighter, but more interesting.  I added a ND Grad to the lens to darken the sky down because by this point I was pretty sure that I was going to be shooting a black and white image and I wanted to have a very dramatic sky overhead.  I was loving how this was looking and I was really seeing a lot of potential here for a great photograph.  I just kept making runs through the scene and capturing the clouds in different positions.  This was the composition that I was committed to and was most excited about.

Take it All In“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 12 image pano, converted to B&W in Lightroom

After about an hour of shooting, I had a total of 174 frames captured in the camera with only a half dozen of them single images.  Most of what I had shot was to be panorama material.  Knowing that it was going to take a long time to get through that processing, I decided to call it a day and head home.  I picked Toni up for some dinner and we ran a couple of errands before getting home.  I got the computer cranked up and went through the images and found a handful that I wanted to see stitched together as a pano.  The first one that I did was one of the last ones that I shot.  It took just a few minutes to get the preview up on the screen and I could tell that there was a serious problem with the pano which I had worried about.  Since I had shot it at 28mm to get the foreground in the shot, the perspective was so skewed due to the length of the scene that the image looked very odd no matter how I presented it, or cropped it.  What I had been most excited about and had spent the most time shooting turned out to be a complete failure on my part.  I should have realized that this was going to be this much of an issue, but I was hoping very optimistically.

That failure eliminated over half of my images right off the top and I had to go in and look at some of the others that I had shot.  I ended up building three different panos from three images to six images.  They were fair, but lacked the scope that I was really after.  I wanted to capture the expanse of mountains and with the ways that I had shot the panos, I wasn’t getting exactly what I wanted.  It was due to the fact that I was trying to shoot within the limitations of my computer.  Each of those panos had taken 45 minutes to an hour to build and I wasn’t happy with any of them.  I was about to give up and decided to look at that one monster that I shot first off on my return visit to the overlook.

The 12 image series looked good in pieces, but I wouldn’t really know how good until I got a preview up.  I highlighted them all and tasked Lightroom to build a preview.  It took a few minutes to get that thumbnail to pop up and I saw a lot of potential with it.  I found the right rendering which accentuated the scope of the scene and selected “merge.”  This was the part that I really thought would kill my computer.  I might have come very close as It took two hours to build the pano before I could even start to edit it.  During that time the computer would freeze and hang up, and go to a black screen.  All the while I just sat there reading a book and learning about different lighting techniques for portraits.  I was starting to wonder if I would have to let it cook all night as it was getting quite late in the evening.  It was finally finished building around 9:30pm and that was when I started to do the edits on it.

Of course the edits were slow because of the sheer size of the file, but I was getting it done.  I never even considered doing it in color because the green hills held no visual interest for me at all.  It was the sky and the haze that made this image and for that to come to the forefront I was going to have to go with black and white.  I made sure that I maintained the zone system in the edit and kept a full spectrum of tones from complete black to complete white with a nice spread in between.  The more I finessed it, the more I liked it.  By about 11pm I was done with the rough edit and decided to put it away until the following morning so that I could look at it with fresh eyes.

When I came downstairs this morning to do a final edit on it, I was very happy with the entire thing, but wanted to add a bit more depth to the top of the frame so I brought those blacks down and added some contrast to the very top edge to really close in the image.  I then exported it to Photoshop where I got rid of the large tower on the top of the mountain and a couple of areas where the road could be seen through the trees.  It just simplified the image with those small details and that was what I was after.  The focus on this was the clouds and the shapes of the Appalachian Mountains which was my goal from the beginning.

It was a very long day for just a single image, but that single image was the result of 12 individual frames and resulted in a Tiff file that is 1.72GB in size.  You need a picture to cover the side of a building?  I got you covered.  You can’t see it here, but in the full resolution image you can still make out the individual branches of the trees all over the main mountain.  It is super detailed and will make a fantastic canvas or print for someone.

I hope that you enjoyed this extremely long short trek and the one resulting image.  I didn’t like the single images that I shot from there so they have all been trashed.  I was after this grand landscape and that was what I came home with which made this a successful trek.

Until next time….






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