Back to the Blue Ridge Parkway

· Reading Time: 13 minutes

Saturday, May 5, 2018

It has actually been about three weeks since my last successful trip with a camera.  I’ve gone out twice over that time but have been completely disappointed with the weather conditions and didn’t come back with any new images.  After more days than I can count of sun recently, I was very happy to see that there was clouds in the forecast.  There was even the chance for a thunderstorm around mid day which was exciting to think about.  The cloud cover was forecasted to be 95-100% throughout the day, and a relatively low ceiling.  Based on that forecast I wasn’t expecting a good sunrise, but the sunrise forecaster was showing a decent chance for some color over the mountains.

At first, it looked like Sparta was going to get the color, so my early plan was to go to Doughton Park which I hadn’t done in a good many months now.  When I woke up at 3:30am the first thing I did (after cussing the alarm clock) was to look at the weather and the sunrise forecast.  The weather was holding, and the sunrise was looking better, but had moved South a fair amount.  I figured that my best chance for some morning color was going to be closer to Boone, so I decided to head out that way and potentially go to Price Lake, or Grandview Overlook.

Blue Ridge Posts

I made good time to the Blue Ridge Parkway as this is a pretty much straightforward route down US 421.  I was still seeing stars in the sky when I arrived and that caused me to doubt the potential of a good sunrise.  I was here, might as well find a place to set up.  With the sky not looking all that great, I opted not to bother with Price Lake.  I stopped at Grandview and really wasn’t all that impressed with what I saw.  I decided to try another spot that has worked for me a time or two in the past which is just North of Raven Rock.  There is a nice little fence set up on a ridge that offers a view of the mountains in the distance.  I pulled off the road and got the camera out.

My plan for the day was to only shoot with either the 16-35mm or the 70-200mm to force myself to stay away from the “normal” range of the 24-70mm.  For the sunrise shot I was planning, the wide angle lens was the one that I thought would work the best.  I added the Lee Filter Holder in preparation for the ND Grads that I was expecting to use.  I went ahead and set up my first shot and waited for the sky.

At least there were clouds rolling in, but they were looking like they were going to block the horizon and keep the sun from splashing the color around.  I still waited.  I did my normal test shots, and the opening image here is one of those which was shot with a Singh-Ray 2-Stop soft edge ND grad.  It was 15 seconds worth of exposure which allowed it to capture the sliver of color at the horizon.  I was hoping for so much more, but this was as good as it got.  I actually waited here until about 5 minutes before sunrise when I decided that this was just not going to work.  I was going to find something else to shoot while the sun was coming up.

Welcoming Reach

I could see that there was a little bit of interest developing across the road so I decided to try and pick out a composition.  I have shot that side of the road before and knew that I was going to need my long lens since there was a fence that prevented access.  Oh wait, there was a section of the fence that was missing from my previous experience.  I looked around for indications that I wasn’t supposed to enter.  Finding none, I went right on in, and started to walk to the distant tree line.  I found a couple of really interesting trees and started to work out compositions on them.  I moved around a lot, but kept my wide angle lens on.  This allowed me to get up close and personal with the trees which was a lot of fun.

An Invitation

As I was working in the direction of the sunrise, I did my normal thing and turned around behind me.  The color that I was missing to the East had shown up to the West as the sun was over the horizon, and above the clouds to the East.  I gathered up my kit and went to the other side of the tree.  I started to set up different compositions.  I was still using the same ND grad that I had for the original composition.  It allowed me the ability to control the sky and expose the ground correctly without putting it in the shadows.  I was then able to tweak the exposure in Lightroom later on.

What had started out as a rather lackluster morning was getting a bit more exciting with every click of the shutter.  I still wasn’t confident that I was getting good images, but the histogram was showing that I was capturing all of the available information in the scene.  I’ve come to rely on this much more than looking at the LCD.  Since I shoot with no saturation or contrast added in, the image that I was seeing in the LCD was very flat and lifeless.  Having a good histogram usually meant that I could pull the detail out that I had seen at the time, and that was what I was hoping for.

Cautious Anticipation

One of the things that this field wasn’t lacking was cow manure.  The other thing was a stony base.  I took advantage of the latter with several compositions for foreground interest.  This one here seemed to work well with the Blue Ridge Parkway in the distance.  Of course, it was the sky that drew me to the image in the first place.  I loved the soft pastels in the sky, but I was needing a little more help with the exposure.  I swapped in a 3-Stop soft edge filter to give a little more of a boost to the foreground which was in the shadows from the ridge.  The exposure looked good according to the histogram so I clicked and moved on.

After I was done here, it was time to move on down the road as the sky was getting awash with clouds.  I decided that my track would continue South towards Price Lake.  As I was getting close to it I saw one of my favorite trees in a field and decided that I wanted to see if I could do anything with it.  It looked gorgeous with the yellow wildflowers growing all around it.  The sky, on the other hand, was just not very interesting.  I was going to have to wait to see if the sky changed any for me.

Roadside Wildflowers

Fortunately, looking South the sky had a fair amount of interest in it.  There were also some wildflowers growing alongside the fence which was just perfect for my needs.  I went ahead and grabbed my 16-35mm lens along with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to add a bit of pop to the sky.  I started walking the fence line until I found a composition that I thought would work out.  The trick is always to find a section of the fence that has a little bit of visual interest to it.  This section here had a nice diagonal element as the slats had fallen.  There was also a section leaning up on the post and the next section of slats were broken.  In short, there was a lot of visual interest here, and it was close to the tree for a balancing element.

Springtime Mood

The sky to my rear was looking rather interesting now, so I swapped to the other side of the tree, and found a good position on the hill.  The sun was ahead and to my right, so I had to use my hat to block the front element from the sun to keep the glare from reducing the contrast of the image.  The wide angle lens was working out very well for these pictures, and it allowed me to capture much of the sky above along with the interesting cloud formations.  The issue with the tree that I had stopped to photograph was that it was so far off in the distance that I was going to be forced to use my telezoom lens which would reduce the included sky to just what was at the horizon…which was very BLAH!

Time to Mend

I wasn’t worried at all about the one tree though.  Not only had I shot it many times now, I was having fun with this section of fence with the wildflowers.  The wide angle lens was really making the images dynamic which was why I was forcing myself to shoot with that lens today.  I found another section of the fence that was in need of repair (hey, a perfect fence is boring).  As an added benefit, the clouds were absolutely awesome above this particular section.  There was also a nice bunch of yellow flowers to play with as well.

Pondering Spring

As I was finishing up with the fence and wildflowers, I crossed the road again and started to look for compositions on a blooming tree by the famous red barn.  I tried some from the road and some in close.  I did switch over to my 70-200mm with no filters attached.  No matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to get the elements that I was wanting.  It wasn’t until I got in close and started to do some isolations that I started to see promise to this tree.  The composition that I settled on was one where the trunk just made a guest appearance at the bottom as it hooked around to a curved section of blooms.  It was almost like a question mark in the frame.  That was the one that made sense to me and captured the elements that I was hoping for.

From here, I took the long lens over and started to work on the lone tree under some clouds that were starting to get a little definition to them.  There were also a few other trees that I wanted to photograph as well in the same field.  The problem was, the definition in the sky was just too subtle to really make an interesting picture.  The trees looked great as did the wildflowers, but the image was really let down with the lackluster sky.  I opted not to include any of those images in this final cut.

Skeletal Trilogy

I eventually gave up on getting the trees as the clouds were getting worse, not better.  I continued on to Price Lake and found nothing of interest there so I turned around.  I passed by all of the typical overlooks and saw nothing at all of any interest thanks to the bland sky above.  I was actually starting to think that the day was pretty much over at this point.  My Norther journey continued though until I got to the Mt Jefferson Overlook.  There was a fence and a gate that I love working with and I figured that I would give it a try even though the sky wasn’t really looking all that great.

I worked my way up and down the Parkway at this section looking for compositions that worked with the sky.  I tried the gate, I tried another gate across the street, and I tried the three dead trees in the field.  Nothing was really working out for me as the sky was just lacking definition.  As I was getting ready to call it quits, I noticed there was a section of clouds moving overhead that were about to be in position above the three dead trees.  I’ve photographed these guys enough to know that my favorite composition is a panorama.  I went ahead and switched out my wide angle lens for my 70-200mm and got the tripod set up and leveled.  I did a sweep of the intended composition and decided to add a 2-Stop hard edge ND grad on the end of the lens.

The image only took six frames to get enough information for the composition that I had in mind.  I only did one take of this because the clouds were changing quickly at this point and I wanted to get some of the gate a little further up the road.  I went back to the wide angle lens and left the filters off for the remainder of this section.

Clamshell Clouds

When shooting landscapes, I am always looking for interesting patterns in the clouds.  With this one, I found a radiating quality reminiscent of a clamshell.  I got into position so that I could capture that right above the red gate that I was looking to photograph.  It wasn’t perfect, but the sky was finally starting to work with me.  I started to move around and look for other compositions that would take advantage of the clouds as they were moving around in the sky.

Blue Ridge Barrier

I kept having to remind myself to rack the lens out since I am so accustomed to shooting far to close to 50mm.  I enjoyed getting in close and going for the 16mm focal length to really get a different perspective from what I normally get.  The tradeoff is that the distant mountains are much smaller in comparison, but I figured that this was a fair tradeoff for the amount of sky that was included.  I really had a lot of fun with this lens today.  It has been much too long since I’ve been able to do grand landscapes.

Holding the Line

As the sky went bland again, I headed North, planning on getting to Doughton Park.  As I was driving I happened to see an nice view over my right shoulder around mile marker 266.  I thought about it for about a mile and decided that I would turn around and see what had caught my eye.  When I got back to the location, I could see a simple barbed wire fence with a nice long view of the mountains in the distance. The clouds were also looking pretty good here as well.  It was worth stopping to see what I could come up with.

I went ahead and got the camera ready with the 16-35mm lens.  I skipped any filters since it was so cloudy and there was a bit of a breeze.  I was figuring that I needed as much light through the lens as possible so I could freeze the grass blowing in the wind.  It honestly took me a while to settle on a scene that I really liked.  Everything seemed to just plain and boring which wasn’t really capturing what I was seeing.

Ethereal Infinity

The section that I settled on was over in the corner which I had not seen originally.  This had an opened section with a nice post and a diagonal kicker to help give it visual weight.  This was the section that I spent the most time on.  It didn’t necessarily capture the distant mountains like I was wanting to, but I think that this really highlighted the awesome sky much better.  It was a more dramatic image focusing on the fence rather than the mountains in the distance.

The clouds were constantly changing, but one thing was clear, they were getting heavier.  I could see that the altitude was dropping and that meant that rain was probably on the way soon.  It was getting a little late in the day as well, so I opted to pack it up and and head home.  Well, with a stop along the way.

I had been contacted by Hampton House Gallery last week about two of my images.  They had a commercial client that was interested in two of my coastal images.  I had prepared the images for the gallery and had to go by and pick up the payment on the way home.  That might have been the highlight of the day since this is my first brokered sale to a commercial client through a gallery.  I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty great experience!

All in all, the day went well.  It was a long day, but I’m used to those when I am shooting in the mountains.  I know it is going to be a lot of driving and a lot of time away from home.  It makes it feel much more worth it when I can come back with 13 new images to add to my collection though.  Now the hard part…where to put them in the gallery, and which ones need to go in?