Big Plans, Lackluster Conditions

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

I had such grand plans for the day, really I did.  The weather was looking really good in the mountains for most of the day with a nice layer of clouds in the upper atmosphere to start the day of with some nice mid level clouds coming in during the mid morning hours.  This was a great recipe for a colorful sunrise followed by a day of nice diffused lighting over the landscape.  Since I was pretty well caught up on things that needed to be done with the new house until next week, I had some time to go out and play the roll of a photographer once again.  With the restrictions loosening up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I figured that it was time to get back out there once again and get into some landscape work.  It was just a matter of where I wanted to go.

An overlook that I have been thinking about going to for a while now is Jumpinoff Rocks which is located at milepost 260 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I have shot here a couple of times at sunrise and while there isn’t a lot of prominent features to the landscape, it is a nice hike and a great view all the way out to Pilot Mountain in the distance.  This overlook isn’t too far away from me either with the trip taking just under an hour and a half.  From the new house, it will be right at 20 minutes.  There is a short hike, but that usually takes me about 15 minutes or so, and I wanted to get on location well before sunrise.  That meant that I was going to need to leave home around 4am in order to be situated just before 6am.  With that in mind, I turned in early and had the alarm set for 3:15am.  This was really no fun at all since I wasn’t used to getting up earlier than about 7 or 8 these days.  That is the price you have to pay to be a photographer some times.  It is all about the light and when it will happen.

I woke up as planned and got ready to roll out.  I was leaving just about the time that Toni was getting ready to get up to go to work.  When I got outside of the house I could see the moon in all its glory indicating that the sky was perfectly clear.  That was what I had expected looking at the forecast the night before and first thing when I woke up.  The clouds would start rolling in just as the sun was getting close to the horizon.  The nice bank of high clouds was just what I needed to get that glorious morning color and I was excited to see how this was going to turn out.  Traffic was light and I made really good time getting up to the Parkway and I arrived at the overlook with plenty of time to spare.

When I stepped out of the 4Runner, I was really happy that I had paid attention to the temperature in the forecast.  Considering that this is the middle of May and I’ve already seen a couple of days where the temperature was above 90, my skin wasn’t quite prepared for the 35 degrees that met me when I opened the door.  It was cold, but I was bundled up and ready for it.  I grabbed my gear and started the short hike to the overlook.  It really felt good to get out in the woods again as it has been some time since I’ve hiked.  There is something refreshing about hiking a trail in the dark when nobody else is around.  I don’t know why I don’t do it more often.

After about 11 minutes I was at the overlook and looking out over the large expanse with nearly unlimited visibility.  The sky was starting to pick up some clouds at the horizon but directly overhead the sky was still empty.  Looking at the view in front of me, I decided that my best bet was going to be my long lens so I could concentrate on the color at the horizon and help to make the mountains look a bit more dramatic.  I got the camera built and left off the filters because the exposure was actually looking pretty good with the existing light.  I didn’t need, or want much detail in the ground.  I just needed enough to shows the rolling terrain so I was fine with it being in the shadows for the most part.  I was setting my exposure on the sky because I wanted the range of colors that I was expecting to show up.

My first shot was one at 200mm on one of the distant mountains.  It turned out fair, but it lacked depth and the look that I was after.  It just looked like a simple two dimensional image and that wasn’t going to cut it.  I started to ponder my options looking out across the landscape.  I decided that with the flat horizon, I could very easily get away with shooting a panorama of the scene.  I got the tripod leveled out and did a dry sweep with the camera to check that it was going to remain level through the pass.  When I was happy with things, I made a series of 10 exposures left to right in the pre-dawn light.  I was pretty happy with the individual exposures but saw a couple of potential hot spots.  They weren’t bad so I didn’t stress it at all.  From here I started to look at small details through the image that I wanted to photograph so I added my 2X teleconverter in order to really isolate areas of the frame.  I shot a handful of exposures like this and decided that none of them were overly compelling so I removed the teleconverter and decided to do a slightly different panorama as the clouds were really starting to light up.

I repeated the process to level the tripod and I did a couple of dry sweeps.  I paid particular attention to the exposure this time and give myself a little wiggle room for the increasing light levels.  My previous panorama had been 20 second exposures for each, so the entire process had taken about four minutes to complete which meant that the light had changed on me.  This time, I was only looking at an exposure of 2 seconds so the entire sweep would be reasonably close in time.  This particular attempt took 11 individual exposures to make and resulted in none of them being overexposed.  The sky color was better with this set as well.

Blue Ridge Views“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 11 images stitched in Lightroom

As an aside with the two panoramas that I had shot, I brought them both into Lightroom to stitch them together.  The first one would not stitch at all.  Well, two of the frame paired up, but the rest of them wouldn’t fit together.  Looking at the individual frames, the clouds had moved enough between 20 second exposures to where there were just not enough points for the software to mate the images.  After several failed attempts I decided to let that one go and concentrate on the second one.  I was really happy that I had decided to do another attempt at the panorama as the second one went together with no problem at all.  The 11 images stitched together made a file that was just shy of 1 gig in size.  It is a huge file to say the least and I actually cropped very little on the sides.  There is no limit to how big this one can be printed out.  The composition was better here than on the first one because of the little sliver of sky at the top right.  This bit of blue balanced out so nicely with the taller set of mountains to the left.  There is a similar shape and size, although mirrored so it just all fits together so well.  This image had the depth that I was looking for from this scene as you can see the foreground mountains to the left and then off to the right you can see Pilot Mountain way off in the distance.  The haze in the midground mountains helps to cement that depth that is present in the image as well.

Panoramas are an interesting thing.  They get used too often because there is so much to look at in a scene and the photographer tries to get it all included in the same image.  I’ve been guilty of that in the past, but this is a case for the exact opposite situation.  There just wasn’t that much in the scene to look at as a visual anchor.  By including a large portion of the landscape, the shapes and the small details all came together to make a cohesive statement about the scene.  This turned out to be a very simplistic composition that covers around three counties worth of territory.  The sky is the main subject without a doubt.  It needs the expanse of mountains to show scale, so that is another reason that I went for this large panoramic view.

I had worked quite a few isolations with my long lens as well, but none of those really worked out all that well.  There just needed to be more than a silhouette of the landscape below the sky.  I needed depth somehow.  That answer came as the sun was just starting to reach the horizon.  As the light levels increased, I could see the potential to include a good bit of the landscape as a foreground.  The rolling nature of it was going to be great at providing that visual depth that I was after.  I was going to need to change up my lens though as the long lens was compressing the scene too much for this type of composition to work.  I swapped in my 24-70mm lens and pulled back on the overlook.  My first attempt at a wider view was to include the overlook and have it progress out to the rolling hills.  The concept was good, but the execution had some serious issues.

I found that the overlook lacked depth and just looked like a line of stone bricks along the bottom edge of the frame.  There was also the matter of a tree to the right that was right at the horizon line.  To keep it from crossing and intruding into the sky, I had to position the camera high enough that another tree showed up on the other side of the wall which was a distraction.  To drop the camera low enough to mask the middle tree which was preferable for the composition, the tree to the right crept into the sky and looked accidental.  Neither option was good enough for me, so I reevaluated my position.  I decided to ditch the wall and get in closer.  That way I could eliminate the two trees that were bothering my composition.  I now had an expanse of landscape in front of my camera which was working quite well.

With the sun nearing the horizon the sky was starting to get very bright and that was going to cause me to lose detail in the landscape, so I decided to incorporate an ND Grad filter.  For this, I chose one of my seldom used filters.  It was the Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 2-stop Reverse Grad.  What makes this filter so special is that the transition of the filter is at max strength and the effect trails off towards the edge of the filter.  This keeps the brightest part of the scene at the horizon under control while the darker sky well above is not affected.  The net result is a nice and even exposure through the entire sky which was what I was after.

A Sudden Blush“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 2-stop Rev Grad

The filter made the exposure work just perfectly.  I started out with two thirds of the frame filled with the mountains and a third left to the color of the sky.  My reason behind this was that there was a slight haze in the sky with some lower level clouds.  I wanted to minimize the colorful negative space and keep the interest with the clouds.  The image just didn’t look right in the LCD when the exposure was made though.  It reminded me of most of my early sunrise images where I just wanted the warm colors in the sky.  Those always appeared flat and manufactured.  I have found that over time I have had more success with sunrise and sunset images when I have been able to include a touch of blue sky to validate the brilliant colors that I was seeing.  In order to do that, i was going to need to tilt the camera up and switch the ratios of land to sky.  As it turned out, the high clouds yielded to a clear sky above me.  This was the sky that I wanted to capture as it gave that perfect balance to the warm tones.  I kept the Reverse Grad attached and just repositioned it relative to the new horizon location.  The filter did just what it was designed to do as it controlled the bright sun at the horizon, but left the blue sky nice and light at the top of the frame.  I don’t use these filters often, but when I do, they really make a huge difference to the image!

With the sun now creeping above the horizon, I started to look for other compositions, but the sun was just going to be too bright for anything that I would want to shoot.  It was time to pack it in.  I wasn’t sure what I had, but figured that I might have an image or two from this sunrise.  The colors were great, but my location left a little to be desired when it came to foreground elements.  I knew that this was a weakness of this location, but it is still fun to challenge myself with this one from time to time to see what I can come up with.  I am pretty sure that these are a couple of my recent favorites from Jumpinoff Rocks.  My absolute favorite was one that I shot back in 2008.  There was just one glaring problem with that one though.  I had been under the understanding that I had to have something in vertical in the image to make it work so I used that tree to the right and let it cross the horizon.  It did absolutely nothing for the image and gets in the way of the flow.  What I loved about it was the shape of the clouds in the sky which looked like a giant hand reaching out.  I would love to come about that scene again knowing more about how to capture it.  That is the fun of being a landscape photographer.  You will always see the best scenes when you are unprepared to properly capture it.

I made the quick hike back to the truck relatively happy with the work of the morning so far.  With the clouds forecasted to last all through the morning, I was all set to continue my trek along the Parkway and hopefully photograph many other scenes and get back in the swing of landscape photography.  When I got back to the 4Runner, I took stock of the clouds and found that the high level clouds were forming pretty much a complete overcast in the sky.  There was no definition at all.  I also didn’t see any of the mid level clouds that were supposed to be rolling in shortly.  I stuck with my plan though and started South to see what I could find and see how far I could go before I found the closed sections.

I have to admit, I enjoyed my drive on the Parkway and really appreciated being able to see the sights that I had not seen since last Fall.  I wasn’t seeing anything that was ready for a photograph though.  The sky just wasn’t all that photogenic at this point.  I kept my eyes open and continued searching.  When I got to the Mount Jefferson Overlook there were a few mid level clouds present in the sky which gave a bit of interest, but the primary feature in the sky was the haze from the high clouds.  I checked out my favorite red gate and saw it as a possibility, but the lighting wasn’t all that interesting.  I continued on and happened to look over into the field to see the prominent dead trees that guard a great view of the distant landscape.  This view held more promise and looking at the position of the sun on the other side of the road, I could see that there was a very good possibility that the trees would be hit by the warm morning light shortly.

I thought about the scene as I continued to drive down the road.  When I came to a road that I knew would loop back to the Parkway before the Jefferson Overlook, I took the turn and decided to stop off and give the scene a few frames.  When I got back in position about 10 minutes had passed and the sun was a bit higher in the sky.  The haze had also cleared just a little bit…at least enough to show a decent amount of blue in the sky.  The mid level clouds were all racing across the scene and I could see a nice balanced composition developing.  I pulled off the road and grabbed my gear.  For this one, I wanted to use my 24-70mm lens and felt that there was no need for any filters for this.  I would have typically used a polarizer here, but since the sun was going to be at my back, it would prove nearly useless in this situation.  The exposure was even enough that I didn’t need any grads, and since the line of clouds was moving from right to left, I saw no need in using an ND filter for a long exposure.  They don’t usually work well unless the clouds are moving to or from your location, no across the scene.

Lazy Spring Day“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f2/8L Mk2, No Filters

Once I had the camera ll set up, I started to find the perfect view to get the image that I wanted.  That was not as easy as you might think since I was having to work from the other side of a fence.  There were also trees and weeds growing along this fence so I had to be careful to pick places where I could get a full view of the scene without any clutter from the immediate foreground.  I ended up working from four different locations until I found the right balance for the image.  Once I found the composition, I had to wait for the sun to hit it the way that I was hoping that it would.  The clouds were covering the sun for the most part and all I could make out were some faint shadows, but it appeared as though those shadows were going to help point to the midground interest in the image which was a great side benefit.  The clouds were moving in the sky and I was seeing a double row of them approaching from the right.  This was very promising as the composition that I had worked out would fit the two rows perfectly in the sky.

As I waited for the clouds to arrive, the sun was starting to shine through a few seconds at a time.  I was right about the shadows in the foreground and they filled up the area that I had reserved for just the grass of the field.  The shadows added a great deal of interest and drama to the image and I was happy that they were there.  I had to act quickly when the sun was shining as it was only a second or two at a time.  I kept making exposures as the clouds moved closer and closer.  Just as they were in the right position in the sky, the sun came out for a brief two second appearance.  I was able to capture the image here during that moment.  It was my favorite from this scene, and quite possibly my favorite of the day.

I have photographed this scene so many times over the years.  I started before I really knew what I was doing with a camera and I have messed it up many different ways.  I’ve shot color and black and white.  Single images, panoramas, you name it.  There is always something that I don’t like about the image that causes me to ultimately let it fall to side.  This image seems to have gotten it all reasonably correct.  The sky wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I was happy I was able to shoot though the haze to show the blue tones against the puffy white clouds.  That gave me just enough detail in the sky to provide that much needed balance for the image.  The sun hit the bare trees which really showed up with their white trunks against the fresh greens of Spring.  The distant landscape leads our eyes right to the mountains at the horizon.  I am very happy with how this image turned out, especially considering the conditions I was shooting in.

After getting the clouds and sun to cooperate for this one image, I packed up my gear and started back on my quest for more images.  I had convinced myself the night before that I was going to be able to come out here and randomly point the camera and get great images all morning long.  I had told Toni that I would probably be out until after she got home from work.  I had anticipated using most of Wednesday to edit the images and write this blog.  The reality of the day was the sky was not all that great.  The quality of light was good, but there was just no interest in the sky in over 90% of the situations that I found.  My day of landscapes was starting to look more like a quick morning of them.

Part of what I do as a photographer is constantly evaluate the lighting and think about what will work for the lighting that I have at hand.  I was having to do just that at this point.  Since the quality of light was good, but the sky wasn’t great I decided that I would be better off looking for some rural scenes that are much less dependent on the clouds, and more affected by the quality of the light.  It was actually a good decision because I came to the end of the opened section of the Parkway at 321 in Blowing Rock.  I exited and worked my way back to Boone and back down the mountain.

When I got to the bottom of the mountain, I remembered seeing a bunch of old cars scattered about in McGrady.  Toni and I had discovered them while we were in the area looking for land a month of so ago.  Since the light was right, I decided to go and look at those more closely.  They were about 20 minutes away from 421 so it didn’t take me long to get there.  When I got there I saw some great cars, but the positioning of them wasn’t the best.  I was going to have to ask for permission to photograph them which normally wouldn’t have been much of a problem.  However, with all the Coronavirus precautions in place, the last thing that I wanted to do was put somebody in the position to be close to me when it wasn’t necessary.  I also saw that there was a fence that surrounded the house with signs for dogs on it.  The only way to get to the front door would be to go through the gate which I prefer not to do.  The icing on the cake was the bridge that I would have to go over to get to the gate in the first place.  This bridge consisted of wooden slats on I–beams.  The steel would be fine I was sure, but the wood looked shaky at best and I didn’t trust it under the weight of my truck.  I could have parked on the road and walked it, but with all the other negatives in place, I opted to let this location go.

I came across a few other areas that I thought about photographing, but the scenes just weren’t quite right for me for one reason or another.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my mind was preoccupied with the move and things that were needing to be accomplished before we could actually make the move.  With that realization I decided to cut my losses and head home.  I was going to be on the road a lot over the next couple of months back and forth from Winston to Purlear most days of the week.  The thought of driving just to scout locations at this point didn’t appeal to me any more.

I’m not sure if this will be my last trek for a while or not.  I’ve got a week and a half before closing on the house and then I am going to become a full time painter and handyman.  I’m not sure how much time I’m going to have during that timeframe to get out with the camera.  I would like to think that I will get out a few times, but I also know that any down time that I have will likely be spent recovering and resting.  I will continue to stay with my regular features as best I can during this time, but photography will be put on hold for the most part until the house gets all settled.

I do hope that you enjoyed this trek.  It wasn’t nearly as long and productive as I had hoped, but when you are dealing with the weather, there is no sense in planning.  You can only react to what is happening.  As always, if any of these images speak to you and you would like a print, please let me know.  Even though I will be busy in the coming months, I will still have things set up to be able to produce prints for my clients.  I suspect that there will only be a day or so downtime from my ability to make prints as I transition my office from one home to the other.

Thanks for joining me, and until next time…
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