Blue Ridge Weekend: Driving All Over

· Reading Time: 23 minutes

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Elk Lean

OK, so to catch up here, this is the second part to a three part blog entry about a weekend in the mountains.  This was my first full day, and my plan was to take advantage of the partial cloud cover and do some rural exploration.  There are a lot of back roads in the mountains with barns and old cars just waiting to be photographed.  The light that I was expecting was going to be pretty much perfect for this.  When the alarm rang I checked the weather and found that there were going to be a bit more clouds in the area, and currently, the clouds were really low.  I knew that sunrise wasn’t going to be an option, so I set the alarm for another hour away which would get me up for the breakfast at the hotel.  It seemed like only a few minutes, but 6am was here and it was time to get up and functioning.  I was really glad that I had opted for a hotel rather than sleeping in the truck.  I had slept all night, but was still tired.

I finished up with breakfast and finished getting ready to head out.  With the increased cloud cover I thought it might be a good time to get Elk River Falls which I had originally planned for Sunday.  No reason to wait if the conditions were going to be decent today.  That would also get me out in an area that I recall had some pretty nice rural settings.  I could reasonably see myself spending the entire day in the area of Newland, and Elk Park, NC.  I got my gear and off I went.  The trip was pretty simple and I enjoyed the drive.  The clouds were clearing, however, and that made me a little nervous about doing waterfall photography.

My first inclination was to abort Elk River Falls and concentrate on the rural settings.  The more I thought about it though, something was pulling me to the waterfall.  Despite the weather not really looking promising, my heart said to keep on going.  I’ve learned to listen to these inner clues over the years because I usually get some of my best images when I follow their lead.  I did know that there were compositions that could benefit from a bit of blue sky, and I was thinking that might just work with what I was seeing above.

When I finally got to the parking area, there was one other car parked in the lot.  I was hoping for none, but a single car was no big deal.  I grabbed my gear and started down the short trail to the falls.  The last time I was here was 10 years ago and honestly, I wasn’t recognizing any of the trails.  I barely recognized the parking lot.  There was a short spur off of the main trail that took you to the top of the waterfall.  You can file this under something that I didn’t recall, so I decided to walk out to see if there was anything picture worthy up there.

What I found was an impressive flow over the rocks, and lots of moss undertones to the water.  The composition was interesting enough to pull the camera out and see what I could do with it.  I fitted my 24-70mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer before mounting to the tripod.  I started to play with different compositions before I finally settled on the one that opens this entry.  It wasn’t anything special, but the quality of the water was just too good to pass up.

What I really liked about how this shot worked out was it looked like an arm reaching out to the side as if to give an embrace.  There was just something oddly human about this part of the waterfall, and it comforted me.  This was ironic considering all of the signs posted about how dangerous it was at the top of the waterfall, and how dozens of victims had slipped and fallen to their deaths here.  This is the sad part of doing waterfall photography.  Just about everywhere I go, there have been deaths by people doing what I’m doing, or just simply being where I am.  It is a sobering thought.

Elk River Falls

Even though it was really pretty at the top of the waterfall, I was looking to get to the bottom of the falls and try some photographs of the main event.  It looked as though there was nobody around, and that was a great surprise after seeing the car in the parking lot.  It took no time at all before I got down to the bottom and started to walk over the long rock that acts as a bridge to the center of the pool.  I saw a small jean jacket that belonged to child sitting on the rock that I guess had been left by visitors in the past.  It had been out there for some time it appeared.

I started to survey the scene to see what I could come up with.  I started out with my 16-35mm lens, but wasn’t really happy with what I was getting.  I moved up to the 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Polarizer and found a little bit better of a perspective.  It still wasn’t what I was wanting though.  I was happy that there was a bit of blue in the sky directly above the falls which I have found is pretty mandatory if you are going to shoot a full on shot of this one.  The sun was still covered by clouds to my left so I had a good exposure.  Composition was what I was lacking.

I decided to see if a panorama would work out, and started to put the elements together in my head.  I left the current lens on, and flipped it on its side.  I did a test pass and everything looked good.  I ended up doing an eight shot series of the pool beneath the falls.  The rocks in the water made for great bookends to the shot, and the bit of blue hung nicely over the falls.  This was pretty good, but I didn’t like the way the water was looking.  The ripples and movement disrupted the scene a little bit, but not terribly.  It did lead me to an idea though.

Without a Ripple

I have been wanting to use my 10-Stop ND filter more, and I saw this as an opportunity to make that happen.  I brought the 16-35mm lens back out since I had moved positions a bit.  I started to play with compositions a little bit more and found one that I thought worked out nicely.  I added my B+W Polarizer since it was a slim mount, and then screwed the Lee Filter holder onto that.  I slid in the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo filter and looked through the viewfinder.  It was pretty much black.  I checked the live view, but it took adjusting my exposure greatly before I could see anything.  Ten stops is a lot of light to lose!

I worked out an exposure at 30 seconds and looked at the results.  I was onto something, but the water still was too rough for my tastes.  I shifted into Bulb mode and started working some longer exposures.  I ultimately ended up with a three minute exposure at f/14 and ISO 100.  Not only did that smooth out the water, it showed a good bit of movement in the clouds above which added to the drama of the scene.  The rocks were dead still , so they appear to be sitting on top of ice.  This was the image that I was wanting and hadn’t even known I wanted it.

By this time, there were people joining me at the bottom and what was worse, there were more walking around at the top of the falls.  My serenity was over, and the compositions I was wanting had come to an end as well.  I packed up carefully since I was kind of balancing everything on the spine of a rock.  I worked my way through the crowds back to the parking lot.  However, I decided to make one quick side trip.  There was a set of rapids before the waterfall that had interested me when I was walking down.  Not wanting to miss out on any good lighting for the main falls, I had skipped this location initially.  Now was a great time to give it a try though.

With a Quickness

Looking at this section of water, I knew that I was going to be better off shooting isolations than an overall shot.  I went ahead and fitted my 70-200mm lens and the Singh-Ray Polarizer.  I started to frame up compositions, but wasn’t getting the look I was after.  I couldn’t get any closer, so I decided I needed more reach.  I grabbed my extender and added it between the lens and camera.  There it was!  I was seeing my ideas come into focus at this point.  I started to pick out areas to isolate and cranked off about 10 different shots of the rapids.  The one that I deemed the best needed one small tweak in post processing.  I flipped it on its horizontal axis so that it flowed from left to right as we read.  This made the image “read” much better than before.  Within in a few minutes of arriving here, the sun was starting to get a little bright, and there were more and more people joining in on the trails.  It was time to get gone.

When I got back to the parking lot, it was packed with cars, and more were coming in.  I loaded everything in the back of the truck and made room for somebody else.  Man, I was glad I got there when I did because there would be no way I would have been able to shoot this location with all of the people that were showing up.  Now the sun was out, and the clouds were sporadic at best.  I figured I could possibly make it work if I was shooting rural scenes.  I would just be very dependent on the direction of the sun to make my scenes work out.  I started driving aimlessly around and looking for things to photograph.

There were a lot of great subjects, but the nature of everything here caused there to be no room for the subject to breathe.  Without a compelling composition or great lighting I was letting scene after scene go by.  I even found myself wandering into Tennessee for about 30 minutes.  I was starting to get discouraged and a little frustrated at my lack of luck hunting rust.  On the other hand, I was noticing that the sky was starting to get a little more cloudy.  It was time to head back to the Parkway and start looking for grand landscapes where I could capitalize on the developing sky.

I keyed the Parkway into my GPS as I was hopelessly lost at this point.  I got on the correct course and began moving in the right direction.  My eye caught a side road that sparked my attention for some reason.  I didn’t see anything on it, but something made me turn left.  Within 100 feet of entering the road I passed by one of the oddest shaped rocks in a lake that I have seen.  It caught my eye, but I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to photograph it.  I continued on to the end of the road where I found an awesome old Chevy truck, but it was sitting in the most unpicturesque location I could imagine.  There was a chain link fence, power pole, and an aluminum building all right in front of the truck near the bumper.  The house was to the rear of the truck, across the road.  There was no angle to shoot it from.

Arrowhead Reflections

I got turned around and went back to the main road.  I stopped at the rock in the lake one more time and decided that it was worth taking a few shots of.  With the distance I was having to work from, I knew I would need my 70-200mm lens.  Since I was wanting a reflection, I skipped the polarizer, and shot with nothing on the front of the lens.  I tried several different compositions, and even tried the 10-Stop filter.  Unfortunately, the trees were not still enough for that to work.  The composition that I decided on ultimately was the one that had the double rock on the left, pointing to the the alcove in the lake.  There was a grove of trees situated in the right hand side of the composition that were illuminated by the sun providing a great bit of focal lighting.  The water was still enough to provide great reflections as well.  Hey, that little voice that told me to turn left really paid off.  See why I listen to that voice so often?

At this point, I was back in the mood to shoot landscapes and I was looking forward to getting back on the Parkway.  I entered it at Hwy 221 and headed South towards Linville Falls since it had started to rain.  The closer to the falls I got, the lighter the rain became.  It actually started to clear up as I was passing the Hwy 181 bridge.  I happened to look at the bridge and thought that the light was pretty good on the bridge.  I pulled off on the side of the road and grabbed my gear.

Blue Ridge Intersection

I had shot this bridge before and knew that the trick was a wide angle lens.  I grabbed my 16-35mm lens and added the B+W polarizer so I wouldn’t have any vignetting issues.  I worked my way up the hill beside the bridge and worked out a composition that put an arch in the arch of the bridge.  The actual roadway above was presented as a strong diagonal element that complimented the diagonal of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The trees made for a great balancing element.  I started off shooting an HDR series just in case I wasn’t able to get the exposure to work out.  Then I started to shoot single shot exposures watching my histogram as I went.  I even switched sides and shot from across the road.  In the end, none of those images made the cut, and the HDR image that I had shot was also trashed in favor of this single image that I thought turned out really well.

Waiting for the Thunder

With the sun back out, I wasn’t going to finish heading to Linville Falls as I was sure the parking lot was jammed with cars, and the sun would make it too bright to shoot any of the moving water.  Instead, I decided to go back North to see what I could see.  The clouds were looking really cool in certain areas of the sky, and I wanted to go somewhere to take advantage of them.  The further North I went the more I started thinking about Thunder Hill.  This is one of those overlooks that can be shot from all different directions with equal success.  There are even areas near the overlook that work out as grand landscapes.  That was to be my destination.

When I arrived, I could see that the main overlook wasn’t really that eye catching with the haze over the mountains in the distance.  The back side of the overlook was looking spectacular.  As an added bonus there were no people on that side.  I parked the truck and grabbed my gear.  I decided to use the 16-35mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer for this series.  I started to look for different compositions on the ridge.  There was just so much to work with between the fence, the sky, and the goldenrods that were in abundance.

Goldenrod Ridge

The sky was awesome in just about every direction.  I even managed a shot that included the Blue Ridge Parkway as it split the treeline over the ridge to the North.  The fence had several sections with a lot of character which I enjoyed taking advantage of.  I think that my enjoyment of the area was starting to draw attention.  One by one, people started to show up on this side of the road.  They would start walking down the MST trail through the field, or would walk along the ridge where I was shooting.  For the most part nobody got in my way  which was nice.

Summer Clouds

I managed to keep the wide angle lens attached the entire time I was on the ridge.  I thought about switching over to a different one, but I could really find no compositions that would have supported a different focal length than I was currently using.  There was just so much that caught my eye, and I was really having a great time.  The light did eventually start to fade, and I decided that I would go and find another location to shoot.  This one was getting overgrown with people the longer I was there.  There was even a portrait shoot going on near where I was shooting in the field.  I was pretty sure that this was the same photographer I had seen during a sunrise a year or so ago.  Funny how paths keep crossing for photographers.

I continued North and finally came back to the location that I had started my weekend at just below the Mount Jefferson Overlook.  The sky was looking really nice for the middle of the day.  I decided that I would take advantage of the sky, from the opposite side of the road.  There is another fence and a green gate just a bit further down and on the other side of the road. This was going to be my subject for the next little bit.  I grabbed my gear and decided to go with my 16-35mm lens once again, along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  I got set up where I could include the fence and the gate as it hooked off into the distance.  As I started to shoot, I realized that there was a car parked right where I had been the night before.  It was in a position where it would be really hard to clone out, but I had no choice for the longest time.  When he finally left, I celebrated by moving across the road and including the entire stretch of empty roadway.

Miles of Smiles

I was so happy that the road was finally clear, and I had the shot that I was after.  Including the roadway really brought this image new life, and it turned out to be my favorite of this set, even though I was able to get my original composition shot with the car gone as well.  The one thing that didn’t set well with me was the fact that the road traveled from right to left in the frame.  Since we read from left to right, I decided to flip the image so that it would read a bit better.  The converging diagonals in the image were fantastic, and added a lot of drama.  I was still able to include the green gate, and the semi bare tree in the field which I have always been drawn to.  The pines in the distance really give the image a sense of depth as well.  Oh yeah, and that sky!!

Having worked this scene as much as I cared to, it was time to move on.  I thought that the best option at this point was going to be the area of Doughton Park a bit further up the road.  I had some ideas that might work well with the sky that I was seeing.  I was also looking forward to seeing the fences along the Parkway once you get into the park proper.

Doughton’s Gold

I didn’t find any fences along the Parkway that I wanted to photograph, but once I was inside the park, I found a lot of great subject matter.  The goldenrods were out in full force, and the grasses in the meadow were starting to change color so I had all kinds of color contrasts to work with, not to mention the sky that was looking really nice above.  The first shot that I tried was right next to where I parked.  I grabbed my 24-70mm lens for this shot and added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer along with a 2-Stop Galen Rowell ND Grad.

I really wanted to include the goldenrods with the fence so I was needing to stay elevated near the parking lot.  I set things up with a composition that had a nice diagonal line leading you into the scene, the different colors of the meadow as well as the sky above.  I had just about everything that I could have wanted in a picture at this point.  I did quite a few compositions on this theme until I was able to settle on this one here.

A Field to Frolic

I continued along the fence to the main meadow of Doughton.  this has always been a source of fun for me to photograph.  I have been here in all seasons and have always attempted a shot or two of this area each time.  this time I had some different elements that I wanted to include.  The goldenrods were quite prevalent among the browning grasses.  The green tree stood out strongly in the field as well.  I still had my 24-70mm lens attached, and it was just about perfect for the composition that I was wanting.  I framed a nice tight shot with the goldenrods as the foreground interest.  The sky was looking really good with the benefit of the ND Grad I was using.  The trick was to wait for the wind to stop long enough to make the exposure with the flowers relatively still.  It happened occasionally, but patience sure was a necessary thing for this composition.

Summer Colors

The more I looked at the field, the more I was really engrossed by the colors of the grasses and goldenrods.  I decided that I would do an abstract piece highlighting these elements.  I needed to get in much tighter than the current lens would allow.  I swapped it out for my 70-200mm, to which I added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  From here, I started framing patterns in the field that caught my eye.  These are not really my typical shot, but it was fun to work outside of my normal box for a bit.

Summer’s Last Blooms

In some cases I was able to get in really close to the goldenrods and really get them highlighted in the frame.  Using limited depth of field helps these to stand out from the background.  An added benefit is that the shutter speed gets quicker with the opened aperture so the wind was less of an issue for these shots.  I really wasn’t sure how these would turn out, but I figured that it was a photo weekend and digital images were free…might as well give it a whirl huh?

I thought that before I left I would go and get some pictures of the trail through the meadow.  Since the grasses were really high, there should be some good compositions to be had on the trail, especially if the sky held.  I walked down to the opening in the fence and looked to see what kind of compositions I could find.  As I was looking, the sky started to change in a very dramatic way.  These clouds that were rolling in were incredible.  I had to photograph these, and I had to do it quickly!

Oz

I had to think quick, and my instincts were telling me to grab my 16-35mm lens and my stack of ND Grads.  Since I was shooting into the sun, there wasn’t much need in a polarizer, plus that just slowed the process down when working with the Grads.  I got the camera built and added a Singh-Ray 3-Stop Galen Rowell ND Grad to control the exposure of the sky.  I started taking composition after composition.  Each shot was delayed as I waited for the wind to die down a bit since I was so close to the goldenrods.  The trail was amazing as a leading line through the scene, and the LCD review images were looking so promising.

Through the Never

The sky and the lighting kept changing minute by minute.  I ended up with two exposures made during the peak of the drama.  I got a landscape as well as portrait of basically the same sky.  While both are very similar, I have chosen to keep them both because one shows the drama in the sky, while the other shows the magnitude of what was going on in the sky.  In both cases, the trail leads your eyes through the image.  The clouds provide a background that pulls you deep within the frame.

These conditions lasted for about 10 minutes and then the clouds lost their drama.  Finding myself under “normal” skies once again I thought that I needed to find a place for sunset.  I had about two hours before that happened.  I got everything loaded back up in the truck and grabbed a little snack before heading out in search of my next location.  With the day coming to a close, I decided that it might be in my best interests to start heading back in the direction of Blowing Rock and the hotel.

Well, good plans…..

I ended up stopping a short distance from where I had been at the Alligator  Back Overlook which was just on the other side of the meadow I had been shooting minutes before.  I had shot this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway last year and figured that the composition would work at sunset as well.  The clouds were decent, but time would tell if there would be any color in them come sunset.  I got out of the truck and walked around looking to see if there were any alternative compositions that I could use.  I found a couple of ideas, but as I was looking, the clouds were starting to actually fade away to just a hazy sky.  This wasn’t going to work.  I decided to get back in the truck and head back South.  If something developed on the way, so be it.  I was tired and needed to get to the hotel sooner rather than later.

The Lump

As I was driving, I started to think about an image that I had seen of the Lump Overlook several months ago.  It was a minimalist image, and one that has haunted me since.  With the sky starting to look somewhat interesting again, I decided to give it a try.  I stopped at the Lump Overlook and saw that the clouds over the hill were looking pretty nice.  As an added benefit, the sky to the West was looking very promising as well.  I got out and grabbed my gear.  I wanted to start with the minimalist shot first.  For this one, I attached my 24-70mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer so that I could get as much definition out of the clouds as possible.  You see a polarizer works better when the sun is at 90 degrees from the angle of the shot, and I was shooting due South.  I got down low and started to frame my shot.  I couldn’t remember how the inspiration image went, but that wasn’t important.  What I needed from that image was the inspiration to create an image of my own.  I loved the fence, and wanted to include that.  The trail snaked its way through the grass, but didn’t have the benefit of overgrown grass as I had seen at Doughton.

I shot several different versions of this scene over the course of about 20-30 minutes.  Each shot was composed differently, and had a different feel to it.  They all stayed with a minimalist theme though.  I was keeping a constant eye over my right shoulder to see when it would be time to play with the sunset.  That time came about 45 minutes before sunset.  It was time to get the camera set up slightly different for a new composition.

I chose to go with my 16-35mm lens so that I could really emphasize the fence as a leading line.  I picked out my location and started to frame up the shot.  I quickly realized that exposure difference was just too much for the camera to handle.  I grabbed a Singh Ray 3-Stop Galen Rowell ND Grad and slid it into the Lee Holder.  It was looking better, but still wasn’t quite right.  I then added an additional 2-Stop Grad for a total of 5 stops of light reduction in the sky.  Check out the video I shot showing how this works.

As you can see, I was starting to get hopeful about the sunset.  The clouds were really dramatic, and I was envisioning the sky exploding with color just before sunset.  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.  But….my patience did allow me to see a bit of color in the sky after the clouds moved in and covered the sun.  There was apparently a small slit in the clouds right at the horizon.  At 7:40 (2 minutes before official sunset), the sun found its way through the clouds for one last hurrah of the day.

Split Rail Sunset

It wasn’t a glorious sunset, but I had a composition I really liked, and I was hoping that something was going to happen even though the sun had slipped behind the clouds.  I did get a bit of color, and I was quite happy about that.  Sometimes subtle color can be just as effective as an impressive showing.  Regardless, at this point, I had gotten what I had come to get.  It was time to head back to the room and get a shower.  Ahhh yes, I was so happy that I had opted for a room.

At this point, I started to look at my plans for Sunday.  Since I had shot Elk River Falls this morning, that left me with Catawba Falls to shoot.  The weather was still looking great for those with a chance of storms around 8am and then mostly cloudy skies for the rest of the day.  It was nearly perfect lighting conditions for waterfall photography.  I figured that I would get up, eat breakfast and be on the road in time to get to the falls between 8-9am.  Michael had told me that I needed to get there early to beat the crowds.  I was hoping that the threat of rain would keep everyone away.  Time would tell if that was a reasonable theory.

For now, it was time to go to bed.

Friday: Old news, that was yesterday
Saturday:  You are here
Sunday:  One last stop before leaving the mountains