Thursday, July 1, 2021
I was almost foiled by cows. Not just a couple, but a full on herd of them. I might be getting a little ahead of myself in the story telling portion of this trek so I should probably start at the beginning.
Back in 2005, I decided to buy my first “real” camera and starting taking pictures……OK, that was too far back.
When I conducted my Spring Landscape Workshop back in May, it started as it always does at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The workshop was, shall we say a little slim in attendance with only a single participant signed up. I hate to cancel workshops so I will usually go along with the plans even if only a single person signs up which was the case here. Sue and I started early that morning at the picnic area and hiked up to the top o the meadow for sunrise. I went through the different learning points that I typically cover and then we started to look for compositions outside of the box. We played my favorite game of what do you like and what do you not like to hone in on a workable composition. Since it was just the two of us, I gave her plenty of leeway in finding things that excited her on that meadow. One of the concepts that she started working was with the jagged outcrop which was at the top of the hill. I’ve worked this feature a number of times over the years and was thrilled that she wanted to give it some attention.
As we worked the angles of it, she ended up on the back edge and saw a small break between the rocks which caught her eye and she started to work out a composition around her vision. As we talked through it, I started to see a panorama developing as we added the bits and pieces that she liked. As I was studying the scene, I was seeing a lot that I liked as well. Since we had been talking about how to execute a panorama I decided that this would be a good time to show her the process which would then give a series of frames that I could build into a panorama for the Lightroom demonstration portion which would follow in a few days. I walked her through the process of setting things up and how to use the tools that were available to her in order to get the camera ready for the sweep across the scene. We ended up shooting a 6-9 frame panorama at a time when the clouds were looking pretty good and the lighting was favorable on the foreground.
When it came time to do the Lightroom portion of the workshop, she had sent me the RAW files from the pano series that we had put together. I think that I only used about six frames for the demo and they stitched together very nicely. I had already done a full edit on another image from the day, so I just planned on running through some basics with the pano to show what was possible. When I was done with it, I was really impressed with the outcome and thought that it looked fantastic aside from a couple of little details which had been overlooked while putting together a quick demo for a pano. The image made an impact with me though, and I filed the idea away for a future visit to the park.
What I was envisioning was a composition very similar to what had been shot with some extra attention placed on separation of the elements from near to far. I was looking for similar lighting, but a bit more color in the sky along with some more detail from the clouds. I was going to need a partly cloudy morning with high clouds to pull off what I was after. I was also going to have to get there right at sunrise as the light would be workable from that point through about 30 minutes or so. I hate getting up early enough to get a Summer sunrise which is just after 6am. At least I was no longer an hour and a half from the park. The 40 minute drive was much better, and made it less of a hassle for me to get up. It still meant getting up at 4:15 though in order to get there in time to hike into position.
I had been looking at the weather for much of the last two weeks in the hopes of getting back to Doughton Park. The morning weather was never favorable for this trek though as the mornings were usually devoid of clouds for the most part. When there were clouds, they were forecasted as being lower level clouds which won’t pick up any color. I just waited patiently for the right conditions to happen. While looking at the extended forecast for this week for another reason, I noticed that Thursday morning was looking like it might have some clouds of the high altitude variety. I told Toni that I might be going out Thursday morning to get that pano that I had been wanting to capture. This was on Monday if memory serves. I also remember thinking that the weather will change a number of times before Thursday and I was doubting that I was going to get the morning that I had just viewed.
When Wednesday came around Toni reminded me that I was going to be going to Doughton the following morning. I had about forgotten that little plan and was actually kind of tired from several different days behind the camera including a studio session as well as a short rural road trip. Both of those days had yielded quite a few new images which I had been processing and sharing. I was actually looking forward to a break so I was all set for the bad news that the forecast was going to change for Thursday. I opened up my Clear Outside App, and scrolled over to the morning. To my surprise, the clouds were still in place for the morning and roughly at the same intensity. I couldn’t decide not to go and blame the weather this time. If I didn’t go, it would be squarely on my shoulders and I would most definitely regret not trying by the time I woke up Thursday morning.
I went to bed early-ish with my clock set for 4:15. My intention for the day was to capture a single image…the panorama that I had been thinking about for all this time. I didn’t want to go for a drive, or a hike to find other images which would just add more work on my plate when I got home. I just wanted the one image. You would think that would be a simple thing to achieve, but each time I shoot a sunrise, or sunset, I will capture 30 or more images in hopes of getting the best lighting possible. I was going to be shooting a pano which will be 5-8 images for each photograph. If I were to do some simple math with the help of Toni who is making a strong “A” in her math class that would mean that I could be shooting well over 200 frames just to get a single sunrise photograph. This simple task was not quite so simple which was why I wanted to keep the day as low key as possible.
When I woke up I checked the weather and was really hoping that the clouds weren’t going to be there because I had hardly slept at all the night before thinking about getting up so early. The clouds were still in place and everything was looking like a go for my plans. I went ahead and got up and got ready to roll out the door. On the way there I was playing things out in my mind and working out all of the details that I was going to need to work with for the pano. This was an odd trek in that my intention was to capture a panoramic image which is usually a spur of the moment decision. Most of the time, this is an afterthought and something that I just try to use in order to make a composition work. This was the first time I’ve set out with the intentions of creating one of these monster photographs. To make matters worse, I had put all my eggs in that basket. I had no “plan B” and wasn’t even going to go looking for any other images after the fact. If this didn’t work, I was just going to go home and have a restful day.
When I arrived at Doughton, the clouds were thin, but they were present as expected. The sun was already starting to light up the sky and I didn’t even need a flashlight to make the short hike up to the meadow. When I started to get close to the top of the meadow where my favorite tree was I saw something that I had never seen before. Now, I knew that this happened because I have seen evidence, but I’ve never been here when the cows were grazing. That’s right, there were cows…not two or three, or even a dozen. There were at least 25-30 head just grazing around right in the middle of what was going to be my photograph. After all this time working up the image in my head, I finally had the right weather for the day, and got up early enough to be here in time. I was now looking at a bunch of cows which were going to prevent my ability to even try. To make matters worse, the sky was already starting to take on this amazing color which I had not expected. I kept on walking not really sure what the cows were going to do with me.
I knew from previous encounters with them from the other side of a fence, they would generally come over and investigate what I was doing. This time, there was no fence to keep them away from me or my gear which left me thinking that I was going to be in the middle of a herd of cows before the sun was fully up. There was no way I was going to be able to work the camera and deal with cows at the same time. I just looked at the closest cow and asked politely if they could just move over a tad. I got no reaction from him. I started to make general pleas to the herd that I needed them to move up the hill just a little bit so that I could get a picture. I told them how much I would appreciate it figuring that it was of no use. However, the closer I got to where I was wanting to set up, the more gradually the cows started to go away from me. These cows were not interested in investigating me at all. They seemed to want to give me my space which was a good thing and it made me very happy.
With the cows out of the way, I started to pull my gear out. I got the tripod placed in the spot that I figured would give me the image that I was after. As close as I was shooting, I knew that my normal pano lens wasn’t going to work so I had to go with my standard 24-70mm lens. I was figuring that 50mm would get the job done, but after I got everything put together, I was shooting at 39mm which was a bit wider. I wasn’t thrilled about this since the wide angle end will start to distort the images and make it difficult to stitch them together. I was just going to have to be careful with the overlap in order to make it work, plus the added depth to the scene from shooting a wide angle was going to be nice if I could pull it off.
I got everything set up and did my dry runs to check level of the camera as well as the exposure. It was very bright on the left side since that was the side where the sun was coming up. That was where I dialed in the actual exposure, keeping the histogram all the way to the right without blowing out the highlights. By the time the camera was aimed to the left, the pixels were all registered from the middle values down. I picked a focus point on the furthest rock from the camera knowing that I would get the entire foreground in focus as well as sharp enough focus in the background. I started making series exposures from left to right knowing that the image would brighten as I made the individual exposures. The hope was that by the time I got to the last image it would be a hair brighter and decrease the overall contrast of the scene.
The series went well, and I just had to adjust my position slightly for the next series. I fired off the second of seven images and had 14 frames captured for just two images. I repeated the process as the sun rose and the ground started to get brighter. I didn’t want to miss the best light so I was running through this same series about every three minutes or so. At some point I realized that the sky was getting bright enough to force the exposure into the shadows for the ground. That was not good for my plan as I needed that rock outcropping to show in detail for this to work like I had intended. If I added exposure for that, the sky became grossly overexposed which was equally bad. I had a feelin the best light was still to come so I needed to figure out something to do. I could do a HDR blend and shoot three frames per section of the pano which would cause me to shoot (tapping my foot and carrying the 1) 21 frames for a single image in ever changing light. While that was possible, I knew that a seven image panorama takes about an hour for my old computer to build. I couldn’t imagine what doing an HDR pano would do. I was pretty sure I would have to get a new computer, and possible call the fire department for my existing one if I tried. With that not being an option, I thought about using a grad filter. This is not normally a good idea with panoramas because you can’t position the filter for each shot. However, looking at this scene, the horizon was relatively level and I doubted that I would have any problems. Just in case though, I opted for a soft edge grad for that gradual transition. I went ahead and made it a three stop filter to take a bigger bite out of the exposure on the top part of the image. The filter dropped the histogram greatly and I was able to bring up the shadow detail to where I needed it to be.
I continued making my seven image passes and kept adding many files to my whirring memory cards. I had already passed 100 frames for just a single image. This was ridiculous and by the time I was finished with the pano and the light was gone, I had a total of 156 frames captured from a single spot of the same subject. I felt so bad for my poor camera just sitting there clicking away for so long. That was part of the deal though and I knew that when I shoot a sunrise, I take a lot of images with a given composition in the hopes of getting the lighting right. I just hoped that I had gotten it right here. Adding to that hoe for getting the right light, I was also hoping that I hadn’t botched anything like depth of field, or framing with the image. I don’t do many wide angle panoramas so that made me a little nervous because there was every chance in the world that I would get home and not be able to stitch any of these together which would make the whole morning a waste. Oh yeah, that possibility bothered me. I knew that if I had done my job right I was more than likely going to have an image that I would be happy with, so I was just crossing my fingers.
Before I packed up my gear I looked around to see if there was anything else that I wanted to capture while I was there. The light had all but gone in the East and the South where I had been shooting was getting a little drab as well. There was still a bit of color to the West and I knew that I could use that same rock outcropping as a foreground for a shot in that direction as well. I brought the camera over to that area and started to figure out where best to set up. When I found the location, I figured out that the 24-70mm lens wasn’t quite wide enough to handle my concept. I ran over to my bag and grabbed my 16-35mm lens. I also ditched the grad filter since there was no need for it facing to the West. The light was very even in that direction which would make this much easier to work with.
With the wide angle lens attached, I started making more images, but these were all single frame images. It was odd, I actually felt like I was cheating or just taking the easy way out making single exposures. I altered the composition with each shot in order to try and get the best combination of light and organization for the image. I wasn’t sure how these were going to turn out as the light was fading and I was losing the color that I was seeing. I only made a handful of images here until the sun went behind some clouds and the light went flat. With that, I packed up the camera and made the short hike back to the truck. When I got to the parking lot I looked for other compositions and actually found a good one with a tree next to several picnic benches.
I decided that the sky was just interesting enough try and make some images so I pulled the camera out and went between my 70-200mm lens as well as my 24-70mm trying to get the right framing on the tree. I really liked how it was looking in the image review and thought that this was going to be a really good image when I got it home. I committed to a composition with my 24-70mm lens and waited for the light to change. The sun eventually came out from behind the clouds and lit the ground up which made the tree pop. I thought to myself that this was going to be my favorite image of the day. It was simple and effective, just the way I liked them.
When I got home, after my short morning at Dougton, I looked at the images, all 195 of them. I found the tree picture that was the best and started to process it. I just didn’t like how it was looking at all. The image fell flat on its face and I ultimately discarded it. One of the images that I shot looking West was a good image and worth working out. It is the opening image for this piece and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Those were the simple ones to deal with. When it came to the panos, that was a completely different story. I had to go through and assume what they would look like from the seven individual pictures without building them. I had 22 panoramas captured with six to seven images each. With the computer taking an hour to build a single one, I didn’t have 22 hours to make panos to see if I liked them. Instead, I just looked at the colors and exposure values of the frames and picked out seven that I really liked. Of those seven, I picked out one that captured the colors before sunrise which is what I usually prefer and then one that captured the colors after sunrise. I was most interested in the latter because I had some good sunlight on the ground to counter the sky. After an hour it was ready to work on, but I wanted to get the deeper colors of the earlier series built first. It was the earlier ones that I had been most interested in while in the field and I was excited to get one of those processed.
I started the build process and I could only get it to stitch together in the cylindrical format which worked fine for it. It took another hour to put together and when it was all said and done, I had two panoramas to look at for editing. I started with the earlier one and really liked the blue and magenta hues that were present in the sky. There was plenty of detail in the foreground which was great. I was pretty sure that I had a winner on my hands with this one. I still wanted to see what I could do with the later one which had looked so good after the build of it. When I clicked on that one though, it seemed to be rather blah in comparison to the one that I had just edited. I started to play around with it just to see what I could do with it. In a very short amount of time, I was looking at an image that I thought had so much more potential than the earlier series and I started to forget how that one looked.
I kept working with the this pano from late in the morning and found that it was actually a much stronger image with the sunlight hitting the ground as well as the rocks. It just balanced the image so nicely. Knowing that this was the image that I had gone out here for, I put in the extra time to really dial it in just right for what I was wanting with the image. Each little adjustment that I made improved the image and it was coming together just perfectly. I had thoughts that this was probably going to be one of, if not my absolute favorite panorma that I have shot. Time will tell where it ranks, but for right now, this is a favorite image of mine and it might actually find itself as a canvas on the wall in the bedroom at some point.
Without any further ado, I am pleased to present this newest panorama to my collection.
It is a softer approach to a sunrise than I would generally take, but I think that the soft hues make this image so much better than a high contrast interpretation of the scene. There just isn’t any need for punchy colors here as the story is in the light throughout the image. It took me a while to edit it, but I am really happy with how it came out. I’m also thrilled that I didn’t have to clone out any cows in the making of this image. Thankfully, the cows had no interest in me and they just moved on down the hill on the opposite side to get away from me. Had they not been so accommodating I would not have been able to get this image and that would have been a terrible shame.
I do hope that you enjoyed this quick trek. I was actually back home right around 8am which is about the time I would normally be getting up. Not a bad way to spend the morning and I really enjoyed the quick trek as opposed to the all day affair that I normally make of it. Sometimes, it is just nice to get out in nature for a bit and enjoy a sunrise. My day was complete after that. Now with this part wrapping up at about 4:30pm (just over 12 hours from when I started this morning), I can start planning a portrait shoot that I have scheduled for next week. It will be my first one where I can do a two light setup with all the proper gear. In about a week’s time I will have transitioned from studio work, to decay photography, to landscapes, to people photography. Sometimes it is good to be well versed on many different types of photography. Maybe I’ll get there some day.
Until next time….