Exploring My New Backyard at Sunset

· Reading Time: 21 minutes

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Since it has been quite a while since last we spoke, allow me to introduce myself.  Hi, I’m Greg Kiser, a landscape and decay photographer…

In all seriousness, it has been a while since I last posted here with the move and all.  I really think that I deserve some sort of tech award for being able to get this post out actually.  You see, now that we are in our new house, there is no internet, cable, or phone service as of yet.  Even though we called to get that set up nearly a month before moving in, it turns out that the house was so far away from the nearest utility line that they were going to have to lay around 500 feet of cable to get the house hooked up to service.  While that might not seem like a big deal, there was construction that we had to pay for which took a while to coordinate with their finance division, and then they had 38 days to get the construction done.  As of this typing, they were finally getting the lines underground going to the house.  I’m hoping that means that by early next week I can have some form of communications here.  In the meantime, I have been working completely off of my cell phone which only gets spotty connection upstairs and none at all down in the office.  In order to get this blog entry completed, I had to think outside of the box and I found a place upstairs with good connectivity to my 4G service, and set the phone up as a hotspot.  I then came downstairs and disconnected the Ethernet on the computer and set up the wireless connection.  I had just enough connectivity to get online so here I am.  It does feel good to be writing again, I have to say that.

So, what am I writing about today you ask?  Well, I finally got out for a quick trek, and this is the first official trek from my new home base in Purlear, NC.  With things finally calming down with the move I was able to take a little time and head out with the camera to see if I still remembered where all of the buttons are and how to use them.  Spoiler alert…I was about 80% on the camera, but it was enough to get a few images from the evening.  While I normally like to go out first thing in the morning that was not really a possibility on Wednesday since I had a very important appointment back in Winston to take care of first thing.  That appointment was to take Sierra to get her driver’s license, and shave a few years off of my life due to some added stress of a new driver on her own in the world.  After that, I had to be back at the house for a delivery of the two last pieces of furniture for the living room.  By mid day, I was pretty much done with the have to do’s and I was left with a little bit of extra time to focus on more fun things…like photography.

With a little prodding from Toni I decided to head out around dinner time as the sun was starting the downward journey in earnest.  It felt strange to be loading the camera gear up in the truck with the garage just off of the office.  It was strangely simple and efficient and completely opposite from my normal practice of dragging it through the length of the house from the office to the garage.  This was so simple with a matter of feet from the storage shelf to the hatch of the 4Runner.  With that, I was off.  Well, I had to dodge the construction crew that had their equipment and the bits of our yard on the driveway.  Once I was out on the road, I decided to make the short trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway since I really didn’t know what I wanted to photograph.  The fact that my travel time out there was about 20 minutes versus an hour and a half was something that I was excited about and figured that might spark some creative juices.

Lavender Trail“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard ND Grad

It wasn’t long at all before I was turning onto the Parkway from Hwy 16.  I decided to head South since I had covered North of this intersection on my last trek a month or so ago.  I still wasn’t sure of what my destination was going to be, but I was looking at the sky which had some interesting clouds.  The light wasn’t the best, but I was sure I would find something that caught my eye.  That something came in the form of The Lump Overlook.  I have been here many times over the years and photographed it in several different ways.  This time, I wasn’t all that excited about what I saw, but there was only one other car there and the sky was looking good overhead.  I knew that there were some minimalist compositions available to me here and I figured I could captured the sky using some of those.  I went ahead and parked the truck and grabbed my gear.

Typically, I will go for a composition that includes the fence off of the parking lot, but I wasn’t feeling that kind of composition.  With everything that had been going on, I was looking for something much more simple.  There were two different paths leading to the top of the ridge that interested me.  I pulled out my 16-35mm lens which has a great way of visually lengthening that trail while including more of the sky.  It also allows me to include a more pronounced foreground which adds to the drama of the composition.  Since the sun was to my right, I went ahead and added a polarizer which is not usually a good idea on a wide angle lens, but with the clouds looking as they did I figured that using just a touch of the filter effect would not be noticeable in the blue parts of the sky other than to add a little punch to the clouds.

I started to set up shots and quickly realized that the sky was a little bright for the exposure that I was wanting in the image.  I went into my bag of goodies and pulled out a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad which brought the sky back a bit for more even exposures.  I had started on the trail that was to the right and was getting some decent images, but the balance was off using this particular trail.  When I was satisfied that I had the best that I could get here, I moved to the other trail which was the one that I usually work with.  I found a patch of purple right along the side of the path which I knew would make for a great foreground anchor.  I moved into position and set up the composition that I was wanting.  The balance I was lacking from the other path was found here and I was much happier with the setup of the image.  The sky was also looking really good here as well.  The low sun to the right gave some great shadow effects to really pull the trail out of the field.  I tried vertical and horizontal compositions here until I had what I was pretty sure was the best that I would be able to get.

Into the Never“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I milled around the field for a little while in search of other compositions, but nothing was really jumping out at me.  I could stay here until sunset, but that was still about three hours away and I really didn’t see much use in that.  I decided to go back to the truck and drive on down the road a ways to see what else caught my eye.  As I got back to the parking lot, I gave one last look over the meadow and saw another composition that had developed on the same trail that I had just photographed.  I was going to need a different approach here though.  The wide angle lens was not suited for this one as I was still looking for a simple minimalist composition.  I swapped over to my 70-200mm lens and left just the polarizer on the front of it as the exposure at the top of the ridge was fairly even with the sky.

I started to work out the compositions and began with a vertical one which brought in more of the sky and really accentuated the path.  It was just a little too static though.  By flipping back to a horizontal orientation, I was able to include some tufts of vegetation over to the left of the path that added another diagonal component as well as some balancing elements to the image.  The sky above seemed to mirror the intensity of the elements on the ground and I found a very nice and cohesive composition this way.  The colors were very drab due to the lighting, but I was thinking that it might make a good black and white image with a little coaxing of the tones.  When I got it home later that evening, I was happy to find that my instincts were correct about this one.  It was meant for monochrome and turned out quite nice after the conversion.  I still had my minimalist qualities with the composition, but the added contrast brought a bit of drama to the scene which it really needed.

After I shot this composition I decided that I had better go and find something else to shoot.  I wasn’t exactly back in the swing of things just yet as my inspiration was still on the low end of the scale, but I was hungry for getting that drive back.  I was regaining my focus at least and the landscape was starting to talk to me again.  The further I drove down the road though, the less excited I became.  The clouds were nice overhead, but the lighting was just not great quality for some reason.  I guess this is why I don’t care for this season that much when it comes to photography.  The light is always so harsh until just about 30 minutes before sunset, or 30 minutes after sunrise.  Beyond that, even with clouds, the quality of light is less than stellar for the most part.

Strength in Togetherness“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters

It seemed as though I was driving just to drive at this point, but I kept going.  I passed by the famous Fred and Ethel trees near Blowing Rock and considered photographing them, but thought better of it.  They had been shot so many times by so many different photographers that I didn’t want to add images that I thought would offer nothing new to the trees.  I continued down to Price Lake with the intention of shooting the sunset there.  There is a little alcove by the boats that I like to use in the evenings and thought I might have a good sky for that particular composition.  Well, when I got there, there were people all around the lake, and there were a lot of boats out.  My little alcove was also popping with activity in and out of the water so I didn’t even look into that option any further.  I considered going down to Rough Ridge, but I figured that it would be just as busy there and I would be better off finding something a little less “popular” with the visitors of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I decided that I would take advantage of the harsh sunlight of summer and go back to Fred and Ethel with the intentions of trying some Infrared Photography which I hadn’t done in a couple of months after an initial test of the filter.  I was still not that well versed on IR Photography so I figured that I could use this as an opportunity to learn about it even if I didn’t get a great image out of it.

I arrived back at the trees a short time later and the clouds were starting to clear away.  This would typically be a cause for concern as I love to have the clouds in my images…especially of trees.  It wasn’t that big of a deal this time though.  I went ahead and pulled off the road and grabbed my gear.  Looking at the light as it was, I was prompted to get a couple of “normal” images before I started with the IR stuff.  I always get nervous trying new things and figured I would break the ice doing what I am used to first.  I still wanted to capture this scene differently than I had in the past which meant that I wasn’t going to use my 16-35mm lens which is my standard one for this location.  I still wanted to go wide which left me with the option of using my “go big or go home” Rokinon 14mm prime.  I don’t use this lens much, but when I do it always impresses me.  I fitted it on the camera and used no filters since there are no provisions for filters on that particular lens.  I then started work on where to stand and what to include in my image.  I found a great composition, but sadly the field of view was so wide that my truck was included in it.  had the sky been better, I would have moved it, but I would do better with this composition at a later time with different conditions.  I continued to look for a composition that worked and I finally found one which I really liked.

It involved me standing in the road at the intersection with the camera elevated just above my head aimed down.  There was a rock in the ground that I wanted to use as a foreground anchor which fit perfectly in the lower right of the frame.  The fence that I rarely include made for a nice midground to introduce the trees into the composition.  I carefully placed the camera so that the right tree fell behind a post on the fence to simplify the composition.  It is the little details like that which make for a more cohesive image I think.  The exposure was simple enough as the light was soft for the moment with the sun behind some thin clouds.  It only took a handful of exposures before I was confident that I had what I wanted.  I was actually so happy with this composition that I wished I could have used my IR filter for it.  Sadly, there was no way to mount the filter, so I was going to have to go with another composition for my next foray into IR Photography.

Union of Dreams“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray I-Ray 830, Converted in Lightroom

Recalling the difficulties that I had with the bright spot in the middle of the frame when I used my 16-35mm lens during my evaluation of the filter, I decided not to even bother with that lens even though it was the logical choice for the compositions that I was used to doing.  The lens that worked well was my 24-70mm which I would be able to get relatively wide with.  I went ahead and fitted that lens and started to work out a composition.  I wanted to include the fence in some way with this one so that I had some more elements to add interest and depth since the trees and clouds behind them would be white.  I needed more shadows, and more textures up front to really make this work as an IR Photograph.  It does take a little bit of time to learn to see differently when it comes to this type of photography.  Nothing is based on the visible spectrum of light and you have to imagine the IR spectrum which can’t be seen through the viewfinder of the camera.

Once I was satisfied with my composition that included all that I wanted and excluded the parts that I didn’t want I locked the focus and shifted over to Bulb mode.  I added my shutter remote release and blocked the viewfinder from light before adding my I-Ray 830 filter to the front of the lens which caused the live view to go totally dark as the entire visual spectrum of light was filtered out.  I was shooting blind at this point as I could get no exposure information at all on the light meter.  I had to go with what I had determined would be a good exposure starting point based on my initial tests of the filter.  I boosted the ISO to 800 and set the aperture at f/8 for reasonable sharpness and to maximize the light transmission.  Looking at the light and comparing it to my other IR exposures, I decided to go with a two minute exposure which turned into 121 seconds for this particular image.  At the end of the exposure the LCD popped on with the reviewed image which looked well exposed although very red in color.  It is hard to judge, but it looked good to me and the overexposed center spot which is a characteristic of the camera and not the filter was controlled enough that I felt I could handle it in post processing.

That was my first test shot of the day with this filter and now that I was happy with the exposure I started to try other compositions which were more simple just in case the complex one didn’t turn out as I had intended.  I shot a series of four IR images of Fred and Ethel to be sure that I had something that I liked when I got home.  The exposures were all the same because for that lighting it seemed to work well.  I just adjusted the composition or waited on clouds to move for the subsequent images.  As it turned out, the first test image was the one that I liked the best.  The different elements all came together so well and the fence brought your eyes right into the scene as I intended.  The conversion of the original RAW image was done with a custom profile in Lightroom and then tweaked locally to achieve this final product.  It is a much more solid composition than my one of the graveyard and one that I am quite a bit happier with.  I am still not happy with the grain that is involved with this type of photography, but it is one of the characteristics of the film IR captures so I can’t complain too much about it.  I tried to clean it up in post as best I could, but at a high ISO and a long exposure, I’m going to get noise and then changing the spectrum of light that I am recording also has some negative effects on the clean qualities of an image that I like.  Regardless, I will gladly give this image the seal of success.  I think in time I will come to really like this filter and will use it more and more as I get used to seeing the effect before setting the camera up.

Fenced Sunlight“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

My inspiration was starting to come back and I was feeling my normal level of excitement on this trek finally.  The light was starting to change rapidly and I knew that if I was going to be shooting sunset I was gong to need to find a place to set up pretty quickly.  I don’t have much experience out on the Parkway at the end of the day to know where the best spots are, and that might actually be a good thing since the ones that I do know are always packed with folks.  In fact, as I was driving back North the handful of places I have shot sunsets before were packed.  I wasn’t wanting to deal with that at all, so I started to think outside of the box for this one.  There is a certain tree on the top of a ridge that I have come to be very fond in the last couple of years.  It is between Old 421 and the New 421 and I wasn’t far from it at all.  I was thinking that if I was lucky the sun would be lighting that tree while providing some color in the clouds above.  I had never been here at this particular time of day so I wasn’t sure about that, but I thought that the chances were reasonable at least.  The sky was looking to cooperate with me, so I made my way to that tree.

When I got there, the sun was in the right position for what I was looking for.  The clouds were good behind the tree.  The only problem was the sun had a bunch of clouds around it as well which might block the color, and even if they didn’t, there was a ridge that I felt might also put the tree and fence into shadow when the color happened which would ruin the idea that I had.  Well, I was here and I didn’t have time to find something else so I grabbed the camera and fitted my 70-200mm lens which I knew from experience was the lens of choice for this subject.  I found a good vantage point that avoided the visual obstacles and got the camera set up and a composition dialed in.  The sky was rather boring behind the tree and the light on the tree wasn’t all that great but I fired off shot after shot in hopes that I would have something worth while when I got home.  As I was getting a little discouraged, I could see that the fence was lighting up with the warm tones of the sun and there was a hint of color in the sky.  I corrected the exposure and fired off an exposure just as the sun dipped behind a cloud and put the fence in the shadows once again.  Out of about a dozen images, I had this one where the sunlight hit the fence and the tree.  It was a slim chance but my patience paid off in the end.

I’ll be honest here that the colors in the sky aren’t exactly faithful to the scene.  They are faithful to my interpretation of the scene at the time though.  There isn’t any composting of images here, and this is still just a single image with minimal manipulations done.  There was a hint of warm color in the cloud at the top of the frame which I was excited to capture, but it lacked punch.  By working with the sky as a local adjustment, I was able to shift the color temperatures, and add in some enhancements to the existing hues to bring out the color that I saw in my mind when seeing the scene.  A little more fine tuning with the Split Toning module in Lightroom allowed this image to become a reality.  It was what I had seen in my mind’s eye when that sunlight hit the fence and in that respect this is a faithful representation of the scene.  It is also my favorite image of the day because it is one of those times when my expectation turned out better than the reality of the scene.

Grazing at Dusk“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

Not knowing exactly how that previous image was going to turn out, or if it would turn out at all, I did my normal thing and looked around for another composition that I could shoot to capture the moment of this sunset.  There was a bare tree across the road on the far side of a field that I had often looked at, but never captured.  It was a proud tree and the setting sun was illuminating it against the greens of the live trees in the background.  The sky was moderately interesting, at least enough to consider including it in a composition with the tree.  I moved over a little closer to that section and aimed my 70-200mm lens in that direction.  I tried some horizontal and vertical images of the tree, but nothing really jumped out at me.  It just seemed like a snapshot of the tree and everything else was just incidental around it.  To make matters worse, the grazing cows were coming into the scene and detracted from the tree while limiting compositions.  Wait…maybe matters hadn’t been made worse after all.  The cows were moving slowly, there were three of them, and I could see great potential here as a full on landscape image rather than just a woodland isolation.  I opened the lens up to the wider end of the focal range and framed up a horizontal composition that used the tree as a anchor for the left side of the image rather than the only subject.  I framed the shot so that I had the three cows included at the lower part of the frame and the ridge just beyond as a midground point of interest.  The sky was opening up slightly just above that ridge and that became my background.  All of a sudden, I had all the elements of a successful landscape composition.  I just had to work out the lighting of the whole thing.

The sun was hitting at different intensities as the clouds moved over it so I had to time the image just right for the sun to be lighting up the bare tree.  Of course, that wasn’t the only concern I had.  I had to wait for the cows to pause in their movements as the light was dim at this point forcing a slow shutter speed.  There was a single frame where the light, motion, and composition all came together and that is represented above.  In all fairness though, the color was a lot flatter in reality and the image lacked punch.  I worked with the colors quite a bit on this dusk image to get the separation of tones that I needed for it to really be a success.  The tree is as it appeared with the warm light hitting it, but the greens of the field and the magenta/blue hues of the sky have been massaged in Lightroom to really drive that dusk time frame home.  This is very much a faithful representation of the scene that I saw, but the camera had a hard time reproducing the colors with the mixed lighting as accurately as I would have liked.  There is a lot about this image that I really like.  It is much more subtly lighted than I would normally go for and the colors in the sky are a bit muted for this time of day.  It does however hit an emotional chord with me and I hope that it does with you as well.

That was the end of my evening on the Parkway and it only took me about 25 minutes to get home as opposed to the normal hour and a half from this location.  I think I will really enjoy my new proximity to the Parkway.  I hope that you enjoyed this trek as much as I did.  It was really nice to get back out and start to redirect my focus back to photography once again.  It has been way too long that I have been able to think this creatively for this long of a time.  Thanks so much for being a part of this journey with me, and I am looking forward to my next adventure.

Until next time…

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