Finally Got to Go to Stone Mountain Again

· Reading Time: 19 minutes

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Summer Dome“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The last few weeks have been rather interesting weather-wise.  I have been fighting to get some clouds in the sky for most of the month.  On a recent trip to Sparta, I threw caution to the wind and just hoped for the best.  I had a few clouds, but it was pretty bright most of the day and I had to really work at getting images to work.  I spent a good many days after that just waiting on some good days to go out with the camera and I finally had a good morning with clouds when I could go out and shoot a waterfall before the weather changed on me.  I remember that when I went out there on the 9th the weather forecast was looking really good for the next few weeks with clouds and some rain.  This was perfect for me and I was getting excited about the possibilities that lay ahead.  However, day by day the clouds failed to show up.  Well, that is not completely true.  I had to go to work three days last week after shooting the waterfall and we had great clouds, and even a few picturesque storms in the evenings.  The only problem was I was not able to take advantage of them at all.  On the days that I was off at the end of the week, those clouds were nowhere to be found. Even through the weekend there was nothing at all in the forecast that I could use for landscapes.

I did decide to embrace the bright sun and shoot some high contrast cityscapes over the weekend which actually was a lot of fun, but I missed my connection with nature while trolling around downtown.  It was a great exercise for me, but I had been wanting to go to either Hanging Rock, or Stone Mountain to get some Summer images from parks nearby for some time now.  The weather just wasn’t working with me at all.  As Monday was coming to a close, I was looking at the weather and I was finally seeing a good cloud cover with mostly high clouds along with a few medium and low level clouds mixed in for texture.  This was what I had been wanting.  The rain was supposed to start earlier at Stone Mountain than at Hanging Rock, but the lower clouds were going to be more prevalent at Stone Mountain.  I set myself up for “Plan A” including a trip to Stone Mountain and hiking the main loop trail which was closed off last year due to some damage to the trail.  On the off chance I got there and the clouds were not favorable, I would go low in the park and work woodland subjects and possibly waterfalls.  My “Plan B” was to go to Hanging Rock and concentrate on the waterfalls which would like be swollen from the strong storms that had moved through the area very late in the day.  These storms would always happen right around sunset and be here and gone so quick that I wasn’t able to do much with them.  There was a lot of rain that fell from them which would help the waterfalls.

I had my game plan all set and it was time for Toni and I to turn in for the night.  I was going to get plenty of sleep to be able to be up at 5am so that I could be at the gates of the park right at 7am.  I laid my head on the pillow and heard some thunder in the distance.  It didn’t bother me, we were just getting another one of our evening storms.  However, the thunder got louder and louder and the lighting was starting to really get bright in the room.  I though that it would be over soon.  Hah!!  I was wrong.  This storm kept Toni and me up till after 3am.  It also kept Sierra up who can quite literally sleep through an atomic bomb.  To make matters worse, we lost power shortly after midnight.  It was turning into a very long night!  We did finally get to sleep in a house with no air conditioning or power, only to be woken up at 4am with the power coming back on.  I remember thinking to myself that my alarm was going to be ringing very soon and I should probably just go ahead and get up to see if the weather had changed any for the morning.

Well, the next thing I realized was my alarm was ringing.  Not the one that I had set for going out.  This was my normal go to work alarm, and it wasn’t even the first one.  It was my failsafe alarm.  I had turned the others off in my sleep apparently.  I was getting up a full hour later than planned.  This was not going well already.  Add to that I was very sleepy.  Toni hadn’t even gotten up to go to the gym for the same reasons that I had overslept.  What a rough night!  But we had power and there was no reason why I couldn’t get up and head to the mountains as planned.  The weather was still showing a good mix of clouds at Stone Mountain, and it looked like “Plan A” was on!

Stone Mountain Slumber“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, 12 Images stitched together in Lightroom

It didn’t take long to get ready and I was on my way to Roaring Gap, NC to do the first reconnaissance of the park that I am planning to have my Fall Workshop in October.  I was going to do this one a little different than normal since the upper trail was open now.  Normally, I park down at the lower trail head and do all the hiking from there.  This time, since I was running late, I decided to cheat a little bit and park at the upper lot to save some time on the hike.  All the way there the weather was playing games.  When I left, the sky was clear and boring.  By the time I got to Yadkinville, the clouds were thick and featureless.  Suddenly they cleared again as I was getting onto I-77.  There was no way I was going to be able to plan how the shoot was going to go with this sky constantly changing.  The closer I got the more texture I was starting to see in the clouds, and also the more dense patches I went through.

Upon my arrival at the park, I was the first and only car in the upper lot.  This was a good sign as it has been a while since I’ve hiked this park during the workweek.  I grabbed my Lowepro Whistler backpack and started on my way to get on the Stone Mountain Loop Trail.  The clouds seemed to lack texture, but with the way things were changing I figured it was safe to take my chances.  I really wasn’t wanting to shoot waterfalls today anyway, and Stone Mountain only has the one good one which I have recently shot.  The hike was about a mile and a half from this parking lot to get to the actual top of Stone Mountain.  I also remember that there were some good vantage points along the way which I intended to stop at.  The last time I was on this trail was quite a few years ago and Toni had come with me.  I remember she made friends with several Granddaddy Long Leg Spiders (she’s an arachnophobe so you can image how that went).  It was in the fall and there was a great deal of color across the rolling hills.  I didn’t expect the same color today, but I was excited to see what the sky might do for me during my visit.

I finally reached a point in the hike where I saw some compositions developing.  The sun was to my back which wasn’t a bad thing at all.  It was lighting the landscape up and the clouds were still rather moody above.  This was looking like it was going to be a good morning.  I went ahead and found a good composition and set my Manfrotto Tripod up where I intended to shoot from.  I attached the Canon 5D to it and added my 16-35mm lens so that I could get some sweeping landscapes behind a tree I was going to use for a foreground.  Since there had been some heavy rains recently, I wanted to remove the glare from the vegetation so I needed to add my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to the mix.  It really didn’t do much, but while the sun was out it did help to cut down on the glare.

I was able to get the composition set up the way I wanted it and started to play the waiting game for when the sun would hit the tree that I had in the foreground.  It managed to light it up a couple of times so that I could get some different versions of the composition.  The sky was still quite hazy and the clouds were very soft in their textures.  I wasn’t sure quite how this was going to turn out, but I was hopeful that I was going to get something that I could work with.  While I was shooting this single view, I was watching the clouds change all around me and was trying to figure out if there was a better composition I could be shooting.  As it turned out, there was a panorama waiting to be captured sweeping the width of the view that I was seeing.  The clouds were starting to look right for it, so after I finished up with the starting composition, I moved my rig over to another location for a clear shot.

Misty Mountain Memories“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

For the panorama, I needed to switch out my lenses and I decided to go with my 70-200mm lens set at 70mm which gives a nice perspective for panoramas.  I kept the polarizer attached, but only dialed in a little of the effect since I was going to be sweeping such a large distance.  I got my tripod all leveled and then double checked that my Acratech GP-S Ballhead was leveled out as well.  I set my focus, and then did an exposure sweep to make sure that the histogram looked good.  I then set the camera on the far left point I wanted to capture and started to work my way across the scene.  I shot a total of 12 images for this that were later stitched together in Lightroom to form one huge image file.  Just to be sure that it all went smoothly, I shot the same series again with slightly different light to see if I could do any better.  As it turned out, I used the original image series and trashed the second one.

Now with my long lens attached I started to pick out bits of the landscape that interested me.  Mostly, I was interested in the clouds and how they were wicking up from the valley below.  There were also a few balds that really caught my attention that I wanted to capture.  In the image directly above, I frame up a composition that showcased the main bald that I was seeing right below the peak of the range behind it.  The mountains trailed off to the left with a thick cloud rising into the sky.  The sky was interesting, but not terribly so which caused me to add a Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad to the mix.  This allowed me to get a little more bite to the sky which it needed.  I was figuring that I would end up converting this into a monochrome image when I got home and I shot it as such.  The conversion went well, but I wasn’t sure if I actually liked the image or not so I asked Toni what her opinion was.  She said that she liked it, and up until now she hasn’t been wrong when I’ve asked her permission.  I continued on with the conversion and ended up with the final image here which I do like.  I like it more knowing that it has Toni’s seal of approval though.

Anyway, back to the hike.  I was starting to feel like I had hit all of the compositions that I really wanted to try from this location and I wanted to actually get out to the top of Stone Mountain before the rain hit around noon.  I packed all my gear up and started back on the hike.  I still had about another half to 3/4 of a mile left before I got to the summit.  The hike went well, but there was a bunch of climbing involved to get there.  Very few stairs which was nice to my knees though.  My smartwatch informed me that by the time I had gotten to the top, I had climbed 38 floors in around 5000 steps.  I’m not going to lie, I was impressed with that!

North Carolina Views“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Once at the summit, I was really happy to see that the clouds were starting to get a little more sporadic showing some of the blue sky above.  The landscape up here was pretty much bare granite which I have always been fascinated by.  The potholes were all filled with water which made for an even more interesting appearance and gave me many options for foreground interest since the views in the distance were all just kind of green and boring.  I found a nice little mound down the hill a little from the summit.  I decided that I would make use of this location for my first set of shots.  I also knew that I wanted to go wide here so I just went all out.  I pulled out my 14mm prime lens by Rokinon (the only non-L glass in my bag) and added that to the camera body.  This manual lens is the widest glass that I have and is super sharp and full of contrast.  The only downfall is I can’t add any filters to it.  I had decided that my Polarizer really wasn’t doing much for me with the existing conditions, so I really didn’t mind leaving it off for a bit.

I found my composition and got everything set up.  I was going to use a sump in the lower corner as an anchor and some of the pot holes as elements leading your eyes into the distance.  The mountains in the distance were not all that important, but I wanted to capture the sky which was absolutely amazing.  By getting down low, I was able to get a dramatic view of a relatively bland landscape which is the magic of this particular lens.  The lens also did a great job of capturing the textures in the rock which were an integral part of the story for me as well.  I don’t use this lens much, but when I do, I am always impressed with it.  I still can’t believe that it was only like $250 which is dirt cheap for glass of this caliber.

Confidence“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8

Having bit bitten by the wide angle bug, I set about finding other compositions where I could make use of this lens while I had it on the camera.  There was a single tree sitting on the rocks that I had seen coming out onto the summit that interested me.  I started looking for ways that I could capture it, and found that by going up the steep grade from the tree a bit and shooting down into the valley, I would be able to get the most interesting sky as well as a distant bald which added to the visual interest.  I got the camera down very low to the ground and worked on how far I needed to be from the tree.  Now, just to keep our eyes in check with this image, the tree only stood about 15 feet tall or.  It really wasn’t all that big, but the Rokinon has a way of making foreground much larger than they really appear.  The trick now was to find the exact height that I needed to shot this image from.  There were branches that I didn’t want breaking the horizon, and a large bundle of leaves that I wanted to keep low to minimize the impact of that cluster.  I wanted the tree to point to the balds in the distance, all the while putting the clearing clouds on top of the tree.  I was asking a lot of the composition, but I am very happy to report that I got all of my wishes granted with the position that I found.

I only needed to shoot one frame here because when the LCD popped up I knew I had it in the bag.  It looked a little funky in the native 3:2 ratio of the camera, but I knew I was going to crop it down to at least a 5×7 if not a 4×5.  It wasn’t that long ago I remember saying that I refused to crop an image unless I just absolutely had to.  I still don’t like cropping and throwing away pixels, but I have decided that many of my compositions benefit greatly from a different crop.  Vertical images for example look very long when kept in the native format from the camera.  By cropping the length, I seem to always end up with a more pleasing image.  Same can be said of horizontal images at times.  They can benefit from  16×10 or 16×9 crop to accentuate a grand vista which I have started doing from time to time.  I guess I am now seeing the compositional benefits from cropping images and have been using it as a creative choice much more than I ever have in the past.

Weather Worn Textures“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

While I was having a lot of fun with the Rokinon, it really is a limited use lens at such a wide angle and being a prime.  I decided that it was probably time to swap out my glass to something a little more flexible.  Thinking that I was wanting to do a variety of compositions up here, I opted for my 24-70mm lens which is a great all around piece of kit.  Using this lens also meant that I was going to use every one of my lenses on this trek which is kind of a cool thing to have happen for me.  With the sun getting higher in the sky, the contrasts were getting kind of difficult to manage so I was going to need to calm the sky down a bit.  That was easy enough to do using the Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad.  I didn’t add the polarizer this time because I just wasn’t really seeing a need.  The exposures were coming out just fine with no polarization and I was wanting a bit of glare in the puddles I was shooting at this point.  I went around to different locations and shot a variety of compositions.  There was a lot of interest up here on the summit, but the light wasn’t really directional enough to make it overly fascinating.  The clouds were still looking great though and that was what I was here to work with.

Like in the situation earlier in the day, I started shooting with black and white in mind to capture the textures.  The colors were not really making that much impact at this point.  There was the granite bald that I was standing on, the green trees on the rolling hills, and the blueish tinted clouds above.  Not much in the way of color balance, so I figured I would just elect to have no color at all.  I shot probably five different compositions and the only one that I really liked on any level was this one above when I got home.  It wasn’t a particularly strong image, but I did like the different textures that were involved in the layers through the image.  It has merit, but I don’t expect it to make an appearance in the gallery at any point.

Those Rolling Hills“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad

When I realized that I was starting to shoot just to shoot, I packed up my gear and moved on the next location.  Well, I went hiking to see if there was a next location.  I ultimately ended up on the other side of the summit and found another bald where I could go out and find something.  My first thought here was that there was really nothing to use as a foreground interest and I almost turned back to the trail.  However, I could see a place where there was a good amount of grass growing up through the rocks over in the corner.  It wasn’t much, but it was something that I could use.  I went over to it and started to look for compositions.  The sky was good in the best direction over the mountain range in the distance.  I wanted to keep as much of those rolling hills in the view as possible while making the tuft of grass stand out as well as possible.  I was going to need to go wide.  I thought about the Rokinon, but I could tell that the sky was going to need a little help from an ND Grad which I couldn’t use on the 14mm.  So, I opted to pull out my 16-35mm lens which is almost as wide.  To this, I added my Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad which pulled the sky down perfectly.

I started to fine tune the composition.  I wanted the taller pieces of grass to cross the edge of the granite because I wanted there to be a connection between the layers in the composition and help the eyes move into the midground mountains.  I also wanted to make sure that I kept a diagonal look to the grass for a bit of visual drama and to keep the composition from looking static.  There is a lot that goes into a composition for something as simple as a landscape huh?  I found the angles that I wanted and dialed in the exposure.  The ND Grad did the trick and even showed the division of the gray cloud as it was passing overhead.

With this image, I was essentially done with this location and decided that I was getting tired after very little sleep.  It was time to head back to the car and head home to get the images processed so that I could get to bed at a decent hour.  It was a work night after all.  It had been a great day with a few images over 100 in the bag.  24 of them were for the panorama so I still had another 75 or so to work through.  The final count for the day turned out to be seven keepers which was a couple more than I was expecting from the trip.  It turned out to be a good day and it was nice to get back out and shoot some landscape photos once again.  I also had a great opportunity to scope out one of the trails that might be featured in the Fall Workshop depending on the weather.   As always, if you see anything here that you want a print of, please let me know.  I would love to work with you to match you with the perfect wall art for your home or office!

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