Finding Color at 5500 Feet

· Reading Time: 25 minutes

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Way of Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

If you have been following my recent adventures, you have probably been wondering why I haven’t been capturing the Fall color in the NC mountains this month.  So far, I have only been up to Rough Ridge for a couple of hours last week.  It was during this trip that I learned just how far behind the leaves are this year with the weather conditions that we have been facing.  This is normally one of the first places to change each year, but the color was just barely showing when I was there.  I mentioned that if I had the time, I would have gone to Mt Mitchell since that is the highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway because if anything was going to be showing color it would be there.  Well, as luck would have it, I had the time on Tuesday to venture out there since Toni and Sierra were going on a little road trip overnight.  Since I was going to be all alone, I decided to see what the weather was going to be doing.  The morning was going to be bright and sunny which I didn’t like at all.  However, according to my “Clear Outside” app, there were going to be high clouds coming into the mountains around noon.  It wasn’t the best scenario as I like a mix of mid level and high altitude clouds for mountain landscapes.  To add to the gamble, the percentages were actually really high which could possibly mean a complete overcast and very flat lighting.

I weighed my options and decided that with the recent cold front that has moved through the leaves should be picking up some color finally and I needed to get out there and capture it, or risk turning in my Landscape Photographer Badge.  Really, I have one, and I wear it on my shirt.  The question was now, where to go.  I had been keeping up with the change of colors as reported by other visitors to the Parkway and knew that Graveyard Fields would be looking pretty good right now.  The problem I had with that location was the crowds that would be there by mid day.  Even on a weekday during the Fall, that place gets crowded after about 10am.  I didn’t like dealing with the crowds, and wasn’t looking to throw myself into a bunch of people for the sake of some pictures.  Rough Ridge, probably wasn’t much better off than it was on Friday, so that left me with one option.  I was going to go to Mt Mitchell in search of color.  If I couldn’t find it at 6500 feet, there was a problem.

The plan was to take the morning easy and prepare for the long road trip (nearly 3 hours away) and massive climb up the mountain.  I did my social media posting and thought about some different views that I had seen around Mt Mitchell for most of the morning.  I had only been in the park once, and that was years ago long after the Fall color had gone.  I knew of a few overlooks out that way, but wasn’t overly familiar with them.  The furthest South I normally go is in the Pisgah National Forest, so I am just not as familiar with this end as I should be.  I just knew that the elevation would help me out significantly.  Since my intention was to be out there until after sunset, I actually packed a lunch and prepared to eat in the field.  Those that do workshops with me know that I don’t normally eat so this was a slightly different way of doing business for me.  I felt like such a big boy packing my lunch box before going to work.

Pining for Fall“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

I ended up leaving the house around 10:30 or so which was so odd.  The sky was clear for the most part and the sun was bright.  What was I doing going to the mountains?  I just had to trust that the weather conditions would work out for me, so headed West.  Traffic was a lot heavier than it normally is when I go to the mountains for photography.  Granted, I am normally leaving long before most people are awake.  This almost felt like cheating leaving for work this late in the day, but it was nice not having to wake up in the middle of the night.  The trip was uneventful and I arrived in the mountains shortly after lunch.  I started the long climb up to the tallest peak on the Parkway.  I noted that the colors were very green and they were not looking promising at all.  When I got to around 4500 feet, I could see the beginnings of color and that gave me hope.  At 5500 feet, things were really popping with yellows and oranges.  This was more like it!  At 6000 feet, inside Mt Mitchell, the color was gone.  By the time I got up to the top, there was nothing but pine trees, and dead trees.  Looking around, I don’t think that there were that many trees that would have changed color.  I decided to continue up to the summit to see if there was anything work shooting looking down from the peak.  When I got to the summit, it was bumper to bumper which was a huge turn off for me.  I slowly followed the train of cars through the parking lot, glancing over the sides.  There was nothing for me to shoot up here, so I worked my way back down the mountain.

I started to get into the color near the base of the road just before re-entering the Blue Ridge Parkway.  As I rounded a corner the view kind of caught me off guard.  The road was twisting through a nice patch of color with a dominant pine tree right at the apex.  I slowed and considered my options here.  There was a composition, but I wasn’t sure of it right away.  I backed up and pulled off the road to get out and ponder the composition a bit more.  I liked what I was seeing, but needed to formulate how I would organize the scene.  Since I was getting hungry, I decided now would be a good time to grab one of the wraps that I had made.  As I chewed, I studied the scene.  By the time I was finished with my lunch, I had a goo idea how I wanted to capture this view.

I went into my Lowepro Bag and grabbed my camera along with a 16-35mm lens.  To that, I attached the Lee Filter Holder and added a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to help saturate the colors of the leaves.  I worked on finding the right location to put the Manfrotto tripod so that the scene was organized exactly as I wanted it to be.  This took some doing because I wanted to include just enough of the trees to the left to make sense in the image without having them be too prominent.  The other consideration was that I wanted to have a colorful tree as a lead in on the right hand side.  By the time I got my position worked out, I realized that I had a problem.  The sky was very dominant in the scene and it was mostly white with clouds.  There was some movement in the clouds so I decided to wait for a break to appear.  In the meantime, I went back to my bag and grabbed a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad which I added behind the Polarizer.  I couldn’t have too much filter effect because the trees were going well above the horizon line.  I needed a gradual transition for the effect to work.  This was one of those times when I would have rather shot an HDR series and blended them when I got home.  The wind was keeping that from happening though.  There was no way I would be able to get several images stacked with the trees blowing as much as they were.  In fact, I wasn’t even able to shoot this at my lowest ISO.  I had to boost it to 200 just to freeze the branches and leaves for a single shot.

Bespeckled Hills“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

It took a while to get the image right, but after about 15 attempts at some different compositions, I finally had one that I was happy with.  The sky made it difficult for me the entire time, and I didn’t really get the sunlight that I was hoping for, but it all worked out well, and this actually represented on of my favorite images from the day.  With that in the bag, it was time to head on back down to the Parkway and start finding other leaves to photograph.  As soon as I exited the park, I came to an overlook on the left side which caught my eye.  The hills in the distance had some early color and the foreground was quite colorful.  I decided to pull off and see what I could do with this scene.

It was a little bit complex and my first thought was to shoot it as a panorama, but I didn’t like how everything lined up for that.  I was liking two different views here more than the overall, so I started to work on the individual compositions.  For this, I decided to go with my standard lens and just a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad to take a bit of the bite out of the sky. I didn’t use a Polarizer for this since the sun was pretty much non-existent in the scene and I didn’t see any effect from it looking through the filter.  Both of the shots that I was taking would be very straightforward and simple to capture.  I would have liked for this to have been a bit brighter, but the clouds that I had been so excited about were actually not doing the overall lighting any favors today.  I didn’t have any harsh lighting, but there was also not much light to bring in color either.  Fall is a tricky time of year to shoot landscapes.  You want some light on the colors of the trees, but not so much that you create blown out highlights.  I definitely didn’t have too much light here, but I was happy that I was getting some color for a change.  I forgot how much I missed the different hues of the landscape through the summer months.

I stayed here for a while and tried some different isolations as well as a few road shots, but none of them were particularly interesting.  I did do an isolation on a really cool tree that you can see in the image directly above, but I screwed that up.  I shot only a single image of it, not knowing how it would turn out.  In hindsight, I should have shot a backup version because there was some subtle camera shake in the image.  I don’t know where that came from, but I assume my hand lingered on the shutter button a little too long into the 2 second timer.  Whatever happened, it was blurry and I couldn’t have that in my collection.  Sadly, it was tossed.  After working this area for a while, I decided that I needed to explore some other locations and see if there was more color to find.

The Final Stretch“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

I wasn’t driving for very long and I found another overlook that caught my eye.  The color was very patchy here and wasn’t the primary reason for stopping.  There were a few dead trees situated down in the valley below that caught my eye.  They were surrounded by mostly greet trees with an occasional burst of color.  The only real color here was on the opposite side of the Parkway along the shoulder.  As I got out of the truck, I took note that the sun was being covered by the clouds, but it was trying to burn through.  That would hopefully shine a bit of light on the landscape for me to use.  In the meantime, the sky was looking really cool with the sun directly behind it.  It was muting the light enough to where I thought that I could get a shot of the color on the other side of the road.  I went ahead and grabbed the camera along with a 16-35mm lens which would give me a lot of the sky in the frame which was what I was wanting.  I decided to not bother with any filters as the scene was actually very evenly lit with the thick clouds.  I set my Manfrotto tripod up right on the light between the parking area and the Parkway.  I really hoped that nobody would run me over, but I did set the shot up quickly.  It was straightforward and only took a single exposure to make.  Looking at the histogram, I had all the data needed without needing to add any filters.  It was time to get out of the road before I got run over.

Now it was time to set my sights on the actual overlook to see what I could come up with.  What I wanted was the three trees that were down in the valley which stuck out so well since the bark was very light.  There wasn’t much color, but there was a tree that was slightly yellow to the left.  I wasn’t sure if it would be enough to make the image work, but I wanted to find a composition that included both of those elements.  I swapped out to a 24-70mm lens for this composition and added a Singh-Ray 3-stop soft edge ND Grad to pull down some of the sky.  The idea was to go ahead and add a bit of drama to the sky with the filter knowing that it would be very dark at the top of the frame and then gradually reducing the exposure right at the horizon.  I was looking pretty good in the camera, but the way that the lighting was working for me, the bit of color in the trees wasn’t really showing up at all.  I actually decided while I was shooting this that it would probably end up being a black and white image.  I could see the contrast working to my advantage with this scene.

Moody Valley“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I waited for the light to change, but it never really did.  There was very little color to work with in this image, but when I got it home I really did like it as a black and white image.  The trees provided just the right amount of foreground interest and the valley pulled your eyes right to the horizon and the distant mountains.  Of course, there were textures galore with the different trees and the clouds.  Funny how I came out to the mountains to get color in the trees and ended up shooting a black and white image.  You just have to go with what is presented to you some times.  Since the light wasn’t even trying to change, I decided that my time would be better spent trying to find some more color, or at least some different compositions.  I loaded everything back up in the truck and got back on the road in search for some more color.

As I was driving along, I passed an overlook that didn’t look all that promising at all.  However, as I passed it by, I could see over my shoulder that the sun was hitting a grove of trees on the top of a ridge.  That grove of trees was very much golden and really caught my eye.  Not wanting to waste the light, I pulled off the road really quick and grabbed my camera to get set up.  It was looking like a simple exposure so I grabbed my 24-70mm lens and found a good vantage point to shoot the scene from.  As I was getting the image dialed in, I could tell that the sky was going to be an exposure problem.  I ran back to the truck and grabbed the Lee Filter Holder and a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard edge ND Grad.  That did the trick and brought the exposure down to where I needed it to be on the histogram.

The First Kiss of Color“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

The processing of this image was all about highlighting the cool and warm tones.  The sun was just hitting the foreground mountain while the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains went into shadow and a cooler color tone.  The sky above was moody, and amplified by the use of the ND Grad which I liked.  There were just a few white clouds in the distance that were quite a bit lower than the primary overcast.  All of that worked together to give some subtle details to the background since the main point of the photograph was the small sliver of color at the bottom of the frame.  it was a simple image, but I thought it was effective at telling the story of Fall in the mountains.

I stuck around this overlook for a while shooting both side of it with limited success.  The lighting was good, but the sky was not fantastic which kind of killed it for me.  I spent my time waiting for the sun to hit areas that I was interested in and that occasionally happened.  I actually got a fair amount of images from this location, but I didn’t like how most of them turned out.  Sometimes that is how it goes with landscapes.  For an image to actually work, you need a composition which is aided by the light, all while falling under a sky that is interesting.  These three elements need to fall in place together at the same time to some extent.  If they don’t, two of the three elements won’t make a successful photograph.  I was having a hard time putting those three elements together at this location, and when I realized that was the case I decided it was time to move on and find something else that would be more productive.

Photo Runner“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

I was mostly out of the color when I found my next overlook.  This one was a very simple one with a single tree that caught my eye.  No, it was not the famous tree that was struck by lightening.  This was just a regular tree all by itself that I could see using my superwide lens on.  I pulled off and parked in the grass beside the driveway of the overlook.  There was a family already there and they were taking some pictures by the tree.  While they were occupying that area, I just kind of loosely examined the scene and started to consider how I could shoot the scene I had in mind.  The tree was rooted well below the overlook so I wasn’t going to be able to capture the base of it like I was hoping for.  The slope that it was on was very steep and full of vegetation which would distract from the image.  I was pretty sure that this wasn’t going to work out, but I wanted to keep considering it for a while.

As I was pondering, I decided to see if I could get anything with the sky since it was looking really interesting.  I grabbed my gear and fitted the standard lens to the camera to give me a greater deal of flexibility with my compositions.  Since the sky was a good deal brighter than the landscape, I added a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad to bring the exposure down just a little bit.  That did the trick and I was starting to capture images.  I wasn’t particularly happy with what I was getting and the closer I got to compositions that I liked, the move the compositions fell apart.  There was just nothing interesting to put under the sky and that was frustrating.  I was looking behind me at the trees on the other side of the Parkway and saw that there was a bit of color in them, and there was some rocky surfaces behind the trees.  I started to mover over there to see what I could do with some Fall abstracts potentially.  I had a few that I thought would work out, but in the end, there was just no flow to the compositions so they were trashed.  However, while I was putting my attention on that side, I couldn’t help but notice my 4Runner sitting there as a proper anchor element to a scene.  This is by no means one of my decay subjects, but I enjoy all types of automotive photography when it comes right down to it.  I had the camera out, and it was set up to be able to take this shot, so why not give it a try?  I got into position and framed up the shot to include the backdrop of trees as well as the sky which was looking amazing in that direction.  I only needed a single exposure to get one that I was happy with.  Things flow so much better with vehicles sometimes.  But this was not what I would consider a marketable image for my purposes, so I didn’t turn this into a full on photoshoot of my truck.  However, it doesn’t hurt to throw the idea out there if anyone would like me to photograph their vehicles, that is right up my alley and I would be happy to work with you on that project.

The family did get rolling shortly after I did my version of an automotive portrait which left me able to work the single tree that I had stopped to photograph in the first place.  I looked at the scene again and decided that my best bet was to go wide so that I could get the sky in the frame.  My intention was to get in close, shoot vertical, and make it a very dramatic composition.  For that to really work, I needed to go with my Rokinon 14mm lens which was the widest that I had.  It is a prime lens, so that meant that I was going to be shuffling forward and backward until I got it right.  I was able to finally get the composition right and I got the exposure made which was a little difficult with the high exposure latitude and a manual aperture lens.  It tends to throw off the live view and I end up having to work with the light meter in the viewfinder which isn’t nearly as accurate as a histogram.  Regardless, I got the image that I was after.  The only problem was, it wasn’t a good image.  It was very much post cardish and lacked any real visual tension to it.  I didn’t like the dark landscape with the bright sky and basically just a silhouette of the tree.  It wasn’t good, no matter how I looked at it.  I just didn’t want to give up on the tree just yet.

I went back to the drawing board for the image and decided that I would embrace the high contrast of the scene and shoot it in black and white.  I would also go with a horizontal composition to include the sky and more of the mountains in the background.  I would go with a very moody appearance and emphasize the long tree.  I had the right lens on the camera for the job, but I was going to have to be very careful with the exposure since there are no provisions for filters on this lens.  I was going to have to shoot the scene without any help from Singh-Ray.

Forsaken“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I knew that this would be a post processing image.  This is not to say that I needed to fix anything with it.  In fact, I was very happy with the exposure in the camera.  I had nothing blown out in the highlights and nothing was bunched up in the shadows.  There was a good spread of tones throughout the image.  What I am referring to is the look that I was going for.  I wanted to really deepen the mood of the scene and I knew that I would be bringing down the blacks and boosting the whites for a very high contrast scene.  This is the difference between “fixing” something in post and using post processing to fulfill your original vision of the image.  When I got the image into Lightroom, I immediately converted it to monochrome.  I have no idea how it would have looked in color and quite frankly I didn’t care.  I knew how I wanted this image to look and as I started to work the image bit by bit, I was seeing the scene unfold just like I was imagining it would.  It is a powerful thing knowing what you are capable of in the processing stage because it allows you to capture images that many would pass by.  Here I had a very dramatic scene from a fairly poorly lit location using a bit of interest in the sky along with a single tree.  This is one of my favorite images from the day, and I would actually really enjoy doing a print of this one.

I was looking at the time, and there was only about an hour before sunset.  I had to decide if this was going to be the location that I wanted to be for sunset or if I wanted to venture out to find something else.  Looking around and seeing where the light was, I was not seeing much in the way of a good composition for sunset.  I decided it was better to go into the unknown to find something hopefully better.  I loaded everything up and set my course North on the Parkway.  I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but I kept looking to the West to see if there was anything that stood out.  I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any color because the clouds were still very thick and they were likely going to snuff out any color.  However, since I was here, I might as well give it a go.  Overlook after overlook passed by and I wasn’t impressed with any of them.  There was still a bit of color to be had in the trees from time to time, but with the fading light, I wasn’t worried about capturing that anymore.  I wanted something for sunset.

As I came up to Gooch Gap, I remembered a little barn tucked off the road that I had shot a couple of years ago.  I remembered the sky that was above the barn nestled between a hill and a tall tree.  I was’t sure the direction of the sky, but it was worth a look.  I pulled off the road and could see the barn on the other side of the trees.  I couldn’t tell where the sun was, but I could already see some very wonderful color developing in the sky above the barn.  The light was soft and I was pretty sure that I was going to be able to make an image here.  I parked and grabbed my gear.

The barn is situated along a gravel driveway that is fenced on both sides with barbed wire.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to adjust the composition too much from side to side, I could only work front to back along the fence.  I set the Manfrotto up so that two of the legs were poking through the barbed wire to get me as close as possible to the driveway which was going to be using as a leading line.  I fit my standard 24-70mm lens because that gave me all the range I needed for the composition.  Since there was a tin roof on the barn I added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to reduce the glare.  It wasn’t doing much with the colors of the vegetation, but I could at least have it affect the barn a little bit.  I got the scene composed the way I wanted it and dialed in the focus and the exposure.  I immediately noticed that the sky was casing me to underexpose the barn as well as the colorful trees on the left side of the frame.  I was going to need to do something to bring the exposure back in line so that everything showed up.  My first thought was an ND Grad, but that would be very difficult to use here.  I would essentially have to tilt it and cause the tree to the right go go dark in order to bring the sky back and keep the exposure right on the colorful trees and the barn.  Since there was no wind, I would ultimately do that, but I considered doing an HDR series first.  Unlike earlier in the day, the wind was no longer blowing, so I could stack images with no problem and blend them easily.  For this type of scene, blending is the best way to capture the right exposure, so I gave that a try.

Cozy Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, 3 image HDR blend in Lightroom

The exposure latitude wasn’t crazy or anything so I didn’t need any more than three images merged together at a stop difference each.  Between the very flat image that was popping up on my image review and the fact that I was shooting an HDR image I had no idea how this was going to turn out.  I just knew that the scene in front of me was absolutely beautiful.  Just in case it didn’t work out, I grabbed the ND Grad and slid it into the Lee Filter Holder and reluctantly darkened the tree to the right.  I shot quite a few of images with this setup as the light changed.  I changed up my composition from time to time to take advantage of the colors in the sky as well.  I shot a bunch of images of this old barn because I really believed that it would be special.  The colors on the distant trees just popped against the muted colors of the cabin.  The gravel driveway was a great framing element and leading line while the fence posts provided the perfect balance to the barn.  The real star was the sky, and that was what I wanted to capture most of all which was why I did so many exposures here.  The color and the lighting kept changing.

In the end, I actually liked the HDR image the best, even though the sky got better as the sun went down.  The light that the sun was producing on the scene early on was much better to highlight the trees and provide the soft warm light for the barn.  The overall image was just very satisfactory with the HDR, plus the tree on the right never went into shadow.  At 10 past sunset, I could tell that the light was done and that meant that I was needing to get home.  I packed all my gear up and loaded the truck before making my way back East.  It took until just before 10pm to get home.  I had been gone for 11 and a half hours for some Fall images.  I just had no idea if any of them would work out.  I had shot a total of 173 frames for the day with most of that capturing subtle differences in the light.  I knew I would have nowhere near 17 images from today, but if I could just get a handful of good ones, I would be happy.  After two hours of work when I got home, and another three when I got up the next morning, I had a total of nine images that I felt were strong enough to be keepers from the day.  One of which, of the 4Runner, shouldn’t be counted, but I like the image and it showcases another service that I do offer.  If you would like your ride photographed in my style, let me know.  I would love to work something out with you!  Also, if you like any of these images enough to bring into your home, I would be honored to help match you up with a signed print.

I do hope you enjoyed this trek.  It was a fun day, but very busy.  I think I got a good amount of new images that captured the feeling of the season in the mountains.  There will still be more color to come, and I am gearing up now for my Fall Foliage Workshop at Stone Mountain State Park at the end of next week.  There are still spots available, so if you would like to join me, just drop by here for more information.  The color may not be at peak yet, but it should be a fun day regardless.  Lots of opportunity to learn different techniques with landscape photography and I will have demonstration filters available from Singh-Ray to try out.

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