Finding the Best Light

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Welcome back!  It’s only been a couple of days since I was last out with the camera, but it feels like forever ago since that was a very short outing.  It also doesn’t help that the snow around here has all melted since that morning which makes it feel even longer.  I hadn’t really planned on going out again this soon as I have been amassing a good many images here recently and I don’t want to overdo it this early in the year.  However, Toni and I went out to deliver a print to Lansing yesterday and that was a great excuse to do a little scouting.  For the most part, I was familiar with the area that I was driving through, but that last turn took me on a road that I had never been on before.  There was a lot of potential out that way, and I started to get a little excited about an old country store that I saw and a barn across the street.  Even though I had my camera with me, the lighting was just not good enough to bother with taking any pictures so I just filed it away in my mind for another time.

That little scouting trip did get me thinking about doing some new pictures and I looked at the weather for the following day.  It was looking like there would be some clouds in the morning followed by clearing skies in the afternoon.  That would make for a good opportunity to get out real quick in the morning and get something done.  The question was what did I want to photograph?  As luck would have it, I managed to get a little bit of information about the North Wilkesboro Speedway from a comment on one of my recent images that was shot from there.  To make a long story short, I expressed an interest in getting into the speedway but just wasn’t sure about who I would need to ask about it.  A comment was left that gave the location of the caretaker of the property and a possible name.  That was enough to get me all ready to go out in the morning to see if I could get access into the field.

I did a check of the weather as the evening drew on and saw that the clouds were thinning in the morning and weren’t really going to be much better b the afternoon.  There was still going to be some low clouds around the middle of the day which was what I was going to work with if possible.  I checked some other locations to see if I would have any better luck somewhere else.  The area of Traphill was looking to be about the same and Yadkin County was looking mostly clear for the entire day.  Checking out the Lansing weather, I was pleased to see that they were expecting thick clouds for most of the day.  This was promising, but I really didn’t want to drive back out there the very next day after I had been there.  What I was wanting to photograph was the speedway, and with the new information about it, I was feeling pretty good about going there.  The best guess for timing it was going to be around noon when the low clouds were coming in.  There wouldn’t be many, but I was visualizing doing long exposures which were better suited for sporadic clouds.

When I got up on Tuesday Morning, I checked the weather and found that there were less clouds expected in the area, but he timeframe was still about the same.  I stuck with my plan and decided that as an alternative, I would go up to Stone Mountain and shoot some landscapes from the summit.  I had my day planned out and when 11am rolled around, I was headed out the door.  The clouds were coming in nicely from the West and I even drove through some snow flurries with the outside temperature right about 50 degrees which was kind of cool.  The further East I got though, the less clouds I was seeing.  All indications pointed to the cloud cover catching up with me so I was still hopeful.

When I pulled into the Speedway Entrance, I located the home of the caretaker.  There was a gentleman walking out from there and going to his car.  I pulled over on the side of the road and sat there looking at the sky and contemplating my chances of good images if I were to get permission to go in.  As I was considering my options and seeing the clouds moving in gradually the gentleman started to drive my way.  With the hopes that he might be the caretaker I rolled my window down and he stopped beside me.  He wasn’t the caretaker, but he had just been inside talking with him.  He let me know that while the caretaker used to let folks go inside to look around, there had been multiple lawsuits over injuries from the collapsing structures.  This has prompted the actual owners of the property to request that nobody be let inside unless authorized by the owner.  Completely understanding the need to reduce the liability in these circumstances I saw no need to pursue gaining access.  My needs were not nearly important enough to even consider being given a waiver and a pass to go in.

Well, there went my primary plan for the day.  The sky was still not really looking all that great so it was a mixed blessing.  Had I been able to in, I might not have had good light to do what I was wanting to anyway.  Feeling a little defeated early in day is never a good way to start out.  I decided I would play my favorite game of chase the clouds and see where they would take me.  I came back out to the main road and decided to just go where the wind blew.  I actually wasn’t driving long when I saw a road that I had not been on before.  I went ahead and took the left which was the direction of the clouds.  I worked my way down the small neighborhood street to see what was there.  I could see a large white house in a field off to the left that caught my eye.  As I got closer, I could tell that it was an old farmhouse situated beside of a very large tree which was beautiful.  There were a few clouds on top of the house which helped the composition as well.

Home on the Farm“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I got pulled over onto the shoulder and grabbed my camera.  I felt certain that the 24-70mm lens would cover what I needed for compositions so that was what I fitted along with my polarizer.  The light wasn’t great here with the sun nearly at the top of its track across the sky.  The tin roof was reflecting the light quite brilliantly which was going to cause some exposure issues.  Still, I had to try something to make it worth my while to be out and about this morning.  I found the rough composition and decided that the house worked out quite well framed between the two dominant trees in the yard.  There was a small barn to the right of the large tree that helped to balance out the composition beyond the tree so that I could include more of the limbs.  As it turned out, the bank of clouds over the house were roughly at the top of the frame which created a very nice visual frame for the image.

After I set the composition up I started to wait for the light to hit…or should I say wait for the clouds to cover the sun so that the light would be a little softer.  It was a slow process waiting for the clouds to come over the sun.  There wasn’t a lot of distance for them to cover, but it seemed that the clouds were fading and disappearing as they got close to the sun.  The thick clouds that I had seen approaching were never going to stay formed long enough to cover the sun.  The best I could hope for was a few passing puffs of clouds which would diffuse the light for a few seconds at a time.  I was ready with my shutter remote for when those times happened and managed to get a few good exposures here and there.

I thought about if any other filters would help, but since my primary concern was the reflective roof, there was really nothing that I could do to keep that exposure in check.  I did have the polarizer on which helped, but it wasn’t strong enough to fight the full sun.  I had to wait for the right amount of diffusing to happen by the clouds.  It was the tried and true photographic technique….hurry up and wait for the light to get better.  After about 15 minutes I was pretty sure that the light wasn’t going to get any better and the clouds over the house had started to fade away as well.  It was just not my day for clouds it seemed.  What little bit that had been in the sky seemed to be drying up and leaving.

I packed up my gear and started back out on the road.  I was torn whether to go to Stone Mountain or just go to Lansing.  The sky looked perfectly blue over Stone Mountain so that was probably going to be a bust.  There were lots of clouds to the North West though, and that was where I needed to be headed.  I changed my course when I got into the downtown section of North Wilkesboro which meant that I was going to be hopping on Boone Trail which was a road that I have been on many times and have been looking for subjects to photograph out there each time.  I had no hopes of finding anything today though because the light was just too harsh.  The shadows were too deep and things were just too contrasty.  I mean look at that metal roof over the shop to the right.  There is just too much contrast to do anything…..wait a minute….the shapes that were created by the contrast….those are really cool.

Light Directional“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I got turned around after my brain had processed what it had seen.  I went back for a second look and sure enough, there was a really nice pattern in the roof that I just loved.  I immediately went into abstract fine art overload.  I got turned around again and pulled off on the side of the road a distance away from the shop.  There were many signs warning about blocking the doors, and trespassing so I didn’t want to step on any toes.  What I was wanting I was able to get from a distance anyway.  I grabbed my camera with the long 70-200mm lens to which I added a polarizer.  That would be all that I needed.  I got in close and started to frame up compositions that I liked.  I was still too far away so I had to move in quite a bit closer.  I was wanting just a very small section of the roof in my frame and needed to get the angles right to really pull this off.  I had visions of high contrast black and white images as well as getting a little creative with the colors.  I really like when I get to play with the fine art aspect of photography as I give myself a great deal more leeway as to how I can present the image.

I loved the repeating patterns and focused on that for the most part.  I paid attention to the rule of odds for these compositions and tried to group the designs in groups of three or five for the most part.  It wasn’t always possible and more than anything I looked for a visual balance to the image.  My goal was to completely lose the subject and have it become a study of shapes and shadows.  Looking through my viewfinder, I was getting really close to what I was wanting with just the straight capture.  The high contrast light that I usually hate was really coming in fantastic here.  The contrasts were perfect, and I was getting lost in the textures and shapes.

The Claw“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I did several different compositions and worked very hard to underexpose the images to make sure that I captured all of the details in the highlights while deepening the shadows with the original exposures.  The idea was to get very close to my end vision with the camera so that I could just be creative in post processing to make the images exactly what I had in mind.  In addition to the high contrast black and white image that I had in mind, I also had a color presentation that I wanted to try for.  Knowing that the shadows would be a blue tone thanks to the clear sky, I really wanted to find a way to introduce a complementing color to that blue.  Of course, yellow is one of the best colors to pair with blue so that was my goal.  I did a lot of split toning between the highlights and the shadows until I had comparable blues and golds in the frame.  I kept the shadows dark but made sure that the details could be seen.  The highlights were well protected and I was able to boost them to increase the contrast easily.  When I was done with the processing of these images, I had a black and white presentation that I absolutely loved as well as a blue and gold presentation that felt completely different, but still exactly what I was looking for.  The last bit of the processing was to flip the images left to right so that the shadows lead your eyes in from the lower left through the image up and to the right.  I felt that both compositions read better in that way.

I worked this roof for maybe ten minutes before I was sure that I had what I wanted.  I got things packed back up in the truck and wondered what the passing drivers were thinking about me sitting there on the side of the embankment pointing my camera to the side of a building between two pickup trucks.  I can pretty much guarantee that nobody had a clue that this was what I was shooting.  It has been a long time since I’ve captured anything like this and it was a lot of fun to get out and play with light and shadows again.

I was feeling better about the day at this point because I had something a little bit better than the farm house I had started with.  That motivated me to create more photographs using the sunlight that was out.  The problem was, there just wasn’t a lot of subjects like this roof.  I was kind of at a loss as to where to go for more images like this.  I just figured that I would keep my eyes out for more as I drove.  The question was where to drive?  Well, I still had Lansing in the back of my mind and there were at least two subjects out there that I wanted to photograph.  I was about 40 minutes away so there would be plenty of opportunity to look for more abstract images along the way.

Phipps Country Store“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I didn’t find any more abstracts along the way, and really didn’t find anything else that I was really wanting to photograph.  I was most interested in getting to the country store that I had seen the day before.  The lighting was looking really good with nice thick clouds overhead.  I just hoped that I could get the composition to work with the store because it was in very close proximity to the house behind it.  Google Street View didn’t work on this particular road so I didn’t have a chance to consider compositions ahead of time which meant that I would have to figure it out when I got there.  That was just what I did after I got parked on the side of the street.  I grabbed my bag because I just didn’t know what I was going to run into as far as needs whether it be lenses or filters.  I just knew that I was going to be here for a while working the store and the barn which was across the street.

I started out with the store since that was probably going to be the easiest to work out.  I was wrong about that, but it sounded good in my head when I said it.  I knew I wanted to get the quilt board on the left side of the building so that was where I started out.  I looked at compositions up close and across the street.  The problem that I was running into was the house behind the store as well as the barn that was set to the side.  There was a truck parked in front of the barn that I didn’t want in the frame either.  It was going to be difficult to get a shot of the barn from this direction without including some or all of those elements in the background.  By getting down kind of low to the ground, I was able to get the awning on the front to cover the majority of the truck which was promising.  When I got that perfect angle on the store, I was able to crop the frame on the right just before the house crept into the scene.  It was tight, but there was just enough breathing room for the store.  On the left side of the frame, I used a tall tree to form a framing element and then I just found the right balance of sky, trees, and road to finish out the frame.

It was a fairly simple exposure and it only required my polarizer on the 24-70mm lens because of the metal roof which I wanted to make sure had very little glare.  The sky was filled with clouds with just a subtle amount of texture to them. I was pretty sure that I was going to be able to pull that detail out, but just in case I decided I could do this as a black and white image where a white sky wouldn’t be as problematic to the entire scene.  As it turned out I was able to pull just enough detail out of the clouds to make this work out just right.

Silas Creek Barn“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

While I was on this end of the two scenes that I wanted to shoot, I turned my attention to the barn.  I had thought that this would be my best angle to capture it from as there was less in the way.  As I started to ponder my composition I wasn’t able to make anything work.  You can see the area where I had been standing on the shoulder of the road to shoot the old store.  I thought that this would work for the barn as well, but it was just too close and I didn’t like the composition at all.  I decided to cross the road and see what that offered me.  I was better able to get the right perspective on the barn from across the road, but the composition was boring from here with just the barn in the frame.  I started to widen the focal length a tad to include the road and I saw a really nice sweeping line that helped to frame the barn when I did that.  I just needed to get the perspective right and the only way to do that was to almost stand in the road.  Fortunately there was not much traffic so I didn’t think that I would cause a problem doing it.

I still had my 24-70mm lens mounted with the polarizer and that turned out to be just the lens that I needed for this shot.  I had everything in place like I wanted it and the exposure was looking really good on the histogram so I didn’t need any other filters added to the mix.  In fact, this was such an easy exposure I just made a couple of shots from here before I was satisfied that the exposure and composition were right.  I wasn’t done with this barn just yet though.  I recalled seeing a view that I really liked from the other direction and figured I would give it a try.

Lansing Silo“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

It was this composition that was the hardest to work out.  I was standing elevated on the embankment by the road looking down on the barn which was a good thing.  However, there was a lot of brush on the side of the embankment that threatened to come into the frame.  I also had a power pole and associated power line coming in from the left which I had to take into consideration.  The background was going to include a great deal of sky which was looking really good, but it was much brighter in this direction that what I had been shooting.  I found the sweet spot along the embankment that allowed a reasonably clear field of view to the barn.  I started to frame up the image with my 24-70mm lens and found that I was right at 24mm and still not getting the breathing room that I was wanting here.  Instead of trying to back up and getting a different perspective, I opted to simply swap out my lens for my 16-35mm.  This gave me more flexibility in the close quarters I was in.  I moved over the polarizer as well which helped to keep the roof and the silo nice and saturated.  It was the sky that was causing me problems now. It was just too bright, so I had to add a 3-stop soft edge ND Grad to just take the bite out of the sky.  That worked out great and the histogram lined up nicely with all tones having a home in the right places of the histogram.

The last part of the puzzle here was to wait on the sky to move into position.  I would fire off shot after shot as the clouds moved hoping to get the exact right position.  I was wanting something that seemed to fit the shape of the sky adding some emphasis to the silo as well as the lower roof lines of the barn.  This image here was pretty much exactly what I wanted from the sky and it was one of the last images that I shot.  I had done a slight reposition with this frame because I realized that I could see the power pole and transformer sneaking out from the left side of the barn.  By shifting over about a foot, I was able to mask that with the barn and had the added benefit of moving the silo into a little better position within in the frame.  I had more of the embankment in the frame, but it was a fair trade in the grand scheme of things I felt.

Old Time Country Store“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

From this vantage point I was able to get a much better view of the store, but it was not the best side of it.  This side had no quilt block and there was a storage room or sorts on this side as well.  It might not have had quite the same presence as the other side, but it did have a much better background with the bare trees to the left and the evergreens to the rear.  I also liked the road and how it hooked around the store.  This image was going to be more about the textures and the history than the colors of the signage so I shot this one with black and white in mind.  Since I had a corner of the sky included here I had to pay particular attention to the exposure.  Much like the barn shot the sky in this direction was a bit brighter so I had to use a grad filter here as well.  I started out with the same 3-stop soft edge that I had just used along with the polarizer on that 16-35mm lens.

It seemed to do the job, but I was seeing too much affect on the trees and even the store from the grad filter since there was just a small corner that needed to be dropped in exposure.  I made the choice to swap that filter out for a 2-stop hard edge.  This is not usually the way to go because the division line can easily be seen with the hard edge grad on a wide angle lens.  However, I needed to get the sky to be darker without having a long transition point that dropped all the way to the building.  The hard edge seemed to work when I looked through the viewfinder as well as live view while using the depth of filed preview.  I wasn’t able to see the line in the trees and the building was unaffected by the filter.  Any darkening on the trees I could handle in post since it was only two stops worth of light lost.

I had the camera set up for the image and the light was good so I made several different exposures with slightly different compositions.  I wanted there to be a good flow to the image and as much depth as I could bring to it.  I only needed a handful of frames before I was sure that I had what I wanted from this scene.  I was getting impressed with myself from this location because I had been managing to shoot two different subjects on either side of the road and was making images that I felt were really good.  I was feeling so good about it that I even tried a straight on shot of the barn concentrating on the silo and the main section of the barn.  I thought it was a good idea, but when I looked at it on the computer I quickly realized that I had pushed my luck here.  It was not a good image, so I trashed the two frames that I had dedicated to that composition.  No harm, no foul, I had four really good images from this one location and I consider that a total win!

Saplings in the Snow“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I wasn’t quite ready to go home just yet and since I hadn’t been on this road before I decided to take it a little further out to see what I could find.  I’ll tell you, there was a lot of potential out there and the sky was looking fantastic.  The problem was, I just wasn’t getting inspired about anything that I was seeing.  I was wanting something uncluttered and simple to shoot.  I just didn’t know what that was going to be.  I found a side road where I could see a barn and started down that way.  The barn that I saw originally didn’t do anything for me, but there was another barn that looked really unique on a snow covered hill that caught my eye.  It was nice, but there was no real context to it and there was a power pole and associated lines with it that were going to get in the way.  The only way to make a good composition here was going to be to go up the hill, well into the property which I didn’t want to do.  I drove on past the barn and saw a driveway on the other side of the hill which I looked up.  It was the other side of the barn and this view had two gorgeous trees to the left of the barn and the snowy hill was covered in saplings that will certainly become Christmas Trees in several years.  This was the context that I had been after.

I pulled into the driveway which was just used for the barn.  I just got into it enough to clear the road and I got out to get the camera.  I fitted the 16-35mm lens because I knew that I was going to want to get the large trees in the frame as well as a good many of the saplings in the foreground.  I added my polarizer because there was a little bit of the tin roof visible and I wanted to keep the glare down to a minimum here.  I started to work out compositions but had a really hard time from close to the road.  I looked around and saw that there were no signs preventing me from being on the property, and where I was needing to be was still in the driveway so I moved in a little closer.  This worked out well and I had the composition that I was after.  As with the other barn, what took so long here was that I was waiting for the clouds to move in a way that complimented the scene.  This didn’t take too long and I finally had what I wanted. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be color or not, but was pretty confident that it would be a better black and white image.  There was very little color to the scene and the majority of the interest was based on light and dark as well as textures of the wood and trees.  As it turned out, monochrome was the way to go with this one after all.

With that, my creativity was about drained and it was time to make my way home.  I was still looking for other subjects to shoot, but I was tired and needed to get home to see what I had.  It had been a very interesting day with a depressing end to my desires to get into the Speedway, followed by lousy light that I fought against and won.  That harsh light ended up being just what I needed to create some abstract art that I’m really happy with.  Ironically, once I got comfortable shooting in the harsh light I ended up in dense clouds with nice even lighting where I shot two scenes that I had just seen the day before.  After that success, I found an obscure barn at the top of a hill that made that final composition possible.  It was a full day with a lot of different conditions that yielded 90 frames captured.  With a lot of captures of the clouds moving, I am really thrilled that there were eight that I wanted to keep.

I hope that you enjoyed this trek and the photographs that I managed to capture.  Remember, if there are any of my images that you wish to have a print of, just let me know or stop by the gallery store to order your very own print.  While looking at these images on the computer is nice, there is just no substitute for seeing a photographic print done on a proper paper or other fine art media in the way that the photographer intended.  I love my prints and I get excited to create them because it is the final culmination of the entire process for me.   Before I even take the camera out, I am considering what a print will look like, so that is my ultimate goal when I am capturing an image.  I would love to share that with you.

Be sure to look into my Intro to the Art of Photography online class that is coming up in a few weeks at the end of February.  It will be a two session class covering two Saturdays and we will discuss everything from what mode to select to how to compose and focus your image.  If you are close to Wilkes County, there is a shorter in person class at the Wilkes Art Gallery on the 19th that I am teaching that will include most of the same subjects.  For those that are a little more versed in photography, you might want to check out my Decay Workshop in April or my Landscape Workshop in May.  Both are full day experiences where I help you achieve your own creative goals in the respective photo genres.  I hope to see you at one of these soon.

Until next time….

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