First Signs of Fall at Rough Ridge

· Reading Time: 11 minutes

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Autumn Road“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad

The weather has been rather dry and warm for most of September and the first part of October which has greatly stunted the leaf season in the mountains of NC.  Earlier this week we had a cold snap that came through and I was hoping that would prompt some changes with the leaves.  In addition to needing the color to start coming in for my Fall Foliage Workshop scheduled in just a couple of weeks, I was also wanting to get some Autumn colors for myself since I missed out on the whole season last year.  Looking at the weather, there was going to be a short period of time in the middle of the day, on Thursday, where the mountains were going to have a bit of low level clouds.  This was going to be my best chance at getting out there until early next week, and I refuse to go out to the Blue Ridge Parkway on a weekend during this time of year.  It becomes a madhouse with parking and traffic.  During the weeks is tolerable, but still much more busy than any other time of year.

With the leaves probably just starting to change, I was going to need to focus my attention on Mt Mitchell, Graveyard Fields, or Rough Ridge as those are the places that usually see the early color due to the altitudes.  Planning out the day, I was going to have to get Sierra to school and Toni was at work, so I wasn’t going to be able to go out for my normal first light approach to my photography which I love doing.  I was going to have to wait to get on the road till almost 9am, and I was going to have to be back home by 3:15 or so to pick her up.  That kind of put a heavy restriction on my time available so I started to look at my options.  Mt Mitchell was out just due to the travel time needed.  Graveyard Fields was out because by that time of day, there would be no parking left.  That left Rough Ridge as my best choice which I didn’t hate.  I have been wanting to get back out there again, and this was a great chance to do it and hopefully get some color.

After dropping Sierra off, I was on the road.  Of course, I hit morning traffic on the highway through Winston which was odd for a trip to the mountains since normally I am on the road around 4am or so.  Not that many people are up at that time.  Looking at the sky, there were very little clouds and I was hoping that I wasn’t about to get out to the mountains in the midday sun with no clouds at all.  At least Fall photography is a little less dependent on soft light, and sometimes the harsher light helps quite a bit to bring the colors out.  Regardless, I was on my way to see what was going on with the leaves.

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

I arrived at Rough Ridge right at 11am which wasn’t too bad at all.  There were already about 7 or 8 cars in the parking area, but that was not nearly as bad as I was expecting.  I grabbed my gear and started to make the hike up to the summit.  My goal was to get to the outcropping just below the top of Rough Ridge because I haven’t shot from there in a very long time.  On the way up, I passed by a tree that I had seen many times, but for some reason it was catching my eye this morning.  The roots were amazing and the slight color behind it was an interesting background for the odd tree.  It was just what I look for in a woodland image.  I decided to take advantage of the light that was present and I stepped off to the side and started working on a composition for this tree.  I wanted to emphasize the roots, so that meant using a wide angle lens.  I pulled out my 16-35mm lens and added a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to it to reduce the glare and give the colors a little punch.  I got the Manfrotto tripod down low to the ground to really emphasize the perspective of the scene.

I started working on compositions and the arrangement of the scene.  When I finally found one that I liked, I noticed that for the composition I had, there were a couple of leaves right at the edge of the frame that were distracting to the image.  They were bright yellow, and really pulled the eye down to the bottom edge of the frame.  Not wanting to be “that guy,” I debated on what I wanted to do.  I decided to move the leaves, but instead of moving them out of the frame, I actually just moved them a little further into the frame.  I didn’t relocate anything more than about 8 inches and I kept the orientation that they had naturally fallen in.  I just pulled them away from the edge of the frame.  They balanced really nicely with the roots and with the fern that was off to the left.  I was immediately excited about this image from a compositional point of view and really looked forward to getting it home to process it.  I will say here that this one gave me more headaches in post than any other woodland image ever has.  I’m happy with the outcome, but I worked on this one a lot!

When I was done with the tree at the start of the trail, I continued up the trail to see what colors awaited me further up.  I saw that the large outcropping off of the boardwalk was empty, so I decided to go out and see what I might be able to capture there.  As I entered it, so did a family and another leaf peeper.  Knowing that it was going to take me a minute to set things up, I just found my spot and started to build the camera while the family concentrated in taking pictures of each other and of themselves.  Of course, as I was getting things set up, they asked me to take the family portrait as they posed on the edge of the rock.  When that was done, I finished getting myself all set up.

Walkway to the Clouds“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

The colors were minimal on the mountain so I started off with my telephoto lens so that I could get isolation shots.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to capture a scene that I liked that way.  I decided to go the other direction and mounted my wide angle lens once again to capture more of what I was seeing.  I still had the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer attached to the Lee Holder, so I left it on.  There were enough clouds that I wasn’t too worried about the strange banding in the sky with the wide angle lens.  I started to work the different scenes that caught my eye, but nothing was turning out particularly good so far.  Then I turned around and looked into the sun.  There was a thin bank of clouds just hovering over the Parkway at the base of the boardwalk.  This was pretty cool and showed some of the Autumn Colors on the ridge.  I turned the camera around to frame up the shot.

I positioned it so that the boardwalk was coming in from the bottom left corner and the large boulders actually framed the right side and bottom of the image.  I knew that I would be cropping this to a 16:9 or 16:10 and there was just enough blue sky at the top to frame the top edge.  The problem was the exposure I was getting.  The sky was much too bright for a single exposure.  Fortunately, the horizon was basically straight here so that was an easy fix.  I just pulled out a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad and slid it down into the holder.  That did the trick and the histogram lined up nicely.

While I was working on this image, I had a first hand experience with a photo sniper.  That single leaf peeper had come over to me while I was composing the image and I realized that he was right over my shoulder.  He was looking at the camera LCD right along with me.  He was about 12 inches from my head.  He gave me a nod of approval on the composition and as I was starting to make exposures, he was doing what I assume was a very similar shot from just behind me.  This is why I don’t really like doing the Fall colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There are just too many awkward moments like this, and no privacy at all.

An interesting side note, while I was working on this composition, another couple had joined the growing crowd on the outcropping.  I could hear their conversation, but wasn’t paying much attention to it.  I did note a change in their voices and the level of excitement just before I realized that he had proposed to his girlfriend.  Apparently, there was a photographer waiting on the boardwalk to capture the moment and they all started talking back and forth about all the pictures that she just captured and the video.  Of course there was a lot of excitement in the air.  For me, it was just too much.  I had to pack up and move on down the trail to my ultimate destination on the other side of the summit.

Autumn in Monochrome“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Mor Slo 15-stop ND Filter, 120 seconds

When I arrived, there was a nice cloud bank coming over the Linn Cove Viaduct which was just perfect.  There was a bit of motion to the clouds so I decided to try for a long exposure to start with.  I got into position and decided on a composition.  I went with the 16-35mm lens as I was intending on getting a very grand landscape.  As it turned out, I ended up going tight at the 35mm point with this lens for most of the compositions.  I did try a couple of my Singh-Ray Mor Slo ND Filters to slow the shutter speed.  The 10-stop didn’t quite do what I needed it to do, but the 15-stop got me to a two minute exposure which was just about perfect I thought.  When the image came up in the LCD, I could see just a bare bit of movement in the clouds above the mountain.  It wasn’t enough to justify continued long exposures, so I pulled that filter off.  I also decided to swap out my lens for the standard 24-70mm glass since most of my compositions were on the longer end of the wide angle lens.

I started to work on other compositions and found that by getting right on the edge of the outcropping, I was able to get a little better balance for a horizontal image.  The sun was also starting to move across the landscape as the clouds moved over the sun.  I wanted to pull the sky back just a tad because a large part of the composition was a bank of trees in the bottom left corner that were mostly in the shadows.  By darkening the sky just a bit, I figured I could get a better exposure on them.  I added a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad which took the bite out of the sky.

The resulting image is the opening shot of this entry.  It is the most dramatic of the day, and my favorite I believe.  I’m still not overly happy with the lighting of the midday sun, but the clouds helped to make some images.  I’ve got some ideas for a return visit out here as the colors get a little stronger.  Hopefully, I will have an opportunity to come back here under decent conditions earlier or later in the day for some softer light.  It was time to make the hike back down to the truck at this point.  I had been at Rough Ridge for two hours, and I was out of time.  I needed to get on the road to get Sierra.

I think that peak color in this area is still a week to 10 days out.  After that, the lower elevations will be getting very active.  I think I might have scheduled my Stone Mountain Workshop just about right this year.  It will be a little early, but I would rather it be early than late.  At least this way the leaves won’t have fallen off of the trees when we get there.  There are still spots available, so if you are wanting to join us on October 25th, be sure to get signed up soon!
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