Friday, March 12, 2021
What was it, just a week ago that I was going numb and freezing at Doughton Park? Here we are just six days later and I’m back in the mountains again getting reacquainted with the landscape once again in preparation for Spring and Summer. These are the seasons that I spend most of my time capturing landscapes as opposed to rural and rustic scenes. With some clouds in the forecast for Friday, I was all ready to get back out there once again and try my hand at some more of of these natural scenes. I had picked Stone Mountain just because it offered a chance to get some really good foregrounds without the need for anything to be in bloom just yet. My intention was to go for some black and white images and possibly some abstracts of the granite surface from the summit of the mountain.
Looking at the weather, there were clouds expected all day long, but increasing after noon. My plan was to get up early and spend most of the day at the park, but when I woke up at 5am and checked the weather, it was clear and the clouds weren’t really going to come in until much later in the morning. When Toni asked if I was going to get up and go I answered that I was going to give it another hour, or two, possibly go tomorrow. In short, I wasn’t going just yet and I rolled over and went back to sleep. Yeah, I kind of wussed out at that early hour, but when I got up a couple of hours later, the sun was quite bright outside and the clouds were just not coming in like they were supposed to.
I got up and just wasn’t sure if I would be going out or not so I dressed for the eventuality and headed downstairs to the office to get my morning things done. When I came back upstairs, it was around 10:30 or so and the sun was still kind of bright but the clouds were looking pretty good to the West. I started to really pay attention to what the forecast was showing and it looked like there was a fair chance that the clouds would be looking pretty good in the afternoon. Not wanting to just sit and wait for the weather, I decided to head out and see what I could see. The worst thing that could happen was I didn’t get anything. OK, so the worst thing that could happen is a sink hole opens up and swallows me while I cam headed out to Stone Mountain, but the likelihood of that happening was slim. There was a good chance I wouldn’t get any images if the weather didn’t cooperate with me
I got to the park shortly after noon and started the hike up to the Summit from the new trailhead. I had taken this route only once before so I wasn’t overly familiar with it, but I knew where it would lead me and that was the most important thing. I wanted to try something that I hadn’t really done much of in the past and that was to photograph the summit from the left side, I seem to always get it from the right when you look back through my images. This trail was going to take me right to that spot with a minimal amount of hiking. I could then go as far as I wanted to after that to get many other views from near the summit.
When I arrived at the park and got out of the truck I could smell a lot of burning in the air. I had seen that they were in the process of clearing out the undergrowth in areas of the park, but I had no idea the extent of this. The minute I hit the trails I could see that there had been a large controlled burn here and the smell of burning wood was still hanging low over the trail. As I started to make my way up the trail I could see areas that were still smoldering and putting off a visible amount of smoke. It was interesting to say the least. I’ve been in the parks during these controlled burns, but never when they were still kind of active before…well at least not on the trails where the burns were happening.
The landscape had changed quite a bit from what I was used to seeing here in Stone Mountain and it was rather cool to see. Many of the trees had been cut down and there was a lot more visibility through the park which was going to take a bit of getting used to. For now, it was not only the views but the smells that had to be gotten used to. The more I hiked, the thicker the smell got and it seemed that all of the hikers were talking about the burn. You could tell that most had no clue that these were done on purpose and kept talking about wild fire which this hadn’t been. It was eerie to see the extent of this burn though.
When I finally made it to the first clearing I went out on the rocks in search of a composition. Nothing really jumped out at me, but I did like the clouds above the mountains and the bare trees were starting to show the signs of spring. I was actually fully in the mode of spring fever with the temperatures in the 70’s. I was in shorts for the first time this year and was feeling pretty good about it. The glare off of my legs might have altered the lighting on the landscape, but I wasn’t going to worry about that. Seeing that bit of Spring color in the trees made me want to get some sort of composition put together here so I found a section of the distant mountains that had several different distances involved. There was a predominant hill to the left, with some other ones further away to the right and the very distant hills in the background. The light was good and the clouds looked good overhead. The trick was going to be finding something in the foreground that would help pull the eyes into the scene. I tried a few different compositions to start with but I really didn’t like them. I did find the one that you see here eventually with a line of erosion snaking through from the right side of the image balanced by the potholes along the ridge to the left. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give the granite surface a bit of texture for the foreground element.
After I had the composition set up I started to look at the exposure I was going to need. The histogram looked good, but the tones were a bit too pressed at the edges. I could capture it all, but with a simple horizon like this, I decided that it would be a good idea to use a 2-stop soft edge grad to pull the sky down just a bit. It worked and the gradual transition didn’t bother the image at all. I had my composition and my exposure set so it was time to start making photographs. I made three images from this basic area before deciding that I had captured enough. It was not that strong of a scene, and I didn’t see dedicating that much time it. I broke the camera down and put it all back in the backpack as I started off on the next stage of the hike to the summit.
That next stage didn’t really take too long at all before I found myself at the overlook that I had intended to shoot from before coming out here. I knew that it offered a great look at the summit along with what I think is Wolf Rock further on through the scene. I had done this before as a panorama but really wanted to try it as a single image capture using a wide angle lens. The shadows and the soot on the granite surface would likely provide some interesting foreground interest to the scene in the place of the trees that I had used in the past. I walked around and found the rough area that I wanted to capture. My main goals in the composition was a clear view of the summit and to have Wolf Rock to the left placed between two tall trees to help frame that aspect. I then looked for dark shading in my foreground that I could use for a bit of interest.
As I was setting things up I could see that the sky was looking really quite interesting with a very dark cloud at the top of the frame while the middle area went from dark at the horizon to bright in the middle. It was a unique sky for here and one that I wanted to capture. I got the camera set up quickly knowing that I wanted a wide angle lens attached to capture the foreground textures. I looked at the histogram and found that the same problem existed that I had just dealt with when it came to the sky. I pulled out the same ND grad filter and slit it in. That fixed the exposure quite well and the histogram was looking happier. Something that I know about the summit is that there are streams of water that are coming off of the top many times and a polarizer brings them out a little better. I pulled out my polarizer and looked through it. It didn’t make any difference in the scene as a whole, but I could see a little bit of extra contrast on the face of the summit which was what I wanted. I clipped the polarizer on the filter holder and dialed it in to show the contrast. After adjusting my overall exposure I was ready to make some images.
I spent quite a bit of time here working on variations of the composition as well as trying 16:9 aspect ratios in the camera which looked pretty good. I wasn’t sure what would turn out the best so I shot each frame as if it were going to be the keeper. Trying to keep the depth of field correct, I had stopped down to f/14 which was a little tight for this lens, but I figured that it could take it. Just in case, I opened the lens up to f/8 and did a focus stack of the scene where I shot four images with different focus points. There really wasn’t enough of a difference in that series to justify the blending in post, so I was able to stick with the single image at f/14 which was my goal all along. I don’t like blending images unless I really have to, and this wasn’t one of those times.
I spent a good deal of time here as the sky changed and the lighting changed from time to time. I really wanted to get the best image that I could here, but I never got the direct light on the granite that I really wanted. It was all stuck in shadows for the entire time that I was there. Fortunately, I did have just enough light on it to make it work, but not enough to really make the image pop. So is the case with landscapes most of the time. You are at the mercy of the conditions and you can just hope that you can make the best out of what you have. Once I was pretty sure that I had that best available image, I packed up and headed off to the summit to see if there was anything from up there that I wanted to photograph.
The last time I had been on the summit was during my 2019 Fall Foliage Workshop and I had been there with a group of photographers so I hadn’t really spent any time capturing my own images. I had remembered seeing a composition there that I wanted to try and that was the primary reason for me going out on the summit this time. Of course, when I got to the summit there were no less than three groups of folks all sitting down and enjoying the scenery. They were all situated right where the visual interests were so I knew that there would be no photography done at the current time. That gave me time to scope out the scene and see how I wanted to shoot it.
Funny thing about landscape photography when there are people in the way. All it takes is one person to spoil the best shot in the history of photography. I had at least two, and up to five people at three different compositions I wanted to shoot. I just knew that these were excellent compositions. Of course, the reality of this situation is that the compositions are never quite that good, it is just the fact that you can’t shoot them which makes them seem much better than they are. I kept walking around and looking before I found the one composition that I wanted to shoot. It just so happened that there were five people all sitting below the tree talking about how work is a way to wish five days of your life away at a time each week. I remember those days, but now that I am doing photography full time, I don’t wish any of my days away like that. Guess that means I have the right job now.
Fortunately, they did start to get up and make movements to continue on their hike. I had been very careful not to give away my intentions of taking the picture once they were gone so I hope I didn’t run them off. They were leaving and that meant that I could start to set the camera up at this point. I started to figure out just how I wanted to shoot it now that I could get into the area a bit closer. I had fitted the wide angle lens knowing that I wanted to emphasize the foreground more than the background since you could see houses and buildings in the background. I figured that if I could make them smaller, they wouldn’t really stick out so bad.
Once I had a working composition figured out, I checked the exposure and found that the sky was again just a hair too bright for me to get the exposure that I wanted on the foreground. I fixed that with a 2-stop hard edge ND grad which worked quite well due to the flat horizon I was dealing with. My next battle was to figure out if I wanted to keep the tree to the right completely under the horizon or if I wanted to have it break that horizon line. This is not normally something I would do for such a small part of a tree, but it just seemed like the right thing to do in order to keep the picture a little more dynamic. I was rewarded for this compositional choice by the clouds as they moved past the scene. There was an opening that was pretty bright which moved along right at the point where the tree entered the sky. It was as if the tree had grabbed the clouds and ripped them open. That was the connection that I was lacking to make this compositional choice really work out in my favor.
I didn’t stick around much longer than that. I did a quick check of the other award winning compositions that I had seen, but now that the people were gone and I was free to shoot them, they really weren’t all that great looking. Just goes to show that the best compositions are the ones that you can’t shoot. Once you are able to shoot them, you start finding problems with them. It was time to get packed up and headed home because there was rain coming and I didn’t want to be stuck out on the trails in the rain. I’ve ridden that ride before and it really isn’t all that great of an experience.
As I made the return hike down the mountain, the clouds were getting thicker and the lighting was getting more and more interesting for woodland compositions. I was starting to really look for ways of capturing the burned forest, but I was running thin on compositional ideas. I found many places where the smoke was still coming out of the ground and even a place with open flames at the base of a fallen tree. There were lots of interesting scenes, but there was just no composition to be had at all. I was about to give up hope but as I made the turn to the parking lot I found a large field of fallen trees with ash and soot all along the ground. It was just interesting enough to pull my attention because of the tall line of trees at the top of the ridge that were still standing. I just needed to find a foreground to make this interesting. That foreground came in the way of several fallen trees that still had their greenery in tact. The needles were now right along the trail and they gave an interesting foreground and one that really caught my eyes since the vegetation would normally be at the top of the frame. With it at the bottom, it turned the scene upside down in a way. I matched that foreground with the long trunks of the fallen trees which gave a diagonal path through the image to the trees that were still standing to the rear.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out, but I felt that I needed to capture the scene since it was going to be so short lived before the forest started to heal. I selected my wide angle lens because I wanted to emphasize those needles in the foreground and have the diagonals receded into the background quickly. I found the right placement for the composition that I was after and looked at the exposure. I was again plagued with the same bright sky that I had been dealing with all day. This time, the exposure latitude was just too much and I was going to have to have a grad filter to make the shot. I selected a 3-stop soft edge which was brought down to just below the horizon to balance out the sky. It worked like a charm and I was able to make the image that I had in mind. I’m still not sure I am sold on the composition, but I do like the story that is being told here. It kind of sums up the experience that I had here at Stone Mountain and completes the actual story of my time here.
The parking lot was within eyeshot of this last location. After trying one more failed composition of the trail between the burned forest, I packed it all in and finished the hike to the truck. It had been a short time at Stone Mountain, but I had seen what I wanted to see and was able to see conditions here that I had not seen before. I thought it was a successful day even if none of the images turned out like I was hoping. I got in the 4Runner happy with my day and started out of the park. I took a few side roads in search of more rural scenes out here before the trees started to fill in and block the visibility. I saw a lot of potential, but nothing that I was going to be able to do anything with. I was getting ready to call it a day and focus on getting home when I came upon an old country store and a Pure sign that I had passed many, many times before.
This sign had always interested me because of its antique look and the rusted bullet holes. I had never really considered capturing an image of it because the ground that the sign was attached to was a little cluttered. There were also lots of power lines around the sign. The country store was very basic in design and offered no real clue to what it was with the exception of a Coca Colo sign on the front of the building over the door. The store held no interest for me, but the sign still grabbed my attention. Thinking back to a recent trek where I concentrated on signs, I started to look at this sign differently. I didn’t have to include the base at all. I could just focus on the top of the sign which was what I loved the most. That would give me the ability to exclude the things that I didn’t like with it. It was worth a try so I pulled the truck off the road and grabbed my gear. I decided to use my 70-200mm lens for this one since I was trying to isolate the sign more than anything else. I went ahead and added a polarizer because when I tested it out, I could see that it deepened the blue of the sign and gave it more contrast.
Once I had the camera built, I started to look for the exact composition. I started on the Western side and found that I could easily omit the power lines from here and have either a vertical or horizontal framing for the image. It was a simple composition, and possibly too simple. I had visual tension with the sign off to one side, but I wasn’t liking the negative space at all. I needed something to fill that in. The clouds weren’t moving at a rate that would allow for a long exposure, and even it they were I was worried about losing the interesting textures in the sky. I decided to go to the opposite side and try something that I normally would never consider. I was going to include the power lines in the composition. Not only was I going to include them, I was going to compose the image around them. I got into position and found that I liked this side better anyway because there was more rust on the face of the sign and the light was on this side as well. It was those lines that I was concerned about. Was I going to be able to make them work for the image?
Well, I situated myself so that the sign was along the right third of the image and the power lines were coming in from the lower left carrying the eyes through the frame right across the sign. The clouds had just enough texture to them to keep the sky interesting and the exposure was very straightforward with almost a perfect bell curve. I shot many images as the sky changed until I was comfortable that I had the image that I wanted. I knew that this one was going to be one that I did a little extra processing on, not because I needed to fix anything, but I felt a fine art vibe coming out on this one. I really wanted to do it justice.
When I got done editing the images, I called for Toni to come down to see what I had. As we looked through them, she didn’t say a whole lot, but she like the one image where the tree was reaching into the clouds. She liked that one so much that she insisted on naming it, so “Grab Ahold” was born. When we got to the last image of the Pure sign, her first statement was “you know there are power lines in that one?” She knows me all too well and knows that I would normally avoid this type of composition at all costs. I explained that I planned it that way and that I wasn’t even planning on removing them. It didn’t make her like the image any better and she even said that she didn’t care for this one at all, but that was because it wasn’t her type of image. I was good with that, and I knew that I liked this one quite a bit.
I do hope that you enjoyed the trek as well as the images. Remember, if there are images that you particularly like here, you are encouraged to contact me about getting a print, or you can order standard sizes directly from the gallery store. If you enjoy photographing landscapes, then I have a workshop coming up in May that you will want to consider. The Spring Landscape Workshop is going to be starting at Doughton Park and will go for the full day on May 15th. If a full day workshop isn’t your thing and you would rather spend a few hours learning, then I have a brand new workshop that has just been released that might be of interest. It will also be a Doughton Park, but this one will only be three hours and is hosted by the Wilkes Art Gallery. We will be concentrating on compositions in the landscape which can be a difficult task when you start to figure out ways of creating order from visual chaos. Either of these workshops will be a great time and full of information. They are both planned with the hopes that you will get images to take home that you are very proud of. I hope you can join us!
Until next time…