Freezing my Doughton Off!

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Saturday, March 6, 2021

I seem to be faced with a dilemma these days.  The forecast towards the end of February called for rain pretty much daily until March 10th.  That was going to mean the possibility of clouds and good light for several of the days which I was kind of excited about.  However, as March came in, the rain left the forecast and was replaced by sunny days.  While this would make the average person very happy, it was a little disheartening for me.  Sure, it allowed me to go and play in the Miata some while enjoying the warm sunny days, but it wasn’t doing much for my photography.  With the clear skies and bright sun, I was settling in on doing housework and getting the yard ready for Spring for most of my time.  I did manage to sneak in a portrait shoot the other evening as the sun was dropping down.  That session went quite well and I had a lot of fun remembering how to do the fast paced tempo of a portrait photographer.  Needless to say, I much prefer the slower tempo of a landscape photographer, but I digress.

While all of this was going on, I was in the middle of my two part online “Introduction to the Art of Photography” course which had already seen its first installment go off without a hitch.  I have been preparing for the second part of the class which will be later tonight.  I’m glad I was in the educational frame of mind this week as I heard from the Wilkes Art Gallery once again after I had done a short workshop for them a few weeks ago.   They were inviting me to come back as a juror for the 2022 Blue Ridge Overview Exhibit which was still a year away, but in the short term they were interested in getting another photography workshop put together for early April.  They kind of left it open ended, but wanted it to be something outdoors.

Something that I have been thinking about putting together here lately has been a workshop on composition in the landscape.  This is an often overlooked educational point as compositions in nature can be quite difficult at times.  With that in mind I started to think about places that could be utilized for the workshop which would be easy to move around in with plenty of room.  One of the locations that I wanted to consider was Doughton Park which is where I start off my Spring Landscape Workshop in May.  It is a great place with a lot of potential when it comes to compositions.  Since I have shot here for many years, I am rather familiar with it and that makes it a great place to start out.

My only question was whether or not the gates would be open to allow vehicular traffic into the picnic area which was where I wanted to work from.  I know that they close it down during the off season, but I have run into times when the gate has been opened up before the actual season got started in May.  The only way to find out was to head out there and see if it was open or find out when it might be.  With a bit of time freed up on Saturday, I planned on going out there and checking things out.  Since I was going to be driving out that way, I figured I would take the camera and try a few things.  I know that Doughton is a great place for capturing the alpenglow light to the West after sunrise on a clear day, which was what we were currently seeing daily.  I checked the weather to see when the sun would be rising, and found that there were some clouds in the forecast for a few hours in the morning.  This could be interesting.  I checked the sunrise forecast and found that most of NC was slated for a very colorful sunrise.  That sealed the deal, I would get up early and head out to Doughton for the sunrise and to see if the gate was open.

I started my day at 4:15 by doing my morning posting on social media, and grabbing a bit of breakfast before heading out the door at 5am.  That put me at the park at 5:45 only to find that the gate was still closed.  No worries as I had planned for that possibility and knew that the walk to the meadow was only about 20 minutes.  I grabbed my gear and started down the driveway to get to the meadow.  Hang on, back it up just a little bit.  The forecast had called for low 30’s during the morning which I was ready for.  However, that was not entirely accurate as the thermometer in the truck read 27 degrees and it was very windy.  Looking at the phone, the wind chill was around 19 degrees which I wasn’t really ready for.  Fortunately, I do carry gloves and a toboggan in my bag which I pulled out and put on.  I was wanting a thermal shirt and a thicker coat, but all of that was at home.  I hoped that the walk would warm me up.

It didn’t.

When I got up on the top of the meadow my fingers were already numb and my nose was running….well it had been running.  I was now the proud owner of two snotsickles which I finally broke off before finding a place to set the camera up.  That was not as easy a task as I had hoped it would be.  I wanted to try for different compositions today which meant that I wasn’t going to be using any of my standby spots.  I started out further away from the tree that I have shot many times so that I could include the rocky outcroppings to the left.  I found a workable composition there and started to wait on the light.  The chill in the air continued to bite into my bones as the sun slowly came up to the horizon.  As the light was changing, I could tell that the composition was going to be very unbalanced as the clouds were not really cooperating.  With that in mind I started to look for another composition.

With hopes of adding balance to the image I moved to the other side of the rocks and started to form up something there.  I found the right place, but again the clouds that were in the sky were too heavy to the right where the rocks were.  The balance was off, but the light was good so I went ahead and shot a few frames there.  I doubted that they would work and I didn’t see any hope in the sky for a different balance to settle in.  I was honestly starting to think that the only thing that I was going to get from this trek was the information about whether the gate was open or not.  The pictures just weren’t hitting on much.  The sunrise forecast was totally wrong here as the color in the sky was marginal at best…nothing like what I was expecting.

Before packing things up, I decided to look at things a little differently.  Since the sky wasn’t great, I wanted to focus on the tree, but I had done that so many times before that I was bored of that composition.  Since I was there in the rocks, I decided to take a look at what I could do with them.  I worked myself into a position in the middle of the rocks so that there were two distinct ridges that I was able to look through to get the tree framed within the rocks.  It was a good composition, but I wasn’t able to get the camera far enough away from the lead rock to get the focus where I would want it for total sharpness front to back.  I didn’t want to stop the lens down completely and even that probably wouldn’t have worked out.  The only chance I was going to have here was to use focus stacking which I had never done before.

Doughton’s Tree“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, Focus Stacked

With the concept of focus stacking in my mind, I decided to give the composition a try.  I was familiar with how it worked, and knew what I needed to do in the field which was all I needed to know at this point.  I would figure out the post processing end later on after I had the raw material for the shot.  I got the basic composition set up and found that I needed to focus on the nearest rock as well as the section that was a bit further in to the right.  I then focused on the tree itself which would bring the rest of the image into focus.  I started firing off these focus brackets as the light was changing until I saw the sky that I was hoping that I would.  I was just hoping that the method would work as I had planned when I got home because I really liked how this was looking.

When I got home and started to look at the image I was really happy with how that last one came out.  I had three RAW files sitting in front of me with vastly different focus points.  None of the frames were sharp enough on their own at f/11 to make me happy so I started the process of focus stacking.  I picked one of them and started to do a rough edit on it so that I had a good baseline for how the image was going to look.  Once I was happy with the edit, I applied the changes to the other two images before incorporating them into Photoshop as layers.  It was at this point that I got lost as to how to do the process so I had to do a little research and teach myself the technique within Photoshop.  After a few minutes, I was merging the layers with the sharp focus front to rear.  I was thrilled at how this turned out, and it was definitely an image that I wouldn’t have been able to get without using this technique.  I brought it back into Lightroom and finished the edit and was left looking at my favorite image of the day.  In fact, I thought it was a very impressive image with the lighting and the colors.  The hardest part of the creation is a part that will go totally unnoticed because it just looks like it is all naturally in focus.

When I got done shooting this composition, I decided to set up another composition pointing the opposite direction where the sky was starting to pick up a little bit of color.  It was going to be another opportunity for a focus stacked image and I shot it accordingly.  The difference here was the color never really materialized and I ended up abandoning that composition in favor of what was going to be my first composition of the day.  The sky was finally starting to come alive, but still not as impressive as I was hoping it would.  I just knew that the balance would be there for what I had planned to shoot earlier.  The problem was, I had swapped lenses from my 16-35mm to my 24-70mm in order to capture the last image.  Not wanting to switch lenses back with my fingers fully numb now, I stuck with my standard lens and just backed off of the foreground a bit.  The result was nearly the same with the tree being a little bigger in comparison.  I framed up the composition as I visualized it and waited on the light to do what it was going to do.

Sunrise Over the Meadow“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

It didn’t take long and the sky came alive for just a few minutes.  In that time, I fine tuned the composition to take full advantage of the sky as a complimenting element to the rocks which were cradling the image to the left.  The idea here was that the eyes would enter in the lower right quadrant and pursue up and to the left before snaking around to the tree and then beyond to the light in the sky.  My favorite part here was that the sky to the left was still a beautiful shade of blue which really sets off the warm tones of the sunrise.  That is an important factor when you are introducing color into a sky as it maintains that level of validity to the eyes.

Looking at this image you will probably be asking yourself if I focus stacked this image.  There was really no need to since I was shooting at 24mm which has a much larger depth of field than the 70mm I had been shooting at.  This was an easy image to get sharp while at f/11 using hyperfocal distance focusing.  This was such an easy image to shoot once I got the composition in place.  There were no filters needed, and no need for multiple images.  It was just so easy which was a nice change from the previous image that I wasn’t even sure I could figure out how to process it after I captured it.

I was starting to feel better about the day since I had two different compositions that I was happy with.  However, my happiness was slightly overshadowed by the fact that I could not feel any of my fingers and my motor skills were starting to slow down in the cold.  I had come out here to find out about the gate which I had.  I had captured a handful of images which was icing on that cake.  I saw no need to prolong the agony since I still needed to hike back to the truck before I could get in the heat.  After making a quick look around for more compositions I packed up my gear and was really happy that I didn’t have any filters to worry with since my fingers weren’t working all that well.  I could have hiked back down the meadow and taken the driveway back to the truck, but I was thinking that the trail would be a little quicker and that was worth a lot to me at this point.

The Daily Gift“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

While on the trail I wasn’t really paying attention to much else than getting to the truck.  However, I did take note of a few locations that might work for the Spring Workshop in a couple of months.  One of those locations was another tree that seemed to be isolated against the sky.  There wasn’t anything all that impressive on the other side of it, but as the trail worked around it I saw some different potential.  there were some rock outcroppings down at the foreground and the sky in this direction was ever so slightly more impressive.  I had a short internal struggle as I weighed the possibilities of stopping for a quick shot or just staying on the trail to the truck.

Knowing that I didn’t have long to make a decision, I did what any photographer would do.  I stopped and pulled my bag off my back before getting the tripod set up.  I found the best location that I could on short notice and figured that my standard lens would do the trick here as well.  The light was soft and there was plenty of tonality in the sky so I opted to leave the filters off here as well.  I got the image framed up and focused about third of the way into the frame before making exposures.  The light was changing quickly but I wanted to capture the warm tones in the sky that seemed to go well with the dormant grass along the foreground.  That light only lasted for five more minutes and it was done.  With the light gone, I saw no reason to stick around here so I packed up and plowed on.

At this point, I was starting to hurt from being so cold, but I could see the truck and knew I was getting close.  I was surprised to see another hiker on the trail with her dogs.  I took a quick moment to chat with her and talk about how cold it was.  We both agreed that Spring was going to be welcome and needed to hurry up and get here.  With that, we were both on our way.

When I got back to the truck, I cranked the heat and turned the seat heaters on while thinking that just a couple of days ago I was driving around in convertible with the top down and enjoying the day.  What a difference a few days and a couple thousand feet of altitude can do for the weather.  It was still a pretty day, but it was cold!  With the sun getting stronger and stronger, I doubted that I was going to find anything else to photograph, but I wen into Laurel Springs and started into Sparta on the off chance that I might find something else to capture.  There wasn’t anything that looked good in the light so I got turned around and headed home.

I got back a little before 9am which makes this a really quick outing based on my history.  I had right around 40 images from the morning which was better than I had expected.  A good portion of those were focus stacks which inflated the numbers a good bit.  I was feeling good about three of the compositions and possibly two others before I started the culling process.  The first of the images that I processed turned out to be just like I thought in the field with being much too unbalanced.  It was scrapped.  Another one of the compositions that thought might work turned into nothing which left me with the tree that you see here.  Considering this trek wasn’t even really planned, I am very happy with the results.  Each of these images is something different than I have created from Doughton in the past and they give me other ideas to pass onto the participants of the Spring Workshop.  I’ve still got to figure out where I am going to hold the April workshop for the Wilkes Art Gallery though which is a bit more pressing at the moment.

Remember, if there are any images here that speak to you, I would love to help match you up with a print.  You can order directly from this website, or you can email me to discuss other options.  There is just nothing quite like holding a print and seeing it the way that the photographer intended.  There is just no comparison, and looking at a photo on a computer monitor, or….gasp….a cell phone will never show the true side of a photograph.  I’ve gained a bunch of new clients here in the past couple of months and am really thankful that there are still many folks out there that want to appreciate art outside of a screen.  I just love being able to share my visions with my clients and hope that there are many more out there just waiting for that special image to come available.

Until next time….