Getting Back in the Swing of Things

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

If you have been following my blog for the month of February, you will surely have noticed that I have been in a bit of a creative slump pretty much the entire month.  I plan on talking more about it in the next Behind the Camera installment in just a few days, but I think that I have some good news on that front.  The last few times that I have gone out I have had very good luck, but things weren’t really coming as naturally as they once did.  I have taken for granted the fact that I can take a fuzzy idea and turn it into a photograph with relative ease over the last few years.  The camera had become an extension of my eye and hand so it really kicked me in the gut when all of a sudden I wasn’t inspired to capture and create images.  After today’s trek, I am starting to have that feeling once again with my camera and it feels really good.  After the last few outings I was starting to feel more myself so when I had a morning free and some nice thick clouds to work with after a rain, it seemed only logical to go out and photograph a waterfall.  I was really looking forward to giving it another go!

The Wake of a Dream“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I woke up nice and early at around 5am to check the weather which was still pretty much as it had been the night before.  There were low clouds expected with a 100% coverage through most of the morning.  The rain was supposed to be finishing up around 9am here at home, but further West, it was supposed to get finished a bit earlier.  I had already looked at options on where to go based on the weather and had it narrowed down to Catawba Falls and Widow’s Creek Falls at Stone Mountain.  Looking at the forecast for Old Fort, where Catawba Falls is, the clouds were going to be breaking up a little earlier than I would like to ensure that I had the time needed to work the waterfall as I wanted.  The front was obviously moving from West to East, so I checked Stone Mountain and found that the clouds were supposed to linger until around lunch time when they appeared to be starting to break up.  That would give me plenty of time.  As an added bonus, there was fog forecasted until about 9am which would make for some really good woodland images if it actually happened.

This is the benefit to Stone Mountain for me.  There are so many options of what to photograph there.  I can do waterfalls, as there are four named ones at the park.  To be honest though, there is only one that I consider worthwhile to photograph though.  There are miles of streams with white water rapids which are fun in the lower trails as well as some good woodland locations along the way.  There is a historic homestead there which suits my want for a rustic theme, as well as grand landscape scenes both from the foot of the monolith or from the tops of the mountains in the park.  No matter how you slice it, Stone Mountain is quite versatile and can be adapted to most any kind of weather.  With fog and low clouds on the menu, I was pretty sure that I would be looking at woodland images as well as some white water scenes.  That was just perfect for me as I am gearing up for the season of landscapes, as well as getting ready for my next workshop which will be the Spring Waterfall Workshop at Hanging Rock at the end of March.  There are still spaces so be sure to get signed up today!

Withdrawn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

All the way to Stone Mountain, I was in the rain which was just what I was expecting.  I was just hoping that it would have cleared out of the area of Stone Mountain by the time I got there.  Going through the community of Traphill just to the South of the park there was fog, and the rain was all but stopped.  I was really getting excited about the potential of the morning.  I was already planning out some compositions at the homestead where I knew I could make use of the fog, and I figured that I would go down on the lower trails to get some nice foggy woodland images before ultimately going on down to Widow’s Creek Falls if time permitted.  It was going to be a full morning and I was ready for it.  For the first time in a very long time it seems, I was excited about pulling the camera out and I wasn’t worried if I would be able to create anything with it or not.  I had a lot of ideas rolling around in my head for once!

When I actually got into the park the rain was stopped, but the fog had lifted already.  There were some low clouds that would pass by from time to time, but nothing that I would be able to count on for woodland images.  Since my main element was gone for the compositions that I had in mind, I decided to go with my original plan of photographing Widow’s Creek Falls.  The last time I had tried to go there, it was closed for construction of a new parking lot at the trail head and I was hoping that it was opened for business once again.  It only took a few minutes of driving in the park before I had my answer.  The trail was open, and the parking lot was plenty big for way too many cars.  Fortunately though, I was the only one there.  Have I ever mentioned that I love being able to visit the state parks during the week again when the crowds are minimal or non-existent?

The Dream Remains“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I grabbed my gear and went on the long and laborious hike.  It must have taken 90 seconds to reach the base of the waterfall from the parking lot.  I was tired!  In all seriousness, this is one of the easiest waterfalls to hike to.  If it wasn’t for the trees, you would be able to see it from the parking lot.  You can hear it the minute you get out of your car.  The hard part comes if you decide to cross the water to get to the other side.  There are two main points where you can cross.  I usually take the upper crossing, but that one is rather slippery if you aren’t careful and with a high flow like there was today, you might get wet feet if you don’t have the right footwear on.  I had gone alongside the falls on the left and got to the point where I could cross over, but before I did that, I looked for compositions from this side.  This is the side that rarely gets any love in photographs.  Most of the ones that I have seen come from the other side, so that means that I always try to grab an image from the left side before crossing over.

Looking at the flow, I was pretty sure that the falls were looking better today than they had in previous visits so I was all set to work every angle I could in order to get some really good images of this impressive, but largely underappreciated waterfall.  I pulled out my 24-70mm lens and got it mounted to the camera along with the Color Combo Polarizer before attaching it to my tripod.  I then started to frame up some compositions.  I noticed that the clouds were still thick and the sun wasn’t fully up at this point so I had to set the white balance to shade in order to combat the overly cool color cast.  The lighting wasn’t all that great, but I was liking the composition so I stayed with it for a while until the sun started to even the color tones out a little bit from behind the clouds.  I chose to go with a 16:9 crop in the camera because of how the elements in the image were organized.  It seemed to make the most sense and provided a very nice flow to the image.

From here, I decided to swap in my 70-200mm lens and start shooting some isolations.  They were actually looking really good and I liked the abstract quality of the water flowing over the rocks.  Because of the very dim early morning light, I actually had to boost my ISO which is almost unheard of with waterfall photography, but it had to be done.  At my base ISO, I was getting 8-10 second exposures which were too slow for the amount of water flowing.  I found that in most situations around 1-2 seconds was all that was needed.  By boosting the ISO to 200, I was able to accomplish that without adding any noise to the image.  The images were coming quicker and I was able to spot compositions much easier than I had in the last few weeks.  I was feeling more like myself once again, and this was a great thing!

The Cradle“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk3, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Feeling that I had gotten everything from the left side of the waterfall that I wanted, I made the short walk through the swift water being careful not to lose my footing.  Once on the other side, I started to see some more compositions, but these were suited to a wide angle lens.  I swapped out my long lens for my 16-35mm and started to work on framing compositions with a pair of rocks as a foreground interest.  Things were going great until I realized that one of the rocks wasn’t exactly wedged in place.  It was gently rocking in the current.  It was hard to tell looking at it, but every once in a while you would see it rock.  I started to look at my image reviews and saw that the left rock was consistently blurred with motion.  I dialed the shutter speed back to 1.3 seconds which was the fastest I wanted to go since I was wanting to show motion in the water.  I thought that was going to work, but when I got it home, that left rock was still blurry.  Had it been a portion of a larger scene I could have dealt with it, but since it was the foreground interest and a focal point, I couldn’t accept the motion blur at all.  The images with the wide angle lens were all scrapped by the end of the culling phase.

Not to be discouraged, I again looked at some isolations from this slightly different perspective.  I swapped out to the 70-200mm lens once again and started to frame up some different abstract compositions.  I was liking this angle better and the light was getting much better as well.  I tried both horizontal and vertical compositions and found that they both worked very well.  I had shot both versions before, but never with this much water.  With the increased flow, the compositions became less isolations of a waterfall and more abstract images with a sense of movement.  It was these images that I was most excited about at this stage.  It has been a very long time since I have been able to organize moving water into a pleasing abstract and I was pretty sure I was making it happen right now.

I tried several different approaches to get my vision captured by the lens.  It was a slow process punctuated by movements ever so small to get that perfect framing.  Things were going so well, but I did eventually have to call it quits on the abstracts when I started seeing myself reshooting the exact same compositions a second time around.  I swapped out my lens for my standard 24-70mm and went back to work composing images around the entire waterfall.  This is the more customary side and the compositions are a little easier.  I was happy that I was able to find a composition or two that incorporated the two rocks over to the right side.  Since I was not emphasizing them with a wide angle lens, the movement became much less problematic.  I still didn’t want a blurred rock, but since the movement was very small, I was able to capture an exposure where the movement didn’t appear thanks to the small size of the rocks.  My favorite composition from this side used those rocks as a bottom right framing element while the stone shoreline on the left gave a nice gentle curve to cradle the other side of the frame.  The waterfall was just off to the right side balanced by the vegetation on the left.

Woodland Spirits“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I worked many different angles on this waterfall from this side until I decided that I had plenty of images to work with when I got home.  Before I packed everything up though, I looked just downstream where there was an eroded section of stone that made for a really nice white water feature.  I have shot this before, but never with as much flow.  It was much more impressive, but the tradeoff was I couldn’t get down as low on the slope because of the water flowing by without having a very high risk of a slip and fall.  I wanted to capture this some way though, and I started looking at it critically.

What I liked about the scene was the way the water was frothing in the hole before continuing down the slope.  I just needed a context to put it in.  My best option was the trail on the other side, but I needed to figure out how to organize it all for the composition.  There were interesting trees on either side of the trail that were both growing diagonally that complimented the direction of the water.  With the trail cutting between the two trees, I had a nice way of showing depth in this image.  By getting down low, and situating the camera in a way that led the eyes from the waterfall down the trail.  It wasn’t exciting, but it did have a certain calming feeling that I liked.  When I was editing it, Toni came in and I asked her about it.  She liked it, and said that it looked like a ghost laying down on the rock.  With that, I was certain that I needed to include it in the keepers from the day.  She is rarely wrong about these things and I have yet to have her steer me wrong when she has said that she likes an image.

That apparition on the stone was the last composition that I worked at Stone Mountain.  With my creative flow seemingly back in place, I also had that interesting quality I’ve mentioned before coming back.  There comes a moment when I consciously say to myself “I’m done here.”  There isn’t anything that prompts it and it usually comes on after I have been going from one composition to another.  All of a sudden though, a switch is flipped and I stop looking for anything else.  I can’t explain it, but I have learned to listen to that voice as I’ve found when I fight it, I never get anything worth while afterwards.

The question now was…where to go.  I could call it a day and go home.  I’ve been satisfied with shooting one location many times so there was no problems going home.  However, I had the feeling I wasn’t done.  I thought about going on the lower trails as I had considered earlier, but decided against it.  I don’t know why, but my heart was telling me to get in the truck and go drive.  It has been oh so long since I’ve had that little voice directing me.  It was getting louder and louder too.  I was feeling like myself.  I made the excruciatingly long hike back to the truck which took less time than putting the camera back in the bag.  I started to drive out of the park and then realized that my inner voice was telling me to go right and exit the park on the back side which I hadn’t done in a couple of years.  When I got to the exit, I turned left which was not my normal direction and I was immediately in unfamiliar territory.  I just decided to go where the winds blew me which had been my chosen technique for finding images for the last couple of years.

Red Belly“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I was actually very impressed with the scenery that I was driving though.  I saw a lot of great potential but the sky wasn’t quite right for what I was seeing.  A week or so ago, I would have gotten desperate and forced an image here I’m pretty sure but today I was content waiting for that right image to develop.  It didn’t take too long as I was going through the town of Traphill before I found an old Ford N-Series tractor sitting in front of a decaying building.  The scene wasn’t all that great, but I know that my photographs of these old Red Belly tractors usually become pretty popular.  The background of the tractor was interesting and I thought that I might be able to use it in a way that avoided the featureless sky above.  I pulled off the road and looked at the scene critically for a few minutes.

There was a lot that I liked here, but the way that the elements were positioned, I was going to have a very static composition which I wasn’t all that happy with.  However, that little voice told me to back up so that I had room to work and get out of the truck.  I listened and grabbed my camera.  This was a very simple setting so I didn’t need any perspective tricks which meant that I was going to be using my standard 24-70mm lens with a polarizer attached.  I started working on compositions with the tractor.  The part that I had the hardest time with was the fact that there were two different buildings side by side.  The one on the left was shorter and just above it there was an expanse of sky that I had to avoid at all costs since it would be right at the corner pulling the eyes out of the frame.  The building to the right was taller, but there was an open garage door that opened up to the inside.  I felt that to get that represented correctly, I had to compose the frame with some extra room at the top.  That would mean including the white sky in the upper left.  I had to compromise and frame the image without the top of the opening.  Because I did that, I really couldn’t include the exterior wall to the right of the door opening as it would be just as much of a distraction as the white sky.  By getting into position in the front quarter of the tractor, I was able to make all my compromises work.  The tractor was kind of centered in the frame, but it had a diagonal quality that added to the visual tension of the image.

The Opening“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I still wasn’t convinced that I had the best image of the tractor.  Since I was already centering the tractor in the frame, I thought that I would try a straight on shot that showcased the symmetry of the scene with the one exception being the open bay door and the boarded window.  I framed the image up square with the door and window dictating the framing with the tractor becoming the foreground element and visual anchor.  It was an odd picture and not a composition that I would have normally done, but my creative energy was coming back and I was inspired with this tractor in this unique setting.  When I got it home and started to process it, I didn’t really like how the gray tractor blended in with the stone work on the building, so I started to consider other options in my presentation.  Monochrome seemed like the way to go with this one because of the control I had over the individual tones.  I was going to be able to get enough separation between the tractor and the building to make the image work.  The symmetry worked very well with this since the opening on the left gave a lot of visual interest on the left side of the frame which was occupied by just a tractor wheel, while the less interesting part of the building was behind the more interesting part of the tractor with the engine what had similar shadows to the opening.  I didn’t think I was going to like this shot, even while I was making the exposure, but I am sure glad that I did it.  It might be one of my favorites from this trip.

I worked the tractor for a little while longer until I was pretty sure that I had captured all that I could with it.  I wasn’t ready to call it a day just yet though.  There was a building here behind the tractor that was full of decay and winter vines.  I started to look for compositions but the building itself was just too big to really support an image on its own.  However, there was a smaller building to the right of this one with a pinkish color added to the walls and just as many vines.  I could see some compositions developing with this building so I moved over to that one and started to look at things.  My attention first went to the door which didn’t surprise me at all.  I do enjoy a good decaying door it would seem, and this one fit that bill.  It was partially covered in vines which added to the visual interest and the stone siding had great textures all by itself.  Even with the splash of color, I was pretty sure that this one was going to be a monochrome image.

Secured by Age“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f2/8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I went with a very simple composition by flipping the camera on its end to shoot a vertical shot.  This allowed me to really draw the attention to the door which I put smack in the middle of the frame.  The visual tension that was needed came from the vines to the right of the door.  This flowed well with the cement landing at the base of the door which appeared to curve to the vines thanks to the leaves that had been piled up at the base of the door.  The missing section of the door at the bottom lined up perfectly with the painted section and it all just flowed so well.

I was now really enjoying this building and wanted to get some more images from it.  I resisted the urge to shoot square again which would have been my normal approach to a flat building like this.  However, I was seeing a composition develop that would work as an angled image.  Using the same door as a foreground, I would be able to incorporate the twin windows to the left as a counter element while the pink trim of the building held the composition together.  It took a little work to get the perspective right for this shot, and I was king of thinking that it would be color, but I kept my mind open to the potential for a monochrome presentation.  As it turned out, I did like the color image the best.  The balance with the trim paint and the green grass along with the grungy stones all worked so well together.

This was the last composition that I tried on this building.  By this time, it was quickly approaching mid day and I did need to get back home as I had some family business to attend to later in the afternoon.  For the trip home I reflected on the day.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to have as far as images went, but I had shot 116 frames which hasn’t happened in quite a long time now.  I was expecting several of them to turn out well, especially the abstracts at the waterfall.  I was not willing to get my hopes too high though for the outcome.  What I did know about this trip made me very happy though.  For the first time in a very long time, I had my creative voice back and I was back in sync with the camera again.  Whether or not the images turned out was immaterial for me.  I had just worked three very different subjects in the course of a few hours and I had been able to come up with creative ideas for each of them without forcing anything.

Unwelcome“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f2/8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

After being in a creative slump for the better part of a month, this is really big news for me.  I remember just a month or so ago, I had told myself that I felt like I could come away with a good photograph from just about any setting that I found myself in.  this was not bragging at all, even though it seems like it.  It was more a recognition that I was capable of doing something that I had been striving for over the years.  It was a hard pill to swallow when not long after that I felt like I couldn’t create a marginal picture if I found myself in the most beautiful setting on Earth.  That is where I had been mentally for far too long.  I have my creativity back and the confidence to go with it.  That is very good news for me, and I do hope that you enjoy the fruits of my labors this morning.  It sure is nice to have nine new images added to my collection.  I do believe that the dry spell is finally over!

Until next time…
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