Getting Rid of the Cobwebs

· Reading Time: 22 minutes

Monday, July 6, 2020

I must admit, I feel completely out of my element right now.  It has been so long since I have gone out for pictures that I swear I think I have forgotten how to do it.  In case you aren’t aware of this, about six weeks ago Toni and I closed on a house that we have been working on getting ready to move into.  There are still a few things left to be done with the house, but we are getting close to that move-in point that we have been striving for since May 22nd!  In the last six weeks, I have only been out a single time with the camera and was able to get two new images for the gallery.  It was a nice break from the routine of painting and repairs, but it was nothing like a normal trek for me.  I was only out for a few hours and I left in the middle of the day.  Those who follow me here will know that my norm is to wake up for first light most of the time and make a long day out of it.  I’ve had plenty of long days over the last six weeks, but they haven’t been the enjoyable long days of a trek with the camera.

Now that things are starting to slow down a little bit at the house, Toni has been suggesting that I get out and do some pictures on these days that nothing has to be done.  I decided to take her up on the offer Monday morning since I didn’t have anything scheduled until just before lunch time.  Looking at the weather, there was going to be 50-80% cloud cover in the upper altitude through the area of Traphill and Sparta.  This was roughly the area of Doughton Park where I typically start my Blue Ridge Parkway Workshop in the Spring.  Of course, that didn’t happen this year due to COVID-19, but the park is now opened once again and with the favorable conditions for a sunrise in the area I decided that would be my destination.  Now for some difficult math.  Sunrise was at 6:16am, and blue hour was around 5:30.  It would take me about 15 minutes to get in position after an hour and a half drive to the park from home.  If I carry the one and count on both of my hands, I was looking at needing to leave at 4am at the latest.  That meant that in order to get my morning tasks done before getting on the road I was going to have to wake up around 3:15am.  Was I crazy?  This was going to be my day off from waking up to do manual labor at the house, and I was getting up hours earlier to be on the mountain before sunrise.  That is what it is to be a landscape photographer, and while I hate getting up early, it is the best time of day for photography in my opinion.

The clock was set and Toni and I turned in early since she was going to work and waking up at 4am for that.  When the alarm rang I remember looking at the phone and really hoping that the weather wasn’t going to turn out like I was expecting so I could just roll back over and go to sleep.  Well, that wasn’t the case.  The weather hadn’t changed much and it was looking like the sunrise was still going to be decent.  There was also showing to be a light fog in the area which might add to the visual interest of some compositions.  I weighed my options and realized that my resistance was due to the fact that I was out of practice of acting like a photographer.  That motivated me to roll out of bed and get the morning started.  Surprisingly, I was reasonably awake and was starting to look forward to seeing Doughton Park again.  It had been quite some time since I have shot any pictures there and it is one of my favorite places to go for sunrise on the Parkway.

Sunrise Over Doughton“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 3-Stop Reverse Grad

I was on the road right at 4am and I was surprised at how bright it was at that time.  The sun wasn’t that close to being at the horizon, but the nearly full moon was completely exposed in the sky.  That was not exactly what I was expecting since there was supposed to be a nice layer of clouds in the sky at this point.  I was seeing none, and I knew that the further West that I went, the fewer clouds there would be.  I didn’t let it bother me though since I was already in motion and ready to see if I remembered how to work the camera after all these weeks.

The trip went smoothly and I was pulling into the parking lot just before 5:30.  There were a few clouds that I could see above, but not that many.  The fog that I had seen mention of in the forecast was also missing.  That wasn’t that big of a problem since my main goal was to get some morning color in the sky.  I grabbed my gear from the back of the 4Runner and started to the gate that would allow me to access the trail leading to the top of the meadow that I always like to start out with.  I had pulled my flashlight out, but quickly decided that it wasn’t needed.  The bright moon above was doing an excellent job at lighting the trail for me.  It took no time at all to get up to the top where my favorite tree stood.  From there I started to look around to see what kind of compositions I would be able to work with.

What I saw was not quite as impressive as I had been hoping for.  To the East there were some thin clouds that I was hoping would catch some of the warm color from the rising sun.  To the West, the sky was basically clear and I could see that the moon was going to set just over the distant ridges.  I filed that in my mind for later since I rarely get any moon images and Toni always enjoys them.  I could see some cloud inversions down below that would make for some interesting views if the light hit it just right.  This is what I love about this location, there are views in all directions with a lot to choose from when it comes to elements in a composition.  For my purposes this morning, I figured that my best bet for a starting composition would be to focus on the tree at the top of the ridge that I love working with .

Under Pastel Light“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Daryl Benson 3-Stop Reverse Grad

I typically get in kind of close and fill the frame with the tree, but I was wanting to do something a little bit different with the light that I was seeing develop.  I was looking at some clouds way overhead that were starting to catch some of the light and I was hoping that they would go full color against the blue sky beyond them.  This would provide the best color contrast in the sky since the horizon was going to get very bright quickly looking to the East.  In order to capture that much of the sky above, I was going to need to shoot very wide and get back away from the tree.  With the tree shrinking in size relative to the composition, was going to need a different foreground element to anchor the image.  I could see some exposed rock on the ground near the tree in roughly the correct place I was needing to be.  I moved my gear over there and set the camera up with the 16-35mm lens.  I found the composition that I wanted which included the rocky surface as a sweeping element leading off to the horizon.  The tree that was normally my main focal point became a supporting element for the scene.  It was a nice change of pace for this location and I was liking how the composition was coming along.  What I wasn’t liking was the exposure values I was seeing.

With the sun approaching the horizon, the sky was much brighter than the foreground landscape.  This is fine if I was wanting to focus on the sky and use silhouettes as foreground interest, but this composition wasn’t going to support that recipe.  Since my main point of interest in the foreground was well below the horizon, I needed to have a decent exposure on the landscape as well as the sky above.  The easiest way to accomplish this was to use an ND Grad filter.  The problem with those filters is that in order to darken the horizon sufficiently to get the correct exposure for the ground, the upper part of the frame will go almost completely dark as that is where the maximum effect of the filter is.  I did have a trick up my sleeve to address this issue though.  I keep two Singh-Ray Daryl Benson Reverse Grads in my filter wallet for just such occasions.  They have the maximum filter effect right at the horizon and the effect fades the further up  on the filter that you go.  This filter is most useful with a wide angle lens, so I was in my element for being able to use it.  I slid it into the Lee Foundation System and matched it up with the horizon.  The histogram immediately reacted favorably to the the 3-stop filter that had been added and I was now able to get a very balanced exposure between the sky and the landscape.

At this point, I started making exposures ever minute or so as the lighting changed and the clouds picked up the color.  As I was waiting between shots I was looking around for other compositions based on how the sky was looking.  I started to pick out some other possibilities which should take advantage of what I was expecting the clouds to do.  Fortunately, they were not moving fast so I was able to plan out several different vantage points that I could work in order as the light changed.  It had been a long while since I had done a sunrise session, but I was slowly getting back into my rhythm of seeing images and capturing them.  I was slower than normal as I was having to think through a lot of the process, but I wasn’t stumbling which was the important think.  With each exposure I was getting my muscle memory back and I was feeling more at home behind the camera.  It was feeling quite nice honestly.

Barefoot Meadow“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Soft ND Grad

When the color started to fade high up in the sky, I decided to abandon this position and move to one of my other compositions that I had planned on.  This happened to be on the other side of the tree and didn’t really include a major element in the foreground.  The visual anchor was just a small bit of exposed rocky surface which balanced against a grove of trees at the fold between two ridges.  I used the wide angle lens to get in close  and still capture the colors in the sky above.  Since the clouds weren’t moving fast, I only needed a single exposure here as the light was changing quickly and I it was already fading from the sky by the time I got things set up.  It was enough time for me to get the image that I was after though, and it allowed me to move on to the next one.

At this point in the morning, I was less interested in shooting towards the East where the sun was coming up because the sky was just much too bright.  My attention turned to the directions of North and South for my next composition.  The Southern sky was still rather bland and I felt that the better option would be the Northern direction.  I had already picked out a composition for that which included the tree and the exposed rock that had been the foreground for the previous picture.  I just moved my potion to allow for a Northerly view over the rock which included the tree now.  The sky was much more forgiving here so there was no need for the reverse grad which I still had on the camera.  Instead, I swapped over to a Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad which would help to take the bite out of the sky while allowing a natural transition between the ground and the sky.

This composition I ended up working on for a little longer than the last one.  It took me a while to fine tune my position to get all of the elements to come together.  I was still able to retain my wide angle lens which I was happy about since it allowed me the ability to include more of the sky and accentuate the size of the rock in the foreground.  The clouds were starting to fade away so I was happy that I landed on a composition that I liked while there was still some visual interest in the sky.  That interest came from a clump of clouds that balanced the composition with the tree quite nicely.  They were at an angle that complemented the rock as well so I counted that as a complete win for the composition as a whole.  The colors were not quite as brilliant as they had been, but there was enough there to make it an interesting image.  Everything there seemed to frame the distant mountain range which was my intention with the composition from the beginning.

With the sky changing and fading quickly at this point, I was looking for my other compositions that I had scoped out earlier.  Several of them were no longer going to work because the clouds did not hold and the colors had long since faded, or never materialized in the first place.  The one composition that looked to hold promise was the one looking to the West over a small outcropping of rocks.  I have shot this basic composition several times before so I kind of knew how it was going to work.  I did run into a wildcard though that forced a few changes with it.  I was wanting to include the moon as it came close to the horizon which changed things up slightly.  I was still shooting with my 16-35mm lens which I was planning on using for this composition but I quickly found out that the the moon was just too small at the wide angles.  I was going to need to change up the relationship between the foreground and the moon to make it big enough to be valid in the composition.

The Lunar Ridge“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Soft ND Grad

I decided to swap out to my 24-70mm lens and move the 3-stop ND Grad over to that lens.  The sky wasn’t all that over exposed compared to the ground, but I wanted to make sure that I didn’t blow out the moon during the exposure.  Since the moon is lit by the sun, it has some of the same exposure considerations so I wanted to err on the side of caution with my exposure.  The Grad filter worked great here and allowed me to deepen the blue sky and even add a little density to the magenta part of the horizon which was where the Earth was casting its shadow.  This is one of my favorite places to capture the twilight wedge and it didn’t disappoint on this morning.  The trick was to wait until the moon dropped just above the wedge while it was still in the deep blue of the sky.  There weren’t many clouds in the blue part of the sky so it was nice to have the moon there for a bit of visual interest.  After each exposure I would check the LCD review and make sure that there were no blinkies over the moon which would indicate overexposure.  If they showed up, I would drop the exposure a bit and go again.  This seemed to do the trick as I was able to get good exposures with detail in the moon.

The closer it fell to the horizon the more washed out the moon got and it started to fade from view.  When that happened, I decided that it was time to call it quits on this composition as the sky wasn’t interesting enough to carry the image all by itself.  I still had a little bit of color in the sky and enough time to work one of the last compositions that I had in mind.  This one actually came to me while shooting the moon image I just talked about.  As the sun was rising and lighting the meadow, I became very interested in the tall grass in the field.  It was catching the sunlight as it raked across the landscape and I thought that the warm tones looked really nice against the cool sky.  The same rock formation that I had used as a foreground for the previous shot became the focal point for this shot as well, but from a different angle.

Doughton’s Expanse“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Soft ND Grad

You see, while shooting the setting moon image, I kept having to run off to the right as the exposure was counting down to get my shadow out of the frame.  The tripod wasn’t large enough to really cause an issue on the rock, but with me behind the tripod it was enough to cause a problem.  During the 10 second count downs, I would run over to the other side of the rock and wait for the exposure to be made.  While I was waiting, I was looking across the field.  I was seeing a composition take shape and that was what I was lining up to shoot at this point.  I kept the same lens and filter combination for this composition and just worked out the angles to make the rocks sweep through the image and lead the eyes out to the distant meadow across the parking lot.  By getting low, I was able to avoid including the parking lot in the composition which really didn’t add to the story I was trying to capture.  Not only that, but I didn’t want my 4Runner to be a star in this image.

The composition was all about the grass catching the light of the sun and the distant mountain range which was showing off that cloud inversion.  I don’t recall creating many images from this angle before, but I have to admit that I am a fan of how this turned out.  The sky was subtle, and had just enough detail and color to be interesting, but it wasn’t as dramatic as I would normally like.  It did allow the foreground to take a more important roll in the image which I kind of liked.

By this point, I had shot around 45 frames worth of images all within 50 yards of each other.  I had created images in every direction from the top of the meadow and I was feeling more like myself with the camera once again.  I was having a very good time.  Sadly, the sky was clearing and the light was starting to get harsh so I knew that my time here was limited at this point.  I packed up my gear and started to make the short hike back to the parking lot.  The light down by the parking lot was still rather soft so I thought that I would look for something to photograph down there before I got in the truck to move on down the road.

Open Trails“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

I did my walk around the parking lot and looked to see where the good light was falling.  The opposite side meadow was looking pretty good, but the sky above it was lousy.  None of my normal compositional ideas would work here with the blank sky above.  However, as I was walking along, I noticed that the fence had a section that had fallen.  Now, I love my decay images, and I love the wooden fences along the Parkway.  This was a situation that was calling my name fore sure.  I started to look at the section of fence that had fallen and tried to figure out how best to put this to use.  The lighting was good from the left side which allowed me to include the Bluff Mountain trail as well as the tree that grows to the right of that trail.  I wasn’t convinced of the composition, but I was close enough to figuring it out to justify pulling out the camera.

I went ahead and fitted the 24-70mm lens and left the filters off.  The exposure was looking nice and even so far and I didn’t think that I would benefit from any Grads.  I considered a polarizer, but with the sun at my back the effect would be minimal at best.  Without any clouds in the sky, I didn’t really need the added contrast and the colors were looking fine already.  I decided to leave off all the filters and just shoot this one au naturale.  I worked on the right location and composition to include what I wanted in the scene while excluding what I didn’t want.  I also looked for separation in my elements and tried to decide on my depth of field.  I starred out with a shallow depth of field on the fence, but I wasn’t sure that I would like that for a final image.  I wasn’t wanting the background to be super sharp, but I felt that it needed to be relatively crisp in order to carry the eyes through the image.  I played with the aperture values to get a variety of options to choose from when I finally got it on the computer to process.  As it turned out f/14 gave the right amount of sharpness at the different areas of the image and was What I went with.  My fears of the shallow depth of field were well founded and when I looked at them on the monitor I didn’t like them at all.  My eyes fought the scene and that ruined the image for me.  Having a more subtle falloff worked so much better and made the image quite a bit more comfortable.

After shooting a few different versions of this composition, I decided that my time at Doughton was done.  I had shot all that I wanted, and the light was no longer looking flattering for the area.  It was nice to still have that switch in my head that I have talked about before here.  There just comes a time when the creativity turns off at a location.  It is usually sudden and quite final.  I packed up my gear and walked the remaining steps to the truck before leaving Doughton.  I wasn’t ready to go home just yet as I still had time before my appointment.  Instead, I decided to travel South towards Boone to see if there were any other areas that caught my eyes.

The light was getting harsh and the clouds had all but left the sky by this point.  I wasn’t feeling all that confident about finding anything else and I was very thankful that I had found the images that I had at Dougton.  At this point I was focusing more on just enjoying being out in a scenic location and wasn’t worried about finding any more images to shoot.  Of course, that is usually when I find my best images if history is accurate.  Well, as I was driving through Laurel Springs, I saw some low fog in certain areas that captured my attention. There wasn’t much of it, but I do enjoy working in the fog when I find the right subjects.  The problem was the fog was light and the light was strong.  This was not a great combination and I wasn’t seeing anything that really caught….

Hey wait a minute….

Was that fog around that old house with sun rays streaking through?

I looked in the mirror and saw it again.  Yep, there was an old farmhouse sitting just off the road in the trees with some light fog around it.  The sun was shining through and creating some great rays right at the corner of the house.  I got the truck turned around and exited the Parkway on the gravel road that the house was off of.  I pulled off to the side and got out to check it out real quick.  I could see the composition I wanted and could also see the “No Trespassing” sign on the front porch.  Well, the composition that I was after didn’t require getting in any closer than the road so I was comfortable with shooting this house real quick.

Summer’s Sun Rays“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, 5-Image HDR Blend

I grabbed my gear and and fitted the 24-70mm lens which was sufficient for the distance that I was shooting from.  There was no need for any filters for this image and I was expecting it to be very straightforward.  I set the camera up and got a composition figured out really quick since the lighting was changing very rapidly by this point.  I fired off an exposure and saw that much of the sky was overexposed which I had figured would be the case.  This was a very high contrast scene and I expected the sky to come out featureless white.  That was why I made sure to include the tree branches and leaves to add some visual interest in the areas with sky.  I still wasn’t convinced that I was able to get all the information needed for a clean image so I decided that an HDR series would be a safer bet.  There was no wind to speak of, so I wasn’t worried about the blending of images which was nice.

I fired off a series of five images which were a full stop apart so that I was able to get plenty of information in the shadows as well as the highlights.  I did two different series like this with slightly different compositions to make sure that I had the images that I wanted.  I also shot a couple single images where I felt that the exposure was as close as could be done just in case I didn’t like the blended images.  The whole process took me about five minutes and by that time the light had changed sufficiently enough to where it wasn’t worth trying any more.

I was very happy to find that my last HDR series blended well and created a very clean final image with some very distinct sun rays though the morning fog.  The atmosphere in this image way overshadows the fact that the sky is blown out essentially.  Thanks to the HDR, it really wasn’t blown out, but there was no detail to be had in it, so it appears basically white.  The white house maintains that monochromatic look with the only colors entering into the image coming from the yellow sunlight and the summer greens of the grass and trees.  I toyed with the idea of making this a monochrome image, but in the end, I felt that it really needed the warm tones of the sun and grass to complete the story that I was trying to tell with this one.

When I was done with this image I took stock of the existing conditions and found that the light was no longer good for what I was after.  I could have done some IR photography, but for that to really look good I was going to need clouds.  It was looking like I was done.  I dropped off the Parkway at Hwy 16 and headed home, going past my new home which was only about 20 minutes away.  Oh, how I wished that was officially home and I could have avoided the additional hour and change to get back to Winston.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this first full scale trek in about six weeks.  I know that it has been a blast for me, and I am really happy with the images that I have captured.  If any of them speak to you, please consider ordering a print so that you can enjoy it in its tangible form hanging on your walls.  You will also find affiliate links through this blog and at the bottom.  It helps me when you click on these links and purchase something from any of the retailers whether or no I have linked directly to that product or not.  It costs you nothing extra, but it does help me a little each time.

I hope to be getting back to normal very soon, so be looking for more new treks.

Until next time…
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