Going Back to Surry County

· Reading Time: 21 minutes

Thursday, January 30, 2020

When I’m out capturing images I usually have a pretty good idea whether they are going to be color or black and white.  Occasionally I will plan incorrectly, but for the most part I am on target each time.  I just don’t know what happened today though.  It seems that each picture that I ended up with at the end of the day was presented in the exact opposite manner than I was expecting when I captured them.  I’m actually happier with the outcome this way than I think I would have been based on my previsualization of each scene.  So how did this all come to be?  Well, I had a little time to kill and needed to get a few miles on the 4Runner before I could do a service on it, so what better way than to go out and hunt some pictures.  The weather was looking pretty good with low and mid level clouds forecasted and very little wind.  It seemed that the clouds would be better to the Northwest so I started to look in that general direction for some subject matter.

It just so happens that I am still waiting on a call back from a property owner out in Surry County where I had gone earlier in the week.  There were several cars that I was interested in shooting out behind of a house and I had left a card there.  Unfortunately though, nobody has called me back since I was out there.  I decided since the weather was good for the compositions that I had in mind that I would head back out there.  The worst that could happen would be that nobody was home again and I would be left exploring the area a little bit.  I could live with that so that was going to be my destination.

I set out towards Surry County just after dropping Sierra off at school.  I wasn’t worried about getting out there at first light, and it would actually be beneficial to wait a little later in the morning since I was planning on knocking on a door first thing.  I was well on my way out there just before 9am, and I got to my destination around 9:30.  I was really happy to find that the car was gone out of the driveway and there was now a FedEx truck pulled into another section of the driveway.  At least I knew that there was some sort of changeover with people here.  I parked on the side of the road and went to the front door.  I saw that my card was still where I had left it, but I hoped that it was just not seen when they came in.  I knocked on the door to see if anyone would answer it today.

There was no answer and no indication that anyone was inside.  I waited for a minute or two before going back to the truck.  There was no sense in leaving another card since there was still one left out there.  I started to wonder if the house was actually occupied, or just just a parking area for a truck.  I was going to have to come back later and try again it seemed.  Oh well, I knew that there was a lot of great potential out in this area so I cleared my mind and started with my explorations.  I started turning down this road and that road looking for something that caught my eye.  The clouds were not all that impressive, but the light was good at least.  I was still seeing a lot of potential, but nothing that looked to be ready for a photograph just yet.  I wasn’t worried at all though, I still had plenty of time, and even if I didn’t get anything, I was making mental notes for other trips out to this area.

As it turned out though, I didn’t have to wait long to find something to photograph.  As I was driving down one of the secondary roads I saw an old barn off on the right hand side of the road with some trees directly behind it.  The sky wasn’t great behind it, but I was pretty sure that I could get a composition with it and hope that the sky would do something interesting.  As I passed by, I could see another barn about 100 yards further down the road.  This was a lone tobacco barn right next to plowed field.  It was sitting in the field without any obstruction.  This was going to be an easy barn to isolate and by putting it next to the plowed rows, I was going to have a story to tell.  This was going to be a good location if the clouds decided to cooperate.

Barren Field“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads

When I got parked on the side of the road, I grabbed my gear because I really wasn’t sure what I was going to need for either of the barns.  I looked at the one tobacco barn where I had parked.  The sky was looking decent behind it, but I was thinking that the other barn was going to be more difficult to photograph so I decided to start with that one.  I made the short walk down to it and checked out the scene.  The sky was starting to get a little bit of detail, but nothing great.  As I pondered the composition, I decided that getting in close and using my wide angle lens would be the way to go.  That way, I could make the barn a little bit bigger while including all of the trees with the sky.  I knew that this was going to be a black and white scene for sure with the contrasts I was seeing.  I set up a couple of different compositions and even shot a four image series for an HDR blend later on.  After about 20 minutes I had settled on a composition that I liked, but wasn’t really feeling the sky at all.

I decided to head back to the other barn since the sky was still looking better in that direction.  By the time I walked back over there though, the sky was getting rather muddy looking.  I figured I might as well find a composition that I liked while I was waiting on the sky to change.  I left the wide angle lens attached and found an unlikely composition from rather far away from the barn.  I really liked what I was seeing though as it allowed the plowed field to provide leading lines into the scene pointing to the tobacco barn.  The trees on the distant edge of the field also pointed to the barn.  By putting the barn right in the upper third of the frame, I was able to get a very balanced composition like this.  The only problem…the sky was much too bright for this to work out.  Even if the clouds started to have more detail, I was going to blow them out in order to expose for the barn.  I could have shot an HDR series here, but honestly, I just wasn’t feeling all that committed to the sky.

Instead, I opted to slide in an ND Grad filter to take the bite out of the sky.  I started with a 3-stop soft edge Galen Rowell filter.  This helped and brought the histogram back under control.  I could also see a little more detail in the sky since I was adding some density.  I wanted to see what would happen if I added another 2-stop soft edge to that as well.  I slid that filter in and left it slightly higher than the darker filter so that the transition point was staggered allowing for a very gradual transition up to 5 stops of light loss.  That really seemed to do the trick according to the live view and histogram.  I was getting a good deal of detail in the clouds now.  I was already picturing this image as a monochrome shot so that I could really work on the sky, and use the contrasting colors of the field to the best advantage.

When I got home and started to process the image, I really didn’t like the monochrome look at all with this one.  It just seemed to lack something and was really looking like I converted it just because.  There was no addition to the story by doing this, so I brought it back to color and started to process it that way.  The more I worked with it, the more I really liked it.  The color balance was good, and the reds and greens of the field were just perfect with the slightly yellow look of the barn and the blueish tint of the sky.  I really liked the soft aspect of the sky and didn’t do much to bring out any more details in it.  I liked the look of it just as it was.  This was the first image that I completely got wrong in the field when deciding how I wanted to present it.

Season of Rest“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads

Now that I had the tobacco barn pretty well captured, I wanted to go back and look at the first barn one more time to see if I could do any better.  I went back over there with the same setup for the camera.  I got back in the rough position that I had been earlier and then came in a little more.  I elevated the camera as high as I could get it to avoid the converging verticals as much as I could.  I liked this composition better than before and the two ND Grad filters were helping here as well.  However the sky just wasn’t looking great at this angle.  In fact, the sun was just out of the frame to the left and was starting to shine through.  I could see movement in the sky, and my hope was the thicker clouds would return momentarily.  My patience did pay off and before long I was looking at some decent texture in the sky as some dark clouds moved through my frame.  The sun was also blocked by the clouds and the light became much more even once again.

I fine tuned the composition and the positioning of the filters while still keeping them staggered for that gradual transition that I needed fro this shot.  The histogram was looking great and I just knew that I had plenty of detail.  I switched the profile over to monochrome and added a red filter just to see how this would look in black and white.  I was really happy with it, and it allowed me to really play to the contrasts in the scene.  I was certain that this was going to be a monochrome shot since the colors were so muted anyway.


When I got this image home I started to process it in black and white but it just didn’t have that visual pop that I was after for it.  The composition was strong, and I had good textures in the image, but the black and white presentation was just missing something.  I decided to revert it back to color (benefit to shooting RAW), and started to process it that way.  I was able to get the same detail out of the image in color, and with the added warmth from the ground contrasting with the blue clouds, I was seeing a color contrast that was much needed for this image.  It allowed me to keep the soft clouds as they were without adding too much contrast to make it pop.  I did have to work a great deal on the colors with this one to give it a bit of life.  With the overcast sky, and the back light, the colors were not all that great in the original capture.  However, after some tweaking of the values I managed to get a very neutral color cast across the entire image and it became a very good color image with the mood of a monochrome which I appreciated.

I’m now 0 for 2 on picking a presentation with my images.  I’m not complaining at all though.  I am very much a fan of letting the image tell me how it wants to be presented and just because I think that a scene is made for color or black and white doesn’t mean that is the best thing for the image.  I just don’t usually run into this disparity in plan and execution that often.  But while I was heading back to the tobacco barn to see if the sky was any better there, I took at a look at the property across the street.  I was pretty sure that this was the property owner because there was a house with another few barns off on the side of the yard.  There was no signs of anyone awake at the house, and I really didn’t need to talk to anyone since I was shooting from the roadway.  My eyes did start to fixate on one of the barns in the yard.  This particular barn had a Ford tractor inside of it, and a nice tree just to the side.  I was seeing a nice composition here, and with the way the colors were looking, I was pretty sure that I was finally going to have a color image for the day.

Barn Kept“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I got the camera into position just on the edge of the hill from the road and started to work a composition.  I found that at 35mm I was getting too much information in the scene.  I needed to simplify things by getting a tighter crop.  I swapped out to my 24-70mm lens and dialed it into about 50mm.  That did the trick and allowed me to frame the shot with the tree just at the top of the frame while the ground had just enough room to breathe in front of the barn.  I was getting too much on either side of the barn though, and knew that I was going to have to crop this as either a 5:7 or 4:5 ratio in post to eliminate the edge of the barn to the left and the roof of another barn just at the ground level on the right.  My framing included the barn and the tree which was exactly what I was wanting, and that tractor took center stage in the barn which made me very happy.

It wasn’t until I got the image home and started to process it that I decided that there was just not enough color in the image to really make it work.  The sky was looking too pale in color and became a distraction.  I converted it to black and white and started to adjust the contrasts in the scene until I found a presentation that I liked.  The more I worked with it, the more the trees started to look funny against the bright clouds in the sky.  I was very happy that I had kept my two filters on this lens as the sky would have been out of control otherwise.  I wasn’t liking this presentation either so when Toni came back to talk to me for a minute I had her look at it.  She liked it and said that should be a keeper.  Since she is usually right about my monochrome images I decided to put it on the shelf and come back to it to try and fix the issues that I had with it.

After I had processed my next image, I cam back to it and looked at it with fresh eyes.  I still didn’t like it so I went back into the color profiles to see if there was another monochrome one that I could choose that would work better.  After trying a few different ones out, I found one that really worked well for the image.  It softened the trees and the sky just enough to make it work.  I selected that one and then did a few more subtle tweaks on the image before calling it done.  It is not quite the image that I had in mind, but I think it works and it does have that timeless quality to it that I like with my barn images.

When I was done shooting that barn, I looked around for anything else that might have changed or that I might like to shoot.  I wasn’t finding anything so I decided to pack everything up and get back on the road.  I had been out here for a little over an hour, and it was time to move on.  I was feeling pretty confident at this point since I had about 60 images of three different scenes under my belt.  I was looking at two monochrome and one color image out of the bunch which was not a great hit rate, but I had shot two of the barns a couple of times under different conditions, but knew that I was only going to pick the best one of each barn and go with that since the compositions were all very similar.  I still find it funny that I had the exact opposite happen when it came to black and white vs color on these images.  I was so certain of how these would look best when I was shooting them too!

Reaching Up“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads

I spent the next hour or so driving around and not finding a single thing to photograph.  I passed by old cars, lots of barns, and some potential landscapes, but nothing was looking right in the current lighting and with the clouds as they were.  It was getting kind of late in the morning so I decided it was time to work my way home.  I keyed in home to the GPS and started to get my mind on turning a wrench under the 4Runner.  Just about the time I had switched gears and was no longer thinking creatively I stumbled on an old church on the side of the road.  All of a sudden my creativity came right back to me.  I pulled off the road and got out to look at what I had just stumbled on.  It was such a cute church sitting there in the woods.  The part that I really liked was the fact that it was sitting beneath two gigantic trees that had some very interesting structure to them.  I could definitely see a wide angle capture of this showcasing the trees in some way.   I went back to the truck and grabbed my camera.  I was already thinking this was going to be a job for my 16-35mm lens once again.  Having been through the same type experience with the sky earlier, I decided to go ahead and add the 2 and 3-stop soft grads and stagger them as I had before.

I got into position for my first composition which was going to be a vertical shot from the side of the church.  It had both trees included but the one on the left was too tall to fully include while the right one left a gap at the top of the frame.  In addition to the balance being off between the two trees, the church had a very odd distortion from the wide angle. I wasn’t liking how it looked at all so I started to look for another composition to go with.  As I was moving around the church, I stopped right in front of it.  I could see the trees coming together in a converging vertical which I thought framed the roof and steeple so well.  This was the shot I wanted.  It was going to be a dramatic black and white shot for sure!

I got the camera set up directly in front of the door and worked the height out to where I was able to perfectly frame the church with the trees.  I worked the two grad filters into position and set the exposure.  I had even selected black and white in the picture style of the camera and was really liking how this was looking.  I shot about a dozen or so variations on this composition knowing that it would come down to millimeters to where the best position for the camera was.  I was pretty happy with them all and was thinking that this would be a favorite of mine because I have had great luck shooting compositions like this with the trees outstretching before when done in black and white.

Well, when I got home, things changed.  I started off doing it as monochrome and decided that it just looked flat without the color.  There had been just a hint of warmth in the church and just a hint of cool in the sky.  By reverting back to a color image, I was able to see those subtle color tones which balanced so well.  It also made the church look so much more inviting since it was rendered a tad warmer than the sky.  I adjusted the saturation to keep it all very subtle and saw that the sky was going to white through the mid section.  That was just fine as it was a totally overcast day and the clouds were only picking up a little of the blue color cast anyway.  It all just came together so well and I couldn’t bare to see this one as a black and white image after planning for it to be just that.  I was now 0 for 4 in my previsualizations for the day.  What about my fifth image from the 80 frames that I had shot for day?

Bare Essentials“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3-stop soft ND Grads, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

Well, this last composition was surely going to be a color image.  I had gone back to the original side i had started with when I was doing the vertical composition.  Since I had the dramatic trees, I wanted to get one of the church itself as the primary element.  I kept the camera situated in landscape orientation and framed up a landscape shot.  this was going to include the rusty red roof and much more of the warm colors of the side of the church which would balance so well with the blues in the clouds.  This was going to be an awesome color image!  I rattled off about a half dozen frames with subtle compositional changes since I was shooting with a wide angle lens.

This is one of the considerations you have to keep in mind when shooting with a wide angle.  Your position becomes so much more important as the perspective of the entire image will greatly change for every millimeter that you shift.  I wanted to keep the trees somewhat vertical here as well as the edges of the church. That meant that I had to elevate my tripod quite a bit, and I had to watch to make sure that the walkway didn’t come out of the frame any while keeping the trunks fully in the frame.   I had the two ND Grads staggered and tilted to the left to follow the natural horizon line of the image.  It was all working so well, and I was excited about this image as well.

Then I got it home and started to process it in color.  The sky that I was counting on being blue came out totally white in all of the images.  I wasn’t liking this at all.  I could have gone in an added blue to the sky, but that wasn’t going to be true to the scene, so I played around with the color profiles for a bit and decided that color was a lost cause with this one.  I converted it to monochrome and almost immediately I felt better about the image.  I worked on the tonal separation and fine tuned the contrasts in the scene until I had an image that was just like what I had imagined…only without color.  Yep, every single one of the images I shot today ended up getting processed the complete opposite of what I had intended.

Again, I am not upset about that.  In fact, I am very happy about what this says about me.  No, I’m not getting caught up in the fact that I was wrong about the images.  I’m happy to see that I am very flexible with my images when it comes time to process them.  The worst thing that I can think to happen at this stage is to blindly follow an idea or concept when it is not working out.  As an artist, I have to allow myself the ability to let the subject dictate how it wants to be viewed.  It is not always my choice, but it is my responsibility to present the best work that I can.  Ideas and concepts are always just loose instructions figured out as we go.  As the reality sets in, your expectations should be able to adapt which I have done here.  All five of these images actually turned out better than I had imagined, and that was because I allowed myself to go in different directions with each of them.  I just hope that you enjoy them as much as I am.

Register now for “Photography in Your Own Back Yard” with Greg Kiser

I want to take a moment and remind you about a webinar that I am doing on February 20th for Singh-Ray.  I will be talking about shooting locally and the benefits that you will reap by doing so.  It is a concept that I have held near and dear to my heart for a while now.  It has really paid off for me over the last few years and I wanted to share some of my thoughts as well as images from 10 miles or less from home.  Talk about shooting in your own back yard!  The webinar is free to sign up for and if you can’t join live, then you can watch it recorded at your convenience.  I encourage you to reserve your spot if for nothing else so you can laugh at me when I make boo boos live.  Hey, it will happen, I’m sure of it.  Just go here and get registered.

As always, if you see a picture here that speaks to you and you would like a print, please be sure to let me know so that I can help you get matched up with your very own original Greg Kiser print.  There is no better way to view my work than in its tangible form.  Speaking of which, when I got home from this trek, I had an email from The Art Shop in Greensboro asking for another print for the newly constructed building for Cone Health in Greensboro.  I already have seven large prints included in that new building and this latest one is a 100 inch panorama which I have now priced and am waiting for the go ahead which I don’t think will be an issue.  I will be attending the ribbon cutting for this new building in early February and intend on taking a few pictures of my artwork on the walls which I will probably share here in the blog in some manner so stay tuned for that within the next month.

Until next time….

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