Hawksbill Mountain With a Rainbow

· Reading Time: 36 minutes

Friday, August 23, 2019

Comfort Clouds“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2

I’m not exactly sure where this trek actually started.  I actually was all over the place as the week was coming to a close about where I could go to take advantage of the weather that was being forecasted.  For the first time, it wasn’t going to be sunny all day long, and there was actually a great deal of fluctuation in the forecast depending on when I looked.  That meant that the atmosphere was going to be very unsettled for a good part of the weekend and that meant continually changing skies…something that I love to work with.  It got even better when I was looking at where the interesting skies should be located and found that they were going to be in the mountains.  I have been kind of wanting to work with waterfalls lately, but I wasn’t convinced that there was going to be that kind of overcast for long enough.  I didn’t want to do my normal jaunt on the Blue Ridge Parkway either since I’m really not liking all of the green that is everywhere.  I needed something to add some visual interest to the landscape since color wouldn’t be a key factor.  My initial two thoughts were Rough Ridge and Wiseman’s View.  The problem is, I’ve done Rough Ridge a number of times and wasn’t all that excited about it.  On the other hand, Wiseman’s View is really nice, but there isn’t a whole lot that can be done there.

I was actually kind of stumped as far as where to go, but knew that the skies would be worth the trip to the mountains if for nothing else.  It wasn’t until late in the day on Thursday that Hawksbill Mountain came to mind.  Now, I have been out here a number of times over the years and have enjoyed it immensely each time.  There are views pretty much 360 degrees from the top of the trail, and then you can actually work your way down just a bit for some other views of the Linville Gorge below.  When it came to capturing the sky, this would be the place to do it from, and the landscape of Hawksbill has plenty of craggy elements to add interest to the foreground for these shots.  My decision was set, I would set out early in the morning and attempt something that I had not done in the past.  I was going to make the hike up in the dark and catch a sunrise if one decided to show up.

I didn’t recall the length of the hike, so I looked it up.  It showed to be a mile and a half round trip to the top which should take me about 15 minutes to get to the pinnacle at my normal 20 minute mile hiking pace.  With the 2.5 hours worth of driving and giving myself some time to set up, I was going to need to leave about 3 hours before sunrise which was supposed to happen at 6:44.  I was up and out by a quarter of 4 and on my way to Hawksbill Mountain for what I was sure would be interesting if nothing else.  The weather was still very unstable and the cloud forecast was showing clouds at all levels in varying percentages but not a complete sky cover.  The sunrise forecast was dismal and really didn’t hold much hope for me, but that first light should still be pretty incredible which made it worth starting my day that early.  At least that was what I was telling myself.

My thoughts were to stay at Hawksbill as long as I needed to get the changing conditions shot to my satisfaction.  Then I would either move on to Table Rock just down the road, or I would go to Wisemans View if the clouds were still interesting.  Everything was tightly packed all around the Linville Gorge which made travel easy enough.  Plus, the Gorge gave a lot of visual interest even though the trees were all a very dull green by this point in the Summer.  These are all the things that I have to take into consideration when picking a destination for a day of photography.

A Moment to Reflect“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

The ride out to the mountains was interesting to say the least.  It started out in the rain which was fine as I was expecting some showers in Winston on the way out.  This was the rain that had been rolling through the mountains a short time before.  As I was clearing out of Forsyth County, I could see lighting strikes to the West.  Now how cool would that be to get lighting from the top of Hawksbill?  I was really getting excited about this since bad weather really makes for fantastic landscape images.  I was sleepy, but the excitement was keeping me focused so far which was a good thing.  The closer I got to the mountains the more stars I started to see in the sky which bothered me.  Was I about to leave all the great weather behind for another sunny day in the mountains?  Boy I hoped that wasn’t the case.  I continued on hoping that the unsettled weather would bring some great skies my way.

When I got to Hwy 181 and started the ascent to the Linville Gorge, I started to see a touch of fog rolling over the road.  Well, it was either fog or low laying clouds.  It was hard to tell since t was so faint at this point.  It did give me hope for some good inversions in the valley floor which would make for some more interesting visuals in the images I was hoping to be able to capture.  Normally, the winding road was good for keeping me awake, but my eyes were really getting heavy and I found myself making the turns much slower than I would normally be doing it.  With cars behind me, I decided it was time to pull off and get some air in my lungs to wake me up for the last 30 minutes of the trip.

As it turned out, I pulled off the road into a convenience store that I had visited before.  This was the location of one of my favorite bus pictures.  I got out of the truck and did about 30 jumping jacks to wake my heart up.  That worked nicely and my eyes were more alert.  I wanted to see how the bus would look with a bit of light painting since it was still very dark, and since I was here…  I grabbed my flashlight from the back of the 4Runner and lit up the area where I knew the bus was.  It was gone.  I looked over to the side just in case I didn’t remember exactly where it had been, but couldn’t find it anywhere.  Hmmm, it was in pretty rough condition and the owner was worried about people playing in it and getting hurt, so I guess he removed it and probably took it to his house where he has an extensive collection of other rusty hulks.  I still wish he had let me know where that was!

Oh well, no time to dwell on the past, I was wasting time that I needed be on the road.  I pulled back out and continued on my way to Hawksbill Mountain.  I was very happy to see my turn for Gingercake Rd as I knew I was almost there.  The sky was just starting to light up and I was set to be at the trailhead by 6:05 which should give me plenty of time to get to the top for sunrise.  The road to the trailhead was slow going because it was gravel and dirt with places that have been rutted.  I was surprised to see a couple of cars at a pull off for the camping areas and hoped that wasn’t going to be an indicator for where I was going to be.

Full of Surprises“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

Well, there were two cars there in the parking area for the trailhead, so that meant that there was going to be tents up there.  I was just hoping that they weren’t going to be in the areas of my compositions.  I got out of the truck and grabbed my Lowepro and my Manfrotto before starting up the trail.  The sky was starting to light up but there didn’t appear to be any color.  It was hard to tell though since I was very deep in the trees.  It was pitch black on the trails so I was having to use my Raybek light to show me the way.  This small LED light does a great job in the dark, and it is small enough to have mounted to the waste belt of my Lowepro Whistler bag which makes it oh so convenient.

The hike was going pretty quick and I was watching the time and miles on my Samsung Frontier watch which indicated that my timing would be just about perfect for getting to the top of the trail.  However, when I realized that I had covered a mile worth of the trail and about 25 minutes had ticked by, I was a little concerned that I wasn’t seeing the pinnacle of the mountain.  The sun was coming up as I could see through the trees and it appeared as though there was a little bit of color at the horizon.  I picked up the pace which was difficult because at this point I was climbing the steep part of the trail (31 floors climbed when I got to the top).  I was about to run out of energy to continue when I saw a break in the trees to the right and realized that there was a great view of the sunrise from right there.  I didn’t think about it but for a second before getting my gear out.  The composition was simple and required nothing more than a 70-200mm lens on the camera to capture the scene.  I used the cloud inversions below as the foreground and loose S-curve taking your eyes through the image.  It wasn’t a fantastic sunrise, but it was one that I consider myself fortunate to see since there wasn’t any color forecasted for this morning.

I wasn’t there but for 10 minutes at best capturing about a half dozen images as the colors changed and the sun crept above the horizon.  It was then back to the task at hand…hiking up the side of the mountain.  I was really wondering how I had gotten the hike estimate so wrong.  I was still climbing and it took another 10 minutes to get to the top which by my calculations was a mile and a half.  My plans hadn’t worked all that well when it came to the timeframe, but the accidental sunrise location was better than what I would have had from the top of the mountain I believe.  Sometimes accidents are happy ones.

When I got to the top, I found the campers and they were along the trail, well out of way of any pictures that I was going to be taking which was great.  When I did make it out to the clearing, I was greeted by some amazing clouds overhead, particularly to the North and West.  Those were the best directions I could have hoped for which was in direct opposition to how the clouds cooperated last week at The Lump Overlook.  In addition to the clouds, I also discovered the wind that seems to always be present at this location.  It never seems to be windy on the trail, but when you are out on the bald, it will absolutely abuse you.  I estimate that the wind speed was every bit of 25mph with gusts in excess of 40mph regularly and sometimes higher.  This was going to be a problem for sharp images, but I was up to the task as the clouds were amazing and I had fought winds up here before.

Investing in Gold“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

What caught my attention first off was the bank of clouds to the West as they were picking up the warm light from the low sun.  I started to look for a composition before the light faded.  I found one right on the ridge of the summit and I was happy to see that there were puddles present here which should be able to pick up the colors in the clouds above.  I decided that I wanted to go with a wide angle shot to really capture the grand cloudscape above and to emphasize the rocks in the foreground.  I selected my ultrawide 16-35mm lens which would give me a nice wide field of view while still allowing for filters to be attached.  I got everything in position with the tripod dropped down to about knee level for perspective.  I composed the image with more consideration on the cloud and the reflection than most other aspects.  Once I got that figured out, I went for a balanced composition with what all was included in the frame.  Since the clouds were picking up the bright sunlight, I needed to bring that exposure back just a tad, so I reached into my bag of goodies and selected a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard edge ND Grad which provided a nice level of control to the exposure.  It was a pretty good start to the morning and I was already excited about the other compositions that I was going to be able to capture up here.  I was already seeing the clouds moving around and the lighting was changing every minute.  I was going to be trigger happy with conditions like these so I wasted no time in finding other compositions to work with.

One of the typical shots that I always see from this location is the view to Table Rock to the South.  When I had first arrived, it was blanketed by a featureless cloudy sky that really didn’t have much interest, but with the sun gaining altitude there was starting to be a bit of definition in the clouds above.  I decided to anticipate the change and got a position set up where I could capture a workable composition of the mountain as well at the gorge below.  The difficulty here is that the foreground elements are distinctly horizontal and have a habit of blocking a smooth path into the image.  I worked on composing in such a way as to minimize the impact of the foreground.  That meant shooting wide to get as much of the sky as possible while standing back, away from the foreground.  The change in relationship seemed to help a lot and allowed the main impact of the image to come from the sky.  It was all about waiting to see the sky develop as I was thinking it would.

As luck would have it, about the time I fine tuned the composition, I had the sky that I was wanting.  It had a bit of everything in it.  There was a portion at the top (thanks to the wide angle) where the clouds were breaking up showing the blue sky above.  There was another section that was picking up the golden colors from the rising sun, and you could even see rain falling to the left of Table Rock.  I’m pretty sure that a heavy downpour was happening to the right of the mountain as well.  The sky was the main player in this composition even though there was a lot of visual interest along the ground level of the image.  The exposure worked out just perfectly with the same setup that I had used previously.  In fact, that was my favorite combination of gear for the day with the vast majority of my images made with that 16-35mm lens using just a single 2-stop hard edge ND Grad filter.

Let the Light In“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 7 image pano stitched in Lightroom

I didn’t stick around that location very long since it was more or less a typical composition.  Instead, I started scoping out some more interesting views.  It wasn’t long before I found something that I liked.  It was actually closely related to the first image that I had captured from the summit, but I had a different idea for it.  The clouds had receded away from the ridge I had shot it from before and there were darker rain clouds moving overhead.  I could see a natural framing element with the dark clouds and I already had the perfect lens on to take advantage of it.  I didn’t want to get in close like last time for this shot.  I wanted to capture the distant landscape as much as the foreground interest.  That mean back up a bit from the ridge and letting the lens take it all in

As I was working on the composition, I noticed something in the background of the image developing.  I thought it was the wind getting in my eyes making me see odd things that weren’t there, but the more I studies the scene, the more I could make out a rainbow starting to develop under the clouds.  This was going to be really cool if I could pull it off.  I was wishing that I had a bit longer of a lens on to really emphasize the rainbow, but as small as it was, it wasn’t going to take up much of a frame and I really liked this composition.  I decided that for those who looked into the image, the bit of a rainbow would be their reward.  I had to work quickly here as the light was changing very quickly so I left the filter attached to the front of the camera and judging from the histogram, I was getting a great exposure on this scene with the ND Grad.  With a single exposure made, I felt something hitting my arm.  It was raining…like big drops raining.  With the high winds circling about up there, I knew that my lens and filter were getting spotted.  I went with one more quick exposure just in case there was any camera movement in the first one and checked the lens.  As I was afraid of, it was covered with drops and the image was showing them unfortunately.

I grabbed the lens cap and covered the front element and closed the bag up after putting the filter away.  I considered my options briefly and decided that it was too windy to try and deal with an umbrella to keep the rain off of the lens.  I just took a time out from photography and started to look for other compositions for a time when I hoped that the rain would quit.  The rain actually got heavier and the drops got bigger, but I could see that the sky was opening up above me, so that should be short lived.  I could also see that small rainbow seed in the distance was growing into a full on rainbow which was really quite cool.  I guess it just needed water added!

Rainbows have been something that I have tried to photograph a few times, but have never really succeeded in that task.  They are fleeting and I usually don’t have a camera with me in the first place, and the times that I do, I am rarely in a position to be able to capture it well.  This time, I was in a great place and I had my gear out.  Time was actually on my side, I just needed to wait for the rain to slow long enough that I could get some pictures captured.  I was thinking about different compositions and had a few in mind but those plans got quickly dashed when the campers I had passed by earlier came out onto the plateau to take in the views.  They actually ended up standing in part of the area I was going to use in a composition.  I had to reconsider my options at this point.  I needed something that eliminated the foreground and just concentrated on the mountains in the distance along with the rainbow and clouds.

Mountain Dreams“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2

What I actually came up with was a panorama of the scene in front of me.  It wasn’t going to be perfect, but I thought it would be a decent way of capturing the event in front of me.  I quickly swapped my lens for the telephoto 70-200mm which would work well for the sweep of images needed for the panorama.  I left the filters off since it would be too difficult to get any ND filters adjusted for the entire sweep of images.  Fortunately, the exposures were looking pretty good with a nice even spread of tones.  I got the Manfrotto leveled as well as the Acratech Ballhead so that I would have a solid platform from which to swing the lens.  From here, I rotated the camera on its side and got a rough composition figured out.  From there, I checked the focus which was set at infinity and ultimately did a complete sweep to check the exposure in the histogram.  After I had the exposure dialed in and the focus locked, I started at the left and worked my way around at around 5 degrees between frames.  The sweep lasted seven images which was plenty for a very high resolution image.  Everything appeared to be in good shape with the exposure, so I only shot one series of this view since I wasn’t completely sold on how it would turn out.

It wasn’t until I got home and started to process the image that I realized that you can just faintly make out a second rainbow starting on the right side of the frame which instantly made this a better image as a panorama.  The second one provided a bit more balance and some more visual interest to the image which I welcomed.  The sky looked funky to me while I was processing it, but that was because of the optical shifts that were going on as the light was bending through the rain.  It was really my first experience working with rainbows on this level and I could really see the difference that the light wavelengths made from one side to the other with the rainbow.  This still is not my favorite panorama I’ve ever shot, but it does have a certain interesting quality that I like and I’m glad that I took the time to shoot this image.

With the light still changing very quickly, I started to hunt out isolations that I could shoot since I still had the telephoto lens on.  One view that had always interested me from this vantage point was the top of Table Rock to the South.  I looked over there and the sky was rather blah around it without much interest.  The only thing that I really saw over there was a small tear in the clouds directly above the summit.  That summit was getting some warm light hitting it from the sun which was still really low in the sky.  I loved that warm light, but the sky really wasn’t doing me any favors.  I decided it was worth a single shot to see if I could bring out any detail in the sky when I got home and processed it.

With the lens set to 130mm I was able to compose an image that focused on the summit and captured the bit of interest in the sky.  It wasn’t much to work with, but I thought there was promise to it.  I waited until the sun hit the summit at full strength before firing off the shot because without having all that warm light there, this image would be destined to fail.  It actually worked out and I captured some great highlights on the face of the mountain.  The sky was another issue altogether though.  I wasn’t convinced that the sky would work out for an image, and didn’t really know what I had captured until I got home.

When the Skies Open“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

When I got the image into post processing the sky left me wanting more.  There was interest, but not enough to carry the image.  I reached into my bag of tricks and found a color profile that changed the game just a little bit by introducing a strong magenta color cast into the image.  With that, the sky lit up and took on a mood that really captured what I was trying to convey with the image.  The flat steel blue wasn’t working for that particular story, but this magenta hued sky was just perfect.  I was able to pull all of the detail out of the sky that I needed to and still had that great element up at the top of the frame that worked for the composition.  It wasn’t exactly what I saw, but the mood is what I was feeling with the image, and it tells the story that I want it to tell.  Nothing was manipulated in the image, the colors were just adjusted slightly.

That was when I figured that I was finished from the upper level of the plateau.  I knew that there were more views down on the lower level and one in particular I wanted to photograph before the sun got too high.  The hike down the rocky slope was not the easiest as there were still wet spots in places and the rocks were slick.  I did made it down there and started to look at compositions.  The one that I had in mind didn’t really work with the sky as it was so I abandoned that idea pretty quickly.  I did see a view of the gorge below that I liked and decided it might be a good time to shoot that view.  Looking at the lay of the land I decided that my best bet would be to use my 24-70mm lens for a bit of flexibility.  To that, I added my now well used 2-stop ND Grad to control the exposure in the sky.  I got set up on the edge of the ridge which was a little nerve wracking considering that the wind was really powerful down here.  I got a composition set up that included the foreground bushes just below where I was setting.

I ran into two distinct problems at this point which caused me a lot of heartache.  First of all, the bushes were blowing wildly in the wind and there was no way that my shutter speeds were going to freeze that motion.  Since I was going for a maximum depth of field, I couldn’t open my lens up more than f/14 as I needed to keep everything in focus.  My only option to speed up the shutter was to boost my ISO which I don’t like doing unless I had to.  Well, I had to.  I had to go up to ISO 800 in order to get a quick enough shutter speed that I thought would work.  My second issue was the wind was causing all sorts of vibrations in the tripod which I could see in the bubble level mounted in the hot shoe.  That is a great little trick to check for camera motion.  if the bubbles are shaking, the camera is moving.  Believe me, they were moving like crazy which meant I needed to secure the tripod better.  My only option here was to physically hold it down during the exposure.  This is not a good idea under most situations, but since I was now shooting at a relatively fast shutter speed, I could probably get away with it.  Now I had another problem though, my hands were getting busy with holding the tripod, moving the ND Grad, and trying to focus on the scene.  I figured that now was as good a time as any to simplify how I was doing business.  For my first time in a very long time, I switched over from manual focus to auto focus.

I remained in live view as that is what I am used to shooting in, but instead of zooming in to focus, I just set the box over that point that I wanted to focus on and semi pressed the button. The lens came to life with that beautiful ultra sonic motor focusing the lens.  It was smooth and relatively quick.  It worked well, and nailed the focus.  I also learned that with the wind drying out my contacts, it had been getting hard for me to focus previously.  Now, I didn’t have to worry about that.  I’m late to the party, but I kind of like auto focus.

Sadly, none of these images made the cut when I got home to process the images.  The lighting was flat and not interesting at all.  I noticed that at the scene when I was getting the shot set up but hoped that the light would happen.  It didn’t, well not there anyway.  Over to my right, the sun was hitting the landscape in fine dappled form and I decided that was where my attention needed to be.  I swung the camera over to the right and started to form up compositions.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get enough foreground interest in the frame, even by backing up.  I needed my wider angle 16-35mm lens back on the camera which I swapped out quickly.  This is what I love about the Lee Filter Foundation Kit.  I was able to leave the ND Grad in the holder and just swap it over to the new lens very easily.  In no time I was back in business getting a composition framed up.

Overlooking Linville“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

With the wider angle of the lens, I was able to get part of the rocky ledge  in the lower corner of the frame and used the valley as a leading line through the image.  The sky overhead was nothing short of awesome to behold.  It was just a matter of playing the waiting game until the light hit the parts of the frame that I was wanting to be highlighted.  That didn’t take long and I was able to get an image where the bare rock face was lit by the morning sun.  It was the perfect highlight for the image, and one that I’m glad I opted to pursue rather than my first composition.  Also, since I didn’t have bushes in the foreground, I didn’t need to be as worried about the shutter speed.  I was able to bring the ISO back down to the more familiar 100 mark.  I was still holding the tripod against the wind, but I wasn’t seeing any motion in the bubble level so I figured I could get away with it.  I was still using auto focus as my eyes were getting tired of looking at details.  I’m really considering using this more often as it does speed up the procedure and seems to be getting solid results.  Even after getting the images home and looking at them on the monitor I can confirm that this is just as effective as the zoom in and twist the ring approach that I had been doing for all these years.

With a couple of frames under my belt of the area to my right, I started to refocus my attention the gorge floor which I had been working just previously.  The sunlight was starting to hit that area nicely and I decided it was a good opportunity to try the composition again.  I had realized that the composition that I liked was shot at 24mm on the standard zoom, so I decided to keep the 16-35mm mounted for this attempt at the composition.  I was able to open it up a tad bit more to show more of the bushes in the foreground as well as the rocks.  I liked how this looked much better, so it all worked out great to have taken that side bar with the other composition.  I was back to really having to deal with the wind again though.  I knew I could hold the tripod steady, but I couldn’t do anything at all with the bushes moving in the wind.  I cranked the ISO back up 800 which gave me an exposure of 1/60 second at f/14 which was enough to freeze the bushes as long as I waited until the wind had a slight lull in it.  You could really see the different weather patterns in this image with the rain in the distance, the clearing clouds, and the dark storm clouds.  It was anyone’s guess as to what the weather was going to hold for the day.

Adventure Begins“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

By this point, I was getting really windblown and was looking for a little shelter from its relentless battering. I knew that if I moved in away from the ridge, I would be sheltered a little bit better.  That also put me in position to get the composition that I had had in mind from earlier.  The sun was higher, but the clouds were starting to obscure it.  It was still a bit too contrasty for me to make an image, but I was seeing the potential developing.  I looked for other compositions that could be shot in the same location because I was enjoying the slightly less windy position.  I found a shot that I liked, but it put me right back out on the ridge with gale force winds pushing me and the camera around.  There was nothing in the foreground to move, but the filter was buffeting in the filter holder at this angle, so I wanted to get a fast shutter speed to negate the motion in the ND Grad filter.  I found that ISO 400 would give me a 1/100 of a second exposure at f/14 which would be a good margin of error.  I actually shot a series of shots here trying to time the wind to where I would get a still image.  I was really getting tired of this wind.  Historically, the wind isn’t as bad down here, but I was starting to think that it was worse down here on the ridge than up top.  Regardless, I had been through enough.  I moved inside just a little bit and got out of the howling wind.  It almost seemed calm about 20 feet inboard.

Now it was time to start really looking at the composition that I had in mind with the jagged cliff and wonderful leading lines of the slope.  That slick rock that I was talking about walking down earlier was the star of this image.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it color or black and white, but I knew that the textures and the clouds were going to be the stars of this image.  I got into position and  found the composition.  The clouds were still moving a lot and I knew it was only a matter of minutes at this point before the sun would be covered up and I would be able to get the exposure that I was after.  I still had the wide angle lens mounted, but didn’t like the ND Grad filter that I had on there for this image.  The edge was too hard and it was going to be very visible in the composition.  I swapped it out for a soft edge version that would allow me to get the exposure that I was after.

Sculpting a Mountain“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

The soft edge ND Grad provided a much more gradual transition and allowed me to overlap the rocks a good bit knowing I could bring them back out in post processing.  The sky was what I was most concerned about and the filter was able to do the trick for that.  I framed up the shot using the larger rocks at the base for a foreground which then led up to the more jagged and rhythmic layers above.  The clouds added a good deal of drama to the scene, and I was pretty sure that this was going to be done in monochrome when it was all finished.  I stuck around for a bit longer because I really wanted a different appearance in the sky with the clouds.  Unfortunately, as the clouds worked into a better position, the clouds that had been covering the sun passed by and the exposure was wrecked for any further attempts here.  Looking at the path of the clouds, it was going to be some time before the clouds would be back over the sun.  It wasn’t worth waiting it out since I had an image I was happy with for the most part.  Plus, the higher the sun got, the stronger it would become, even with the clouds running interference.

It was time to work back up to the top of Hawksbill and see what I could do with the clouds up there.  When I got back up to the top, the rainbow which I had been photographing before was back and it was more impressive than ever by this point.  I started to consider my options on how to best capture it.  As I was doing that, I noticed that it appeared that there was a faint second rainbow developing just outside of the arch of the first one.  I hadn’t seen that previously (until I got home and started editing the panorama), but now I was seeing the beginnings of a double rainbow.  I wanted all the attention on the rainbows so I opted to shoot the image vertically and wanted to get a tight composition on it which meant I needed to move to my standard 24-70mm lens.  I made the switch quickly and decided that the exposure was pretty even here so I just put the filters away for this shot.

At the End of the Rainbow“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2

I found a nice composition that used the same section of the ridge that I had started out with a couple of hours previously.  The puddle was still there and I was able to put it in the perfect position at the end of the rainbow.  The direction of the rocks added to the visual tension here as they were going diagonally to the right while the rainbow was in the opposite direction.  The two elements worked very well together and created a seamless image with the soft rolling hills in the distance.  The sky had just enough detail to make the image work as a whole.  I was still in the wind, but nothing like what I had been in down at the other section. I was able to get the camera back to the lowest ISO and not worry about holding onto it while making the exposures.  It was almost a luxury experience in a way.  As I worked some other compositions I was watching the rainbow develop.  Before I knew it, the rainbow had stretched across the entire sky and I could see both ends of it.  I could also make out a distinct second rainbow on the right hand side of the arch.  I thought about doing another panorama, but decided that there just wasn’t enough time to guarantee that it would be in place long enough to run a series of images.  I tried to capture it with the same standard lens I had been shooting with, but that just didn’t quite have the coverage that I needed.  I had to make a switch.  I could either go with the telephoto lens to try a panorama, or I could just go with my wide angle one and get the entire scene in a single exposure.


Unicorn at Hawksbill“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2

With the wide angle lens mounted to ensure that I could get the image in a single shot, I framed up a quick composition from very close to where I was.  Looking at the histogram, there was no need for any filters since the sun was shining on the distant mountain, and the foreground was well lit at this point.  I just got an image dialed in and fired off a quick exposure.  I managed to capture one and a half rainbows with the shot.  It was very hard to see the dimmer one in the camera so I kind of had to estimate where it would be.  The left half of the second one was not visible because of the lighting, but the right half really turned out well in the image.  The primary rainbow was the most crisp rainbow that I have ever captured with a camera.  There were even two clouds that were hovering between the rainbow and the distant mountain.  There was a lot of drama in this image as well which makes it very exciting.  The composition isn’t as polished as I would have preferred, but I didn’t want to waste my time perfecting the shot.

As it turned out, I was very happy that I did the single shot option and did it quickly.  As I was working this shot, the light was already changing, and by the time the camera was showing me the review image on the LCD, the second rainbow was gone except for just a bit of it to the right.  The primary was still there, but not nearly as crisp as it had been seconds before.  Had I shot a panorama of this, the rainbows wouldn’t have been consistent through the length of it and the image would have been ruined.  Had I fined tuned a composition, or even played with filters, I would have lost this sight.  There was no reason to look for other compositions at this point since the rainbows were now fading quickly.  The clouds were clearing off, and I was not seeing anything else I wanted to shoot from atop Hawksbill.

I decided it was time to move on and see if maybe I could luck out at Table Rock.  The hike back down the mountain was painfully slow with the terrain going downhill.  I lost track of the sky, but it seemed to be getting brighter and brighter the more I went along.  By the time I got back to the truck, the light was looking very harsh, and it was around 10am so the sun was nearly at the top of its travel for the day.  Despite that, I decided to try Table Rock which was about 5 miles down the road.  It was a fun ride through the old forest road which made it worthwhile which was great since when I got there, the parking area had a good many cars already there and more showing up.  With the harsh light and the increased traffic, I decided to skip this second location and just head back to the house by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I did that just in case something worked out along the way with the clouds.

Sadly, there were no other compositions that jumped out at me and I found myself back on US 421 headed home.  It had been a shorter day than I had thought, but in that short time at one location I had managed to collect 127 frames on my memory cards.  I knew that a lot of them were me fighting the winds and hoping for a sharp image, but I felt pretty good about my chances of getting a half dozen images added into my collection.  I was particularly excited about the rainbow images and really hoped that they would show up well in the photographs.

During my first culling process, I managed to cut the number of good images down to approximately half, with 57 images to look at more critically.  I was expecting to eliminate the majority of these due to camera shake from the wind, but I had done a tremendous job in the field getting sharp images in some very brutal conditions.  I didn’t have to toss any of them due to camera shake or motion in the image.  That really surprised me.  I was left making my decisions on the light which was how I preferred to choose my keeper images.  At the end of that process, I had 18 images that I wanted to edit and work with.  Of those 18, I managed to keep 12 images which all said something completely different to me.  I was actually amazed to have such a high hit rate considering all of the duplicate frames I shot and the conditions I was working with.  Although, with a sky like I had overhead, I could have thrown the camera with the shutter on a timer and gotten a good image.

Days like this are a lot of fun for a landscape photographer.  Sure, it was a lot of work getting up that early and hiking in the dark up the mountain just to fight the wind and the rain.  I didn’t say that every step was fun as it was happening, but looking back on the day, it was a true adventure, and I managed to bring home quite a number of images that I get to share with you.  That makes for a great day behind the camera.  As an added bonus, everything stayed upright for the day and nothing got broken.  The memory is still all too fresh from when I damaged a lens due to a gust of wind sneaking up on me while I was sitting on a rock outcropping at Rough Ridge about eight years ago.

Remember, if any of these images speaks to you, I do offer prints of all of my images through the gallery store here.  You only need the title and select the desired size. I have other sizes available as well, but they are considered special order so just send me an email with what you are after and I will be happy to assist you with your purchase.  There is nothing quite like seeing these scenes in large tangible format.  That is the absolute best way to enjoy the images I think.

Thank you for joining me on this eventful trek, and I hope you enjoyed not only the pictures but the behind the scenes action along the way.


Edit: 08-29-2019

Mountainous Slumber“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I always go back through my images a few days after I have finished getting them processed to see if there are any that I might have missed in the culling process, or might want to try to process differently.  Well, I have been very undecided about the opening image of this entry since I did the editing.  Comfort Clouds hasn’t been all that comforting to me, and I really wasn’t sure why.  The processing was fine on it, but there was just something that I didn’t like about the composition.  The way that I had designed that particular image was in a way that had a bit of blue in the sky to the upper right to help bring the eyes back that way after they had been directed to the left due to the mountains in the clouds.  It worked, but the top of the image seemed crowded and just didn’t work as well as I would have liked for it to.  I had been thinking about a slightly different crop between the top and bottom, but I kept losing the lines that I wanted at the bottom of the image to do that.  Looking back through the images, one of the ones that I had trashed originally was the first exposure of the day.  I rarely keep that image, so it was almost instinctual to move past it when I was looking for the images to actually process.  This time, it caught my eye because that blue hue continued completely across the sky and brought a natural framing element to the composition as well as restored a nice balance to the image.  I decided to see how it would look if I processed it, so I started working on it this morning before taking Sierra to school and decided that it was turning out better than the one that I had decided to keep earlier.  They are very similar in composition because I had very little choice in how to capture the image shooting through trees.  If I opened it up much more, I would have gotten limbs in the frame which I didn’t want.

This image was shot a touch wider than the other version at 135mm vs 200mm which gave the scene a little room to breathe which was very important for this scene.  The more I looked at it, the more I understood that need.  The bit of blue at the top worked out nicely as well, even though I had discounted the importance of the lack of brilliant color at the top of the frame.  It all seemed to work better as an image, and when I got done processing it, there was no question that this was a better choice to keep.  While I still don’t think that this is a gallery image, I think it represents what I saw better, and I am more proud of how it turned out in this iteration.  It just goes to show that looking at things with fresh eyes will have positive results every once in a while.

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