Hey! That’s Not the Overlook

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Saturday, October 2, 2021

No really, I’m not as stupid as I looked out there this afternoon.

Now that I have your attention I guess I should explain what’s going on here.  After having realized that the Fall colors are upon us through bits of the Blue Ridge Parkway I decided to take advantage of some forecasted clouds this afternoon.  There weren’t going to be many, but I was expecting some mid level and upper level clouds to be passing through the Boone area of the Parkway starting around 3pm or so and clearing out around 6pm.  It wasn’t quite what I was after, but it would do in a pinch.  I was really hoping for the clouds to hit in the morning so I could possibly beat the crowds up there.  I already knew that I was going to be working the area between US 421 and US 321 which is probably the most popular part of the Parkway North of Linville Falls.  As I have shared with you, I just don’t like the crowds on the Parkway because I can still remember like it was yesterday feeling like I had the mountains all to myself no matter when I went up there.  These days, there is a different vibe that is more like a tourist location which just doesn’t really set well with me.

Anyway, I wanted clouds and they were going to be there on Saturday Afternoon whether the crowds were there or not.  I opted to take my chances and give it a try after a day of learning some new techniques for my portraiture.  I put the books away and grabbed my gear before heading out on the road towards Boone.  When I left the sun was rather bright and I was almost tempted to put on my sunglasses, but I have a pretty steadfast rule about sunglasses and photography.  If I have to wear shades, then the sun is too bright for photography.  With that in mind, I just squinted a bit and tried to will the clouds to come in.  I will say that the trip out to the Parkway is much better now that Toni and I have moved to Purlear.  What used to take me about an hour and a half, now takes less than 30 minutes.

I entered the Parkway at my normal spot off of US 421 and headed South.  I knew that the altitude was a bit lower than I had been the other day so I wasn’t expecting quite as much color, but I was just looking for the hints of color at this point.  I would have settled for a single vibrant tree rather than a whole mountain covered in color.  One of the things that I have learned in my years of doing Fall photography is that a blanket of color loses all of its impact.  I love having some green to contrast with the warm hues of Autumn.  If I can’t find that kind of situation, I like to use the colors as a secondary element to an image rather than the primary.  It seems counterintuitive, but it really does keep the photograph from looking like I just pointed the camera at a colorful mountain and snapped a photograph.  The visual contrast of the scene becomes the visual tension and you can appreciate the warm tones of the season much more.

I knew what I was looking for, but I wasn’t quite sure where to find it so I just looked as I drove.  The nice thing was that the clouds were starting to come in at this point and the quality of light was very good by my standards.  I just enjoy the diffused light from a cloudy day and that is where I usually get my better images.  That was the light that was upon the Parkway now and I was happy about that.  I reached the highest point for this section of the Parkway at Aho Gap which is the Eastern Continental Divide.  The colors were a bit better here, but still very splotchy over the landscape.  I wasn’t seeing anything that I could form a composition around as I drove.  I wasn’t sure that this was going to be a successful trek at this rate.  I just wasn’t seeing anything and I dreaded making it to Rough Ridge because I was sure I would find two things there….lots of color, and lots of people.  I would rather have less of both so I was really hoping for something closer to this side of the world.

The Edge of Fall“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As I was working my way towards Blowing Rock I slowed at Thunder Hill.  If you have been reading my blogs for a while, you will know that Thunder Hill is one of my favorite locations on the Parkway because there are quite a number of compositions that I can shoot.  As I arrived, I wasn’t seeing much in the way of color.  I looked over to the right into a valley that I love to photograph and saw that there were hints of color, but nothing really spectacular.  It was on the other side of the road that I saw the first scene that I got excited about.  It wasn’t so much Fall leaves as it was a yellowish brush along the ridge of the mountain looking over the cooler blues of the distant range.  I could see the sun illuminating that ridge and giving me a decent landscape scene to work with.  It was enough of a chance for me to park the truck and give it a shot.  I just needed to get turned around.

I pulled into the overlook parking area which was loaded with vehicles.  They were parked on both sides of the driveway and in the median.  There were people scrambling all over the overlook and the section to the rear that I like so much.  I was so glad that I saw nothing there that interested me.  I just drove through and didn’t give the view a second look.  I knew what I was wanting.  I got back out on the Parkway and pulled off on the shoulder of the road maybe a tenth of a mile back to the North.  I got out and walked around on foot for a bit to see where I was going to want to set the camera up.  The slope of the ridge was gradual and I wanted to keep that diagonal line prominent in the composition for a bit of visual drama.  I also saw a couple of exposed rocks which I wanted to use for a bit of foreground interest.  There was a noticeable division in the mountains beyond the ridge that I felt would be a good element to place in the left portion of the frame.  The sky was looking pretty good overhead as well so I had all of the bits and pieces figured out.

I went back to the truck and grabbed my camera with a 24-70mm lens on it.  I added a polarizer to give a little extra definition to the clouds and mounted it all on the tripod.  I went back to the area where I had figured the camera would be best placed.  I started to look through the lens at this point to see how everything was lining up.  All I could think of was that I had tried to shoot this view several months before without success.  At that time, there was just no real interest in the foreground and I remembered struggling with it.  This time, I had a golden brown hue which stood out from the mountains in the distance which should give me the visual interest that I missed the last time.  I was liking the composition much more this time around as I was setting up the exact position that I was going to work from.  I would shoot a frame here and a frame there to compare my compositions as I went because I just wasn’t quite sure what was going to be the best bet.

After some time, I did find what I thought would be the best option.  I had the rocks in the foreground as I had intended, as well as the valley in the distant mountains which was used as the framework to the left.  My hope was that the line would bring the viewer’s eyes back into the scene when they hit the next valley.  I just had a problem with the right side of the frame.  Originally, I didn’t want to include the trees at the top of the ridge because they weren’t all that orderly.  However, the more I looked at the composition, the more I realized that those trees amplified the diagonal quality that I wanted to keep and helped to scale the distant mountains in the scene.  With the bottom and sides figured out, I just needed to decide how the top of the frame was going to look.  It was looking a bit clunky in the native 3:2 aspect ratio so I was pretty sure that I was going to crop down to 16:9 or 16:10 in post.  I would have plenty of sky in either case, it was just a matter of where the horizon happened to be in the final image.

Now that I had the composition all figured out, it was just a matter of waiting for the sun to do its thing and light up the foreground.  The clouds were building rather quickly at this point and I was starting to wonder if I was going to get that kiss of light that I wanted so badly here.  I just sat and waited with an exposure here and there as the light levels changed.  I kept having folks slow down as they passed me either leaving the overlook, or waiting their turn to park at the overlook.  I wasn’t really paying them any attention, but I could just imagine them wondering why I was looking at this partially obscured view of the distant mountains from this vantage point instead of going to the actual overlook.  I guess they didn’t get the memo that the best views at Thunder Hill had nothing at all to do with the actual overlook.

I had been waiting for about 20 minutes at this point for the light to do something and I was finally rewarded with a bit of sunlight that bathed the foreground with a nice warm diffused light.  It wasn’t too bright, but it just fit with the whole scene quite well.  I was able to get off two exposures during this light show before the sun was covered up again.  When the sun hid behind the clouds I instinctively looked around to see which direction the sunlight had gone.  I saw that it had gone across the street and was now lighting up the valley which is one of my favorite compositions here.  That was the missing ingredient for that to work.  Knowing that the sun might actually hit there again, I gathered my gear up and crossed the street.

Highlight of the Season“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Now I was situated on the opposite side of the street, looking away from the overlook view and was about a quarter of a mile away from the overlook.  I was still getting odd looks from those that had been at the overlook, or were going there.  It didn’t bother me at all.  I just got the camera set up and ready to go.  Normally, when I work this composition I will use a wide angle lens, and have been known to use a 14mm for an all-encompassing view of the valley.  This time, I felt that the 24-70mm lens that was already on would be my best bet.  I just wanted to concentrate on that center section where the color was as well as the mountain in the distance.  In order to keep the mountain a little larger in the composition, I didn’t want to go too wide with my lens choice.

After I got the angle that I wanted and got the image set up, I started to take a few test exposures to make sure that the sky wasn’t going to be an exposure problem.  As I was doing the early test shoots, the sun made a quick appearance and I was able to get just two exposures as it swept through the valley.  I was only barely ready to capture the scene, but I was ready enough.  The histogram looked good, but I wanted to have a little more insurance that the sky was going to stay in line.  I removed the 82mm polarizer and added my Lee adaptor ring for the Lee 100 system.  I popped on my 105mm polarizer as well as a Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad.  That brought the exposure very much in line which I preferred.  From here, it was a waiting game once again.  I would grab an exposure when the clouds looked particularly good over the mountain and when the light levels would increase.  I shot a bunch of frames here as I was committed to the composition.

I was sure that I had something great after I had the camera all dialed in, but as it turned out, the keeper from this series of images was one of the earlier ones.  It was that bright light that swept across the valley that highlighted the Fall Foliage which made the biggest impact.  The grad filter had been added as insurance so I was very glad that it wasn’t actually needed.  There was enough information in the single exposure that I was able to pull the detail from the highlights, while still having plenty of detail in the shadowed areas of the foreground.  The end result of the image was very close to what I had envisioned when I saw the light working from across the street.  I was very happy that I had gotten over there when I did because the light was so fleeting that after about 30 minutes it had never come back.

During that 30 minutes sitting on the side of the road looking off into a valley that I think most folks don’t even know is there, I saw so many people passing my looking at me with a questioning look on their face.  Several of them stopped in the middle of the street and took out their phones to grab a snapshot of the valley.  The looks on their faces came really close to indicating that they didn’t know why they were taking the picture, but if a guy with a camera on a tripod was taking a picture there must be a reason.  These are the moments that I love on the Parkway.  Everyone is programmed to pull off on the overlooks like that is the only place that you can see beauty.  I remember thinking that many years ago and would stop at every overlook I passed to take in the prescribed scene.  It wasn’t until long after I became a photographer that I realized that most of the really rewarding views didn’t have an associated parking lot.

I had been here for a bit over an hour and I was pretty sure that I had what I wanted from Thunder Hill.  I packed up the camera and got back on the road headed South towards something, I just didn’t know what yet.  I was thinking that there was a great tree in a field near Price Lake which I have enjoyed photographing over the years.  If it was covered in yellow leaves this would make for a great day to shoot it.  That was my ultimate destination, but I was happy stopping at any other location that spoke to me because I really didn’t know if the tree was going to be ready to be photographed just yet.  I just took the slow drive into the clouds.

Just a Spectator“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

Those clouds turned into rain drops which got heavier and heavier.  I was hoping that it was going to be a short lived shower, but the further South I went the heavier the rain got.  By the time I got into Price Park and started to look for the tree, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to shoot it because it was a very steady rain now.  I did want to see if it had changed though since I was here.  Sadly, the tree was still 95% green and I saw no reason to pause here at all.  The light wasn’t good and it was raining really hard by this point.  I just got turned around and headed North again.  I even stopped looking for subjects because of the rain.

As I got closer to 221 the rain slacked up a bit and I started to look for something that might be read to shoot.  I still had a want to find just a single colorful tree to work with.  What I found was a single tree, but it wasn’t colorful at all.  In fact, the tree was dead with no leaves at all on it.  There were a number of trees around it that showed the Autumn colors though which kind of fit with my want for a subject.  I liked the stark nature of the dead tree and you will surely remember that is one of my favorite aspects of Winter because I love the structure of these bare trees.  I got pulled onto the shoulder of the road and got out to give the tree a closer look.  It was off in the distance on the other side of a bank of Goldenrods which I would have to shoot through.  There were houses uphill from the tree, but there should be enough room to get a nice intimate portrait of the tree without man made interference.  The rain was coming back though, so I was going to have to work quickly.

I grabbed my 70-200mm lens and considered a polarizer, but quickly quelled that thought.  With the rain, I really needed to protect the lens element, and now that I have gone back to using the lens hoods on my lenses and not having the Lee adapter rings on full time, I had the ability to use the hood now.  My screw on polarizer was an 82mm filter though which required a step down ring to fit the 77mm diameter which would essentially block the lens hood from mounting up to the bayonet mount.  It was a tradeoff that I was happy to make.  In the rain, the lens hood is king, and the filters are secondary.  I just mounted the hood and put it all on the tripod.  I then found the best place to shoot through the Goldenrods and picked out my composition.

My first thought was to frame up a vertical composition of the tree focusing on the structure.  That was the more obvious solution to the compositional issue, but that seemed a bit too bland.  I wanted to capture some of the color around the tree and felt that the added visual tension of shooting it as a landscape orientation would suit the scene even better.  I started to choose the elements in the scene and decided that there was a nice yellow tree to the right that I would use to balance the image and then I could use a row of colorful trees above to form the top frame of the scene.  I opened the lens up to f/5.6 to soften the surrounding trees to help draw attention to the bare tree that was my visual anchor.  The exposure was simple as the light was flat on the landscape at this point.

I grabbed a few different exposures here in an attempt to make sure that the breeze wasn’t causing any problems with the leaves.  I then looked for other compositions and just kept coming back to this same one.  before I left though, I did try something that I usually don’t do.  I backed away from the Goldenrods and found a section that I could shoot through.  I opened the lens up to f/2.8 and locked the focus on the bare tree which threw the Goldenrods well out of focus.  It looked good on the LCD, or I should say that it fit my vision of the scene.  However, when I got home I decided that I didn’t like the composition at all.  It just looked too gimmicky and used that out of focus foreground that all the cool kids were doing.  That just wasn’t my style….anymore than stopping at an overlook for photographs.  I mean here I was once again shooting landscape photographs on the Blue Ridge Parkway and I was nowhere close to an overlook at this location.  I guess I was just doing this whole Parkway thing wrong…and I was enjoying every moment of being a rebel.

The rain was starting to fall a bit heavier now and it was time for me to pack it in and head North a bit more to see if I could outrun the rain.  I loaded the camera back up in the bag and got back out on the road.  The rain didn’t let up until I was at the 421 exit.  I could have gone home that way, but something told me to keep on going and take Hwy 16 home instead.  I would be going on a section of the Parkway that I was one the other day, but that didn’t bother me at all.  I was just glad to be out of the rain again.  I wasn’t finding anything at all though, so it turned into just a nice mountain drive on the Parkway which I can’t complain about.  It was nice to see a lot less people on this section of the Parkway which kept my stress levels way down.

German in America“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I got to Hwy 16, I exited and started on my way home.  I was thinking that I was pretty well done for the day and felt pretty good for what I had accomplished.  I knew that I had at least two, if not three images for this quick afternoon outing.  That was more than I had figured that I would get so I was happy with that.  However, as I was driving down the mountain I had a thought.  I was going to be passing that VW Bug and Ford tractor that I had contemplated photographing off and one for the better part of a year now.  I had even stopped and looked critically at the scene a couple of times.  What could it hurt to stop and see if there was a photograph to be had here today?  My only problem with the scene was the fact that both subjects were parked right next to an old trailer which was now a storage unit or sorts.  It was white and didn’t really go with the other two subjects but when I had looked at them the other day I had started to think that there was a possible composition there that didn’t include the trailer.

When I arrived at the location, I saw it coming up so I was able to pull off into the gravel area without having to get turned around like I had done so many times before.  I got the truck parked and looked at the scene.  I will say that the sky made this scene better than any other time I had seen it.  The mood was there and the lighting was superb.  If there was going to be a time to capture this scene this was it.  In the past year I had not seen anything near this promising.  I made sure that I was out of the way since there was a driveway that entered just off this gravel pad.  I grabbed my camera with the 24-70mm lens attached.  I added a polarizer and the lens hood since there was a good chance that the rain would be coming back again.  It was all mounted to the tripod and I went over to start figuring out the compositions.

The first composition that I tried was the one that I had thought about earlier that omitted the trailer.  It worked…to a point.  The trailer was gone, but the tractor was being photographed dead on which made it look odd, and the VW was nearly head on as well.  There was no dynamic quality to the scene so I didn’t stay with that composition for long.  I went with one putting the tractor in the foreground with the Bug on the other side.  That allowed me to get a better perspective on both subjects, but I didn’t like that the Bug was situated behind the tractor here.  There was also the problem of the stand of trees off to the right which went all the way out of frame at the top creating a really heavy right side to the image.  I wasn’t really liking any of these compositions but the sky and the light was so good that I had to keep trying.

I decided that the best option was going to be using the trailer in the composition.  It wasn’t perfect, but it would have the most pleasing layout for the composition and the fact that there was writing on the side of the trailer would help tell a story here and give a little interest to the bright white element on the side of the photograph.  I just needed to figure out which focal length was going to be the best choice and what altitude to photograph the scene from.

As I was getting everything fine tuned I heard a truck slowing down and pulling into the gravel parking area.  I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the owner and I was about to be asked to leave.  Sure enough, he came to a stop behind me (I had already waved as he pulled in) and I turned around.  He didn’t look upset so I just went with it.  He asked if I wanted to buy the car to which I responded I just wanted to photograph it.  He went on to tell me that it had been sitting there for three years after a customer of his had decided that he didn’t want to rebuild it since it was a Super Beetle.  He was stuck with it after that.  We chatted for a bit and he didn’t seem to have any problems with me being here so I just said that I wouldn’t be long and I appreciated him letting me get a few pictures.  I offered him a print, but he said that he had no use for a print and didn’t take my card.  With that, I thanked him again and he went on down the driveway.

Stone Washed Jeans“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I was now in a great position with the blessing of the owner to get the photograph that I was after.  I had decided on including the trailer and that seemed to work quite well.  As if I needed a sign, the sky opened up a little bit right above the car and the warm light of the sun came through the hole.  It gave me that beautiful pop of color and drama that the image needed.  The composition was set and the lighting was perfect so I started to make exposures in-between the breezes that would blow the weeds around.  I ended up getting three images with the colorful sky before the hole closed up again.  Fortunately, one of those images had very little movement in the weeds and that became the keeper of the bunch.  I was actually surprised at how well the trailer looked in the composition because it was that one element that has been keeping me from photographing this scene for the last year.  Of course, it was the outstanding light that had the most impact to the scene and probably overpowered the trailer so that it wasn’t that distracting of an element.  All in all though, this particular image worked very well and I was thrilled that I had stopped in order to capture it.

Not wanting to waste permission to be here, I moved to the other side of the parking area to where there was an old Chevy truck parked.  This truck had caught my eye before, but it suffered from several compositional hurdles that I never really felt like overcoming.  It was parked next to another heavy duty truck that was pulled in on its driver’s side.  Beyond that was a singlewide home along with cars in the driveway.  It was also close to the road so there were power lines further beyond to the left.  If I were to photograph the truck from the passenger side, I would have the scene that I had just photographed in the background and it was too far forward to mask with the truck.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with this which was why I hadn’t bothered with it before now.  However, the sky was just too good to pass up and I felt that I could make something work here.

I started to study the scene and realized that I could mask the truck, house, and cars by getting down really low and shooting a front quarter shot of the truck.  I would have to be careful with the framing on the left side in order to avoid the power pole and lines, but that wasn’t bad at all.  I just had a bit of the frame of the truck parked next to deal with and I figured that I would be able to remove that little bit of metal in Photoshop after the fact.  I got the camera placed in position and started making exposures as the breeze would die down.  I got a handful of them before I was pretty sure that I had all that I needed.

With that, I loaded the camera back up in the bag and started on my way home once again.  I had just under 120 frames from the afternoon.  I knew that there was no way that I would see 11-12 keepers so I wasn’t even going to estimate based on that 10% hit rate.  I had done a ton of duplicate exposures as I was waiting for lighting to change and for the breeze to die down. I had also worked several different variations of the compositions for most of the subjects and knew that I was only going to pick one from each location to ensure that I just picked the best of the best.  I wasn’t disappointed at all to end up with five photographs that I thought stood above the rest.  I was thrilled with my Bug picture since I had been wanting to photograph this little guy for a very long time now.  I had some more subtle Fall color which I was enjoying this year for some reason.  I’m actually not really all that interested in peak color this year.  I can’t really explain it, but I think it has something to do with the fact that there will be plenty of photos circulating around with that full Fall color thing going on.  This way, I can still have Autumn images with color, but they will more than likely stand out from the crowd which is what I want.  that is also why I am avoiding the often photographed locations as well.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this trek as well as the images.  As with all of my photos, if you have seen one that speaks to you on that special level, please consider purchasing a print as that helps me to continue with my photography.  There truly is no better way to enjoy photography than by holding a print in your hands that represents the exact manner in which a photograph was intended to be viewed.  A print will also enable you to look at the photograph daily every time you walk past it, or sit and look at it.  You can revisit that feeling that you have looking at the image whenever you would like.

Thanks for tagging along with me for this one.  I’m excited to see where I end up next.

 

Until that next time…

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