In Search of Soft Light

· Reading Time: 23 minutes

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Where shall we go today?  Well, I guess I was thinking more where to go tomorrow as this was last night.  I had finished up with the list of things that I wanted to get accomplished at the house and the weather was starting to take a turn from the sunny skies that had been the norm for most of the week.  As I sat in the chair watching television while Toni was napping in her chair, I started to contemplate the possible locations I could visit for some photographs.  Looking at the forecast, there were high clouds expected through most of the morning with some mid level clouds mixed in right at sunrise.  This appeared to be the case for most of the mountains and right here in Wilkes County so I had almost unlimited possibilities for the morning.  As I started to look at the clouds in a bit more detail, there was likely going to be more density closer to Boone and it appeared to thin out slightly to the North, and would go clear quickly to the South.  Looking at the sunrise forecast there was a good chance for great color through most of the mountains so the question became…where to go?

My first thought was to head up to the area of Laurel Springs to see about working The Lump, or some of the areas in Doughton Park.  I had some ideas, but they were going to be experiments at best.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted the heavier clouds further South around Boone.  There was a lot more to choose from in that area since I didn’t have anything specific in mind.  Either destination would be rather quick to get to and would only take about 30 minutes or so to get in the area.  That meant I could make my final decision as I was leaving home in the morning.  I had my alarm set for 5am which seems early, but it is so much better than what I have been used to for sunrise shoots in the mountains.  Living closer by an hour is a great benefit to my photography and has allowed me a greater deal of flexibility when it comes to my locations.

When I heard the faint melody playing I instantly knew what it was and I didn’t want it to be time to get up just yet.  I said out loud as I was killing the alarm that I didn’t want to get up.  Of course, Toni was right there beside me telling me that I needed to get up and go.  Before I complied with her I opened the phone up and looked at the weather.  According to, the skies were perfectly clear overhead and into the mountains.  That was completely opposite of what I had been led to believe.  I switched over to the Clear Outside App and saw that the clouds were still in place and looked to be more favorable in the area of Boone rather than Laurel Springs.  Back to the main weather forecast to double check.  Yep, still clear skies being reported with light clouds coming in later in the morning.  Which one to believe?  I couldn’t get up and go look because it was still too dark to see any detail in the sky.  It was going to be a gamble if I got up and proceeded on with my trek.  My mind said to roll over and go back to sleep, but Toni was there to prod me to get out and get some pictures.  Not knowing what the remainder of the week had to hold, I decided to go ahead and go for it.

Listen to the Light“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard ND Grad

Not knowing exactly what kind of light I was going to be looking at, I decided to go back to my last attempt that was foiled by fog and low clouds.  Price Lake has always been a favorite sunrise location for me as the large body of water will amplify any color that was in the sky.  If the morning turned out to be a brilliant sunrise, this would make it epic.  On the other hand, if it was a marginal one, it would allow me to pull a much larger quantity of color out of the sky through the reflection.  If there was no color, I could just walk into the water and drown.  I’m kidding of course, but it would be two failed attempts at a sunrise here which I wasn’t wanting to happen.

I arrived at the lake shortly after 6am after taking my time going down the Parkway looking for other vantage points that might work out better.  Nothing jumped out at me, and I was seeing the clouds developing in a way that made me very hopeful for some wonderful color.  I pulled into the amphitheater parking lot and went to my favorite spot to watch the sunrise.  It was still very dark, but the sky was showing signs of life.  I picked out my composition which would hopefully grab the section of sky that would show the best color.  I didn’t go with my wide angle lens this time because I wanted to keep a bit more shape to the horizon by keeping my focal length a little more moderate.  For this task, I chose my 24-70mm lens which is a great all purpose lens in my opinion.  I added a polarizer to fine tune the reflections and glare on the water with the hopes of deepening the colors just a tad.  After taking a look at the histogram, I realized that I needed to bring the sky back just a tad so I added a Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge grad which was dropped right to the horizon.  That evened out the exposure just perfectly.  I made a couple of test exposures at about three minutes to see if there was any color hidden in the clouds that my eyes couldn’t see.  Sadly, there wasn’t and it was just a cool blue scene which wasn’t bad, but it was just too similar to what I had just captured here.

I waited…

Sunrise was about to happen and I was still waiting…

Normally, as the sun nears the horizon, the light gets very harsh very quickly, but for some reason the light stayed very soft and I was finally starting to see colors in the sky.  I wasn’t sure how that was possible, but I knew it wasn’t going to last long.  I quickly fine tuned the composition and adjusted the ND Grad before firing off a 30 second exposure just minutes before official sunrise.  That single long exposure did the the trick and managed to capture the colors in the sky as they moved around.  The long exposure increased the intensity and the scope of the colors while the water did just what I was hoping it would do by providing a mirror to the sky.  The small amount of color that was present in the sky was now saved on my memory card in grand fashion which was very fortunate as the color faded out just as the exposure was finished.  There was just about 45 seconds of color for the time right before sunrise when the colors are usually the longest lasting.  Oh well, I wasn’t complaining because I had one in the bag at this point.

A Golden Reflection“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard ND Grad

As the light started to change up quickly, I moved around to work other compositions.  I turned my attention to the part of the lake that was behind me which was starting to pick up some of the sunlight as the sky remained very interesting above it.  The images were a bit flat and hurried in composition but I could tell that I was onto something.  I moved around to get a different angle on the scene as the sky started to pick up the colors from the sun which was now above the horizon.  I had a choice to make.  I could stick with the composition that I was working on and wait for the light to get right, or I could grab a shot of the sunrise which already had the right light.  I opted to go with what I had rather than to wait for what might be.  I turned the camera back around and looked for a composition.  There was only a small area of color in the sky and I wanted to capitalize on that sliver so I flipped the camera on its side and framed up a vertical composition that included the shoreline that I had focused on previously and the tree that was just to the left.  The bank of golden clouds radiated from the tree and formed the upper frame to my composition.  That cloud reflected perfectly in the water below.  All I needed to do was to find the elevation for the camera that brought the cloud between the rock in the foreground and the reflection of the trees.  That gave me the separation that I needed to keep the image organized.  The filters remained on the lens and I moved the grad into position right at the horizon before setting the exposure for the shot.  I estimated the focus point and fired off the first image.  The colors were great and I was happy with the exposure.  I started to check the focus and realize that I needed to move it back just a little bit, but by the time I started to adjust the focus, the light was gone.  When I got it home and checked, it was close enough in focus as the distant mountain was the only thing really soft in the frame.  It wasn’t perfect, but the image was good for the feeling that it captured and I felt that the slight miss on the focus wasn’t enough to trash the image.

There are just times when a technically perfect image of an uninspired composition fails while an imperfect execution of a well thought out idea becomes a very successful image.  I was hoping that this fell into the category of the second case.  I loved the composition and what needed to be in focus was in focus, it just wasn’t all in focus.  You be the judge…did I create a successful image here or did I miss the mark?

With the light fading on this scene, I turned my attention back to the composition that I had been previously working.  The light was better now and the clouds were still looking good.  The trick was figuring out the right way to capture this one.  I was limited on where I could stand to get the shot as I was right on the edge of the shore.  I wanted to get a foreground anchor which is so important for reflection photography at lakes.  Without it, the image starts to lose depth very quickly.  I could get a small rock in the composition easy enough, but with that rock came a large bush that came out into the lake just beyond it.  I had to be very careful with how much of the frame that bush filled so as not to introduce a distraction.  Too much, and it would make the composition off balance.  Too little, and it would look like an oversight in my composition.  I had to treat it like Goldielocks and make it “juuussssssst right.”

Down by the Lake“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop hard ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I finally settled on a composition that had everything organized the way that I wanted it to be.  I had my separation, the light was good, and the sky was interesting.  The bush had just enough presence to keep the eyes in the composition, but not so much as to distract the eyes.  The filter combination that I had been working with seemed to fit well for this scene as well so I kept it all attached.  I made a few different exposures with some slight changes between them.  They looked really good in the image review and I was very excited to see them on the computer.  Well, when I got home to look at the images from this series, I was less than impressed.  Seeing the images as small thumbnails, they still looked good, but as I enlarged to fill the screen, it became jumbled and boring at the same time.  I didn’t like it at all on the full screen.  I almost didn’t even start to process the best out of the series, but I wanted to give it a fair shake since I had liked it so much in the field.

Early on I could tell that color was not going to be my friend.  There was no more color in the sky, and the dominant colors were green and blue which just didn’t have the effect I was after.  I made the decision early on to convert it to a black and white image which brought with it a great deal of punch.  I played with the tonality of the image and the colors and found a great contrast in the tones which I really liked.  After about a half hour or so, I had an image that jumped off of the screen and had the presence that I had seen in the small version of the color image.  That presence just wasn’t enough to carry the image unfortunately.  It was still missing something.  The composition needed something.

I applied a slight 16:10 crop to the image to get rid of some of the visual weight of the rock in the foreground and that helped a great deal.  It still wasn’t right though.  I didn’t think that it was reading correctly from left to right in its current form.  The foreground element was about the last thing that was seen and that wasn’t the order that I wanted to tell this story in.  I tried to do a quick horizontal flip which placed the rock on the lower left corner.  That seemed to do the trick actually.  The composition now read correctly and the pop of the monochrome conversion still held the visual interest.  It was the image that I had intended it to be, but executed in a fashion that I had not considered at the time of capture.  I’m actually running into that more and more these days.  I tend to photograph the scene as I think it wants to be photographed in the field, and then I come home and I process it based on the capture and not what I had imagined at the time.  Previsualization is becoming less and less important to me these days and I seem to be operating more and more on instinct from capture to presentation.  I don’t know if that is a good thing or not, but it is where my creative energy happens to be right now.

Working the Land“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

After that last series at Price Lake, I was pretty sure that I was finished there.  It was my second morning there in just a couple of weeks and I was ready for something different.  The clouds were still looking good and I knew that they would remain decent to the North a bit longer.  I tossed my gear back in the 4Runner and made my way back North on the Parkway looking for something to inspire me.  I went through Blowing Rock and several areas that I have often enjoyed photographing, but nothing was jumping out at me.  It wasn’t until I got to Thunder Hill that my eyes found some interest.  The clouds were looking great and the light was very soft which was kind of the theme for the morning.  I went ahead and pulled over to take a better look.

The main overlook wasn’t really jumping out at me as the light was a bit too harsh in that direction.  There was color in the sky still, but there was too much contrast for what I was after.  On the opposite side of the Parkway, the light was much better.  I knew there was a field just on the ridge that had several compositions which would take advantage of the soft clouds and the diffused light.  It was also a good opportunity to prepare for a 1-on-1 instruction session that I have scheduled next weekend.  I had been thinking that this would be a good place for it, and I could determine just how workable of a place it would be for the lesson plan that I was wanting to do.  I figured that the best view would be the valley just a block down the Parkway beside the field that I was beside.  I drove down to the next street and pulled off the road there.  I grabbed my gear and started to evaluate the valley for compositions.

Normally here, I will use my 16-35mm or 24-70mm lens, but for some reason today I was feeling a bit froggy.  Looking at the lighting that was present, I wasn’t going to have to use any filters, and I could see several options for wide angle shots.  Hmmm, sounds like the perfect time to pull out my Rokinon 14mm lens.  This lens is by far the cheapest glass that I have in my kit, and is actually cheaper than some of my filters, but it does a remarkable job at capturing a scene.  It is also a lot of fun to play with a fully manual lens, so that is what I chose to fit onto the camera.  It was now time to look for a composition which I already had in mind.  There were some large rocks up at the top of the embankment leading down into the valley that I wanted to use as a foreground.  Normally, my lens can’t capture this detail, but the 14mm gulped it right up.  I worked out an angle that gave a little depth to the image rather than just static layers.  The composition was nice and I was glad that I had chosen the super-wide lens.  The exposures were fairly simple, but I did have to use the image review to dial in the exposure as I can’t use live view with this lens due to the manual aperture ring.  I can use the internal light meter, but that is not a very accurate tool for me.  It can get me within 2/3 of a stop though and that was what I did.  With the image review coming up and showing a couple of areas of overexposure, I was able to back the exposure down and capture a perfectly exposed image.

I was happy with this one, but once again when I got it home I was a little less than happy with it.  The colors were fine which was odd.  Normally with this lens, I opt to go for a monochrome rendition because there are some odd color casts that come from this glass at times.  This wasn’t really one of those times though and the colors were close enough that I could deal with them and massage them in post.  The issue that I was having here was the image didn’t read correctly once again.  The rocks that I loved as a foreground prevented the eyes from flowing smoothly into the frame.  They were a distraction and I needed to do something about that.  Well, since I had just come back from flipping an image horizontally, I thought I could try that here as well.  Sure enough, it made the image much easier to read and the rocks now kept your eyes in the frame rather than preventing them from entering in the first place.  Once I got over the confusion of seeing a very well known scene backwards, I realized that this was how the image needed to be presented.

The Rolling Landscape“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

By this time, I was having fun with that 14mm lens.  I decided that I would challenge myself to find more compositions here using that same lens.  It was a fresh way of looking at this location and I was happy to give it a go.  I worked my way back towards the main overlook and decided that the way the landscape was rolling in front of me would make a great wide angle shot.  I found my position and planted the camera.  I then went to fine tuning the composition as well as camera placement.  I wanted to include the distant mountain as well as the top of the ridge where the Parkway snaked along.  I wanted to avoid including the road here as it would have been a distraction, but I was able to get the mowed grass as a border element to the frame in place of the Parkway.  The composition was well balanced and I had a nice foreground element of some white flowers which I placed in the lower right third just under the distant mountain.  The idea was to have the eyes hit the bright flowers, follow the line of the mowing to the top of that ridge and then follow the ridge to the mountain in the background.  The only problem with that was the eyes became confused when they entered the image to the left.  Once again, I did a flipping of the scene horizontally which changed the relationship of the elements.  The eyes now entered from the lower left and went to the upper right before coming back down to the left.  This had a much more fluid flow to it and made it a much more successful image.

From here, I continued up the trail to the ridge that I have shot from for many years.  This is one of those locations that it really pays to look behind you when checking out the main attraction.  I can’t count the number of people that I have seen gazing out over the grand overlook that never gave a passing thought to the view that was just right behind them.  For me, this is the more interesting side of the overlook and there is so much more that I can do with it as a photographer.  I was now in the area where there is an interesting fence that merges with the Parkway off in the distance.  There are also many areas where the rocks protrude from the grass which gives you so many more foreground options.  This is just a fantastic place to have a camera!

Wild and Free“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

I knew the area quite well and already had a composition in mind as I came to the top of the ridge.  It was going to be perfect for the Rokinon as the light was still very even.  As an added bonus, there was even a bit of color left on the horizon to the right of the Parkway.  The color continued to the right, but the sky was very contrasty with the sun right behind the clouds.  I was very content photographing the soft light on this side of the Parkway.  I found my location and paid particular attention to the bald that I was using as a foreground interest.  I wanted it to flow into the leaning fence post as well as leading your eyes to the Parkway.  The Parkway and the fence would then take your eyes off to the distance as the roadway cut through the trees.  All of that was the easy part, but I couldn’t let that fence post break the horizon which would have made for a distraction.  I had to elevate the camera well above eye level to get the post down low enough that it didn’t interrupt the distant mountain range.  Now I had a problem of not being able to see the composition through the viewfinder.  I had to turn on live view, which was quite dark.  I had to brighten the exposure to compensate for the manual aperture ring being at f/11.  I counted the clicks so that I could get my exposure back to where it should be without being able to look at the light meter.  Once I had the composition adjusted in the live view, I went back to the optical viewfinder which I wasn’t able to reach.  I clicked my shutter speed back to where it had been earlier and I left the focus ring on infinity.  I fired off a single exposure and saw that I had a hot spot in the sky on the image review.  I adjusted the shutter a third of a stop and fired off another one.  That was the ticket!

I might not have been able to use the viewfinder or the light meter, but I managed to make the camera work for me in a situation where I needed it quite a bit higher than my eyes would have liked.  It is very important to know your equipment and how to make it work even when you are faced with situations where it doesn’t work the way you are used to.  I had just finished up my third composition with a prime lens that I don’t use nearly enough and I was still looking for more.  There was one more composition that I was familiar with that I started to work out.  This was not a good one for a very wide angle lens though.  Typically, I shoot it with a 24-70mm lens and even then, I am usually 50mm or narrower.  I wasn’t able to get anything that I liked, but I did like the sky in that general direction.  It was time to work out a new composition that was better suited for the tool that I had chosen to work with.

Prelude to Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

Not too far down the path I came upon a grove of Goldenrods.  These are always quite interesting this time of year as they add a large splash of yellow to any composition.  That was just what they were going to do for me here.  I placed the camera right on top of the barbed wire fence and filled the foreground with the yellow flowers.  I positioned the camera so that the distant mountain was just off center to the left, but still close enough to the center to give the depth that I needed.  I placed the horizon line along the bottom third of the frame so as to really concentrate on the sky.  I elevated the camera a bit higher than was comfortable once again in order to stretch out the yellow flower as much as I could while reducing the stems in the frame.  The exposure looked to be the same as before and with the focus set to infinity I fired off a shot that seemed to work very well.  The only problem that I had was the wind which was blurring the flowers.

I had two options here.  I could wait for the wind to die down, or I could change up the exposure to allow for a shorter shutter speed.  Well, after a few minutes of constant wind, I realized that waiting would not be the best option.  Instead I went with my least favorite exposure alteration.  I started to boost the ISO, first to 300 and then ultimately to 640.  That allowed me a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second which was sufficient to freeze the flowers in the foreground.  I still waited for lulls in the wind just to make sure and I grabbed about three images just to make sure that I had one that was usable.

After taming the wind here, I decided that I had four compositions under my belt with the Rokinon and I was ready to move on to the next location.  I made the short hike back to the truck and packed away all my gear.  I then continued North on the Parkway in search of other locations.  The quality of light was still quite good with the light being nice and even with a slight warm tone to it.  It was the sky that was starting to let me down.  The most interesting sky was the high contrast one where the sun was.  The directions that would photograph better were flat and lifeless.  I wasn’t feeling any inspiration at this point and even found myself looking at some of my favorite scenes with nothing jumping out at me.  I decided to exit the Parkway at Hwy 16 and head back home in search of some rural subjects which would benefit from this light.

To make a long story short, I found nothing that would work for a photograph.  My last ditch effort for the day was to knock on a door to one of my neighbors about a mile from the house to see if they were home and would let me come back after sunset to photograph a couple of old VW’s that they had parked under a shelter in the back yard.  When I got there, the driveway was empty as I had gotten used to seeing it.  I stopped anyway and went to the door.  As I started to ring the bell the door opened and a man greeted me with an expression that told me pretty much all I needed to know.  I quickly introduced myself and asked permission to return later on.  As I expected, he simply said “no”.  I’ve had a lot of experience in convincing folks to let me photograph their property, and there was nothing in that experience that gave me a glimmer of hope that I could get him to change his mind.  I just simply thanked him for his time and bid him a good day.

I was really disappointed in that because I had worked out a great composition for some light painting with those vehicles and I was pretty sure that it would have turned out fantastic.  But in order to do that, I was going to have to get on the property and do so after dark.  There was no way that he was going to let me do that, so I had to let that idea go which I hate doing.  There will be other options down the road and was sure that in time I would forget about that particular subject and would find something even better to photograph.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this quick trip to the mountains as well as the images that have resulted from it.  It was a fun morning even if I only shot two different locations.  Of those two locations I managed to come back with just under 80 frames of which I managed to find seven keepers which I really like.  I got the chance to use one of my favorite niche lenses for a bunch of images, and I refreshed myself with a favorite location which I will be returning to the first weekend of October for a 1-on-1 session which I am really looking forward to.  If there are any images that I have included here in the blog that speak to you and you are interested in purchasing a print, I would love to assist you with that.  That is one of the best parts about being a photographer.  There is just something about seeing your vision turn into something that can be held.

Until next time…
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