Landscapes and Fine Art at Stone Mountain

· Reading Time: 27 minutes

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

When you look back at my recent treks going back to sometime in late October, you will see that with only a few exceptions I’ve been focusing more on my decay photography.  While I really do enjoy the decay and rural subjects, I was a landscape photographer first and foremost and there are just times that I like getting back to those roots.  I have started to really think about doing landscape subjects a lot lately since I have been having a hard time finding new subjects along the rural countryside recently.  I think I am starting to get a little burned out on those scenes and the thought of doing landscape photography is starting to appeal to me more and more.  The last time I went out for any type of landscape work was when I conducted my Fall Waterfall Workshop at Hanging Rock.  The time before that was when I did the One on One Instruction at Stone Mountain at the end of Fall.  While I really enjoyed both of those experiences, my photography was not exactly the priority for the day.  That is the tradeoff when I do these workshops and other instructional sessions, I have to focus on helping those that are participating in the activity rather than really focus on my own photography.  Now that I am between workshops though, I have time to get out and do a little bit of landscape photography for myself.  However, winter is not really the best time for landscape work…unless we are talking about waterfalls.

With the urge to get out in the woods and do some hiking and capture some landscape photos I started to look at the weather forecasts to see what day might work best.  I had been looking for some foggy mornings as I still want to go out and capture the pair of barns in the fog that I have been anxiously waiting for as well as an area motel that I think will look particularly good in the predawn fog.  Tuesday Morning was looking promising for that, but when I woke up there was no fog and the clouds were set to clear out between 10-11am.  That forecast was wrong as we had great clouds all day long, just with no texture to them.  It was the type of clouds that really made me want to go out and shoot waterfalls again, but I never really got my mind right to go out and do it.  By the end of the day I was regretting not going out with the camera, but at least I fixed two leaky faucets and the front door at our house so the day wasn’t wasted.

Looking at the weather for Wednesday, there was another chance for fog in the morning after a dense fog advisory though the night.  The clouds were looking to be mid altitude and consistent until around lunch time.  My plan was to get up before sunrise and head out to the motel to shoot it before the sun came up.  I would follow that up with the barns, and then take advantage of the clouds and return to Stone Mountain and work Widow’s Creek Falls.  It was an ambitious day, but one that I was excited about because I had locations and compositions in mind.

When the clock rang, I checked the forecast to find that there was no fog (which was confirmed by looking out of the window), and the chances of getting my first two locations were greatly reduced.  I wasn’t sure what the clouds would look like, but they were still in the forecast which was a good sign.  I reluctantly got up and started to get ready to go.  I wasn’t all that interested in leaving as early as I had planned since there was no fog, but surprisingly I made it out of the house just a few minutes later than I had planned.  I went ahead and started towards the motel to see if my plan might work without the fog.  Sadly, it wasn’t quite right and there was a car parked in the middle section that I was interested in photographing.  Oh well, it is still on my list for a future photograph at least.  Seeing that the clouds were relatively flat, I decided to head out to Stone Mountain and work on the waterfall until the clouds started to clear up which might give me the opportunity to work other subjects as well.

Cyclone Behind the Falls“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 2X Mk3 Converter, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I got to the park, I was surprised to see that it was mostly empty with only a few cars at the trailhead.  That wasn’t my destination anyway, so it really didn’t matter much at all.  Widow’s Creek Falls is usually fairly empty this time of year and the lack of any cars there confirmed that I was going to have it all to myself.  I grabbed my bag and started on the epic hike from the parking lot.  It took me all of three minutes to make it to the falls.  I noticed two things immediately when I got there.  First of all, the waterflow was looking really good.  Secondly, there was a fallen branch across the top of the falls which didn’t look good at all.  I was very disappointed in the branch and really thought that my ideas were lost.  I knew I wasn’t going to be able to shoot a full image of the waterfall with that branch there and I already had compositions in mind.  Since I had been planning on doing a few isolations here, I reluctantly stuck around to find sections of the waterfall that interested me.

I pulled out my long 70-200mm lens and started to pick out details on the face of the waterfall.  I quickly realized that 200mm wasn’t going to be enough to get the job done here.  I had to add my 2X teleconverter behind the lens to give me a little extra reach.  That gave me plenty and I was back in business.  Instead of going for my typical isolations, I decided to look at this creatively and try to find other compositions and ways of presenting this waterfall.  The first one that I tried was the eye socket of the skull behind the waterfall.  If you have ever seen this waterfall before, you certainly know what I am talking about.  I started to play around with the composition and the balance until I had something that I thought might work out.  It was a very different composition from what I usually shoot in that the water wasn’t a major element at all.  In fact, the main focal point was the area that actually looked like a cave.  I wasn’t sure whether or not this would work, and even after I edited it, I still wasn’t sure about it.  I had to have Toni come in to give me her opinion.

When she came in to look at it I started off by telling her that I really wasn’t convinced that I liked it.  I liked the concept, but wasn’t sure if the execution was strong enough to carry the image.  She looked at it, and without taking more than a second or two, she said that she loved it.  It reminded her of a cyclone and couldn’t stop talking about how much she liked it.  Since she was not emotionally connected to the image like I was, I had to take her opinion seriously which meant that it was probably good enough to add into the collection here.  It is still growing on me as I look at it.  The part that I like so much about it is it really doesn’t look like one of my images at all.  It is completely different from my norm…and that can be a very good thing.

The Widow’s Spirit“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 2X Mk3 Converter, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

While I still had the teleconverter mounted, I started looking for other isolations to shoot within the water.  Something that I had learned from my time with Jon on the individual instruction session here was that a complete abstract of the moving water can look really good even without a visual anchor.  He had shot several like this and when I was watching how he saw the water I was able to see things a little differently than I had in the past.  Just goes to show that I usually learn just as much from my participants as they do from me.  This was a concept that I held onto and continued to work out a way of using it in my own photography.  This was going to be the chance for that, and quite fitting since it was the same waterfall that he had been shooting when I saw his concept.

I picked out an area that had some good contrasts, but no real definition when it came to solid objects.  It is these solid objects that I have often relied on to really anchor the moving water.  This is especially helpful in monochrome images which was what I was kind of thinking about doing here.  My concept was to do that black and white image, and make it a very high contrast scene with the focus on the water only.  I was going to deepen the shadows and the darker areas of the image to give it the structure that I wanted.

When I got this one home and started to work with it in Lightroom, I decided that the black and white look was just too boring for it and it needed some extra drama.  By choosing a color profile that was very cool in overall tone and had a good deal of contrast built in gave me a good starting point.  I crushed the blacks and brought down the shadows while working the tones of the water carefully to retain that cool chill to the image.  It turned into essentially a monochrome capture, but with the cool blue hue over the whites.  The deep blacks really helped this one to pop and was exactly what I had in mind.  It has a very much abstract feeling with no anchors except for the shadows, and there is no sense of scale or location.  There are just shapes and textures to guide your eyes around the frame.  Again, this one is very much unlike any that I have shot previously.

Mossy Embrace“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Getting into the groove of this waterfall once again, I decided that I was ready to get some images that showed more of the scene so I removed the teleconverter from the back of the lens.  I then started to find compositions that didn’t include the fallen branch as that was a distraction for me in just about any composition that I had in mind.  I was still up on the ridge to the left of the waterfall which typically doesn’t give as good of a composition of the entire falls, but with the reduced scale of the scene thanks to the compression of the long lens, I was able to find something that I really liked with the steep embankment to the left as a texture rich foreground.  I balanced that on the opposite side with the other rocky wall and clipped the top half of the falls to avoid the branch.  There was enough breathing room at the bottom to show the pool and the two areas where the water was pouring into it.  It was a relaxing composition and one that I hadn’t ever thought about before.  Sometimes, obstacles can be a benefit in forcing you to think about different ways of capturing a subject that you have shot many times before.

The Essence of the Falls“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As I was focusing on this lower section of the waterfall, I was compelled to shoot one of my favorite compositions with the new camera, just so I had it in the collection.  To do this, I was going to have to cut across the water which was moving quite rapidly.  I took my time and waded through the fast moving shallow water until I was on the other side.  I found the angle that I wanted and got the camera set up with the long lens as a vertical capture.  I dialed in the composition that I had shot many times before and then focused on the shutter speed to get the water to show as I wanted it to.  Normally I will shoot this at a second or two, but the water was flowing so fast I dialed it back to 0.6 of a second at f/9 which gave me a sweet silky look while retaining the detail that I needed within the water.  Since I had done this one several times, I didn’t need to fiddle with it much, other than the shutter speed.  I think I worked this composition for about five minutes and it was well worth the time I think.

Cave Beneath the Falls“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

While I was looking at the image in the LCD image review I was wanting to see more of the surroundings.  There is a lot here to keep one’s attention and I wanted to capture as much of that as I could without going overboard with it.  I still had the branch to be concerned with, but I wanted to capture the drop of the pool which created another cascade.  I also wanted to capture the area that has been almost perfectly eroded on the mossy wall.  I chose to go with a horizontal composition and I used the lower cascades as a frame for the bottom edge.  The left side was extended out to give the little cave room to breathe and the right side fell where the best balance was found.  The upper section was the tricky part for me though.

I played around with the height of the camera for a while as it helped to stretch the image top to bottom.  I could cut the image at the top just under the branch, but I would lose the shadowed ledge in the upper left that helped to keep the eyes in the frame.  I decided that I needed that, as well as the ledge of the rock just inside the left boundary of the waterfall.  That curvy line helped to define the image, but it also forced the inclusion of the branch.  I had to deal with that branch for this composition, but found that by including as much as a did, it mimicked the shape of the ledge just below it which the two elements together helped to bring the eyes back down to the waterfall.  In the end, I wasn’t sure if this would work or not, but when I got it on the computer screen the following day I was really happy with how it had turned out.

After I shot that composition I started to struggle to find anything else in the area to shoot. I had surprised myself with all that I had captured up to this point after my first reaction being negative due to the branch.  I’m glad I decided to stick it out to see what I could come up with.  It was time to move on to another scene at this point though, and I had just the idea.  One of the things that I have always enjoyed doing is walking along the road between here and the trailhead as there are several little places along the creek that offer up some interesting compositions.  With my bag on my back I started my way down the road to see what I could find.

Pausing the Flow“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Many of the areas that I had been thinking about didn’t offer up any compositions for me which was a little disappointing, but I quickly got over it when I got close to the trailhead.  There is a nice little picnic area on the opposite side of the road that has some really interesting features.  There was one in particular that I was wanting to work with.  I went down below the picnic area and found my little mountain oasis waiting for me.  I was familiar with the compositions here so it didn’t take long for me to work out what I wanted from this scene.  It is a little more difficult to compose than it looks.  I had to set the camera up in the very soft sand beneath the surface of the water.  Meanwhile, I had to stand in that same soft sand which reminded me of quicksand in a way.  In a matter of minutes my feet were almost covered by the silt I was standing on.

I used my long lens once again to get the tight composition and kept it down pretty close to the water elevating it just enough to provide separation between the angled rock to the right and the mossy rocks behind it.  I wanted to pay particular attention to the base of the small trees on the bank as the knotted trunks were just really interesting.  Of course, I wanted to include the little cascades to the left as that added interest to the whole scene.  It was the exposure that gave me the hardest time.

In order to capture the area of the cascades where it slams into the triangle rock, I needed to have a very fast shutter speed.  I was able to do that easy enough, but I realized that there was a nice swirl in the water between the rocks that I wanted to capture.  I could have done an image blend here with different shutter speeds and that would have been the best arrangement in this situation.  However, that is just now how I like to do photography.  I like to make an image that isn’t built from different elements of different exposures.  I decided that I would much rather find that shutter speed that captured the swirl as well as gave enough definition in the brightest part of the cascade.  I tried a number of different exposures, but finally found that 1.6 seconds at f/14 was the one that provided all of the elements that I was after here.

A Liquid Hook“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

While working on that overall image, I was finding myself more and more drawn to the area where the cascades converged and then turned into the swirl.  After I was satisfied that I had what I wanted from the overall scene, I zoomed in a bit and found a composition that showcased the area that I was becoming more and more interested in.  It was back to finding the correct exposure here which took some doing.  I shot a number of images here as I experimented with my shutter speed.  The one that I chose was close to the other one, but a little slower.  It was an exposure of 2 full seconds at f/16.  It doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but it gave just the right effect for what I was after.

Lovely Mossy Humps“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I was done with the little oasis area, I decided to give the cascades above it some love as well.  The last time I had been here and photographed this section the water wasn’t nearly as full and the details here were just not that exciting.  Today’s water flow made all the difference and I was really excited to make some images.  The first one that I wanted to shoot was one that included the bank behind the waterfalls. The green, mossy mounds were quite interesting for me and they turned into the top of the frame.  I kept the angle that allowed the falls to be a diagonal feature through the frame for a bit of excitement as well as a leading line to the green mounds.  As I was shooting different versions of this to dial in the shutter speed that I wanted, I found myself getting very interested in the cascades as an abstract feature all on their own.  When I was done with the “typical” composition that I was working on, I zoomed in once again for the more intimate view.

Rushing Around“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

This composition I allowed myself to have a lot of fun with.  It was from pretty much the same location as the previous one, but much closer in.  I knew that this would make a good monochrome image, but I didn’t want to do it that way.  There was just enough of the warm colors seeping in from the side to really make me want to do this as a color image with some very careful saturation tweaks along the way.  When I got it home and started to work on it the next day, my vision came together quite nicely.  I went with another color profile that started me off with a high contrast, cool toned image.  From there, I deepened the blacks and then started to work on the areas where the warm tones were.  Those were dodged in a bit and saturation was added to those areas, while I desaturated the cooler areas just a tad.  The end result has a very interesting look and a richness that the overall image could never possess.  When dealing with just a couple of colors in an image, it is often quite satisfying to really play with those two colors to create an artistic representation of what you have seen.

I had now spent about 45 minutes here getting these two scenes captured and that was plenty.  I was needing to get on the trail along the lower sections of Stone Mountain if I was going to beat the clearing sky.  I was already starting to see the sun breaking through which was not a good thing.  There were still plenty of clouds so that I could wait for them to cover the sun occasionally if needed.  I decided to cut some of the trails out for the sake of time and start out down the direct road to the Hutchinson Homestead which is where my workshops usually start out.  I hadn’t planned on photographing the historic buildings, but when I saw the light on them, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to give it a few minutes of my time.

Cozy at Home“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

What caught my eye first was the main home right at the entrance to the historic section at the base of the mountain.  I have photographed this house so many times I’ve lost count, but there are always excuses to capture certain subjects. I was really feelin a black and white vibe for this subject and started to figure out how I wanted to capture it.  I knew from experience that my 24-70mm lens would be the best option so that was what I selected.  Looking around, I didn’t really see much reason to use a polarizer for this so I just left that off and started to find compositions.  I did something here that I very rarely do and opted for the black and white picture mode on the camera so I could see how it was looking as a black and white.  It looked pretty decent and I made several exposures using that selection.  As I worked it though, I moved it back to color and decided that I liked that better for this composition.  I made several slight changes to the camera position to get all of the elements organized the way I wanted them and to camouflage the display sign on the other side of the house.

Of Wood and Stone“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I then went over to the corner because it was the stone chimney and closed window that interested me the most about this old house.  I struggled to find a composition even though I have shot this scene several times over.  Neither vertical nor horizontal would work for what I was after so I ultimately decided on a square crop.  That provided a very nice calming image and included just what I liked about the scene.  I didn’t like the color rendition in the LCD, so I flipped it back to black and white and found that was just perfect for this composition.  I played with the angles a little bit and waited for the light to do what I needed it to, but it didn’t take long at all.

Oddly, when I got these images home, I brought them both into Lightroom as RAW images which are color to start with.  I processed the overall image as a color picture as I had decided I preferred in the field.  I then got the square crop and processed it as a black and white.  I liked it so much that I went back and did the horizontal one as a black and white.  I ended up liking that better because the colors were just off on the color image.  Since I liked that one as a black and white, I didn’t want to have them both being black and white so I converted the square image back to color and processed it that way.  Wouldn’t you know it, I liked the color version better here after all.  It gave me much better separation from the textures in the background which I wasn’t able to really figure out in the field.

I now had a color and a black and white version of both images and I was starting to go back and forth on which I liked better.  They both had their good and bad points which made it very difficult for me to figure out.  There was only one option left to help me decide.

TONI !!!!

Can you come down here and help me with a couple of pictures please?

I’m not proud, when it comes to black and white images she has always been the voice of reason.  She came down and looked at them and actually mirrored what I had decided about them.  She preferred the black and white on the horizontal image and the color on the square, but liked them all.  I went forward with that combination and pulled them into Photoshop for the final touches for online posting.  It was then that I started to look at the horizontal image with fresh eyes once again.  I liked the black and white presentation but there was a lack of separation that I just couldn’t get past.  I went back to Lightroom and reworked the color image for a third time.  When it was all said and done, I liked the color version better here as well as I did in the square crop.

That right there is the beauty of shooting RAW.  Had I been shooting in jpeg, the images that I had would have been black and white only and would have lost all of the color information.  I had originally decided to process the images opposite how I had shot them in the field which could have been a problem.  In the end, I only had the square composition in monochrome so I would have never been able to process it as a color image had it not been for RAW captures.  That’s just something to keep in mind when you are making decisions on how to present your images in the field and whether or not you are going to shoot RAW or jpeg.

When I had gotten done with the old house, I took a leisurely stroll through the area to see if there was anything else that I wanted to photograph.  Nothing else spoke to me and the sky was not all that interesting so I didn’t bother with anything dealing with Stone Mountain either.  I did continue on down the trail to get to the main waterfall.  I was particularly interested in the water features along the trail that I had photographed successfully before.  Today, nothing really jumped out at me along the trail.  There had been a lot of trees knocked down and it seemed that there was a good deal more brush in the way of the water features I was trying to photograph.  I didn’t even break my camera out for any of them.  By the time I got to the base of the waterfall, it was time to turn around.   I had no interest in climbing all of those steps when I was needed to be down here to get back to the truck anyway.  The sun was now coming out and the light was getting harsh.  I was pretty sure that my day was over.

As I was hiking back to the homestead I was watching the sky.  There were still some white puffy clouds above so there was a chance that I might find something on the way back home to shoot along the roadway.  I started to think about my route home and tried to figure out the best way to ensure I might run into something that I wanted to photograph.  As I was contemplating that I made it to the clearing where I had been a while earlier.  It all looked quite a bit different now that the sun was shining on it.  The sky was a deep blue above the bald of Stone Mountain and the clouds looked quite interesting above it as well.  I was tired from all of the hiking at this point so I didn’t mind stopping to evaluate a photo opportunity here.

I started to look at the cloud’s motion and saw that they were moving towards the summit from over my head.  I recognized that as a great setup for a long exposure shot here.  This is something that I have been wanting to do for some time now and have never had the opportunity before.  I knew the exact composition that I wanted to use as I have shot it a number of times before.  I set up the tripod and mounted the camera with the 16-35mm lens on it so I would get the sweeping clouds in the sky above the mountain.  I wanted to add to the contrast of the sky so I popped on my polarizer and looked at the histogram.  There was still too much latitude in the composition because of the bright clouds in the sky so I added a 3-stop ND Grad filter which evened out the tones quite well.  I then started to get a baseline exposure which was then matched up to my ND Filter app to determine what I needed in order to get a 3:20 exposure.  I was close using a 10-stop filter, but needed to stop it down to f/16 in order to get the right exposure.  With that working just fine, I added the 10-stop filter and closed off the viewfinder.

Stone Mountain Expression“, Canon 5DS R, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad, Mor-Slo 10-stop ND, 200 seconds, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I locked the button on the shutter remote to open the shutter as I started to watch the timer on the top of the camera.  I used my body to shield the lens and filters from the sun which was coming in from the right of the camera.  I was a minute into the exposure and started to notice that the clouds were getting thinner and thinner.  This was probably going to be my one and only chance to get this image.  When I was just under two minutes in I heard a group of hikers approaching from the trail I was just on.  There were about a dozen of them and they were coming my way.  I still had a long time left get this image completed and I was trying to figure out a way to stop the hikers in their tracks before they entered the frame.  As luck would have it, they took the other fork and walked behind my location.  That was a win for me!  I could hear them talking amongst themselves wondering what I was doing standing beside my camera.  One of them said I was doing some sort of selfie, she was sure of it.  If she only knew….  As they were walking I saw another lone hiker emerging from the woods and coming my way.  I still had about 30 seconds at this point.  The funny thing was, I had not seen anyone all day long and during the course of a 3:20 exposure, I had now seen about 13 hikers.  It was this last hiker that was on the trail in front of me.  He would get to the tree at about the time the exposure ended.  More than likely, he would not have registered in the frame, but looking at the sky above which was now clear, I wasn’t willing to take the chance.

As he approached I held my hand out and asked if he would mind stopping for (looking down at the counter) seven seconds for this exposure to finish.  Fortunately, he was willing to stop and I was able to let the exposure finish without interruption.  I thanked him and he was back on his way.  I looked at the LCD and was so impressed with this one.  The exposure was dead on right with no hot spots at all.  The overall look of the image was just what I had in mind.  It became my single most favorite image of Stone Mountain and I hadn’t even started to process it.

When I got it home, I had to decide if I was going to do it as a color image or the black and white which was what I had shot it as.  The color RAW file looked really impressive as well with the deep blue sky and the reddish tones of the mountain.  Had the grass not been so faded, I might have been inclined to do this as a color image, but it was the monochrome version that won my heart.  It was everything that I had wanted from this scene.  This accidental image that resulted from me being tired of hiking turned into my favorite image of the day.  I’m pretty sure that this will be one of my most significant images of the year, but it is too early to commit to that prediction just yet.

I do hope that you enjoyed this trek as it was a rather eventful one.  It is always fun to go back to a type of photography after I have taken a long break from it.  I really enjoyed working with the landscape compositions once again after so many rural subjects.  I ended up shooting 117 frames during the day and most of those were experimenting with shutter speeds so to have a total of 12 images from the day which I consider keepers, I’m quite impressed with myself.  It reminded me just how little I have worked with waterfalls over the last year or so.  They are a lot of fun to photograph, but I have gotten to where I really need to be in the mood to capture them to really enjoy the process.  Widow’s Creek Falls has always been a favorite of mine and this trek showed me just why that is.  There are so many different ways of seeing this waterfall and I really had a blast with the isolations it offered.

If landscapes are your thing, be sure and check out my upcoming workshop on the Blue Ridge Parkway scheduled for May 15th starting at Doughton Park.  There are still spots left, but they have already started to sell.  Be sure to reserve your place soon for this day long workshop focused on capturing the natural beauty of the NC Mountains.  If you are happy just enjoying the photography from the mountains, consider purchasing a print which can be done through my online store here, or you can make special orders by emailing me at [email protected]  There is just nothing quite like holding a photographic print in your hands and enjoying it as the photographer intended.

Until next time…
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