Overnight in the Mountains

· Reading Time: 23 minutes

Friday, August 30, and Saturday August 31, 2019

This is usually the slow time of year for me when it comes to photography.  The trees are getting a little drab and the greens are fading.  It is usually still quite hot which puts up a boring haze in the sky, and clouds are not usually part of the landscape unless there is a storm.  However, it seems that I’ve been having some really great luck here recently with my landscape images.  Most of that was due to advanced planning, by at least a day, where I was looking at the weather leading up to the trek.  Most of the time I have that luxury and can react to whatever the weather hold for me.  There are other times, however, when plans have to be made and I just have to go with what develops.  That was the case for this weekend, and it actually turned out pretty good.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine in Florida started talking about coming up and having a little “getaway” vacation in the mountains.  Nick was wanting somewhere to go where he could fly his drone and see some mountains.  Coming from Florida, speed bumps count as mountains so I can understand the draw to get out to the Appalachian Mountains.  As time moved forward the idea turned into a plan where he would bring his wife and their baby with them for a weekend.  We talked back and forth about good locations that were in close proximity to the Parkway and would still be in the mountains as well.  Having spent a good bit of time with Toni in West Jefferson through High Mountain Cabin Rentals, that was what I recommended to them.  Ultimately, it turned out that they stayed in one of their properties and Toni and I were invited to stay a night with them.  Any chance to get to the mountains I’m all for, and we set out on Friday to meet up with them at the cabin.

The weather reports about three weeks out had worried Nick as clouds and rain were expected for the weekend.  Since he was looking for some excuses to pull out his camera I tried to tell him that a forecast like that would be really good for him.  I’m not sure he believed me, but it was much too early to tell what the weather was actually going to be doing.  The closer the weekend got, the more the weather moved away from what I like and it went the polar opposite with clear skies for the entire time.  I wasn’t as excited about that prospect, but since he enjoys doing astrophotography, the clear nights would be welcomed by him.  It also meant that I might actually engage in a little bit of astrophotography, which would be a first for me.  Well, I have taken images that had stars in them before, but nothing I would characterize as astrophotography by any stretch.

Before we went out to the cabin Toni and I did a little driving around the mountains and spent some time on the Parkway.  The sun was harsh, so I wasn’t worried about taking any pictures.  It was just nice to be driving around in the mountains again.  We drove by ASU where I graduated in cough…cough ’96….cough, cough.  Yeah, I’m old, no need to remind me.  Things have sure changed on that campus, and I’ve heard of even more changes coming like the demolition of the residence hall that I lived in for the first two years of my college life.  Time marches on and there is nothing that we can do about it.

But I digress…

Around 4:30 or so we arrived at the cabin and caught up before heading out to dinner.  It didn’t take very long to eat which was nice and we were back on the road.  Since Nick and Jessica hadn’t taken the opportunity to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway, we took a little side trip on the way back to the cabin and I showed them some of my favorite haunts between Blowing Rock and Boone.  It was fun watching them see the mountains from the overlooks like this.  Of course, neither of us had our cameras with us, but Nick was using his cell phone to capture images of the rolling hills that I have come to call home over the years of being a photographer.  By the time we got back to the cabin it was dark, but not quite dark enough for any astrophotography.  That was going to be closer to 11pm, and I wasn’t sure if I could stay up that late, and still get up early the next morning for a sunrise shoot with Nick.  The conditions were going to be absolutely clear at night and in the day, so the better bet would be the astrophotography and risk not making the morning shoot under clear skies.

Our Place in the Universe“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold on enjoying this type of photography, but I figured that now would be as good a time as any to give it a try.  I started off with the lens that I have that is very popular with this type of photography, and that is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens.  I was all excited since this lens should make it super easy to capture the Milky Way…as long as I could find it in the sky.  Well, that is the beauty of doing this type of photography in the mountains.  There is a lot less light pollution in the sky which makes it much easier to see the stars.  Nick also had an app to show the direction of the Milky Way.  When we stepped out on the deck, there was really no need for the app as I could see it plain as day over the town of West Jefferson.  I fumbled around to get the camera set up in the dark and eventually gave that up and grabbed my flashlight to give me a little assistance with the setup.  This flashlight was a little bright and killed my night sight, so I switched over to a lower powered flashlight with a red filter on the lens which worked much better.  I then found it very difficult to compose the image, even with a DSLR and an f/2.8 lens.  I felt better when Nick was having the same issue with his EVF on the Sony A7RIII, which was much newer technology.  However, after comparing both cameras, I felt that the optical viewfinder on my camera had a slight edge when it came to composition.

What I was missing was the roof of the cabin blocking the top portion of the frame.  I had to really work at getting the camera positioned correctly in order to eliminate the portions of the cabin that were showing up.  I finally had to extend the camera out over the railing to get the image that I wanted.  That worked, but the Milky Way was getting lost in the composition.  I decided to swap lenses and go with my 24-70mm for a bit tighter crop on the main element of the image.  The speed of the lens was the same, so fundamentally, one was as good as the other.  The composition that I could come up with was much better as represented in the image above.  I made some odd choices for myself for this one, but I think that it worked.  I put the Milky Way roughly centered in the image with a tree creeping in on the right as a bit of foreground interest for some depth and contrast.  I included the horizon, but since it was a city scene with a lot of lights, I wanted to be careful with how much I chose to include.  Having just a sliver, minimized its importance, and actually helped to tell the story of this image.  When looking at something the size of a galaxy, you really kind of feel small, and that was what I wanted to imply with the amount of importance that I gave the city below.

I know that the light from the city was kind of in opposition to the goal of no light pollution, but I really kind of liked the warm light right at the horizon.  I thought that it added a bit of dimension to the image that was lacking otherwise.  Plus, it gave me an image that stood apart from the other Milky way shots out there.  No since in reinventing the wheel.  I wanted to put my spin on it…since I was pretty much experimenting with this whole thing anyway.  I was liking what I was getting in the viewfinder and I played with a few different white balances just to get an idea of what colors were actually in the scene.  The longer I shot, the more the Milky Way moved to the right.  That eventually put it out of play for me with any sort of composition that would make sense.  According to Nick’s app, the star (pardon the pun) of the show would be moving over to the other side of the house shortly, so that was where I decided to go next.

Cosmic Cloud“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters

The composition that I decided on was one that concentrated on a dip in the trees.  There wasn’t much light beyond the trees so that made me feel a little bit better about this side of the house as I just wasn’t sure how the first bunch of images had turned out.  I got the composition situated and started to look at the size of the Milky Way as it was going to pass over.  I just didn’t have enough coverage with my 24-70mm lens which was still on the camera.  This was when I needed to break out the Rokinon 14mm which turned out to be just perfect for the composition that I was planning.  I set the camera up in landscape orientation for this image and just waited until the Milky Way came into view.  I started cranking off images as it moved across the field of view.  I was rather old school with that method, as Nick chose to set his A7RIII up to shoot with an intervalometer, doing a an exposure every 35 seconds.  He then went inside to warm up and take a nap.  He might have made a snack, watched a sitcom on TV while his camera was doing all the work.  Me, on the other hand, was standing out in the frigid 60 degree night pressing buttons on my remote to make images.  It was a fun learning process for me and represented the first time I had shot at such high ISO’s.  Some of the images that I shot were at ISO4000 which was way over the top for what I normally do.  I was concerned about noise, and knew that I would have a good bit to deal with using the aging body (the camera, not mine).

After about 30-45 minutes, the Milky Way seemed to be frozen in the sky and not moving to the dip that I was planning on.  This left me with an unbalanced image, but I kind of liked it anyway.  When I got it home, I started working with different crops in order to see if I had the strongest composition possible.  As it turned out, a 1:1 crop made the most sense with the image and added a certain immediacy to the Milky Way.  I’m still very new at this, and was shooting these images off of a deck, so I doubt that they will do much more than grace social media at some point, but it was a great opportunity for me to give this technique a try and learn how the camera operates in this environment.  It is not the best because of the noise that is introduced, but considering this is a first attempt, I am actually really happy with the images and I think that I might have some fun with this in the future.

it was getting late by this point.  I think it was a little after 11pm when we decided to call it a night.  We needed to get some rest since we were getting up shortly after 5am in the morning for a sunrise venture to Doughton Park.  I had picked Doughton because there were still no clouds in the forecast which meant that the best chance for color would be from the alpenglow to the West.  Doughton is one of the best places around for that to show up.  Ironically, it is also the best place for astrophotography.  Maybe we should have just camped out there for the night?  Anyway, it was off to sleep for a few hours before Saturday got started in earnest.


The alarm rang at 5am which was early, but nothing like I was used to for a sunrise trip to the mountains.  I checked the weather and saw that there was still absolutely zero cloud cover expected for the morning….or day for that matter.  Honestly, I would normally have rolled back over and gone back to sleep.  However, this was something that Nick had been looking forward to, and I didn’t want to let him down so I got myself up and moving with the intention of getting to Doughton Park right at sunrise so that we could take advantage of the alpenglow shortly thereafter.  Nick and I were on the road at 5:45 in the morning excited about what the conditions would bring.

As we were driving down the back roads towards Doughton, there were some really thick pockets of fog and low clouds.  I could still see stars above, but the flog layer got me pumped that there should be some inversions to see.  Those are always fun, and I would assume that Nick would really get a kick out of them being from the flat state of Florida.  We continued down the road and as  we got closer, the fog would get thicker and thicker.  I was almost wanting to stay in the countryside to shoot rural scenes with the fog, but I would save that for another day.  We needed to get to Doughton as time was running out.

The Awakening“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad

When we got up on the Parkway, we started passing the overlooks and just like the previous night, I was showing him each one as we passed by.  When we got to the Bluff Mountain Overlook I was struck with the colors in the sky.  There were no clouds present which would normally be needed to reflect the color, but there was a lot of color.  There was just that much vapor and particles in the air that the sun was actually lighting that up.  The color was rich and vibrant and I actually got a little excited about capturing it.  I asked Nick if he wanted to stop here and forego Doughton to which he said he did.  Funny how we had just had that conversation in the car on the way out to the Parkway.  Some great advice that I had heard years back was don’t pass up on the picture you have in front of you in order to get to a concept of a picture that may or may not materialize.  It is great advice, and some that I wish that I followed more often in my own photography.  At least Nick had been listening and we were both on board with capturing this fantastic sunrise that was happening right then.

We grabbed our gear and I went right for my long 70-200mm lens because I was fully expecting to capture a strip of color at the top and some foggy terrain below.  You know, my typical composition in this situation.  As I was shooting a few frames of that, I started to remember the arguments that I had about the last time I had done that very composition and decided that I was tired of that one.  I moved around and tried to find a grand vista that I could shoot.  I needed to find it quickly as the light was changing fast as the sun got closer to the horizon.  I decided to use the top of the stairs that led down to the trail below to anchor the image and have the foreground make sense.  For that, I was going to need a wider lens, so I swapped out my telephoto for my standard 24-70mm lens.  As I was framing up the image, I decided that I liked the composition, but I was going to need a little more bite to the sky for it to work the way I was visualizing.  I grabbed my Lee Filter foundation kit so that I could add my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad and control the exposure in the sky.  That did the trick and I was able to see a great histogram in my live view.

I noticed that while I was shooting this composition, Nick was having fun with his drone and getting some incredible views of the cloud inversions below in the valley.  I’m actually really looking forward to seeing how the images and video turn out from that.  It was kind of cool hearing the whirring from the drone above while I was working the scene in front of me.  It made me think of all of the Youtube Photographers that I follow which use drones in their vlogs.  Who knows, maybe some day I might get the urge to actually do an honest to goodness vlog?  It just really seems like a distraction to the task at hand of setting up and capturing an image which really is the soul purpose of me being out here as a photographer.  I need a crew to follow me around, maybe Nick would intern with the corporate conglomerate that is Greg Kiser Photography.  The hours are terrible and the pay sucks.  Such is the life of a starving artist I suppose.

Anyway, I was steady making images and having to deal with a slight bit of wind that kept moving the vegetation during the exposure.  I ended up having to ramp up my ISO once again which is really becoming a habit for me on these trips now.  I can’t believe I have gone all these years at ISO100 to now be living in the ISO400 realm so much with my landscapes.  Fortunately, the 5D Mk3 is still really clean at that sensitivity.  After I was sure I had something that I would like, I moved over to the other side of the Parkway to where there was a field.  There was a dead tree in the field with some soft pink clouds behind it that caught my eye.  It was not really close enough to me for the standard lens that I had on the camera, but I thought that I could include the fence in the image and add a little visual tension to the frame.

No Bark, No Bite“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

Well, that idea was short lived and I couldn’t get the fence positioned in a way that didn’t absolutely dominate the entire scene.  I decided to avoid the fence, and I swapped the standard lens out for the telephoto 70-200mm lens with a much better reach.  Looking at the direction I would be shooting, I knew that a polarizer would help add a touch of contrast and make the pink clouds pop a little more.  I went ahead and screwed on my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to the adapter ring connected to the Lee Foundation Kit.  I found a nice and simple composition that emphasized the vertical nature of the tree.  It was nice and bright with the bark mostly gone from the trunk.  The bare wood was reflecting the warm morning light from the rising sun.  The colors were looking wonderful in the back of the camera.

Wait a minute, that really looks like a black and white image that I posted of the tree.  Well, it is, and it was a last minute addition to the keepers for from the day.  I originally processed the image as a color one and just really didn’t like how it looked.  Not wanting to keep it for the sake of keeping it, I decided to trash the image.  I wasn’t looking back on it at all, until two paragraphs before.  As I was talking about the scene I was seeing, I wanted to go back and look at the images from that tree once again.  I decided to find a different composition and see if I liked it better.  Nope, the color just fell short in many different ways for me.  Looking at the sky and the hard lines of the tree, I thought I should try it as a black and white image.  I started the conversion and began to see some potential.  I started to play with the tonal relationships in the image and ultimately found that I was able to capture the mood that I was feeling at the time with a monochrome image despite it being the color that drew me to it in the first place.  I don’t consider this an image rescue at all, just an example of misinterpreting the visual cues that I was seeing in the field.  I’m much happier with this as a black and white as the tree really stands out and the smaller tree to the right has much more visual weight than in the color image.

I was thinking that I was about done as the color in the sky was fading quickly by this point.  The sun was almost over the crest of the hill to the East.  Nick was still flying the drone at this point and doing some of his own compositions.  Not feeling like I should rush him, I started to look for other options to photograph.  There was still a good deal of intense color right where the sun was coming up, but not a lot of visual interest around it.  Normally, I would have just let this go, but I had this strange urge to try for a minimalist approach to a sunrise.  It was an odd concept, and admittedly, I would be pushing the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2 to its limit.  The weakness of this lens is lens flare when shooting into the sun.  It is a well known issue and it was fixed in the Mark 3 variant with other improved features.  I wanted to give it a try though, so I moved over to the overlook side and got set up right at the edge.  I pulled the filter off of the lens since there was no need in having a polarizer attached shooting directly into the sun.

The Climb“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, no filters

I got in tight to the ridge that the sun was cresting and decided to include just a bit of the range in the background.  I placed the sun in the lower left third of the frame and saw that there was a slight variation in color at the top of the frame that was going to possibly make for a nice visual frame to the image.  I shot it with the intention of making it either a 16:10 or 16:9 crop to keep the flow of the long horizontal elements at the forefront of the composition.  I set a very tight exposure where I was not clipping the sun, and it appeared as though I would have a little bit of detail in the nearest ridge below the sun.  I wasn’t going to mind bunching up the shadows, but I really wanted to keep the sun exposed properly.  The haze that was over the sun really helped here, and I didn’t realize that the haze was present until I got home and started really working the image in post processing.  That haze was probably what kept the lens flare from happening as well, so I was very thankful for it all the way around.

This image is an interesting one for me.  I don’t normally capture sunrises like this.  There are very few elements to it, and short of the distant range, very little texture to the image.  It is just a study in color and tone which was actually a lot of fun to work with.  I’ll have to chalk this one up to breaking my rules for going out on a trek.  The weather was supposed to be lousy for morning color, but it turned out it wasn’t.  Then, I saw a composition that was beyond basic and should have fallen flat, but it exploded in color with a composition all of its own.  It was my first minimal sunrise image I think I have ever shot, and to be quite honest.  I really like how it turned out.  I don’t know if it is my favorite image of the weekend or not, but I’m really excited about the very different look that it has, and what I learned from this shot.

With this one in the bag, I moved over to shoot a tree that was at the edge of the overlook with the Parkway snaking along beyond it.  It was an interesting composition, but not overly well thought out.  My biggest problem was the wind that was still blowing the weeds and other vegetation around.  I boosted the ISO, but really couldn’t control the movement well.  When I started looking at it on the computer monitor I wasn’t engaged with the image at all and decided not to bother with processing it at all.  There was too much motion blur in the image and there were compositional elements that just didn’t really work together for a cohesive image.

It was time to move on and Nick was packing up the drone by this point.  We worked our way back South on the Parkway until we passed a small section of fence that overlooked a small valley.  There was a nice bank of clouds moving through it and we decided to stop and give it a few shots.  We each found our compositions and started to expose frames.  Nick was feeling bad that he had left some of his filters at the cabin and was having a hard time exposing for the sky.  In order to help him out, I let him borrow my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad mounted in the Lee Filter Holder.  Fortunately, my 82mm wide angle adapter ring fit his 16-35mm Sony G Lens.  Once we got the filter put on, he was in business and making exposures.  I took the opportunity to show him how the filters worked with his camera and how to actually get them positioned to the horizon.  I let my compositions go at this point and did more focusing on helping him with his images which I do enjoy doing.  I wasn’t overly worried because the images that I was getting, while they had nice light, I wasn’t really liking the story that they were telling.

We stuck here for a little while longer until the fog cleared and we made our way toward the cabin.  During out conversations though, waterfalls came up and he remembered that he had not seen a waterfall yet.  Well, there are a ton of waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but none that were close to where we were except the Cascades at EB Jeffress Park about 10 miles down the road.  It wasn’t my first choice for a waterfall for him to see.  However, he was interested in getting back to the cabin so that he and Jessica could get back on the road to their home in Florida.  It was was potentially in the path of Hurricane Dorian so I totally understood.  The cascades would provide a taste of NC waterfalls at least, and it was a short hike to boot!

Showing the Flatlander an honest to goodness waterfall

When we got there, I saw that the sun was relentless and it was up pretty high in the sky by this point.  I knew that exposures would be difficult at best, but Nick wanted to try some long exposures with his camera.  He had a Singh-Ray Vario ND filter as well as a Color Combo Polarizer that fit his 28-70mm lens which was just right for this waterfall.  He had never photographed a waterfall before so this was a perfect opportunity to work on my one-on-one skills for waterfall photography.  In a very short amount of time, I was able to show him how to creatively use his tripod to get into position with the camera.  Then we talked about composition, as well as exposure for the high contrast scene that we were seeing with the direct light on the waterfall.  Then we discussed how to use the two filters together to get the desired effect with the shutter speed.  There were actually several questions that he ended up getting answered that he didn’t even know that he had.  I might not be the best photographer out there, but I can teach pretty well when it comes to specific photography concepts.  So, if you are wanting to learn an aspect of photography, keep me in mind.  I would love to go out in the field with you and help you work out the issues that you are having.

At this point, our day was needing to be over.  Nick was needing to get on the road, as were Toni and I.  We made the quick hike back to the car and off we went.  It had been a really fun 12 hours or so between the astrophotography the night before and the landscape morning that we had been working on.  I don’t know how many exposures Nick made, but I ended up with a hair over 70 images from the two days.  They were split right down the middle between stars and landscapes.  I wasn’t really expecting much from the images to be honest and found myself amazed that I liked two of the star images, and had a total of three images from cruising the Parkway that I really liked.  Well, I started off only liking two of them, but I’m glad I went back to look at that tree once again.  I think that I ended up with some very different images than I normally capture, and that confirms that I am still in a growing stage with my photography.  That is good news, as it usually means that I am sorting out some things that I will be using for a very long time to come.

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