Saturday, May 4, 2019
So, here is the conundrum I am in these days. I promote myself as a landscape photographer, and even have a landscape photography workshop coming up at the end of June. However, when you look at what I have been doing the most of recently, you will find a lot of decay photography, and just a few landscapes thrown in from time to time. I really needed a day where I went out on a full on quest for landscape photos and turned my eyes away from old cars and rural scenes for a while. This was a great plan on paper, but the execution of it was quite a bit different. Even with me pretty much only working part time at this point, I am having a hard time getting to the landscape locations like I like, as early as needed. During the week, I have transportation commitments, and then on the weekends, I am limited with other obligations as well as weather. Looking at this weekend, I was going to have a window of decent weather on Saturday morning for an outing to the mountains.
I know you are thinking that I don’t need to go to the mountains just to shoot landscapes, and you are partially correct in that. I have done a few here locally, but the landscape is much different around here with lots of power lines all around, not to mention the evidence of humans in every direction. The mountains give me a bit broader area to work with, and a much more natural appearance to the land, which is what I really love to capture. With being an hour and a half away from the mountains, it does add a level of complexity to get out there for first light which is always advantageous when doing this types of photography. What I have learned over the years is, even if the sunrise isn’t good, you will have much better light as the sun is still low on the horizon which gives you anywhere from an hour window for shooting, up to several hours depending on the season. The mountains are where I recharge my internal batteries and really get to experience the landscape in a very quiet and personal way.
The weather was looking promising for the day at least. There were clouds, mostly low and mid level forecasted for the mountains until about lunch when they cleared out for a bit before returning again after a couple of hours bringing the rain. All the stuff in the afternoon was inconsequential to me since I was going to have to be back home shortly after 11 to take Sierra for her last day of driver’s ed. You see why I need the relaxation now, don’t you? I had just enough time to see a sunrise, and to shoot a few locations if the light was good before being back on the road home by 10. In order to be there in time to capture a sunrise, I was going to need to be on location at 6am which is only about 25 minutes before the sun comes up. I hate early mornings like this, and much prefer the 8am sunrises of winter.
I needed a destination in mind, and one that would work equally as well with color and without. I thought about my options, and since I have been enjoying lake photography lately, I decided that I would give Price Lake a try. I had recently attempted a visit there and found the conditions much too clear to really work, and went with another option. Since I was looking at a good many clouds, I thought it was a safe bet this morning. Even looking at the sunrise forecaster, there was a slight chance of some color despite the clouds being generally low level. Typically, I look for high elevation in the clouds for great sunrise possibilities, but there are times when the color is still visible through the thinner lower clouds and I was hoping that would be the case.
I had my destination in mind, and I was all set to wake up at 3:15 to be on the road by 4 in order to get there in plenty of time for first light. Toni and I even turned in early on Friday night so that I didn’t miss out on any much needed rest. All was set, and ready for the morning. I had my clothes out, and my early morning social media posts ready to go when I got up. I drifted off to sleep really quick that night and slept very well. I do remember fumbling with the phone at some point and almost knocking it off of the charger though. Not sure what that was about though.
Then Toni woke me up and asked why was I still in bed? Because I live here…I was confused at the question. However, as the fog lifted and I saw that it was 4:00 and her alarm was going off to get ready for work, I realized why she was asking. CRAP!!! I overslept. Fiddling with my phone was me apparently telling the alarm to shut up and stop bothering me. I rolled over and said that I missed my chance to get there in time. I was just going to skip it. Yeah, that was a punk move, but I was still sleepy. Toni wasn’t going to have any of that. She told me to get up and throw clothes on, grab breakfast and run out the door. But I was so comfortable in the bed….did I really have to get up?
The answer, of course, was….I did have to get up. I had only a small window of time to do any photography and if I banged out this morning, my weekend would be done. I got out of bed quickly and grabbed my clothes. I didn’t do the normal thing of checking the weather before committing to the process of getting out the door. I just grabbed and ran. In lieu of breakfast, I grabbed a couple of granola bars and a couple of bottles of water. It wasn’t ideal, but it was quick. I was in the truck and on the road by 4:18 which was amazing. I hated not having the knowledge of the most recent forecasts in my mind. I was pretty much going off of faith that what I had seen the night before was still valid. If that was the case, I was looking at low clouds over the water with the possibility of some color in the sky. If I was lucky, I would have a bit of fog since it was a little chilly compared to the hot temperatures we have been having. I just didn’t know, but I knew that I was racing against time to get there.
The trip went well and I found a couple of showers along the way which at least meant that the clouds should be in place when I got there. I have had far too many times of making the drive only to find nothing but stars in the sky above ruining any chances of color or drama to the morning. As I started to make the climb after Wilkesboro, I found myself driving through clouds. This kind of bothered me because I didn’t want all the clouds to be below me when I got there. I was looking at a great possibility for cloud inversions in the valley which are also a lot of fun to shoot. The first overlook that I came to was Osborne Mountain and I could see down in the valley a little bit there.
I did see the cloud inversions that I was now expecting, but above that….nothing but stars. The sky was totally clear. This was disappointing to say the least. The wind was slipping beyond my sails and I was not feeling very good about the way this morning was going down. I continued to go South with Price Lake as my destination. Every overlook I stopped at to scope out the conditions looked the same. Nice inversions in the valley, but nothing at all in the sky above. I was starting to think about just using the long lens and capturing some misty abstracts down in the valley below. It wasn’t what I had come all this way for, but sometimes you just have to make due with what you have to work with.
When I got to Thunder Hill, I paid particular attention to that location as it was the only place I found clouds the last time I was here. Even this one was totally devoid of cloud cover, and the valley below didn’t have much at all in terms of inversion. It seemed that I had picked the wrong place to set up shop this morning. Certainly, there were clouds somewhere on the Parkway. I was showing an 80% coverage by my cloud app as of the night before. There was no connection here, so I couldn’t double check it now. I just had to keep going. I had seen nothing that really excited me up to this point anyway, so I wasn’t out anything by continuing. I have been known to occasionally miss a great shot with the hopes of finding something better. Quick tip….don’t do that. If you see a great shot, get it! Don’t hold out for the unknown, you will usually regret your decision if you skip an opportunity. That wasn’t the case today though, I had nothing exciting at all to put in front of my camera, and was looking at only 30 minutes until sunrise at this point. In fact, the sky was already becoming bright to the East with no definition in the sky at all.
I was really feeling like this was going to be a bust, but when I got to Price Lake, I could see magical fog all over the surface of the lake. That fog was my last bastion of hope for the morning. I quickly pulled around to the side parking lot where the boats are stored and grabbed my gear. I saw the granola bars and realized I was hungry…but there was no time. The light was happening right now! I got the camera out with the 24-70mm lens attached along with the Lee Foundation Kit because I knew that I would be using some ND Grads. I found my first composition and shot a test shot. Sure enough, the exposure latitude was not quite even, so I was going to need to add a Singh-Ray 2-Stop ND Grad to cover the sky. I recomposed a little to make it flow a bit better and lined up the filter. That one was gold, and the exposure looked good.
I was in the groove at this point. The fog was looking great, and there was actually color developing in the sky beyond the fog. It was not brilliant color, but it was adding a nice bit of visual interest to the compositions I was shooting. I realized that I was limited to just a couple of compositions with the 24-70mm lens attached, so I moved over to the 70-200mm lens which I opted to leave the Lee Holder off of. There was a little bit of water falling either from the sky or the tree above that was starting to get the filter wet, and I could use a nice hood on the 70-200mm lens in case the drips got heavier. The exposure was balancing out well on its own at this point, and I wasn’t really needing a grad filter at this point.
I started to pick out isolations on the distant banks, and even set up a panorama that I still think would have been awesome to see. The problem was, the fog was so thick that I was unable to get the images stitched together in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Only two of the seven frames would link, and that was the only place that had a solid landmass that was reasonably crisp. The rest of the frames didn’t have enough distinguishing features to stitch. I will try to do more work with it, but I think that it is a lost cause. Regardless, I was getting some interesting shots. I was moving quickly and adapting to the ever-changing lighting at this point. I wasn’t sure what I was getting, but I was really hoping that something was going to work out later on. The compositions were not as well thought out as I prefer and I was putting a shot together in just a matter of seconds to capture a fleeting moment on the water. It was exhilarating, and exhausting at the same time. It was ADD photography at its finest!
One odd thing that I did photograph is shown above. There is a little small wooden platform on the other side of the lake that I have been considering hiking over to for some long exposure work. I wasn’t going to do that today, but I saw that it was under this really nice tree in Spring color and I wanted to capture it. As the light changed on it, and as the fog moved enough to allow a clear shot I would frame up a quick composition and give it a shot or two. I wasn’t sure quite how the composition would look the best, but I wanted the arch of the tree above the platform. In the end, I decided for a 1:1 crop because it allowed a bit wider of a capture to really get the tree, but it didn’t need that much height to include all of the tree. In the end, the square crop was perfect and quite elegant for the subject. I probably shot this about ten different times, with different focal lengths, and from different locations. This was my favorite hands down of all of them. It just worked.
Just because I was excited to see that there were colors in the sky didn’t mean that I was totally thinking about color compositions. The fog is a great chance to get some wonderful black and white compositions with different gray tones. That was ultimately how I set this shot up which is of the distant bank towards the main parking area. The light was hitting the low clouds in the hills and also highlighting the water where a fallen tree was laying on the surface. I just couldn’t get the reach that I needed with the long lens. I grabbed my 2x teleconverter and added that between the body and the lens. At a focal length of 335mm I had the right framing for this image. There is a range of light to dark with the textures of the trees. The fog highlights many aspects of this one, and I think that it works out quite well as a monochrome image. I have plenty of shots showing the colors of the morning, so I had no problem making this conversion when I got home.
By this point, the sun was fully up and my morning was coming to an end. I looked at the scene that was unfolding in front of me. The sun was bright, but still rather shielded by the low clouds. It was directly over the bank on the other side of the lake. It was making a beautiful reflection in the water and I wanted to try for a quick capture. I still had my long lens on with the teleconverter and that was getting me too close. Ideally, I would have switched over to my 24-70mm lens as it has much less issue with flaring when shooting into the sun. I wasn’t convinced this would work anyway, and I knew that I didn’t have time to switch lenses, so I just pulled the teleconverter off and held it between my knees while I framed this shot. I knew I was going to have a hard time with the sun being a highlight, so I dialed the exposure down a great deal. That both saturated the colors in the sky, and created an ethereal view to the scene in the live view. This could actually work. I made the exposure and saw that the sun was blown out which I fully expected, but the rest of the image looked properly exposed for what I was after. I didn’t see any lens flare in the LCD, and hoped that would be the case in the final RAW file (which it was). This is the one really bad thing about the 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2 and it has been written about a lot. I have had it show up in many of my sunny images. The Mk3 version of the lens has upgraded optics that prevent this from happening, but I’m not quite ready to drop that kind of money on a new lens for something that has only been an issue a handful of times. I was fortunate that this one worked out as intended and actually has a really nice feel to it with the muted colors and just a hint of detail in the distant mountains beyond the trees.
I shot a few more frames at the lake after the sun came up, but the lighting was quickly deteriorating. I was sure I had something worth while on the memory card by this point. I could also not help but remember that if it wasn’t for Toni waking me up, and then forcing me out of the door, I would not have experienced any of this, much less captured it with a camera. I was really thankful that she had to go to work and was waking up at 4am. None of this would have happened without her realizing I was still asleep.
I moved around to some different areas at the lake and tried to find some other compositions, but nothing really jumped out at me. I was more hungry than anything by this point. I called it a morning and headed back to the truck. I broke the camera down and grabbed my two granola bars. Yummmm…..breakfast of champions right here! Well, it was something and my tummy was satisfied for the moment. I started to consider my next move. I still had about two and a half hours before I needed to be back on my way home to get Sierra to driver’s ed. Heck, I still had two hours before she would even be awake!
The sky was starting to get a little interesting with some high puffy clouds in places. The light was still quite harsh though when looking anywhere near the East. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to shoot next but figured I would start my way back to 421 and see what I could find along the way. As I got near the 221 intersection in Blowing Rock, I saw a tree that was being lit by the warm morning sun that looked possible for a picture. I considered it briefly and decided that it was worth turning around and trying it out. It was a bare tree with fully green trees behind it. With the light on it, I think it would have stood out well, but I will never know the answer to that quandary. As it turned out, shortly after I turned around, another composition jumped out at me. Well, I should say that I started to drive through another composition that was even better than what I was turning around for.
Always keep your mind open when searching for photographs to capture. It is very easy to get tunnel vision when you get an idea and continue straight to that without considering any other alternatives. I’ve been guilty of that in the past many times. I am getting better at seizing the moment though, and this was one of those occasions. Just a matter of feet from where I turned around at 221, I saw this amazing composition unfolding in front of me. The Parkway was leading right to a distant mountain that was offset just enough to the left. It was under these amazing clouds, and there was a fence set up along both sides of the road. It was a natural composition so I pulled off the road quickly and grabbed the camera. Since I wanted to include lots of the sky, as well as really accentuate the impact of the road, I went with my 16-35mm lens. Knowing that I needed to boost the warm tones and add some contrast in the sky I added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer. Since the light was so brilliant on the landscape and coming from the side I didn’t need any ND Grad filters for this shot. I got everything set up on the side of the road right in front of my truck and framed the shot. I went for a visual balance with the road leading off to the right, but the trees on the left carrying a great deal of visual weight. Both drew attention to the mountain. The thickest clouds were to the right which balanced out the trees and provided a bit of visual tension between the road and the mountain. The shadows from the fence railing also added to the depth of the scene. It worked well, but I kept working the scene to get different compositions.
The compositions that I found later on were a little better, but the clouds didn’t hold the same visual interest. Ultimately, they were not as exciting as what I had started out with. An interesting note while I was shooting this scene a car came up behind me as three deer had crossed in the field a half mile away or so. The driver opened her window and said, I sure hope you got that. I was a bit puzzled since I have never been one to try to capture wildlife in my images, but the thought of doing that with a 16-35mm lens from this distance, they would have looked like ants anyway. I told her that I missed that opportunity but it was a nice experience. She went on, and I went back to work as a landscape photographer, not a wildlife photographer. I don’t think that I have the patience for wildlife work.
While I was working on other road compositions, I started to take notice to the fact that apparently the fence had been hit on both sides of the road. There were large sections that had been knocked down behind where I had parked. While I never consider trespassing on property an option, I knew that these fields would be without cows and over livestock since the fences were down. It appeared that they had been down for some time as well. I opted to venture out onto the field for a bit and see if I could do anything with a dead tree that I had seen from the road. The grass was tall and wet which meant that my feet were soaked before too long. I got to the tree and started to frame shots but it just didn’t really fit with the landscape that was before me. I did like the view of the same mountain that I had been shooting before from this vantage point. The sky was still really dynamic above the mountain which captured my curiosity. I found a view that included a tree resplendent in Spring color for a foreground interest. The Parkway snaked through the picture from the left providing a nice visual balance and a line going to the mountain. I got the camera set up for the shot using the 24-70mm lens I had put on earlier for the tree I was working on. I still had the Color Combo Polarizer on the end, of course.
As I was framing up the composition, the sun was starting to do some interesting things. What I realized first was that the sun was illuminating the spring colors on the mountain. This was awesome because Spring is like another Fall when it comes to colors that are visible. The sun was also starting to illuminate the larger tree in the foreground which I liked for the same reasons. What I didn’t notice until I saw the image in the LCD review was that the shadows in the foreground actually mimicked the shape of the mountain as a mirror image. This provided tons of visual balance to the image which I loved. I shot this composition many times over at the lighting and clouds changed. I finally arrived at the best combination of all of the elements in this image here. It just worked so well, and had drama galore to it. Early on, this was one of my favorite images that I had shot all day long. It was something that I think captured the mood of the morning and of the season. The rich colors were spectacular, and the clouds still had a lot of personality in them. The visual flow of the image was also quite natural.
I worked a few more compositions here before deciding that the sky was losing the drama that I was enjoying so much. I went ahead and packed my gear up and made the (longer than I though) hike back to the truck. My shoes were soaked, and so were my socks. I could have sworn that my hiking shoes were waterproof. I can assure you they are not! I got back in the truck and got turned around to continue on to 421. I had plenty of time for another location if one presented itself, but the sky was getting less and less appealing for me. As I approached the Grand View Overlook, I knew that my time on the parkway was about over. I could see that the inversions were still in place in the valley below, but the sun was hitting them hard and that would make for a very difficult exposure, and the sky above was featureless which would really eliminate any visual interest for a grand landscape shot. However, there was a tree that I wanted to photograph on the side of the overlook which has always looked nice surrounded by the Spring colors
Nope, not this one…
I actually started with the one that I had pulled off the road for, but hadn’t found the right light yet. While waiting for things to change over there, I moved to the other side of the overlook and found this one lone tree bathed in the morning light. There were hints of Spring on its branches, but I just really liked the greens around it, and how it was sitting on the side of the hill. I got the camera set up with the 70-200mm lens and a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer. I worked a few slightly different compositions as a car came to the overlook and parked. One of them got out and started setting up his camera, while the other one came over to ask what I was shooting. I guess it was odd to be at a place called “Grand View” and be shooting intimate shots. I told her I was getting this tree. She let me know that they were up in the mountains for a workshop at Grandfather Mountain where they would be photographing birds. I asked who was putting the workshop on. To my surprise, she didn’t know who was instructing it. We talked a bit about the CNPA which I am no longer a member of. After a bit we bid each other a good day and she went back to the gentleman who was changing lenses attempting to get the shot that he was after. I walked past the grand view and found my other tree that I was wanting to shoot with much better light.
The light was now much better with the shadows really accentuating the shape of the dual trunks on the tree to the right. The sun was also highlighting the leaves in the background as well as hitting the other lone tree in the midground. When it comes to woodland images like this, I always try to find relationships with the trees and their surroundings. This one has always interested me because the two are close, but separate. There is a connection between them, but it seems that there is no communication. I see relationships for days in these trees, and they are always a lot of fun to shoot. I can’t help but wonder to myself how many people come to this overlook and completely dismiss these trees. That is the danger of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is all too easy to go with blinders on and only see the overlooks. If that is your way of traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway, you are really doing yourself a disservice. The real appeal to the Parkway is all the little hidden gems along the way. The overlooks are nice, but one is about as good as the other for the most part if you just sit in the parking area and look out over the mountains below. Find your own views along the Parkway, and truly experience the NC Mountains for all they have to offer. Sometimes that means enjoy the trees.
By this point, it was time to get on the road to get back to the house. I had things to do, and the light was not really doing me any favors by this point. Fortunately, I was right at the highway by this point, so my journey home would be quicker than my journey up. I set the cruise and called Toni to let her know how things had gone. She asked if I had gotten any pictures. I had 130-some on the memory card at this point and told her that it went well, but I wasn’t sure how the pictures would turn out. I wasn’t overly excited about more than a couple at this point. I remember saying that if I got two or three images that I would be happy with that. We spoke for a bit and then it was back to driving and music. I had turned off the photographer at this point and was just enjoying the drive.
Sometimes old habits are hard to break…..
There I was driving along with my tunes and I looked over to the right, off the highway, and saw a rural scene that I had seen a few times before. This time it really caught my eye with the clouds above and I decided to take the next exit to get looped around and possibly pull off on the side of the highway to shoot it. There were power lines in the way, but I thought I might be able to deal with that. However, once I was off the highway, I pulled the map up and started plotting where this barn might actually be. I made a few turns and found myself on some back road in the middle of nowhere. It lead me right to the barn though. Here I had thought that I was going to have a day of landscapes and no rural or decay photography. Well, I guess that was a lie!
I pulled off the road in weeds that were up to my headlights. It is nice to have a 4Runner as my photo expedition vehicle as a low slung car would have gotten lost in these weeds. I took stock of the situation I had before me. The power lines were not a problem as I was actually shooting under them. The clouds were nice, but fading fast. I had some wildflowers growing in the field in the foreground. The barn was lit very harshly at the top of the hill. I was going to have a hard time with this exposure with the barn in the shadow for the most part. I went ahead and built the camera with a 24-70mm lens and the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer. I started to look for compositions and finally found one that I liked. It was hard with the other storage buildings very close on the left side of the barn. I did finally find on that I liked which forced me to stand up to my belt in the weeds (in my still wet shoes) while elevating the camera above my head to get over the fence. Looking at the exposure, I was going to have too much latitude for a single capture to get the detail in the barn that I needed. I wasn’t going to be able to use an ND Grad for this as it would darken the sky down too much which actually was well exposed for the ground. I ended up going with my only other option and bracketing four different exposures in order to get the barn exposed right for the rest of the scene.
When I got home, I wasn’t sure this was going to work out, but I blended them and started to edit it. I was very happy to see that the overall exposure did turn out to be exactly what I had seen with my eyes looking at the barn. The lack of breeze helped as the flowers were all still unblurred from the blending of images which I was happy about. It is not the strongest image of a barn that I have taken, but considering what I went through in order to capture it, I felt that I was really happy with it. The colors are nicely balanced in the image and it is all quite rich considering that this is getting rather late in the morning. There is a lot going for this image, and there are just a few technical issues that I can see knowing what I am looking at that detract from it. I’m hoping that those little issues won’t be noticed by the viewer, and only the overall beauty of the scene showing through.
By this point, I had a total of 162 images captured in roughly 4.5 hours. This is what shooting sunrise is like though. You get a lot of frames quickly as you find a composition and shoot periodically hoping that the light will get better. Of course, I was moving around to different compositions all morning as the light changed, and didn’t spend a lot of time on any one shot for the most part. This was why I actually had a really high hit rate for the time at Price Lake. I was working many compositions that were all quite different. I had been hoping for just a handful of images, so when I started processing nearly 20 of them, I knew that was no longer a concern. I ended up with 16 that I fully processed, and then whittled that down to 13 images that I thought were good enough to keep. I still got my rural scene in the bunch, but the day was all about landscapes and that made me happy.
More than likely the next time I go out, I will have a new way of operating when it comes to filters. I am making the move to only using Singh-Ray filters and will be ditching my two B+W filters. In order to make this change worth while, I have decided to use my Lee Foundation Kit exclusively for filters. I will be upgrading my venerable Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to a 105mm size which will then screw onto my Lee Holder. The rest of my filters will be either 4×6 Grads, or square ND filters. It should give me much greater flexibility in the field when it comes to switching lenses as I will keep an adapter mounted to each lens for the Lee Holder. I’m excited about the change, but a little nervous since I have been operating in my current fashion since about 2006. I guess it is time I came into the 21st Century though. I will have to do a slight bit of reworking of my bag to adapt to the changes but nothing major.
I know I am a little behind in getting these pictures online, but it took me a very long time to go through all of those images and then process them all. By 7pm, I was in no shape to start this blog entry. I’m glad I didn’t try since it has taken me three hours to put this together already this morning. I still have to add to the gallery rooms which will take a little more time. Much better to start fresh the next day. I hope that you enjoy the fruits of my day.