Running it up the Flag Pole

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Have you ever had an idea that you got excited about, but figured that it probably wouldn’t work out?  If you answered yes to that, did you then follow through with the idea and try to see it through figuring that it was all going to be in vain?  Well, that pretty much sums up my day today…only the ideas succeeded.  Here’s what happened…well, I’ll start off with how this first idea began many years ago.

Back when Toni and I were living in Winston Salem I would often head out on a rural road trip looking subjects to the West of town.  That was where most of the best scenes could be found.  I spent a lot of time going back and forth along Reynolda Rd, or Hwy 67 depending on what part of the county you were in.  I remember probably four or more years ago I found a section of pine trees that were so neatly organized and lined up along the side of the road.  It reminded me of the Aspens in Colorado with how the trunks looked, at least the organization of them.  The bark wasn’t pale and the leaves would never turn a golden hue in the Fall so most of what I loved about those Aspens didn’t really apply here.  However, it was the structure of this bit of woodland that really caught my eye every time I passed it by.

I found myself thinking about photographing it during a snowstorm which would allow me to really focus on the repetitive patterns of the trees, but the evergreen nature of the foliage above would throw the balance off on the image.  I considered different lighting to bring interest to the scene, but everything that I could figure out brought me to the same conclusion.  I needed a focal point for the image to really make it work.  It was such a unique forest that I hated to let it go, but there just wasn’t much in the way of a visual anchor for the scene.  I ended up filing that location away in my mind for a possible use later on.

As the years passed I would make my way by this scene occasionally and every time I would want to make a photograph of it.  Every time, I could find no photograph to be created.  I’m not exactly sure when the next ingredient arrived, but I imagine it was about a year and a half ago, maybe longer.  I was driving by this forest and had all but forgotten my want to photograph the trees and I was just enjoying the tree trunks all lined up as I drove by.  Then I saw an old commercial truck sitting at the far edge of the grove of pines.  It was some sort of logging truck, but with the fiberglass front end, there really wasn’t much rust to the truck.  The equipment that was mated to the frame at the rear had a nice patina to it, but the entire truck was just a little too complex for me to want to photograph it.  With the arm stretching over the cab, I was going to have a difficult time forming a composition that was pleasing for this truck and if viewed from my typical front quarter view, I was going to be looking at a pretty empty sky to the rear which would be a distraction for the size of the frame that I would need to have in order to include the entire truck and keep it looking unlike a snapshot.  In short, I had pretty much decided that the truck wasn’t enough to carry a shot and I dismissed it.

Time continued to pass and I ran into a problem with my computer at home in relation to the new 5DS R camera body which was making images roughly three times the size of my old 5D Mk3.  It wasn’t much of a problem until I started to stitch panoramas together and the amount of data being handled would slow the computer down to a crawl every time.  I believe it was an 11 frame pano that I recently did which took roughly two hours for the computer to build.  This lag in productivity was starting to force my hand to upgrade my computer to something faster and more modern so that I could continue to get the full benefit of the new camera body.  Well, not wanting to spend that kind of money on photography, especially when business is slow, I looked for other alternatives.  The more I researched, the more I found that my 16 gigs of RAM might not be enough for Lightroom to function when it was doing the heavy lifting.  I had extra ports in the computer so I could add more memory for relatively cheap.  I went back to Amazon to find out what RAM I bought when my original RAM developed a fault.  I just ordered another pair of 8 gig sticks which would bring my total memory up to 32 gigs.  Of course with the semiconductor shortage, the sticks were not in stock so I had to wait for about a week for more to come in which wasn’t too bad of a wait.

It took a week to get them here and they were delivered on Monday and installed a few minutes after they got here.  It was hard to tell a difference on the computer doing basic tasks since the 16 gigs of memory have always been more than sufficient for my needs.  What I was needing to do was to import a panoramic image and build it to see if the extra memory was going to keep me from needing a new computer.  Since I really didn’t have anything in my mind for a photo subject, I decided to gear my thoughts towards getting panoramic images which are actually a lot of fun, but I’ve found that they are much better when planned rather than just putting one together on the spur of the moment.  It was the planning stage for panos that was a new concept for me, and one that I found to be a great benefit towards my executions of them after a dedicated trip to Doughton Park a while back.  I had considered that panorama for quite some time before shooting it and it made it so much more successful than deciding at the time to shoot a pano.  I just needed to come up with another subject like that.

Moving on to Wednesday, I spend the day riding around in the Miata since it was a nice day.  Well, nice in that it was clear skies with no chance of rain.  However, when I got out on the road the sky looked anything but clear.  I hadn’t realized that the smoke from the wildfires from West were coming over NC so thick.  The longer I was out, the thicker the air got.  It did provide some interesting light which got me thinking about photography as I was driving around.  One of the first places that I went was up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I happened to look off to an overlook which wasn’t named, but more of just a clearing on the side of the road near Hwy 16.  The haze in the sky was really playing with the visibility over the mountains.  It was almost as if there was a fog, or the light was very low.  I loved the shapes of the mountains as they went off into the distance.

I only looked for a second as I was driving through since I didn’t have my camera with me but that got me thinking.  Since I was geared to think about panoramas, I started to consider what is a fairly typical shot of the hazy Appalachian Mountains as something a little different.  I began to consider it a panorama with no real foreground and just focusing on the fading shapes as the distance got further.  I was actually liking the lighting at nearly noon with the smoke in the air which made it that much more different from the regular sunrise or sunset view.  It was that bright blue hue that captured my attention more than anything else and I started to consider coming back here to get the shot the following day if the conditions were roughly the same.

As I was driving, my mind was now fully into photographer mode and I started to consider other locations that I could scout.  With panoramas in the back of my head I started to think about that field of pine trees in East Bend which was a ways away, but there was something that I hadn’t really considered before that got me excited.  That logging truck was right on the edge of the field where the trees where and I could use that as an anchor in a panorama instead of the lone subject.  In my mind it might just work, but I wanted to go out and look at it with that in mind.  I was enjoying the drive so I exited the Parkway and jumped down to 268 headed East.

I found the scene just as I had remembered it.  The trees were still there but not good enough for their own photograph, and the truck was still there, but not quite good enough for its own photograph either.  However, when I started to consider the two together the photo became much more interesting.  Sadly, the only place to pull off and evaluate the scene further was a gravel road across the street from the truck.  Not wanting to take the roadster onto a gravel surface, I opted to take what I had seen and ponder it while driving which I did.

When I got back home I eventually pulled up street view to take a look at the scene.  There was one small detail that I had missed driving through the area and that was a caution sign for an upcoming intersection which was pretty much right beside the truck.  That was going to seriously affect my panorama and possibly any attempt at photographing this truck.  It was probably not going to happen but at least I enjoyed the ride out to see it.  My thoughts went back to the overlook on the Parkway.  I could see that working out quite nicely and I started to put together a plan to go back out there.  As I was pondering how I was going to make it happen, I did find that the weather forecast was going to be pretty much the same with the air quality seriously impacted from the smoke.  It was also brought to my attention that I had a relatively urgent run to make to Winston at some point on Thursday.  My plan was to hit the Parkway first around lunch time and then make it out to Winston for an early afternoon delivery.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try the old logging truck idea.  Looking at how it was situated, I was going to need to get out there early in the morning while the sun was still nice and diffused coming in from the front of the truck which was most likely going to be my angle of view.  With that in mind, I figured that I could get the truck photographed shortly after sunrise, run my errand after that, and then head back out to the Parkway to shoot the mountains close to noon so I would have the same light as I had seen earlier that day.  It could possibly work out quite well and I might have two panoramas by the end of the day to test out on the computer.

Far From Finished“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad, 3 image pano

My morning started early, but not sunrise early thank goodness.  I was up by 5:15 and on the road just after 6.  The trip out there took an hour and I found myself parked on the gravel road and grabbing my gear just after 7 when the sun was still very diffused and warm.  I pondered what to do with the traffic sign since removing it wasn’t an option.  I started out on the opposite side of the street getting a straight side shot of the truck which allowed me to place the sign between some dominant trees which I could then clone out in Photoshop.  It wasn’t how I liked to do business, but it was a workaround for a bit of distraction in the scene.  I got the tripod all set up and then mounted the camera with the standard 24-70mm lens since I was working in close to the truck.  I fired off a series of shots and found that the road was causing too much problem in the scene and I was going to have to include it in any pano that I shot from this angle.  I didn’t want that so I abandoned that location and went back across the street to the truck.

At this point, I was pretty sure that the pano wasn’t going to work so I started to frame up single shots of the truck since I was there.  The clearing in the trees to the rear wasn’t quite as problematic as I had though they would be and I was able to keep the sign out of the frame while I shot the front quarter view.  Unfortunately, the lack of overall interest and story was plaguing this composition quite badly.  I needed to have more of the trees in the shot to tell the story of the old truck.  When I tried to expand the composition to include more trees I ended up getting too much sky and more shadowed tree limbs than I wanted.  It just wasn’t going to work this way.  I stepped back and decided to try a 16:9 crop in camera to take out the tops of the trees.  That actually worked quite nicely, but I wanted to get a wider image to include more of the vertical trees to counter the truck.  I just kept going back to that pano image that I had in my mind coming out here.

I might as well give it a try since I was here.  I normally don’t like to shoot panos up this close because the distortion can cause issues with the stitching and with the viewing.  In order to minimize those problems I decided to shoot a series of horizontal images which would make for less frames to be stitched and would ease the perspective a little bit better.  I added a polarizer to minimize the glare on the glass and to help saturate the colors a bit more and looked at my exposure.  The shadows under the trees were causing issues along with the highlights of the sky behind the truck.  I really needed to use a grad filter here so that I could control the exposure, but I was going to need to use it diagonally a the upper left corner which was going to be impossible to do with a panorama.

Or was it?

Since I was shooting horizontal images here, I had a good bit of width to the individual frames.  That meant that the bright part of the first frame would be mostly out by the second frame.  I decided since this was probably not going to work out anyway I would try something very unorthodox by using a grad filter only on the first frame and at an angle.  I got that first frame set up and fired the shot.  I moved the camera to the right, overlapping just under a third before I removed the grad filter and fired off the second frame.  That was followed with one last frame overlapping just about a third with the previous one.  I had no idea if these images would stitch together successfully or if the filter choice would actually work out.

I just went back to single image captures again until I was pretty sure that I had a workable composition of the truck.  I was loving the scene better than I had anticipated, but I was having serious doubts about the panoramic images that I had shot.  I did a total of three variations while I was there knowing that the first definitely wouldn’t work out because of how the road went in the last frame.  The other two were slight variations on exposure and they were much closer to the truck than I wanted them to be so I doubted that they would work out either.  Whatever happened, I had tried my hardest and that was all that I could do.

I went on and ran my errand and I was back on the road around 10:30 headed back to the mountains.  The sky was looking pretty much like it had the day before and I was hoping that it would translate to similar conditions when I got to the overlook.  When I got there, it was just before noon and I found the scene just as I left it.  There was a heavy haze sitting on the mountains and no definition in the sky at all.  Normally, I wouldn’t want to photograph this, but I had been captivated by the subtle blue hues and shapes looking out over the landscape.  That was what I intended to capture with this part of the trek.

Blowing Smoke“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 6 image pano

I went back to the back of the truck to grab the camera.  I knew that I was going to be using my 70-200mm lens so I didn’t bother with the entire bag.  I wasn’t going to need any filters since the lighting was all very even from middle tones to nearly white.  I liked the lack of contrast so I didn’t even bother with a polarizer which might have give a bit more bite to the scene.  I went to the other side of the road and set up on on the opposite side of the railing.  I did my normal setup for a pano by leveling the tripod and making a couple of sweeps with the camera to check for exposure issues.  I got everything dialed in and started to make my vertical image sweep across the scene.  When I was done, I counted 11 total images which I remembered from last time was enough to make the computer sweat for two solid hours to build.  I also noticed that even at 200mm, I was including a good deal of blank sky and near foreground trees at the bottom of the frame.  I was going to have to crop nearly half of each frame to get the actual height of the image that I was after.

Instead of cropping that far into the image, I decided to flip the camera horizontal as I had with the logging truck before.  This would give me a more usable height to the frames while minimizing the number of images that would have to be stitched together when I got home.  I did several variations on the compositions and used both horizontal and vertical captures so that I had options of what worked the best when I got it into Lightroom.  As I was looking at the images on the LCD I started to be rather concerned in another direction for this idea.  I was remembering a pano that I had shot a couple of years ago in the fog which I had high hopes for but could never get it to stitch together because neither Lightroom nor Photoshop could find enough common pixels to indicate the overlap.  I’m sure it was more due to my technique than anything, but the thought started to cross my mind that I was going to have a similar issue with this one since it was very low contrast.

For the second time in as many locations today I was doubting that my image was going to come out the way I had planned.  I started to shooting single image compositions on the chance that the panos didn’t work out.  I didn’t like them as much as I was thinking that I would the panos, but I wanted something to work with as a plan B for the day.  It was a difficult pill to swallow that after the work that I had put in on both scenes today that I might not have a single panorama from the effort and that the only images that I might have to work with would be single frame compositions which didn’t really capture what I was hoping that they would.  All I could say was that I gave it a try and was hoping that it would turn out.  It was kind of like running it up the flag pole and seeing who saluted.  Time was going to tell whether or not my day was successful or not.

I got home about two hours earlier than I thought I was going to, but I had accomplished all that I had set out to do when I left this morning at 6am.  I was anxious to see what the pictures looked like that I had captured so I imported them into Lightroom pretty soon after I got in.  There were 117 frames captured which even though I was shooting a lot of panos seemed like a lot of pictures for just two scenes.  I started to go through the images to cull out the ones that didn’t work which here lately has involved assuming what a pano would look like as I didn’t want to waste time building ones that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like.  The difference this time was I wanted to see how the computer handled the panos with the extra memory.  I started with one of the truck images which was just six frames.  That was built in a matter of minutes which was like old times.  I moved through the series of images that made up several different panoramas and finally got to the one from the Blue Ridge Parkway which was 11 frames wide.  This was usually a two hour ordeal to get stitched together and I was interested to see how this amount of data was handled.  I selected the projection and hit merge.  It was slower and the process hung up like it had been doing, but the screen didn’t go black and the clock didn’t stop.  The bar started moving again and before I knew it the panorama was built.  The total elapsed time was only 10 minutes which is amazing after waiting two hours for a pano to be built.

I was able to actually build all of the panos and it only took about an hour to do all of them.  That allowed me to go through and really look at them to see which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t.  From the early stages I was excited about the panos because they turned out better than I thought they would.  There was no problems stitching the hazy ones together, and the latter ones of the truck turned out quite a bit better than I thought they would.  The unorthodox use of the grad filter turned out to be the perfect way of handling that scene and I wasn’t able to tell where the filter had been when looking at the completed RAW file.

I had three panos set aside to look at further as well as three single captures that I was going to use as alternates in the event that things didn’t work out with the panos.  I ultimately picked two panoramas which were a three shot series of the truck and a six shot series of the mountains, both of which done as horizontal frames.  The processing went very quick with these two images and the computer seemed to forget just how big these files were.  All of the edits went smoothly and I was able to do a good deal of local adjustments that would have slowed the computer down significantly just a week ago.  It would see that my five year old computer might just have a few more years left in it before I have to replace it.

It was a day that I had very little hope for in many respects, and the images that you see displayed here in the blog are the results of experiments more than anything.  I was needing to shoot panoramas and it was these two scenes that stepped up and volunteered for the job.  I’m very pleased with both of the images and I’m so glad that they worked out because I was going to feel like I needed to work through the single image captures to have something from today.  While they are not terrible, neither scene worked nearly as well as a single capture whether in 3:2 or 16:9 format.  The pano won out here for sure in both counts and I’m thrilled that all came together in that way.

I do hope that you have enjoyed the trek and have maybe learned a little bit about some of the frustrations that I can deal with just for a simple photograph.  The opening image here has been many years in the making and was finally the result of a scene that needed a visual anchor and a truck that wasn’t strong enough to carry an image all by itself.  By putting both of these ingredients together I have created a scene that is much more than the sum of the parts.  It also gave me the perfect opportunity to stretch my use of filters when it comes to panoramic scenes.  I also learned that I can shoot a very interesting grand landscape at nearly noon on a hazy day and have it come out rather interesting.  It is these experiments which help me as a photographer and as an instructor because every new thing that I try becomes a skill that I can teach to somebody else.  We are always constantly growing and there is always something else to learn in photography.

Thanks for joining me, and remember I would love to help get you matched up with a print of your choice from my very large collection of images.  There is no better way to enjoy my photography, or any photography for that matter than having a tangible piece of art to look at on your wall.  Both of these panos would make fantastic canvas prints and I would be honored to help make that happen.

Also, I’m still working on this portrait thing and I’m looking for some folks that are in need of portraiture who would be interested in having a greatly discounted session or even a free session depending on what is required.  Before I start offering people photography officially, I would like to build up my portfolio a bit more and for that I need subjects.  If you are interested, and in the neighborhood of Wilkes County, let me know.

Until next time….
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