So Many Conditions

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The last time I was out I had a great time in Lansing and came back with a bunch of new images which makes it difficult to go out again for fear of not living up to the expectation of getting better.  I’m used to this dynamic and while I fully enjoy the after effects of a successful trek, it is a little annoying not feeling like going back out again.  That was where I have been for the most part over the last week or so.  We have also been having some very rainy and dreary days which aren’t really the best conditions to go out with the camera.  However, with a day showing clouds and no rain, I had to give it some serious thought as to what I could try and shoot.  There was also the chance for a bit of fog in the morning which could give me the opportunity to get out and get a couple of images that I have been trying to time right for a while.

Fortunately, the majority of the locations that I wanted to try in the fog were local so I didn’t have to worry about waking up too early in the morning.  That being said, I still was up around 5:30am so that I could get out before first light.  There was still a bit of fog in the area and I was hoping that it would increase as the morning went on.  My first stop for the day was the Williams Motel (yes, you heard that right), on Boone Trail in North Wilkesboro.  This is one of those odd locations that I have been wanting to shoot for some time now.  It is not vacant, not decaying, not rusty, and doesn’t really have any historic significance that I am aware of.  So why in the world would I want to photograph a plain on motel?  Well, this is an interesting shape for a building with the typical “L” shape of two sections of rooms joining at the apex with the office.  That is pretty standard and nothing that really jumped out at me.  It was the (assuming) suite above the office that caught my attention with the way the siding and the rooflines joined together.  It gave a very interesting shape to me and it was something that I thought would look good in a picture.  To make this just a little more interesting though, I was going to have to have unique lighting for it.  This was where blue hour would come in good when the natural lighting would balance with the artificial lighting along the front of the building.  To make it just a little more interesting I thought that a foggy morning would help as it would simplify the background where there were some trees.

With the forecast of fog in the morning I decided that I would start out at the motel to see if my idea might work.  I had been out here several mornings now and have been foiled by a car parked right in front of the office which ruined the whole composition.  I was expecting to see a car parked there again this morning but wanted to try it anyway.  Because I was figuring that this wasn’t going to work anyway, I wasn’t even upset that the fog was thin at best and appeared to be clearing as it got closer to sunrise.  I continued out to the motel figuring that I would be abandoning this location as I had all those times before.

You have no idea how surprised I was that there were no cars parked in front of the office when I pulled into the parking lot.  For the first time in a very long time the front of the motel was empty.  The only other time I had seen it this way had been at noon on a very sunny day.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  The conditions weren’t quite what I was expecting, but I had the shot clear which was almost the most difficult part.  I pulled over to the side of the parking lot and parked the 4Runner and decided to wait until the right time to get the picture to see if anyone would block the view.  There were cars in and out, but nobody blocked the view and after 15 minutes of pondering my fortune, it was time to act.  The sky was starting to get light and I knew that in another 10 minutes or so the timing would be right for the shot.  That gave me just about enough time to get the composition figured out.

Williams Motel“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I got out and grabbed my camera with the 24-70mm lens which would provide just the right focal length for the shot that I had in mind.  I got everything set up in the grassy area in the front of the motel and decided that no filters would be needed.  There really wasn’t any need for any filters as the lighting would be very even across the scene at the time I was wanting to photograph this.  The only question was how to best compose the frame.  There was a very prominent antenna on the top of the apex of the roof which stood out even in front of the trees.  The more room that I gave at the top of the motel, the more weight was given to the background which would ultimately pull the eyes away from the shapes that I wanted to showcase.  I decided to include more of the parking lot which wasn’t a bad thing at all since there were puddles there and the pavement was all soaked which gave some really nice reflections of colors and the office light.  Fortunately, when I was sitting directly out in front of the building, the main puddle was down and to the right of the composition which balanced the thickest group of trees in the background in the upper left.  I kept the sides of the frame lined up with the connection of the lines of the upper area and the roof while not cutting any of the elements along the main level. . The building was not symmetrical which I hadn’t really noticed before so I had a window right up against the right frame while the left frame only had a fire extinguisher next to a window.  It was not the easiest thing to get everything organized in the scene and there was overlap where I didn’t really want it, but overall, I think I made some good compromises with the separation of elements

The first few exposures came out with way too much contrast and I shot them as HDR so that I could get the detail in the office sign out front.  I doubted that I would be using these initial images because the sky was still too dark to really show what I wanted.  I used the time to dial in the composition and figure out what exposure would leave me enough detail in the lighted portions of the image.  As all of that came together the light was coming online where I was wanting it.  By this time, I had warranted an audience and I could hear them talking.  They were fortunately over to the side, and they were asking how many times I would take the same picture?  At least none of them thought I was doing surveillance on anyone and came over to verify what I was doing.  I must have looked funny standing there in a light drizzle with a camera on a tripod taking pictures of a motel.  I was glad that I had made sure that all of the curtains were closed before I got started because I didn’t want anyone to get the idea that I was looking into any of the rooms.

When the light finally got where I wanted it, I cranked off about three frames in the hopes of getting an image that didn’t have reflections of the traffic in the windows.  This was harder to do than you might expect.  By this point, my exposure was at six full seconds.  A lot can happen to a scene in six seconds, and I had cars come by in all but this one image which was what made it into my keeper stack.  The processing was a little interesting because I wanted to keep that warm light of the artificial lights while leaving the rest of the image cooler.  Blue wasn’t a good color on this motel though, so I ended up pulling the saturation down on the blue channel and leaving the upper part of the image mostly gray which worked well.  It was an odd image for me, and one that I had been planning for a while so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the whole idea.  I’m actually pretty happy with it, and think that it hits that Nick Carver niche for architectural subjects.

Not wanting to outstay my welcome or my luck photographing a motel in the early morning, I packed up and got back on the road.  The fog was pretty much nonexistent at this point so I checked the weather to see where the clouds were going to be.  In my area the clouds were going to be lifting in a couple of hours.  It looked like going North was the answer as the area of Lansing was going to be under clouds until roughly lunch time with some fog expected through the next couple of hours.  I wasn’t really sure what to photograph, but knew that my lighting was going to be in that direction and that was where I headed.

Blue Ridge Outreach“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I went up Hwy 16 and eventually went over to Old 16 which turned into a dirt road (well, mud actually) as it climbed up the mountain.  I was having a good time scouting out locations and even stopped at one section of the road which had a really nice stone wall on the shoulder.  I shot a few images here, but none really turned out to my liking so they were all ditched.  I did end up on the Blue Ridge Parkway close to Doughton Park so I decided to see how much of the Parkway was open since there are always sections of it closed during the Winter for bad road conditions.  I made my way North and eventually got into Doughton Park which is a lot of fun for me to photograph pretty much any time of the year.  There was even some fog here so I was really excited to find something that I could put in front of my camera.

That didn’t take too long before I found a nice tree on the other side of a split rain fence.  The fog was just right for the tree, so I pulled over and grabbed my camera.  For this, I knew I was going to want my long 70-200mm lens so that I could get the softening of the fog as I saw it from across the street.  The closer I got to the tree, the more I could make out the background which I didn’t want.  Again, there were no needs for any filters for this shot as the lighting was very even through the frame.  I worked several compositions, but it was my first one that really worked the best and turned into the keeper from that group.

I had shot it with monochrome in mind because there just wasn’t much color at all in the scene and what I liked the most was the tree and the fence which needed no color to show up.  I gave myself a little room to play in post processing and decided that I would do a bit of controlling of the light for the final presentation of the piece.  There was a good deal of darkening to the sky that I did at the top of the image to really close it in and focus the eyes on the tree.  It was more of an artistic rendering of the scene rather than a faithful capture of it.  I really think that it helped direct the eyes and keep them in the frame so I was ok with the heavy edit on this one.

Hug the Clouds“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 2X Mk3 Teleconverter, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

When I was done with the tree, I got back in the truck and started back toward Doughton Park to see if I could get to it.  I don’t think that I had been on the road for a mile yet when I got to the Bluff Mountain Overlook which was starting to clear off.  I could see the distant mountains poking through the clouds and fog.  There was one, in particular, that caught my eye as the clouds were settling into a groove.  I got out and grabbed the camera.  Knowing that I was going to need some reach I fitted the 70-200mm lens along with my 2X teleconverter which would give me up to 400mm of reach.  There was no need for any filters here either, but I had to work quick as the conditions were changing rapidly.

When I finally found the composition, the clouds had all but obscured the mountain and my viewfinder was pretty much white.  I waited for a minute because I knew that the clouds would clear eventually.  They did, and I was ready.  I fired off many frames as the clouds moved around with the hopes of getting one that would work.  I was pretty sure that I would be doing this as a black and white image as I shot it because there was just no color to be had in the frame.

It wasn’t until I got it home and started to process it that I found some very deep blues coming out in the clouds above.  For the longest time I left this as a color image really focusing on the cold color temperature.  However, the more I lived with it, the more the blue looked less than believable in the frame.  I started to tone it down and when it was about where I wanted it, the saturation was so low that I figured that it might as well be a black and white image.  I did the conversion and introduced more contrast to the frame and really darkened the top of the clouds to give the image balance that it hadn’t had with the blue tones before.  The end result was one that I found interesting and dramatic.  Enough so that I have decided to keep it among the keepers of the day.

I continued on towards Doughton Park and found that the Parkway was closed at Alligator Back, so I had to get turned around.  I ended getting back on Old 16 towards Lansing as I was chasing the clouds.  That put me back on Hwy 16 and I continued out that way.  From here it was a matter of getting lost and finding roads that I hadn’t been on before.  I managed to succeed in that quite well.  I ended up on roads that were one lane wide, sloppy mud, and twisty paths.  I was really happy I had the 4Runner because a couple of times I was in 4Lo to keep from getting stuck as I was climbing slowly.  There were no problems at all, but there were times I thought that a downed tree would have ruined my day because I wasn’t going to be able to turn around and go back the way I came.

By the time I came back out to the paved road I was completely lost and had no idea where I was in relation to anything.  Since the sky was starting to clear off, I decided to call it a day and plug in a homeward course into the GPS.  Of course, I was keeping my eyes out for anything of interest as I was headed home.  It didn’t take very long at all before I saw an old house, or more accurately, remains of a house on the side of the road.  It was tucked between a newer house and a red shed next to a brick home.  The old house was just too good to pass up on though.

Empty Nest“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I pulled off on the side of the road and grabbed my camera with the 24-70mm lens.  My idea was to shoot it from the road straight on so that I could frame it close and avoid the house and the red shed in the image.  I shot a few compositions like that, but there was just not enough breathing room, and the composition lacked depth.  I was about to give up on it but decided to look at another angle.  If I were to go over to the left a good bit into the driveway of the brick house, I could use the old house to mask the newer house to the right.  That worked fantastically, and I now had enough room on the left of the house to give it some breathing room before the red shed came into the frame.

I got the camera set up and elevated to the highest point on my tripod since I was shooting from the bottom of the hill.  I wanted to avoid any perspective distortion within the frame and keep the house looking like a house.  The sky was bright, but there was no way to use a grad filter here to control it without darkening the house along with it since the house intruded completely into the horizon.  Had I used a filter, the grass would have been the only thing left brighter which I didn’t want.  The clouds were moving too fast for an HDR image, and with the wind blowing, there was no need for a long exposure here.  It was just going to be a basic shot of the his house so I set to work on figuring out the best exposure.

I found that if I waited for darker clouds to come overhead I could squeak the exposure by keeping the clouds exposed properly while giving the house enough exposure to where I could pull the details out easy enough with nothing blocked up in the shadows.  Just about the time I figured out that exposure I saw a bunch of birds flying into the scene.  I knew that I had a pretty fast shutter speed because of how bright the sky was so I just started to crank off frames hoping to get the birds in flight in good positions in the frame.  I ended up getting four frames with the birds in it, and this one was the one where they seemed to fit the shape of the house.  I had shot about 25 frames of this house getting the exposure dialed in and slight differences in composition but it was this one image where it all came together in a single frame.

I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn out in post, but I had already planned for it to be a black and white image because I was doubting that there would be any color to speak of .  However, while I was processing the image I quickly realized that there was a lot of color in the frame and that the colors helped to tell the story of the scene quite well.  I ended up going with a slightly desaturated version instead of the monochrome one that I had planned on.  I ended up really loving how it came out and it became my favorite of the day by a good margin.  There was just so much to this one, and the fact that so much of the house was gone really helped with what this image said.  The birds filled the space in the sky nicely without being overbearing and I loved that I was able to capture them on the fly with the exposure that I had set up originally.  It was just meant to be.

After I had captured the house, the sky was clearing quickly and the light was getting too harsh.  I decided to follow the directions on the GPS and head on home.  I had 95 frames on the memory card and knew that I probably only had a handful of images that were going to be keepers, but it had been a fun day with a lot of different lighting conditions to keep things fresh.  I had shot blue hour, fog, and cloudy diffused conditions over the course of about six hours.  I had pushed myself on the first and last scenes of the day which made me quite happy with the results.

I hope that you enjoyed the trek as much as I did.  Remember, if you would like a print of any of these images please let me know, or you can order directly from the gallery store.  The print sales go a long way to help me continue creating photographic art.  It motivates me as well as funds me, so when you purchase a print you really are helping me to create more and more.  If you are wanting to become a photographer and learn how to create these images for yourself, be sure and look into my Introduction to the Art of Photography online course that will be happening at the end of this month.  I also have two workshops in the field scheduled for April and May dealing with Decay Photography as well as Spring Landscapes.  I will probably have more scheduled in the second half of the year, but I want to see how the pandemic is going before I commit too far out.  I would expect to see at least two more workshops happening before the year is out though.

Edit:  I have since learned that this house that ended my day was actually the first hospital in Ashe County.   Jones Memorial Infirmary was built in the 1800’s.  This adds a bit more to the story I think.

Until next time….