Stone Mountain in the Fall

· Reading Time: 28 minutes

Monday, October 26, 2020

This was a bit of an interesting trek for me in a couple of respects.  It was a familiar place for me to go but the whole day went completely different.  It started out many months ago when Jon Wheeler signed up for one of my workshops which was scheduled in the Spring of this year.  As you probably remember, I had to cancel that workshop as well as most of the others for the first half of the year due to the pandemic.  Jon was nice enough to refuse the refund for his admission price in lieu of having a One on One Instructional session later on when things calmed down a little bit.  To be fair, I offered to give him a full day session to replace the workshop that he would have gone on even though the price for a full day session would have been much higher than a workshop.  It was just the right thing to do.  As the months moved on, we talked several times and decided that we would get together for our One to One in late October or early November.  We discussed the areas that he was interested in learning more about and he came up with a list which covered a wide variety of topics that sounded fantastic to me.  Looking at the list, there was only one place where I felt that we could cover each one of the points that he was wanting to work on.  That was Stone Mountain State Park in Traphill, NC.

We started to work on a day and it was determined that it would be the last week of October, and a decision on the day would need to be made by the 22nd.  This was not going to be easy as the weather can very easily change in nearly a week’s time.  However, I was looking at the forecast and trying to make my best guess as to the right day to choose.  It came down to Monday or Thursday.  I was not really wanting to do it on Thursday since I had a Fall Foliage Workshop scheduled for that following Friday.  That would just be too much for me to handle.  There had been nobody signing up for that workshop, but just in case I didn’t want to paint myself into a corner.  Looking at the two days, Monday was really looking like the better day anyway with mostly cloudy skies in the morning followed by clearing skies in the afternoon with a moderate chance for rain in the morning.  With the topics that he was wanting to cover, that sounded like the ideal forecast.  We set the date and I committed to starting out Monday morning at 7am just as I do for my workshop there.

When 7am arrived, I was in the parking lot getting my gear ready to go for what was looking like a full day of photography.  The weather had actually improved from what the forecast had said a week before.  The rain was no longer an issue, and there was fog through the early hours of the morning.  The clouds were going to stick around until early afternoon and then start to break up.  This was almost ideal for a full day’s trek.  The plan was going to be simple, starting off for sunrise at the Hutchinson Homestead which has several different opportunities as the sun comes up over the namesake mountain that spring up from the meadow.  From there, we were going to head down to Widow’s Creek Falls by foot and check out some of the intimate landscapes along Bullhead Creek.  When we were done with the Falls, it would be lunch time and we would stop at the cars for a break and a bite to eat.  From there, it would be heading up to one of the summits of the park depending on the weather to do some grand landscape work.  It was exactly how I would have done a workshop with these weather conditions.

Fall in the Air“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

Jon and I were on the path to the homestead just after 7am and we were hustling to get into position for first light.  There wasn’t any color expected, but I knew that there would be ample opportunities to capture some good images in the fog which was coming in quite nicely.  When we got out there I took us to the end of the meadow where I have had great luck in the past with some woodland images.  Sadly, there was nothing that jumped out at either of us to shoot so we started looking around to see how the light was changing by the minute.  The fog started to lift at the base of the mountain just enough to give us a great view of the trees in front of the granite face.  This was going to be the first learning opportunity of the morning.  Taking the advice from Joe, who had offered me several great suggestions, I started out with a demonstration of my own workflow and how I got a shot set up.  I picked a scene that had some Fall color as well as some bare trees that had some very interesting structures to work with.  Since I wasn’t out here to get images for myself, I wasn’t overly concerned with the outcome here, but I did take the time to find what I thought was going to be the best vantage point to capture what I found interesting.  With the very flat light that was in place, I didn’t need any filters so the camera setup was very simple.  I just mounted my long 70-200mm lens for the compression that it would give me and framed up a horizontal image that captured what I loved about the scene.  The exposure was relatively simple and I had the first shot in the bag.  To demonstrate how I evaluate and recompose an image I decided to flip the camera on its end and try for a portrait orientation for the second composition.

Autumn Mist“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

As it turned out, both of these images spoke to me when I looked at them on the computer the following morning.  They both said different things with a different point of interest in each of them.  I decided to go ahead and do a full processing on both of them.  The fog that surrounded the trees really was an awesome element here and I was so glad that I had picked this day on an educated hunch a week before.  Jon was happy with the conditions as well and he was getting images left and right.  I took as many opportunities as I could to assist him in improving on his own photography which was actually quite hard as he is already a very seasoned photographer and he knows his stuff.

It is always helpful though to have another set of eyes and a different perspective when you are finding your way around a new location.  That is the way I look at my workshops and these One to One sessions.  I’m not an expert by any stretch, nor do I have all of the answers.  I do pick places that I am familiar with so that I can help by providing some of the hard learned lessons that I have taught myself while at these locations.  As I mentioned to Jon, in my short time doing workshops I have had folks come in with a range of experience.  There have been some that I think just opened their camera up that morning on the way to the workshop and had never even held one before.  There are others that are far better than I am with a camera but lack the self confidence to know that.  The majority are those who are not unlike myself and are just looking to improve in various areas of their own photography.  I can say without a doubt that in each of these three cases, I have been able to share some tidbit of information that has helped the participant and that is my goal with each one of these instructional opportunities.  A side benefit to all of this is that I usually learn quite a bit from those I am working with.  There are always opportunities to learn when it comes to photography, and always a different way of doing things.

Alone in the Meadow“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND grad

As the morning progressed, Jon came into his own and was able to kind of work the scenes as he saw fit.  Typically, on a individual instruction session like this, I would have put my camera away after my demo if warranted, and stayed with the participant the whole time.  Since this was a “make-up day” for a canceled workshop I didn’t feel overly bad about working on some images for myself along the way.  Now, I didn’t let my creative process negatively impact the learning process that was the most important thing for the day, but I did get the opportunity to work on quite a few of my own compositions through the day.  It was a nice trade-off for doing a deeply discounted day of instruction.  One of the images that I worked on was with one of my favorite trees in the meadow.

As the fog started to lift and the sun was coming up over Stone Mountain, we both saw the opportunity to get some really interesting images of the granite face under a sky that was transitioning from warm tones to cooler tones.  Of course, I turned that into an instructional moment and discussed how important it was to find interesting elements to put under an interesting sky.  We could have just captured an image of the sky over the mountain and called it job done, but that was not my style.  I think the way I put it was something like this “great light and a ho-hum composition will make for a ho-hum image, and a great composition with boring light will make for a boring image.”  The idea is to get great light and a great composition so you can have a great image.  That was just what we set out to do, and I knew just the compositional elements to include.

Photo Credit Joe Horne

I have shot this lone tree in the meadow several times over the years and even talk about in my workshops at this location.  You can see me discussing it in the image above a year ago.  It is perfectly placed far enough away from the other trees to give it a great sense of solitude and isolation against the backdrop of the mountain.  It has so many uses in compositions as either a standalone element, or as a visual anchor for a larger view of the iconic mountain.  After I got Jon on his way to capturing images of this tree and the mountain, I went back to my camera and set it up with the 16-35mm lens.  He was using a longer lens and I wanted to be able to demonstrate the power of the wide angle lens in this situation.

Since the sky was rather bright, I wanted to make sure that I could squeeze out as much detail as I could because I wanted that transition from warm to cool tones in the sky more than anything else. In order to do that, I slid in a 3-stop soft edge ND grad filter which brought the sky down ever so gradually.  It did the trick as my histogram said that I had plenty of information in the highlights as well as the shadows to work with later on.  I didn’t stick with this composition overly long because I wanted to show the versatility of this tree and it was time to grab a grand landscape with that same tree, but in a horizontal format.

Misty Layers“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I moved back out of the way as I was figuring I would be in Jon’s way based on how he was shooting.  I had grabbed the vertical image quickly while he was finishing getting his camera all set up.  Now that I was out of his way, I framed up the horizontal image using the tree as a strong anchor point.  The sky was still picking up some faint details and the color was getting very interesting.  It was definitely time to get an overall of Stone Mountain in a way that I had never before been able to accomplish.  This was some of the best fog that I have seen out here in front of the mountain and I was glad that I had the opportunity to capture some images of it.  I kept the same setup on the camera for this composition and captured several images at a time as the light changed while still going back and forth with Jon helping him work through a couple of questions.

As we both progressed he made mention of the water runoff from the top of the summit and how he liked the lines that it formed.  He was right, it was an interesting addition so we talked about how to best capture that element.  After I made the suggestion to use a polarizer to darken the lines of water I went over to my rig and did the same thing.  I shot several more frames with the polarizer, but determined that it wasn’t really doing much at all for the water.  When I got the images home, I didn’t care for any of those last images.  The polarizer had worked better than I thought it would, but the sky wasn’t as good as the earlier captures.  Looking at the two compositions that I had shot of the tree, I decided that the vertical one was more powerful with the color that was present.  The horizontal one had more atmosphere and mood to it, so I decided to do a B&W conversion on that one to really emphasize that aspect of the image.

I am very happy with both images and they say two completely different things.  This is a great illustration for how this tree can work in several different ways for composing an image as well as in providing a visual anchor regardless of the image presentation.  The fog really came through for both of these images and provided a cohesive element through all of the levels.  I found myself really wishing that there had been similar conditions last year when I hosted the workshop.  It was a decent day weather-wise, but nothing like we had going on this morning.

Jon and I moved from this area and went over to the homestead where we talked about some compositions there and the use of the lighting and atmosphere.  He worked several different compositions and I left my camera in the bag so that I could fully engage with him during this time as the compositions were much more difficult to work through and needed some very minute adjustments.  I needed to be there with him for that process and I was happy to let those images escape me since I knew I had some really good ones from earlier in the morning.  It didn’t take Jon long before he was satisfied with what he had from this locale and we decided to head on down the road towards Widow’s Creek Falls.

Shapes of Nature“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mmf/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

One of the areas that I had planned on stopping was near a picnic table where I knew that there was a small little waterfall and a quaint little isolated pool.  That was what I wanted to get him some experience with next.  However, as we were walking down the road he spotted a scene that caught his eye.  There was a small cascading stream with some interesting rock formations in the water.  Since this was his adventure I had no problem at all stopping to help him out with this scene.  I’ll be honest here, when I first saw it I really thought it was going to be too complex to really work with as it had a lot of disjointed elements throughout.  However, as Jon went for broke and really worked the scene I started to see some potential images both through helping him with his ideas and some that I saw just looking around.  The longer we were there, the more I realized that Jon stopping here was a stroke of genius.  I was able to hit on about half of his list of topics that he wanted help with here.  It turned out to be a fantastic spot to stop and we were there for an hour or more.

As I mentioned as I was helping out with compositions I had been looking around and had spotted a variation on a composition that he was working on that I wanted to give a try.  It was also going to be an opportunity to showcase how well a wide angle lens will work to emphasize a foreground which was one of his points of coverage.  I mounted my 16-35mm lens along with the Color Combo Polarizer since this scene was largely in the water.  I nearly submerged the tripod legs in order to keep the camera low to the angular rock that had caught my eye.  It took a lot of moving around to get the composition that I was after, but I did finally manage to get all of the elements in the frame that I needed to tell the story.  The colors were amazing and I was pretty sure that this one was going to be a keeper and when I got it home I found that I hadn’t been mistaken.

It is worth mentioning here that the leaves on the rock were not placed there by us.  They do look like they have been staged by somebody, but neither of us had any intention of removing them.  They might have fallen there as there were plenty of leaves falling around the area.  It was this chance that made me ok with the leaves being there and I didn’t want to disturb anything about the scene as it had caught my eye.

After Jon got a few more compositions under his belt from this great location he found, it was time to get back on our way to Widow’s Creek Falls.  In the interest of time, and considering all of the topics that had been covered at the last location, we decided to forego any other side trips and just stick with heading to the Falls.  When we got there, I told him to prepare for a difficult hike to the Falls and that it was going to be a long one.  A minute a a half later we were there.  Hey, I have to keep things interesting along the way.

While we where there I didn’t bring out my camera in the interest of time, plus I had shot this waterfall so many times in the past.  Jon did a great job here of finding some very compelling compositions and if I am to be completely honest, he came up with some ideas that I wished that I had.  There was one isolation he shot which I really didn’t think would work out that turned into probably my favorite picture that he had shot thus far.  It was a water abstract that had I not been there to help him get his concept fine tuned, I would have shot myself.  I just didn’t want to copy his vision which was fantastic!  I’m hoping that he sends me that image to share here in blogs as I would love to give him some credit along with that image for a wonderful execution of a very unique way of seeing one of my favorite waterfalls.

When Jon was happy with the images from here, we set back out to return to the cars for a bite of lunch and to recharge for a bit.  We had already put in about six hours worth of hard work and we were both getting tired.  The walk back was largely uphill which was no fun and made me appreciate the break more than I thought I would.  It was here that I realized that my 30lbs worth of camera gear was really starting to hurt my shoulders and back.  I took this time to readjust my straps on what is usually a very comfortable bag and I mounted the tripod to it because the next hike was going to be a long one and through the woods.  I think that the damage to my back was already done though as the pain just got worse the longer the day went.  I’m sitting here about 24 hours after I shed the pack to come home still sore in my back and shoulders.  I guess I’m just not as young as I used to be.

Split Rock“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14m f/2.8, No Filters

Our next stop was up the side of the mountain at Wolf Rock.  This is one of those favorite locations of mine for the challenges that it presents for a photographer.  The terrain is very sparse and it takes a little bit of doing to find compelling compositions here.  I knew that this would be a great opportunity to show some out of the box thinking with a wide angle lens which was on the punch list for the day.  After we both slogged up the side of the mountain I finally caught up to Jon who was a good bit ahead of me.  He was resting at the top of mountain looking through some information on a 135mm prime that he has been eyeballing.  As I was recovering from the climb I told him that he really should get that lens as it would change his photography completely and would make him a total rock star.  In fact, I said that he must get that lens in order to continue being considered a photographer.

I might have been embellishing a bit in the last paragraph, but we had been talking about that lens and I kept trying to give him arguments that he could use to convince others that it would be a good idea.  This was my last ditch effort to help Jon out, and while doing that let his son know that he’s still got it when it comes to hiking.  Hey, I’m just that kind of guy.  I like to help out.  LOL!

Anyway, back on track with the trek, we did make it to the top and after catching our breath, it was time to get Jon acquainted with the unique landscape of Wolf Rock.  After pointing out some things that could be used as a foreground, I set out to demonstrate the use of a wide angle lens in this environment.  Since I was demonstrating, I decided to go for broke and pull out the 14mm Rokinon lens.  The lighting was nice and subtle so I was able to get away without using any filters which is a primary concern with this lens.  I chose to use one of the more mundane elements as a foreground which was a smooth, split rock right on the granite surface.  My first composition was a horizontal one which surprised me because it actually made the 14mm look a little too long of a choice.  I had the foreground and midground that I wanted, but could have really used just a bit more in the sky.  It was enough though and I was happy with the image since my primary concern was to get the rock in a dramatic situation as the rest of the image lacked any drama or visual tension.

Autumn Ridge“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters

Since I was wanting more sky, I decided to flip the camera and shoot the same concept with a portrait orientation.  This allowed me to get more sky, and still had the drama of the rock, but I liked the shape of it better in the horizontal orientation.  Nevertheless, the vertical one had a more open feel to it, and a style all its own.  Of course, I had moved the position of the tripod to make for a better flow to the composition since the frame was no taller than it was wide.  The shadows around the rock gave it depth and there were small pools of water on the granite surface  which added the interest of the foreground.  The colorful trees in the distance  made for a great midground which faded into the distant mountains under the clouds.

I hadn’t fully realized how nice the colors were around the park until we got up on Wolf Rock.  It is a real shame that nobody signed up for the Fall Foliage Workshop this year because I had nailed the right week to be here unlike last year when I was a week too early.  The colors were amazing and I would say that the park was at or very near peak at this time.  Friday’s workshop would have been amazing.  Oh well, maybe next year when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic I’ll have similar luck with the leaves.

Clamped Trunk“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND grad

While I had been working with the split rock, Jon was focusing on a lone tree which also happened to be growing out from a split rock on the same chunk of granite I was working.  I had been going back and forth helping him with his compositions.  While doing that I was wanting to give it a try as well.  When he finished up and decided to go to another small tree, I came back to this one and set the camera up with my 16-35mm lens because I just couldn’t let the Fall color get away from me.  I figured that I could also use a few of these images to promote my next Fall Workshop here as I needed some current imagery in my description of the workshop.

I wasn’t feeling too bad about leaving Jon to his own devices at this point because he had gotten it all pretty much figured out by this point and I was just there for a few pointers occasionally.  That gave me time to play as the sun was dropping lower in the sky.  The light was still a tad harsh, but it was workable light for sure.  I had framed up a horizontal image very similar to what Jon had been working on earlier.  Unlike the abstract at the waterfall, this was not his vision, but one that I helped him arrive at so I wasn’t feeling like I was stealing his composition with this, plus I had shot this view several times before.

The sky was a little bright at this point and I needed to make my exposure a bit more even so I pulled out a 2-stop soft grad which I slid into the filter holder to gradually deepen the blue sky and take just a touch of bite out of the clouds.  It did the trick and the histogram was happy.  I shot a few variations on this as the clouds moved around and the light changed.  As I worked around the tree I realized that it was the tree that I found most interesting and wanted to really emphasize that element over the rest of the landscape.  In order to do this, I flipped the camera on its side for a vertical composition.

Reaching for the Clouds“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

It was this vertical composition that really grabbed my attention as it showcased the tree quite well.  The light was strong on the tree, but I was getting some decent side light that gave depth to the trunk and made the shadow of the trunk proceed almost in unison with the crevice in the rock.  The clouds were still hovering above the mountains so I was able to place the top of the tree against the blue sky which I thought would be quite nice.  I shot several frames of this composition with the filter setup the same as I had used previously.  I was liking it in the camera and had planned on cropping it to a 5×7 ratio so that I could emphasize the vertical nature of the tree.  However, when I got the image up on the computer my whole concept changed for this image.

When I pulled it into Lightroom, I had already processed the horizontal image and really didn’t feel like having a similar image with just a different orientation.  I wanted to do something different with this one.  The image that I had chosen to work with was one of the later ones that I had been excited about because there were some thin clouds which had drifted overhead and I had been able to capture them just as they matched up with the treetop.  It was that duplication of shapes that made this the winner for me.  I needed to emphasize the tree, the sky, and the clouds.  The colorful trees were no longer a concern for me, and the color was going to be a distraction.  Whenever this happens I start to look at the possibility of converting it to a black and white.  Generally, I like to do high contrast monochromes to really take advantage of the light and textures of an image.  This image already had a lot of contrast, and I was afraid that I would lose detail in the textures by increasing the contrast even more.  Instead, I opted to make a less contrasty conversion with more emphasis on the gray tones of the image.  This worked really well and I was liking the image a lot with the reduced contrast.  I did make sure that there were still solid black and bright white points in the image, but the midtones were spread out much more here.

The second part of the processing that broke apart from my intention was the crop.  The 5×7 crop worked, but wasn’t quite as dramatic as I was hoping for.  An 8×10 crop was better, but still not there. I tried a square format next and that was the key for this image.  Now the attention was directly on the tree and that was what I had been after.  My end result was different than what I had intended at the time of capture, but the feeling and intent were there stronger than I would have thought.  This is actually one of my favorite images from the day.

Light Falls“, Canon 5D MK3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft and 2-stop hard ND grads

I had packed up after shooting the tree as the light was starting to fall quickly.  The clouds were all too low to have the potential for a wonderful sunset, but Jon wanted to keep shooting so we stuck around for a while longer.  As we were waiting, I noticed that the ridges of the distant mountain were starting to pick up the light of the low sun.  The clouds were getting just a hint of color, but not much.  It was the light on the mountain that caught my eye.  Jon was interested in it too and wanted to shoot it.  I helped him get things situated before I went back to my bag and grabbed my gear again.  For this image, I was looking for a much more intimate capture than I had been working from up here.  I went with my 70-200mm lens and started to find my composition.  I started with a section to the left of the image that you see here.

While I thought that the exposure was going to be simple, the histogram was spread much further apart that I had anticipated.  I added a 3-stop hard grad to try and control the sky, but that still didn’t allow me to capture the detail in the mountain that I was wanting.  I added a 2-stop hard edge on top of that which allowed the right exposure, but the transition line was much too hard to deal with.  I pulled out the 3-stop hard and replaced it with a 3-stop soft edge which I slid in lower than the 2-stop hard edge.  The idea was to provide a much more gradual transition, and that meant darkening the mountains slightly in order to keep the transition to the sky believable.

While doing this, the sun hit the ridge of colorful trees just beyond the granite we were standing on.  This was a happy accident to my composition as I was already set up to capture that, and with the filter combination that I had going I was able to get the details needed. I let Jon know what I was shooting at, and the filter combination that I was using here as I was sure he was having a difficult time with the lighting as well.  The images that I was shooting looked really good in the camera and I went over to check on his progress.  He was having similar luck as I was it appeared, so I went back to my camera to continue the process.  The light was fading on the mountain I was shooting and the clouds were moving off to the right.  I shifted my attention to that next mountain and let Jon know that was where the light was at now.  My filter combination was still the right choice for this new composition and I set it all up the same way as I had done before.  I captured only a few images of this scene as the light was quickly falling at this point.

I was thinking that I had two solid images out of these scenes and I was really happy with the kind of a sunset that we had seen.  However, when I got the images home, the first scene that I had spent the most time with turned out marginal at best as too much of the scene was in shadows.  The clouds which had been so awesome in the camera were very difficult to deal with in Lightroom and I never could get an image that I was happy with.  The colors were all wrong, and the contrast from the slightly too high sun was more than I liked.  After about 45 minutes of fiddling with the image I let it go in favor of the second composition which had softer light in the clouds which made it much easier to deal with.  It was still not what I had hoped it would be when I captured it, but I was happy to have seen the light act like it did on the mountains.  I just hope that Jon had better luck with his images than I did.  I should know in a day or two when he has a chance to process his images.

After the sun got just a little lower, Jon and I started our way back to the parking lot so that we could head out of the park before the gates were closed.  It was the first time that I had hiked through these trails in the dark and it was an interesting experience with the trails covered in leaves.  Fortunately there were no incidents and we didn’t get lost a single time which is a very good thing.  I made sure that there were no other questions and that he had answers to everything that he wanted from the day and it was time to head home.  I had been at the park for nearly 13 hours and I was wiped out.  Too tired to even look at the images in the camera before going to bed.

I hope that you have enjoyed this trek with Jon and me.  I’m hoping that I will have a follow up entry with some of his images in the near future.  I’m really looking forward to seeing them as I was very impressed with what he was shooting through the day.  I have a feeling that he is a better photographer than he thinks he is, and I am humbled that he thinks that I have that much that I can teach him.  It was a very fun day and I’m glad that I have finally made good on the canceled workshop that he was supposed to be joining.  It was also nice to have the opportunity to capture some fall images here at Stone Mountain since I am usually tied up teaching a workshop during this time and just can’t see a good excuse to take images for myself during a workshop.  However, I will be doing a demo or two on my subsequent workshops.

Please consider signing up for either the Fall Decay Workshop on November 14th, or the Fall Waterfall Workshop on December 5th.  I have spots open in both of these workshops and they have been very popular ones in the past years.  Also, if any of the images that I shot today would look great on your walls, please let me know, or you can order a print directly from my store here.

Until next time…
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