Sunrise at Groundhog Mountain

· Reading Time: 8 minutes

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Buffalo Mountain“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad

My frustration with the weather continues…but what’s new?  I had been looking forward to a full day in the mountains after watching the weather for the last few days.  Saturday was completely devoid of clouds, and Sunday was supposed to have 75% or more cloud coverage for the entire day.  To make matters even better, the sunrise forecast was looking fantastic for the state.  My plan was to head out to Groundhog Mountain in Southern Virginia to capture what I was hoping to be a fantastic sunrise and then move off of the Parkway and tour the back roads looking for rural scenes.  I was all ready to spend the full day out exploring and capturing some really good images.  I went to sleep planning on the different compositions that I could do since I was somewhat familiar with Groundhog Mountain.

The clock rang at 4:30 and I was ready to go.  I got ready, grabbed some breakfast and headed out the door.  The weather was clear at the time, and according to the forecast, that was the case everywhere, but the clouds were coming.  I just remembered the last time I went to Groundhog and was met with a complete whiteout with clouds and fog when I was supposed to have great sunrise conditions.  I was hoping that I would fare better this time, but truth be told, I didn’t hate the foggy conditions last time and got some really good images.  They just weren’t what I was looking for at the time.  I was hoping to make good on the ideas that I had that first attempt.

My goal was to get a good shot of the observation tower that is at the center of the hill.  I was wanting some good predawn light in the sky that would be soft enough to allow for a nice long exposure to get the observation tower exposed with some detail and not just a silhouette.  This type of sunrise photography is not the easiest to perform and I was counting on the 85% cloud coverage that was forecasted for that to happen.  The trip to my destination took only an hour or so, which is nice considering I’m usually traveling twice that to get to the NC section of the Parkway.  When I arrived, I found that the sky was already lighting up an hour before sunrise.  In that sky, I could see no clouds.  That was disappointing to say the least.  I grabbed the camera and started over to the observation tower to see what I could work with.

This was the first time that I have looked at the area with a photographer’s eye when I could actually see the landscape.  There was a lot of clutter which I had not seen before and I was having a hard time finding a good angle by which I could shoot the structure.  It was actually seeming like it wasn’t going to much matter since the sky wasn’t cooperating at all.  I started to look for other compositions around the area as the sun was coming up.  Once the sky was brightly lit, the clouds started to roll in.  Not many, but a few.  They came in right over the tower and I quickly got set up with my 24-70mm lens with my Lee Filter Holder because I was anticipating using some ND Grads.  I started to work out a composition on the tower to start with.  Because of how it rose well above the horizon, I wasn’t going to be able to use a grad filter for this shot.

The Watchtower“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, HDR capture with 3 images

I set the exposure in the camera and fired off the first frame.  The sky looked good, but the tower was in shadows which I didn’t like.  I boosted the exposure a tad and saw that actually blew out the sky.  This was what I was trying to avoid with the softer predawn light I was hoping for.  I didn’t have a filter that I could use to correct this problem, so that left me with one alternative.  I had to do an HDR image for this subject.  The lighting was changing fast so I had to hurry to make this work.  I fine tuned the exposure one last time to avoid the roof of the house to the right.  I exposed once for the sky and got that image.  I then set the exposure for the tower and shot that one.  I then split the difference and shot a final image to get a total of three exposures that I would blend later in Lightroom.  It was not what I had in mind, but it did work, and turned into a reasonable execution of my original idea.

I tried a few other compositions but none of them seemed to work, and I had no more time for HDR images as the light was quickly getting too bright to work with in this direction.  I started to turn my attention to other compositions.  One that I had wanted to work was using the fence that surrounds the property.  There is a great view of Buffalo Mountain beyond the fence that I wanted to capture and the clouds were starting to pick up the color of the rising sun which added a lot of interest to the scene.  I moved my gear over to the fence and found a composition that I liked using the angles of the fence to lead the eyes to Buffalo Mountain.

Virginia Sunrise“,  Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad

For this composition I needed to tone the sky down just a bit in order to get the exposure right on the fence.  I slid in a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad and lined it up with the horizon.  The histogram looked perfect after that.  I was able to get a correct exposure for this in a single shot as opposed to an HDR image.  I liked how the tones were looking so much that I shot from this area as a portrait as well as landscape composition.  I like the wide open feel of the horizontal composition, but the directness of the vertical is a little more powerful.  Ironically, both images were shot at 50mm which is not something that I usually avoid.  In this situation, the normal focal length seemed to fit the images and kept the perspective in check.  I was just happy that I was able to include the sky with the awesome clouds that were above the mountain.

Trying to go just a little further with that theme, I swapped out lenses for my 70-200mm long lens and added a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad for an intimate picture of Buffalo Mountain.  The images looked ok in the viewfinder, but when I started to evaluate them, I didn’t like how limited the foreground was.  There was very little to anchor the image and it was just the tops of the trees and a mountain.  This wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell.  I ended up trashing those images in the culling process.

Game of Jacks“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2

As I was looking at what the light was doing, I looked behind me and saw that the fence that loved so much in the fog was catching the warm light from the sun.  The large tree behind it was also a little brighter than the trees in the background.  The sky was saturated with the warm hues which sealed the deal.  I turned the camera to this area and formed up a composition which I thought suited the light more than anything else.  There was no need for any filters for this shot since the lighting was pretty even across the scene.  I shot only a couple of images before the warm tones faded as the sun continued up in the sky.  With that, the light was starting to get too harsh.  I had been at the location for about an hour and fifteen minutes.  Of that I had actually been shooting images for about the last 45 minutes.  It was time to head down the road at this point and start to do my rural search.

Well, the clouds that had started to come in were quickly fading.  The sky was clear for as far as the eyes could see.  If I found something in the shade, I might be lucky enough to be able to grab a shot or two.  The trick was going to be finding something.  I started driving down this road and that road in search of something.  I found plenty of interesting subject matter, but the light was never on my side for any of it.  The closest I cam was seeing about 6 old trucks by a building in the shade that looked interesting.  The problem was it was just after 8am and I didn’t want to knock on a door that early.  I was going to have to have permission to get on the property to shoot the few trucks that caught my eye though.  I filed that in my mind for later on.

I continued to drive around and found the light getting harsher and harsher.  It was just not meant to be on this day.  I decided to head home by way of the one residence that I had passed earlier.  The light had reached the trucks and was causing some very contrasty conditions.  There was no need in knocking at this point.  I was done.  There was nothing left I could do with this light.  I headed home with only 30 images in the camera.  This day had not turned out like I had hoped, but at least I had something to show for it.  This is what it is to be a landscape photographer…we are totally at the mercy of conditions.