Sunrise at Rough Ridge

· Reading Time: 20 minutes

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Appalachian Daybreak

Does anyone remember the last time I went to the Blue Ridge Parkway?  It seems like forever ago to me.  Looking back in the blog, it appears that it was May 19thwhen I last visited the Parkway.  That is much too long for one of my favorite places to go when it comes to photography.  I’ve been wanting to get back there for a few weeks, but my scheduling has been such that I just couldn’t dedicate that kind of time to a Trek.  That changed a bit this weekend with Toni at work, and Sierra with her Uncle.  I finally had the time that I needed to head West to the High Country.  The only thing left to determine was where to go exactly.

I looked at the weather, and it seemed that the chances of clouds were going to be better around the Boone, and Linville areas, while further North it was looking more like clear conditions.  Of course, we all know my track record with the weather forecasts so I really wasn’t all that sure of what to expect.  The plan when I went to sleep was to get up at 3am and head out to Rough Ridge for a sunrise attempt.  Looking at the sunrise forecaster, I didn’t have a lot of high hopes for any color, but there were clouds in the forecast and they were showing to have a low ceiling.  This meant that I might be able to do some woodland work along the Rough Ridge Trail.  Either way, I wanted to get an early start to the day.  From there, I was going to go where the conditions dictated.

Color on the Ridge

My day started as planned, way too early for my liking.  I checked the weather before getting out of bed and it looked like nothing had changed from the forecast that I had seen the night before.  The chance of a great sunrise was going to be slim, but the clouds were looking good for most of the day with a slight chance for a storm around mid day.  I went ahead and got things together and started my drive out to Rough Ridge.  the entire way there, I was seeing stars in the sky, and was really getting worried about the conditions I was going to be faced with soon.  I knew that whatever was going to happen, I was going to be in the mountains with my camera so it couldn’t be too bad.

When I arrived on the Parkway, a familiar dynamic started with me.  One minute it was clear as a bell, and then all of a sudden visibility would drop to nothing due to fog and clouds.  Weather like this makes for some very interesting photography and I was getting excited.  I started looking for a good place to set up for sunrise in case a target of opportunity presented itself before I arrived at Rough Ridge.  As luck would have it, nothing really fell into place, and I found myself nearing the parking area for Rough Ridge.  Well, I was here, and there was only one other car in the parking lot.  Let’s do this!

I grabbed my gear and started the dark (and rather soggy) hike to the boardwalk where I was planning on shooting the sunrise.  The hike went quick enough, and I was really happy that I had brought my waterfall boots in case the weather dictated that I start looking for cascades to shoot.  I slogged my way up the trail and found the rocky outcropping just off of the boardwalk to be completely empty which was a nice treat.  I went out on the rock and got set up on the smaller section closest to the boardwalk.

Bridging Colors

I had been running different compositions in my head while hiking up to the boardwalk and knew that I was wanting to try out my 16-35mm lens to get a little different perspective from my normal 24-70mm choice.  I started out with no filters at all, but quickly realized that the compositions that I was wanting to shoot were going to need some exposure help.  Starting out early, I added my Lee Filter Holder and a 3-Stop Singh-Ray, Daryl Benson Reverse ND Grad.  this helped the exposure in the sky right at the horizon, while letting the sky further up expose a little bit more.  that was just the trick that I needed to get the exposures as close to correct as I could.

While I was shooting the opening series of the new day, a couple came hiking up the trail and joined me on the rock.  He was apparently a photographer as well since he pulled out a camera and tripod.  He set it up to shoot intervals as the sun came up.  While the camera was firing off frames he got a drone ready, which he sent up to view Rough Ridge from the air.  It was quite an impressive display, but I just sat there and worked my compositions one at a time.

As the sun came up and the colors started to fade towards the East, I decided to swap out lenses and use my 70-200mm lens to get some isolations of the clouds in the valley below.  Since I wasn’t shooting into the bright part of the sky, I opted to leave the filters off of the lens and just shoot as the scene appeared.  What I found was as the color faded to the East, it started to pick back up to the West, and I had a lot of great color in the sky to play with.

Vibrant Viaduct

Something that I am always seeming to photograph when I visit Rough Ridge is the Linn Cove Viaduct which is visible from many portions of the trail.  With the 70-200mm lens, I can just about reach out and touch it.  With the colors that were developing in the Western sky, I was able to photograph the Viaduct in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.  I was actually getting sunlight on the side of the mountain and the warm light was doing really cool things with the clouds above.  As I worked this unique situation I noticed that there was another element that was working its way into the frames.  There was a thin cloud coming between me and the Viaduct, and as it reached the frame it provided a really nice layer of fog to the image.

The Viaduct wasn’t the only part of the landscape that was looking really nice.  The sky to the East was actually starting to erupt in color again and since the sun was partially hidden, the exposure looked very workable without any filters.  I trained the camera back around and framed up a shot at 70mm that included part of the boardwalk as well as the sky above.

Tanawha Tales

My main purpose in this shot was to get the sky, but I wanted something interesting in the foreground to anchor the image.  Not wanting to lose the light, I shot it with the long lens and made due the best that I could.  As it turned out, the little hint of the boardwalk and the rock made for a great foreground, and didn’t weigh in too heavily at all in the composition.  The colors in the sky were great, and the low clouds across the mountains in the distance really added the depth to the image that I needed.  There was still the slight haze from the passing clouds which gave the image a dreamlike quality that I really liked.

With all of this back and forth, I was starting to become overwhelmed at the list of potential subjects.  As I was finishing up the shot over the Tanawha Trail, I happened to look back to my right and saw something that I can only describe as amazing.  While the sky above was starting to settle into the normal hues, there was a large bank of clouds that was on the way across the mountains that was bathed in an orange and pink hue from the sun.  I’m not quite sure how that happened, but it was just too cool for words.

I decided that was going to be my next shot.  I just had no idea how to capture it.  I was still shooting with my long lens and I was able to get a few shots of the clouds, but nothing that I really liked.  I decided that I would try a panorama of it.  I flipped the camera on its side, and leveled the tripod.  I made a quick sweep to confirm that the camera was going to be level the entire trip across the image.  I set my focus and exposure and shot a six frame series that I later merged in Lightroom.

Blue Ridge on Fire

This panorama isn’t one of my best ones.  It lacks the prior planning that most of them really need.  It is a great documentation of of the cloud that I saw which was just so freaking amazing though.  The clouds above and below this one bank of clouds were all pretty much normal hues by this point, but this one cloud was like watching a flame move across the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It was just incredible, and I’m glad that I thought to make this a panorama shot since swapping lenses would have allowed the light to be lost more than likely.

A Ginger Sky

When I got done shooting the panorama, I went back to shooting single frame images of the cloud in an attempt to capture the unique look of this situation.  I followed it all along its path until it was pretty well hidden by the peak to the East of the trail.  As the cloud moved on, I could see that most of the color was now gone in the sky except for a small area to the South.  I could see some remaining color in some of the clouds above the mountains and figured that I would give them a shot as well.  They were far enough away that the long lens was a fine choice to capture them.

Feeling Peachy

The composition here was a simple one.  I was focusing on the low clouds in the valley below and using the clouds as a framing element and pretty much the only color in the image.  I thought about doing this as a monochrome image, but that hint of warmth really helps the clouds stand out from the valleys.  After shooting this image, I was starting to see the blues really coming into play in the sky, so I decided to swap out my lenses one last time.  I put the 16-35mm back on and added a 2-Stop Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell hard edge ND-Grad filter to the front.  This was going to take the place of a polarizer since I didn’t want to cause uneven blues in the sky which is a risk using a polarizer.  This would also allow me more flexibility in darkening the sky regardless of my angle to the sun.

Sun Drops

When I got the camera all put back together and ready to shoot I noticed that there was another bank of clouds moving across the valley that looked very similar to the earlier ones.  These were a good deal lighter since the sun was still climbing in the sky, but the color was still there.  The ND-Grad did an excellent job at bringing that color out by avoiding overexposure.  I shot about four frames with this concept, but slightly different compositions.  This was the one where the color showed the best, and the composition felt slightly better than the other ones as well.  Honestly, this was the first image that I shot from the morning that I really felt good about.

The funny thing was, I thought that I had shot about 45 frames during the sunrise.  As it turned out, I had shot 79 frames in about an hour and a half’s time.  My how time flies when you are having fun!!  It was time to move on to other things though.  I went ahead and packed up the camera and started moving my way back down the trail to the truck.  When I got there, I could see that the clouds were mostly clearing out at this point.  It was also that strange time of day after the golden hour when the sky is just white.  I wasn’t looking to do much in the way of landscapes at this point until the sky got better again.

What I decided on was taking a little drive to a road that I had seen on the map earlier.  It was Roseboro Rd, and it was just a little beyond the Viaduct.  I had spotted this on the map because it looked like a good secondary road to find some old barns on.  When I found it and turned, I found that it was a typical gravel mountain road.  Oh well, I needed to spin the 4WD for a few miles this month anyway, I dropped into 4Hi and continued on down the road.

Roseboro Falls

In an interesting turn of fate, I didn’t find a single barn that I wanted to photograph on this road, but I did find a waterfall that to my knowledge is unnamed, and possibly only here during high rainfall times.  Conveniently, there was a pull out on the side of the road a short distance from the waterfall which leads me to believe that this waterfall is a fairly typical feature.  At any rate, I grabbed the camera and loaded the 24-70mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.

With this waterfall right off of the road, my compositions were limited.  I tried some isolations, but the moving vegetation proved too distracting for the isolations to work.  By capturing more of the falls, I was able to minimize the motion blur issues to a point.  The composition that I settled on was one that actually included the sky peeking through the trees above the waterfall.  I was worried about the exposure, but my histogram was telling me that I wasn’t blowing out too many pixels by shooting this composition.  It actually was a pleasing shot of this odd waterfall stuck on the side of the road.

I didn’t have long to work with this waterfall though.  Remember how I said there were no clouds in the sky after I finished up at Rough Ridge?  Well, the sun was now starting to shine through the trees and it was hitting the waterfall in a splotchy fashion.  After maybe 15 minutes, I packed up the camera  and continued down the road in search of a barn.  I did find one, but the lighting was no good for it, and the setting was a little bland as well.  I passed on the chance to do anything with it.

Keep it Together

I did my normal get lost thing in hopes of finding a good barn to photograph.  As luck would have it, I didn’t run into anything promising before finding my way back to Hwy 221 and eventually the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I started my way North hoping to find a few things to shoot before getting on the road home.  As I was passing through Julian Price Park, I happened to notice that there were some clouds moving into view over a field that I enjoy shooting near the red barn that is so famous.  I went ahead and pulled off on the side of the road and grabbed the camera.  For this situation, I wanted my 24-70mm lens so that I could shoot up close and wide angles as well.  I added my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer as well to really help the clouds to pop against the blue sky.  Since I was going to be shooting roughly ninety degrees to the sun, the polarizer was going to work very well.

Summertime Blues

As I was shooting, the clouds were getting thicker and thicker.  I was so glad that I stopped since I really like having these kinds of clouds in my photos.  It just adds so much life to the image.  I was shooting composition after composition.  I slowed long enough to let traffic pass by when I was shooting from across the street.  I did have the opportunity to watch about a dozen cyclists ride through the area which made me remember the several rides I had done on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I knew the struggles that they were involved in, and I kind of missed it…But, I had pictures that I needed to be working on, so I got my mind back in the moment and worked on more compositions.

Split Rail Dreams

For longer than I can remember, I have enjoyed photographing this one lone tree in the field.  That is usually the reason that I stop here when I do.  Something else that I really enjoy doing is photographing the fences along the Parkway.  While I was setting up shots I decided that I would probably do well to include both of these subjects in a composition.  I flipped the camera on its side and framed up a composition that had good visual balance, and took full advantage of the fence as a visual anchor.  The clouds were really starting to come in nicely by this point, and I was having a lot of fun picking out views to put under the clouds as they appeared.

Time Well Wasted

I wasn’t going to let this great fence get away from me.  The overgrown weeds really created the perfect story for this fence, and I found a section that was very easy to isolate.  I managed to work compositions in both vertical and horizontal orientations to go along with the tree in the background.  The textures and colors really stood out, but that was what I was really liking about this fence and the field where it was standing.  The greens of the weeds and grasses complimented the yellowing sections quite well.  The bleached wood of the fence maintained its own visual weight despite being largely consumed by the vegetation.  But was color really all that necessary for these images?

Monochrome Malaise

I wanted to find out, and actually set up a shot as a black and white image.  What made this one different from the others in the series was the sky.  There was a section of blue that was completely surrounded by clouds.  This was the perfect scenario for a black and white conversion since I like to render my blue skies as dark grey.  By putting a single post in the bottom right third, I was able to visually anchor the image.  I shot it in color, but I had full intention of making this one monochrome when it came time to edit it.  After I did the conversion, I could see that my previsualization worked just fine for this image.  It all came together so nicely as a black and white image.  The clouds popped, and the textures of the weeds and wood really stood out with the color stripped from the image.

Mountain Motorway

What’s a day on the Blue Ridge Parkway without actually shooting the road itself.  Well, I admit that is a new thing I’m doing these days.  Years ago, I would occasionally shoot the roadway, but here in the last year or so, I have found that some of my favorite Parkway images actually include the road.  The sweeping turns really do make fantastic leading lines for a sense of depth to the image.  Of course, the fences that line the Parkway make for some outstanding complimenting elements as well.

Melancholy Barn

As luck would have it, the sky that was pretty much void of clouds an hour ago, was now getting overloaded with clouds.  Those clouds were bringing some rain as well.  It wasn’t enough that I was having problems shooting, but it was enough to get me thinking about packing up and going down the road to see what else I could find.  Before packing up the camera though, I wanted to try shooting the barn once again.  I’ve shot this thing in pretty much all seasons and in all conditions.  There wasn’t anything overly special about it today though.  The lighting was flat by this point, and there was a bit of cloud interest above.  The only thing that really stood out was the barn itself.

I decided to include the fence in my composition as a leading line and a bit of foreground interest.  I really wasn’t all that excited about how the picture was coming together, but pressed on regardless.  When I got home and started to process it, I wanted to include it in my day’s collection, but it just wasn’t really speaking to me.  The barn wasn’t standing out at all in the field when I did my normal edit on the image.  I started to think about what I could do to really make it pop and decided that by reducing the vibrancy of the image I could dial in the saturation on the red siding and really get it come together as an image.  When I was done, I was actually rather impressed with how it came out.  While not an award winning picture, it does capture the essence of how I saw the barn at the time of capture.  There is enough blue to balance out the red, and the green is rendered almost neutral with this edit keeping the attention in the image where it needs to be.


I did move on down the road and ended up a little ways further up the Parkway near the Thunder Hill Overlook.  This is one of my perennial favorites for sunrise, but I have shot here at all different times of day.  As I came around the corner, I noticed that the clouds were looking pretty good here and decided to pull off to the side of the road.  I went ahead and fitted my 16-35mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer since I was planning on shooting at an angle to the sun.

I started out working some compositions of a section right next to the MST, but wasn’t really liking how the lighting was working out.  I decided that while I was waiting for the lighting to chance, I would go ahead and shoot the Parkway headed towards the main overlook.  I used the Parkway as a nice swooping leading line cradling the fenced field, and ultimately sending your eyes to the mountains range in the distance.  To be completely transparent about this image, I have flipped it left to right to allow the eyes to read it better.  I don’t really count this as image manipulation as it doesn’t change the content, only the direction.

High Country Clouds

While I was shooting the road I noticed that the behind me, the clouds were really looking crazy beautiful.  I changed my position and framed up another image that took full advantage of the clouds.  I used the Parkway once again to be the leading line which carries the eyes through the frame.  These clouds really didn’t need much help, but I liked effect the road added.  Again, when I was processing it, I decided to flip the image left to right to improve readability since our eyes are designed to enter a page on the left and carry through to the right.

Dreaming in Color

With the clouds really coming to life, I decided that it would be a good idea to try my original shot once again.  The clouds really made the image completely different from what it had looked like previously.  The lighting was a little better on the landscape as well.  It turned out that this final image was the one that I ended up being the most happy with.  Shortly after this shot, the sky turned mostly overcast as had happened down the road.  It was time to load up and head back to the house since it was about to be noon.

I got everything packed away and I started heading North once again looking for 421.  As luck would have it though, I passed by one of my favorite locations and the lighting looked really good.  Yeah, I had to get turned around to give it a try once again.  This is another location I have shot in pretty much all seasons and in all types of lighting.  Some I have liked better than others, so there was no reason not to give this a try again today.

Dreaming Field

The clouds were looking great overhead so I wanted to make sure I was going to be able to capture a good chunk of the sky.  I went ahead and fitted my 16-35mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  I started to work my way up and down the road in an attempt to find the right spot.  The weeds growing at the fence made for a very difficult time getting the right composition.  There were only a few places that I could shoot from without getting tall weeds in the frame.  Fortunately, the clouds lasted a good bit of time and allowed me to get several different variations on this image.

At the end of this series of shots I really did call it a day.  I went home with a total of 193 new frames shot.  I was really thinking I had done more like 130 or so.  I really am having a hard time estimating my shutter clicks on these treks.  It took me about five hours to cull the images and then edit the remaining 33 images.  When it was all said and done, I had found 21 images that I liked enough to keep in my collection.  The rest of them went out with yesterday’s trash.

Since it is so late already, I will be waiting until tomorrow to figure out which images are going in the gallery, and to start posting to social media.  At least the biggest parts of the Trek are done.  I have been going strong since 3am this morning.  I have put in 20 hours or work, driven over 250 miles, and still have a bit more to do tomorrow.  The life of an artist, it is a labor of love.