Saturday, August 17, 2019
It would seem that my photography has been all over the place lately. I have been shooting cityscapes, abstracts, blue hour scenes, rural, decay, trains, and a few landscapes over the past month or so. I’ve been in a little bit of an artistic growth spurt you might say. I’ve been broadening my horizons and stretching my skills a little bit. It really has been a lot of fun and I’ve opened myself up to a number of new subjects that I am more and more excited to photograph. At the end of the day though, all of these types of photography come down to the basic discipline of “landscape photography” which was where I really got my start. There is just something beautiful about capturing the rhythm of nature and finding order in the randomness of it all. I think that by working on all of these other forms of landscape photography, I have started to hone my eye a bit more when it comes to picking out compositions that work. At least that is how I am feeling about my newer work. You might disagree and be scratching your head at what you are seeing wondering what has happened to my signature style.
That is always part of growth, and it is a risk that I am willing to take. The worst thing that I can do as a photographer is to stagnate with a single style or subject. Growth is necessary, but so is returning to your roots occasionally. That was the goal for this particular trek. There wasn’t going to be anything flashy about this one. It was just going to be honest to goodness landscapes in the mountains, just like old times. Well, kind of like old times. I have some new tricks up my sleeve after doing a good bit of learning recently. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to photograph, so I kind of just let the weather dictate what and where I went. With some storms rolling through on Saturday afternoon, I knew that the chances for dramatic skies would be pretty good as the front moved out. It was looking like the last hour or so of daylight would be the most interesting time to be out which was a great time for a photographer to be engaged in capturing the landscape.
Looking at the weather in the mountains, the best clouds were probably going to be in the area of Boone, to Traphill to the North. The clouds would be medium and high with a moderate level of coverage. Of course with a front moving out of the area, it was going to be a toss up as to how long the good conditions would last and where exactly they would be found. The plan started to get formed that Toni and I would take a quick trip out to Doughton Park and spend some time around sunset and shortly after doing a few images with the clearing clouds. As the time got closer to head out, her plans changed and she ended up opting to spend time with her Aunt in Greensboro which left me on my own. My first thought was to ditch the trip since I had been hoping to go with her for the evening. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that she would be gone for a few hours and I might as well fill the time with something.
As the time approached for me to leave in order to get set up somewhere in advance of “golden hour”, I started to look for alternatives to my destination. I needed something that could take advantage of some sunlight if the clouds were cleared out by the time I got there. The only place I could really think of that interested me was The Lump Overlook which I have photographed a couple of times before. My most recent venture out there was with my last workshop group where Sherry was working on a composition that I hadn’t really considered before. As we worked together to tweak the elements I really started to like how it was looking. I made a mental note of the parts that I liked and decided to wait until another time to actually capture my own image. The conditions weren’t the best at this particular time with it being close to mid day.
When it actually became time to roll out to the mountains, the weather was clearing much faster than anticipated so I went ahead and made The Lump my primary destination with Doughton being a possibility for a secondary option. I was comfortable with that as I have only shot two compositions at The Lump that I have really liked and wanted to try some other things to round out the study. It was only about an hour and a half away so the drive wasn’t that long. With sunset happening at 8:12, I was thankful for the short trip as I was trying to get home and in bed pretty quick as I had another idea for Sunday Morning provided the fog was still in the forecast.
When I arrived at The Lump, there was a family already there and having a picnic on the tables. That was all I had to worry about which was a nice surprise as I was figuring there would be a lot of folks at this overlook at the end of the day on a weekend. I much prefer going to the mountains during the week, or for sunrise, but this wasn’t bad at all. I grabbed my gear and slung my Lowepro Whistler backpack over my shoulders while I carried my tripod. I started to scope out compositions along the fence and ultimately hiked up to the top of the ridge to see what was up there. The views were nice, but there was just not enough interest on the top of the ridge to have a successful composition. I worked my way back down wishing I had worn long pants to keep the brush off of my legs. When I got to the bottom, I could tell that the sun was still a little too high up to work the compositions that I had already picked out. I looked for something a little more workable in the existing light and found a section of the fence that was broken near a pair of trees.
I liked how the sun was hitting the side of the fence on the backside and how the tree was lit by the sun. The sky was also quite interesting beyond the tree. The problems that I had to deal with was the car that was parked just on the top of the hill in the overlook parking area. There was also a trash can along the side of the pavement that bothered me. I started to get creative with the compositions I could work and decided that a nice wide angle shot from down low, and close to the fence would get all the elements in the frame that I wanted, while either cropping out, or camouflaging the elements that I didn’t want in the scene. For this job, I was going to need my 16-35mm lens which would give me plenty of wide angle field of view for what I was thinking about. Normally with this lens, I don’t use a polarizer because it make for odd color shifts in the sky due to how polarizers work. However, in this case, there were enough clouds and the tree was also helping to reduce the problems associated with this phenomenon. My final compositional idea was also shooting vertical which reduced the expanse of sky. All of that made it possible to use my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to bring in a little contrast in the sky as well as boosting some of the colors in the scene.
I got everything dialed in and fired off about three variations on the composition until I was happy with what I had shot. Something that I wanted to make sure of was that the broken fence had some separation and showed up against the sky. My original one had it in line with the top of the ridge which reduced its importance in the scene. By dropping just a bit lower to the ground I was able to have that part of the fence hanging in the sky, unsupported which was part of the story I was trying to convey with this image. The van was still covered by the railing on the left edge of the frame, and the diagonal posts to the right of the break were covering up the trash can quite well.
Once I got done with this image, the sun was dropping just enough to start providing some warm light on the field of tall grass which was my main reason for picking this location after the clouds were clearing away. I moved back out towards the parking lot and found my composition which is the opening piece to this blog entry. I wanted a slightly different view of the minimalist composition that I had shot almost a year ago. I changed the angles a little bit, and gave the fence more importance to the image while still letting the trail meander up the hill to the horizon. I framed this in such a way that the slight clouds in the sky provided the visual balance to the double section of the fence in the bottom right. The fact that the clouds are in a natural dip to the landscape really worked well here. It wasn’t a spectacular image, but the rich colors helped to elevate it to a keeper.
I had kept the same wide angle lens on the camera for this shot, but had decided to strip off the polarizer since it would have given a very deep blue in the middle of the image while the edges would be much paler. This is one of those things that you have to keep in mind with a polarizer when shooting with a wide angle lens. It isn’t a problem from 35mm and tighter usually, but wider than 20mm which was where I was shooting at, it was a huge problem. In order to keep interest in the sky though, I opted to work with my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell ND Grads which I have in multiple strengths to help control the exposures. I would use both single filters as well as stacking them for some images to keep the sky in check. They kept me from having to shoot bracketed shots and blending later on which I don’t really like doing unless I really have no choice.
As the sun continued to drop I saw my opportunity to capture the composition that I had worked with Sherry on during my workshop. I moved the camera into position and carefully worked the focal length to where I wanted it which was a little wider than she had shot I believe. I framed the image so that the warm light was reflecting off of the fence which balanced very nicely with the tall grass which was almost golden in the evening light. By this point, there were some more cars in the parking lot so I was restricted in how far to the right I could capture. In fact, just on the right of the frame there are two different SUV’s sitting there. I don’t think I would have wanted to go any further over since the sun was actually still above the horizon at this stage and I think it would have made the exposure a little wonky had I included it.
I was really happy with how the composition was coming together here though. The fence was an odd one with the split end on it. I’m not sure the reasoning behind that design, but it made for a fantastic element leading down the fence. Thanks to the convergence of the fence and the trees at the right side of the frame, your eyes are actually pulled back in to go up the hill and back to the golden grass which was what I liked about the composition. I was initially disappointed by the lack of clouds in the sky, but when I got it home and started to process the image, I found that the deep blues were actually quite important to the image since so much of the tones were very warm. It gives a nice balance to the image and keeps it from looking artificially warmed with filters. The open feeling of the composition is also very nice when matched with the deep blue sky to the left. There is just so much breathing room in this image and it is one that can be looked at all day long I think. At least I could!
By this point, I was getting very reactive with my compositions. I was shooting where the light was, and where the people weren’t. The last groups that had arrived happened to be a family with a portrait photographer in tow. They were doing their own pictures which meant that we were both vying for the same light in many instances. The game would go like this, I would shoot where they weren’t , and when they moved from an area, that was usually when I would start shooting that portion of the overlook. I wasn’t feeling like a sniper though since my compositions had nothing to do with theirs. They were just usually in my compositions which wouldn’t work for my needs. Fortunately though, there were a lot of options to shoot while they were in locations I was interested in.
I spent a lot of time shooting the trail going up to the top of the ridge while the family was along the fence line. The light was nice on the grass and I loved the warm tones which made shooting this a lot of fun. While I was firing off compositions I never once considered making any of the images monochrome. The colors were just too good. However, when I got home, I started looking at the image above a little differently. Yeah, it had the colors I liked, but let’s face it, I had plenty of images to showcase the colors I had been seeing. This image was all about the trail and the grasses. That sky was also begging for some attention in post processing. I decided at the very beginning to convert this one to black and white to capitalize on those aspects. In no time at all, I was really liking how this was turning out. The grass in the foreground was tack sharp and the trail went through the image softening as it went. There really wasn’t much sharp detail in the distance as the grass blurred the lines anyway. The sky really benefited from losing the color and gaining some contrast. The trail actually blended into the clouds and brought your eyes completely through the image which was the intention when I shot it. Honestly, I don’t think that a color version would have been nearly as successful in that goal.
There are times that little additions in compositions make a huge difference. This image is basically the same as the one above, and they were shot at the same time. The difference is the camera placement and a matter of minutes between exposures. The fence becomes a prominent foreground element that helps to funnel the eyes into the frame with the trail being the likely pathway that the eyes will take. There is a lot more control over how you proceed through the image so it is no problem to have all of the colors present. In the monochrome image, there is less physical control, so I had to rely on the contrasts of the scene to dictate how the eyes went through the image.
These are all things that the photographer much keep in mind when crafting the image. There has to be a route that your eyes can track through the image. There needs to be points along that path that provide interest and something to rest your eyes on. The path is similar with the two images but the resting points are different and based on either color or texture. In the black and white image, you are treated with the textures of the grass and the structure of the clouds above. In the color image, those are less important, and you are drawn into the warm tones of the tall grass contrasted with the green grass in the foreground that matches with the trees to the left. The payoff is the colors in the clouds from the low sun to my right. They are two completely different images when looked at on a viewing level like this.
As I was wrapping up working with the setting sun, I started to consider some blue hour photography over to the East. The tones were nice and even over there and there was the hint of some color in the clouds above the rolling mountains. I decided to give it a few exposures to see if I could get anything out of the sky. I got the camera set up on the edge of the overlook where there was a slight clearing between the tall trees. There was no way I would get the wide angle lens to work this out, so I swapped it out for my telephoto 70-200mm that would allow me to get a nice tight composition on what excited me about the sky. Since the exposure was going to be really straightforward, there was no need for any filters to be used here. I just framed up a nice vertical shot that showed the section of the sky that I liked and fired off a few images with slightly different compositions. It didn’t take but a moment to get what I wanted from here before turning my attention to the last light as it was fading to the West.
The best color was above the parkway, so that became an easy shot to get. I just framed up on the curve in the road and went with a vertical composition to get the sky in the shot like I wanted it. Then I realized that there was a bit too much dynamic range to capture a clean image in one shot. I didn’t have enough time to get an ND Grad out and fitted on the lens, so I just went with a three shot bracket with a stop difference between exposures. I blended them in post as an HDR image and worked it from there. The result was very close to what I was actually seeing at the time. I changed the composition after the fact to a 1:1 square crop since the top part of the sky was actually not that exciting, and didn’t really need to be included.
This was the last shot that I took during my trek to the mountains. At this point, the light was falling off quickly and I wasn’t seeing anything else that I could successfully shoot during the blue hour. I went ahead and packed everything up and headed towards home. I did make a quick stop at my intended morning shoot location to make sure that the trains were still there. I was happy to see that while not all of them were there, I did have one that would be great to work with in the morning if the fog came in as planned. With that bit of information, I hurried home and got ready for bed so I could be up early the next day for a foggy railroad shoot.
Well, when morning came, the fog was out of the hourly forecast and it looked pretty crisp outside. With no real clouds expected, I decided that it wasn’t going to be the time for this particular subject. I would have to wait for another day to get my moody images of the trains. I like having goals, they keep me motivated, but now that I have these images previsualized , I will have a hard time going out to shoot anything else until I get the train captured. I hope that I can get it done soon so I can move on to different ideas and images.
For now, I will have to be happy with the 69 images that I captured in the mountains that actually resulted in seven keepers which was a lot more than I was hoping for after the session was over. I was actually worried that I wouldn’t have anything worth keeping after I was finished. Part of that was I was already thinking about the foggy trains which really had nothing at all to do with these sunset landscapes. I’ve noticed that once I direct my creative energies on something, I have a hard time focusing on something that doesn’t fall in that category. These images were all bright and happy (insert Bob Ross voice over) and were designed to put a smile on your face. On a subconscious level I was already working on a series of very moody images. Hopefully, I will be able to get those images captured in the near future and share my concept with you.
Until next time, thanks for joining me on a quick trip to the mountains!