The Other Side of the Linville Gorge

· Reading Time: 25 minutes

Friday, September 27, 2019

I was in the middle of a two and a half minute exposure right here.  I had hoped for a great sunrise and had seen the clouds develop into what I was sure would be just what I was looking for.  I had already made several exposures at this point, but had overexposed the images slightly and was trying it again.  The light was changing so quickly that I was guessing at the length of the exposure more than anything.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do because the clouds were moving enough to where I was wanting to show the movement, but the light was to the point where I was only able to go for about 20 seconds.  For this shot, I had added a Singh-Ray Mor Slo 5-stop ND Filter to try and slow the exposure down just a little bit.  I was going to have to wait a total of 150 seconds to find out if I had it right or not.  The really bad part was, after that 150 seconds, the light would change again and I would lose the color that I was seeing above me, and possibly the shot.  I only had this one last chance to capture the image that I had been thinking about.

So, how did this day begin?  Well, it started kind of like most of my mountain treks.  I was sitting there minding my own business and looking at the weather reports on Thursday afternoon.  There was a decent chance of some high clouds in the morning which should mean a great sunrise to follow.  I just had to figure out a location to put under those clouds.  A place that I have been wanting to go is Wiseman’s View at the Linville Gorge.  I went there a couple of years ago for the first time and really enjoyed the view.  Having just recently been to Hawksbill and had such tremendous luck, I decided that I should go ahead and try Wiseman’s this time out.  It was about two and a half hours away from home which meant an early start to the day.  I knew that the hike to the overlooks was a short walk of just a few minutes, so that was insignificant.  I still wanted to get there early enough to capture blue hour if it showed up with decent colors in the sky.  The plan was to leave by 4am and be there around 6:30, with everything in place by 6:45.

The alarm went off at 3am and I was surprisingly awake considering the hour.  However, I don’t think that I was totally awake because I got my phone and looked at the weather.  The clouds were all gone for the morning, and I almost rolled back over and went to sleep. Then I realized that I was still on the default location on the Clear Outside App which was home.  I went back in to look at the Linville Gorge area and found that the high clouds were still supposed to happen.  I checked with the sunrise forecaster and saw that there wasn’t much color expected.  This hasn’t been all that accurate lately, so I went with my gut and the fact that there were some high clouds expected over the area through the morning.  I went ahead and got up and got myself ready to head West.  I was actually ready to leave out at 3:30 which was all the better.  Nothing like a little extra time for a sunrise shoot to make sure you have the right location and composition before the magic happens.

The trip to the Gorge was uneventful and it went by surprisingly fast thanks to a great series of songs on iHeartRadio.  Normally, by the time I start the climb up Hwy 181 I am getting seriously drowsy.  That wasn’t the case at all, and I was getting more and more excited about my second visit to Wiseman’s View.  Part of the excitement is the time I get to ride on Old 105.  It is a nice forest service road with some rough areas and some interesting ridges that keep a driver’s attention.  I really enjoy this road in the 4Runner and to do it in the dark is extra fun for me.  There is something very spooky about this road before the sun comes up and I just love it.

After driving through some of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, I came to the Wiseman’s View Overlook and noticed that there were no other cars in the parking lot.  This is one of the best things about being able to do these trips during the week.  Most folks are still at work which means more of the open areas for me to enjoy and be able to photograph till my heart’s content.  I got out of the truck and realized just how dark it was out there with no lights anywhere.  The sun was still about an hour away from rising, so there was nothing there to provide any light at all.  I went around to the back of the truck and blinded myself with the hatch lights as I got my Lowepro Whistler bag and Manfrotto Tripod from the back.  I used my LED flashlight to light the way down the short trail to the twin overlooks.

When I got there, the view was looking nice with the sky to the East starting to light up over Hawksbill and Table Rock.  I quickly looked at the two overlooks and decided that the view was better from the one to the left, but I also noticed that a tree had been cut down at the other one which was great news for a composition I was planning on once the sun actually came up.  With the first location chosen, I went back to the left overlook and started to work out a composition.  I had come prepared with my Maglite in case I wanted to do some light painting of the overlook and stairs leading to it.  When I started to look at the scene, there was going to be too much negative area between the overlook and the ridges in the distance.  It just wasn’t going to work the way I wanted it to.  I ended up getting right on the edge of the overlook and leveling my tripod.

My first attempt at a composition was made with my 70-200mm lens attached, but that just didn’t give me the open feeling that I was wanting.  I ended up with a single exposure of Table Rock with this setup before deciding that it just wasn’t going to work out.  I swapped over to my standard 24-70mm lens which allowed more of the sky to be included in the composition.  This was working out nicely.  It was still dark enough that I was in bulb mode, shooting exposures in the 2-4 minute lengths.  The clouds were looking great streaked, but I was having a hard time nailing the exposure since the sky was getting brighter at a very quick pace.  I ended up blowing about three exposures, so that was about 12 minutes worth of sky that I was missing.  The color that was showing in the sky was starting to fade a little bit which got me very worried about the sunrise potential.  Most important at the time was the fact that with each missed exposure I was blowing my chances to get the sky captured like I was wanting.  As a last ditch effort, I switched back over to manual mode and dialed in an exposure based on the histogram and a 30 second shot.  I then did some math so that I could add on a Singh-Ray Mor Slo 5-stop ND Filter to get me back in the several minute range that I had been working with previously.  It was my last option to get a long exposure as the sun was getting very close to the horizon.

While I was waiting on the 150 seconds to click away, I shot the opening image with my cell phone to document what I was sure would be my last attempt at this composition.  I had blown the last several exposures and my luck was not looking promising.  At 150 seconds, I killed the exposure and waited for the camera to write the RAW file to the memory card.  It seemed to last for minutes before the image popped up on the LCD review.  I was seeing that the color was no leaving the sky and I was waiting on that last chance image from the morning.  Would it work?  Had I missed it again?

Under a Technicolor Sky“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Mor Slo 5-stop ND Filter, 150 second exposure

Then the LCD came to life and the first thing that I noticed was nothing was overexposed.  I had nailed the exposure for the first time this morning.  It was also the time that counted.  I could see hints of color in the very flat rendition on the back of the camera and I was pretty sure that I had the image that I wanted.  I could finally breathe now.  It was going to be a matter of getting it home and processing it to see if the image worked on all fronts.  I knew the exposure was right at least.  I was pretty sure that the 150 seconds had blurred the clouds the way that I wanted.  I even had a composition that included enough of the sky above to show the blue hues which I love to include in my sunrise images.  The distant mountains beyond Table Rock were showing up which would help with the depth of the image.  I was cautiously optimistic about this image because I love how the sky looks during the blue hour and I was thinking that I had just caught that right moment.

I wasn’t quite confident enough to pack up and go home just yet, plus there was still a sunrise to see.  With the colors above Table Rock fading, I decided to go back to an earlier composition on Hawksbill to the left.  I swapped my 70-200mm lens back on for this next composition as I wanted to really emphasize the shape of the mountain and hopefully get the rocky outcroppings to be a bit of interest on the side of the mountain.  I gave passing thought to leaving the Mor Slo filter on, but decided that I didn’t really need the streaked clouds at this point.  They were actually settling down a little bit and would have appeared much less dramatic in motion.  I just worked on a straight exposure with no filters added for this shot.

Hawksbill at Dawn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

One of the tricks with sunrises that I like using is if the sky is showing little interest, you can grab the color that sits right at the horizon with a telephoto lens.  That was what I did here.  The color that I was wanting was very isolated in the sky just above Hawksbill.  Since the sun was actually starting to crest the horizon just to the right, I didn’t want to try and include that for this composition so cropping in close with the telephoto lens was very much a benefit to the shot.  I didn’t use any ND Grads for this image since that would put Hawksbill in total shadows.  I wanted there to be just a little bit of detail on the face of the mountain, but that was it.  The main part of the story here was the sky and the clouds.  It was a simple exposure with nothing coming out overexposed.  I only shot two different versions of this shot before deciding that it was time to head over to my second composition for the morning which was going to rely on the sun hitting the side of the gorge where I was at.

I moved back over to that side and got an idea what composition I wanted.  I knew that I wanted to have the railings and overlook as a foreground element with Table Rock on the upper left of the composition.  Since the tree was gone, that composition got much less difficult to work out.  Because of that, I decided to just go for broke and fit my wide angle 16-35mm lens to the camera.  I immediately added my Lee Filter Foundation Kit because I knew that there would be filters for this shot.  I added a Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND grad to control the exposure in the sky and allow for a bit more light on the overlook which was a key element in this composition.  Doing a bracketed HDR series wasn’t really going to be an option here because the wind was getting a little problematic and I knew that the light would be changing very quickly depending on how the clouds were moving around the sun.  I was going to need this to be a single exposure.

Looking at the scene, I couldn’t help but notice that the clouds were getting very thin in this direction.  I needed the interest in the sky, so I thought it might be a good idea to put a polarizer on.  After I got it screwed onto the 105mm adapter ring, I realized the error of my ways.  There are times that I forget the basics and this was one of those times.  I was getting ready to use a polarizer with a scene that included a great amount of blue sky at nearly 90 degrees to the rising sun.  That was all a good thing, but I was forgetting I was shooting at 21mm which would cause some very strange effects in the sky due to uneven polarization effects.  Essentially, I would have varying degrees of saturation in the sky and it would look very strange.  I removed the polarizer and just hoped that the ND Grad would bring enough contrast to the scene.

It was around this time that another photographer decided to join me.  As he came onto the overlooks he was a little upset that he has missed the sunrise.  I ensured him that the good light wasn’t finished yet.  I went on to explain the shot that I was working on and he listened intently as he was starting to get his own gear ready.  He asked if I minded if he flew a drone which that didn’t bother me at all.  As I was fiddling with that Polarizer which wasn’t applicable to my composition I realized that he was setting up some of his equipment down on the overlook I had been set up to shoot.  Hmmm, he asked if I minded if he flew a drone, but never mentioned that he was going to be a cameo in my shot.

Now, I know that I don’t own the landscape and that my needs are no more important than anyone else’s but I genuinely had a problem with how this was going down.  I had been there first and had gone through the trouble to let him know what I was shooting.  He then proceeded to introduce himself right in the shot.  I wasn’t sure quite how to deal with this, but I did know that I had a little bit of time before the light was right so I figured I would let him do what he was going to do until I needed the venue cleared.  It was only fair.  I moved my attention to the sun that was rising from the saddle between the two main peaks.  I got a few exposures of that with my 70-200mm lens which I had to put on after getting everything set with the wide angle lens.  I occupied myself for about 10 minutes while the other photographer did some things down at the overlook.

As the sun started to get above the clouds and I could see that the light was about to change, I went ahead and swapped back to my original combination of gear and recomposed.  Seeing that I had the composition and the light was coming into its own, I asked the other photographer if he would mind moving long enough for me to grab a couple of shots.  Fortunately that wasn’t an issue for him and he gathered his project and moved to the other overlook where he started to set up a time lapse series.  I now had the overlook and the composition all to myself once again.  I started making exposures as the sun was rising. I was fighting against the wind which was coming in with noticeable gusts.  I got very proficient at timing my exposures when the wind would die down since I had several bushes in my composition which I wanted to be steady.  There were times that I boosted the ISO to 400 to speed up the shutter, but when that wasn’t needed, I dropped it back down to 100.

Morning Glory“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L MK2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

The lighting was changing quite a bit and I was noticing a haze in the gorge that the sun was starting to make glow.  It reduced the contrast of the scene and at first I actually didn’t care for it.  However, as I was seeing it unfold, I was thinking about some of the images that Thomas Heaton has been doing recently where he would introduce a bit of lens flare into the image to indicate where the sun was at.  What I was seeing developing before my eyes was that very effect.  I decided to grab some exposures with that illuminated haze below and see how it turned out.  As the sun got higher in the sky, the haze became less of an issue and the clouds started to shift allowing for some more interest in the sky.  I continued shooting with the hopes that something would work out.  I wanted to get an interesting sky, but more importantly, I needed to get that early morning warm sunlight on the overlook and railing.  For me, that was the success or failure of the image.

When I got home, I ended up selecting two different exposures from this location which I liked.  In one, the sky had some good character to it with a few dens clouds.  There was a bit of lighting contrast in the gorge, but the light was very faint on the overlook and the vegetation around the overlook wasn’t all that interesting with the very soft light.  The other one, had that outstanding light on the overlook that I wanted which also bled over to the vegetation.  The lighting in the gorge wasn’t as dramatic, nor was the sky.  However, there was that haze that the sun was hitting to the left of the frame which showed the position of the sun relative to the scene.  This one had a good deal of drama and as I started to process it, I thought that this one was hands down the best exposure out of the series that I had shot from this location.  It had been worth the time invested and having to ask the other photographer to give me a minute to shoot it.

With that one done, I started to look for other compositions to shoot before leaving.  I found a few, but none of them excited me and when I got home none of them struck me as particularly good.  I ended up trashing those, as well as the ones I took while killing time between my main two locations.  I’m getting much more harsh with my own critique process and I’m really trying to only work on the best of the best images that I am shooting.  This is probably the hardest part of being a photographer, and it can be rough shooting 115 images and only keeping a few of them.  However, that is how we put our best foot forward with those who view our images.  I was thinking by this stage in the morning that I had all of two images that I would keep.  For driving roughly 5 hours, that wouldn’t seem worth it to most, but I was ok with it.  The light was fading and I wasn’t seeing much else that I wanted to shoot so I figured it was time to call it a day and go exploring a little bit.

I packed up my gear and started the short hike back to the truck.  I passed by the other photographer who had just landed his drone.  He shared that it was just too windy to fly it right now.  I could see that.  The gusts were pretty powerful where I had been standing.  I bid him a good day and started on my way down the trail.  Of course, while I was walking, I was looking.  I didn’t really expect to find anything as the light wasn’t all that great, and the greens were getting a little dry in their appearance.  However, I did pass by a single large tree that was framed by a very large root that was going right across the base of the tree.  The backlit greens of the woodland behind it contrasted nicely with the fallen brown leaves in the foreground.  It wasn’t a spectacular scene, but it was interesting enough for me to pull my camera out once again to see if I could get a shot.

Woodland TexturesCanon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I studied the scene and decided that I would get in close to emphasize the root in the foreground while staying positioned in a way that allowed me to keep the sky out of the frame as it was looking pure white above.  I figured for my needs my standard lens would work because what I was seeing with my eyes was actually working quite well.  I added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to keep the glare down and really bring out the colors of the brown leaves.  I just had to get the composition right by carefully placing the tripod and elevating the camera just right.  I wanted to keep separation between the root and the tree but having there be a relationship between the two elements.  My second concern was how much detail to provide in the background.  I wanted to keep the texture in the leaves to the rear, but didn’t need them super sharp. I found a few thin trees to help provide a natural frame, and then decided on my aspect ratio.  I had tried this as a horizontal shot originally, but really didn’t like the negative space to the right side.  I then flipped it to a vertical which would have worked better except that the sky was included unless I really elevated the tripod beyond what the perspective would work with.  I then selected a 1:1 crop in camera to see what a square composition would look like.  That did it.  I was even able to go a little wider with the square crop and that really suited the image I thought.  Shooting at f/5.6 softened the background just enough, but I could have gone a little softer in hindsight.  At 44mm depth of field is pretty wide on its own.  I still like how this one turned out and I expect to see it in the gallery as one of my portfolio images.

Funny thing happened at this point.  That other photographer was on his way out of the park and passed me by.  We spoke quickly about the shot that I was getting, and jokingly to myself I thought that he was probably getting ready to jump into my scene and sit on the root.  I laughed at the thought in my head just as he said “don’t worry, I won’t copycat your shot” and he continued on down the trail.  I would have worried far less about that, or the drone for that matter than him stepping right into a composition that I had set up as he did before.  He was very polite and considerate on all things related to running into other photographers except for that minor thing of photo-bombing another composition.  Very odd indeed.  But I had gotten my shots for the day.  I was pretty happy with how the morning had gone and was expecting to have about three images at this point.

I got back into the truck and started back out to the forest service road.  When I got there, I remembered that Paddy’s Creek Falls was out this way a bit further down Old 105 and I had never been there before. The clouds were covering the sun nicely at this point and I thought that I could very possibly make a good waterfall picture with the current lighting.  It looked like I was relatively close to the waterfall from the map so I turned to the left and continued down the access road.  I’ll have to say it was a lot of fun doing this back country driving in the 4Runner and I was enjoying hearing the suspension work over the rough road.  This was what the truck was designed to do, and it was doing it well.

Eventually, I got enough signal to the phone to have it tell me how far I was from the waterfall.  I was still about 9 miles out and it would appear that it was 9 more miles of the rough road I was on.  Saweet!  I continued on trying to figure out how I was going to shoot the waterfall as I had seen some pictures of it before.  The more I drove, the more I was seeing the sun though.  When I got into the town of Paddys Creek the sun was out much too harsh for waterfall work.  Instead of spending time scoping out a waterfall I couldn’t shoot, I decided to head out to Hwy 221 near Lake James where I had seen some old cars a while back.  I didn’t remember what they looked like, but I had it saved in my map and since I was only about 30 minutes away it was worth the drive out there.

Along the way, I was looking out for “targets of opportunity” that struck my eye.  There were a few barns that were nice looking, but the light wasn’t right for them, and it didn’t appear that it would improve any time soon.  However, as I was driving through the area of Lake James a church caught my eye on a side road.  It was a stone front church with the morning sun hitting it just so softly.  More importantly though, there was a very tall tree sitting right next to the church that added a very dramatic vertical element to the scene.  The light was great and the sky above had just enough interest with some textured clouds.  It was worth getting turned around to see if I could capture the image that my mind had just come up with.

Rising Up“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I pulled into the parking lot and started to look at the church a bit closer.  There was a side section that I had not seen before which kind of killed my concept for a composition, but as I looked closer, it was in the shadows for the most part which would make it much less visible in the image.  I still liked how it looked so I got out and grabbed my gear.  I knew I wanted to go relatively wide for this shot, but not so much as to make the church look all wonky.  I needed to pay particular attention to the limbs of the tree since they were very close to conforming to the shape of the roof of the church.  In order to give them separation from the church, I was going to have to get very low to the ground and shoot under the tree in effect.  With all of these elements in mind, I chose my 24-70mm lens which would get me wide enough without distorting the church.  I positioned my Manfrotto Tripod as low as I could without having to reposition my enter column which gave me just the right altitude to get up under the limbs.  I flipped the camera on its side using the RRS L Plate to attach it to the Acratech GP-SS ballhead.  The sun was over my right shoulder so I wasn’t sure if the polarizer would work in this situation, but I really wanted to remove glare from the glass and add a little contrast to the sky.

I pulled out my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to see if I could tell a difference.  I looked through the back end of the filter because they are directional  in how they work and twisted it in my hand.  I could see a slight difference in the contrasts in the sky, but not much.  It was enough to convince me to use the polarizer which I screwed onto the Lee Foundation Kit with the accessory ring.  I had the composition set and now I was able to dial in the exposure.  I started to twist the polarizer but couldn’t tell a difference in either the viewfinder or the LCD on the back of the camera.  That wasn’t a problem since I knew how to use my histogram to check the effect of the filter.  I just watched the histogram as I turned the filter.  As the pixels shifted slightly to the left, I knew where maximum polarization was happening.  That was where I locked it down and set the exposure for the scene.  Now it was all about waiting for the breeze to die down so that the leaves would be still enough not to blur.  It didn’t take long and I had my exposure.  I repeated the process a few times to make sure I had a perfectly still tree and that the sky was interesting where it needed to be.

The image that turned out to be the keeper from the series had a blue patch of sky right where the steeple was which I thought helped to provide some color contrast to help draw attention to the steeple.  I really liked the tall aspect of the tree which was why I had shot it vertical, but looking at the RAW image, the tree held too much weight in the scene.  I had figured there would be a slight crop to the aspect ratio of the image so that didn’t bother me.  Before I did that though, I did a little perspective distortion control.  Since I was shooting at 31mm there was a bit of distortion to the church that I could deal with easy enough in Lightroom.  After I had the verticals under control, I then cropped it to a 5:7 aspect ratio which balanced the image very well I thought.  I had told Toni that this subject would either work really well, or I would trash the whole series.  I was excited that it worked out really well.  In fact, it was exactly what I had envisioned when I had driven past it.

From the church, I continued on to check out the old cars I had noted in my map last year.  When I got there, I remembered the scene well and I had seen it during a very foggy morning.  Since then, the cars had been stripped bare and were no longer photogenic for my needs and tastes.  It was all for the best though as the sky was clearing and the sun was getting very bright.  A good rule of thumb is that when you have to wear sun glasses, the photo opportunities will be very limited.  I was missing Toni who had opted to stay home, so I decided to head East and get home around 1pm.  It had been a full morning and I was very glad that I had come out today.  I wasn’t looking at a lot of pictures, although I had shot 113 frames by the end of the church.  I was expecting only four of them to turn out good enough to be keepers with the rest of them waiting on the light to change and capturing the different variations along the way.  I actually ended up with the four that I was hoping to get which I was thrilled with, and then had the one additional one of Hawksbill just before the sunrise.  That was my bonus.  It won’t make it into the gallery, but I like it enough to share here and on social media.  It really had been a great morning!

Thank you for joining me on this little adventure.  I hope that you are enjoying the images as much as I am.  Remember, if any of them strike you on a personal level, I would love to help bring a print into your home or office.  There is no greater satisfaction for a photographer than to have somebody want to display their work for all to see.  Also, be sure to visit the retailers below for your equipment needs as you supporting them helps me out at no extra cost to you.
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