Three Miles of the Parkway

· Reading Time: 27 minutes

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Let’s see, by my calculations it has been a while since the last time I was on a trek with the camera.  To be honest, I have been rather busy with some projects at home over the last couple of weeks.  However, I have been keeping my eye out for a good day to get back out for some photography.  We have been having some really rainy weather here of late and I’m starting to feel a little waterlogged.  The nice thing about rain is that it brings clouds and some dramatic skies most of the time.  The trick is finding a time between rain showers when the sky is looking good.  That became my task for this particular trek.  I started planning it late Friday afternoon after looking at the weather forecast and seeing that fog was predicted  through the first few hours of the morning in the area of Traphill and Sparta, NC.  Neither of these areas are far from me, so I was feeling very good about getting out for some foggy landscape images Saturday Morning.

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a sunrise since the clouds were going to be low and the fog would probably kill any color that I would see.  That being said though, I was anxious to get out for first light which usually sets the stage for my day of photography.  Looking at sunrise, it was going to be at 6:30, so as long as I got on location around that time I would be just fine.  I was going to need to figure out just where I wanted to go.  I’ve got the sunrise places kind of figured out at this point, but the fog always adds a bit of complication to the equation.  I needed to find a scene that had some very strong features that I could isolate against the fog and hopefully create a compelling composition.  I thought about the different areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Alleghany County and decided that I would start the day at Doughton Park.  It is a huge park and there are a lot of aspects of it that I am very well familiar with in and around the picnic area.  There was going to be something that I could put in front of my lens there in a variety of situations.

Looking at the travel time, it was going to take about 40 minutes to get there which was about half the time that I am used to.  I figured that I could leave about 5:45 or so and be in good shape for first light.  When Saturday rolled around, my clock rang at 5am and I remember trying to find out what that racket was and why I was hearing it.  I slowly realized that it was my alarm and then I turned it off.  Just before I went back to sleep I thought to myself.  If the alarm is going off, there might be a reason behind it.  I considered why I would have an alarm set and then realized that I was wanting to go out for a landscape shoot.  Yeah, that was why the thing was making noise.  I grabbed my phone and looked at the weather forecasts.  It was pretty much the same as I had seen when I went to bed with low clouds and fog around Doughton Park.

I had no excuses at this point, so I got out of bed and started to fumble around to get ready to go.  I was very much out of practice of getting up in the dark and I wasn’t a fan of it any more.  I somehow managed to get things together and got a little bit of breakfast in my belly.  Fortunately, I had remembered to load the camera in the truck the night before so that it could acclimate to the warm humid air after being in the office which is the coldest room in the house by far.  I have been having issues with the lenses fogging up when I take it right from the shelf and I didn’t want to worry about that problem this morning.

I got in the truck and headed down the road.  Within the first mile from home I saw a truck backing a boat into a driveway.  I remember wondering how he was just getting back from a boating trip before the sun was even up.  But I just sat there and waited for him to back into the driveway.  It became very obvious that he was actually turning around within a minute or so.  I started to look off into the darkness ahead and saw the reason why.  There was a tree down across the road. Hmmm, that wasn’t any good.  I followed the boat and got turned around and referred to my GPS for another route to Doughton Park.  As luck would have it, there was a turn before I got back to the house that got me back on course, and it was a road that I had not been on before.  It was hard to check out the different properties in the dark, but I could see some promise in the shadows.  I made a mental note to myself to return this way to see what I might be able to come back and shoot later on.

The rest of the trip went by rather uneventfully.  I ended up accessing the Parkway at Hwy 18 this time and went North to the park.  I could see at some of the overlooks that the clouds and fog were settled well into the valley.  It was the rain that was causing me issues at this point.  You see, the closer I got to the Parkway, the more it started to rain.  It was coming down hard enough now that I was going to be hard pressed to get out and capture any photographs.  I was committed to the morning though and I wanted to wait the rain out and hope that I could get some images in the bag.

After the Rain“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

Just before I arrived at Doughton, I passed by the Ice Wall which is one of the landmarks as I start to climb.  I have often found this an interesting feature and have thought about photographing it several times before.  It is the lack of parking and the narrow shoulders that have prevented me from doing much with this area in the past.  This time, there was something that really caught my eye.  There were several waterfalls which had developed on the side of the mountain which were spilling over onto the Parkway.  This might just be worth photographing after the sun comes up a little bit more.  It was too dark to mess with it at the moment, so I just continued on to Doughton.  When I arrived there, I took a quick drive through the picnic area to see what interested me the most in the current conditions.  The fog was looking the best at the entrance where there is a nice gated fence next to a couple of trees that appear to be growing out of large rocks.  The rain was still falling pretty heavily but I liked what I was seeing here so I pulled off on the side of the road and decided to wait the rain out.

It didn’t take long before the rain slacked up just enough that I felt comfortable getting out of the truck and setting the camera up.  There was enough drizzle left to just concern me about spotting on the lens.  In order to combat that, I decided to make use of my lens hoods which I keep in the truck for just such a time.  Looking at the scene I decided that my 24-70mm lens was going to be the best choice, and that had a reasonably deep hood.  I stripped off the adaptor ring for the Lee Foundation Kit and mounted the hood.  This made it to where I wasn’t going to be able to use any of my filters, but with the current lighting, I didn’t see that as much of a problem.  While I slogged through the waterlogged grass looking for my composition I kept the camera faced down to keep the lens protected from the rain.  I knew my basic composition and started at that area of the fence.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted the gate to be on the right or the left, but quickly decided that it needed to be on the left of the scene to balance out the meadow in the distance which would fall on the right side.  In order to give a little more visual interest to the scene I decided to incorporate the puddles in the tire tracks down in the lower left corner to bring your eyes into the image.  All that was left was waiting for the sky to develop a bit of visual interest.  With the clouds moving along at a decent pace that was going to be easy enough.

I wasn’t here but for about 15 minutes waiting for the sky to come together for me.  During that time, the rain fluctuated from a light mist to a heavy drizzle.  I was using my hat to cover the lens to provide just a bit more protection than the lens hood could provide.  It seemed to be working well and the front element was staying dry.  The lighting kept changing so I kept grabbing frames to make sure that I was going to get the best combination of elements.  As I was doing that, I was also watching the trees to the right which I was also particularly interested in.  Normally, that is the primary element in my images here, but I wasn’t feeling like they added anything to the fence today.  I did think that they might work well as a singular element in an image though.

Welcome Trees“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

Once I was pretty sure that I had the image that I wanted of the fence and gate, I turned my attention on the trees.  I changed my location and dialed in a composition that I liked.  I found the exposure that I wanted which was just about at the overexposed point in order to keep plenty of detail in the shadow portions while retaining a bit of detail in the sky.  I knew that this was going to be a black and white shot since there wasn’t much color at all in the scene and it was all texture and light.  I managed to get off a single image before the rain started to fall hard enough that it became a problem for me.  I retreated to the opened hatch on the 4Runner which provided me shelter while I pondered my options.  The sky was quickly becoming a featureless expanse and I could tell that my time here was done.  I broke the camera down and loaded it back up in the bag before getting back in the driver’s seat.  It was time to move on down the road to find another subject to photograph.

I started back out to the Parkway and remembered the waterfalls coming off of the side of the mountain about a mile back.  The picnic area is at milepost 241, and the falls were at 242.  When I got there, looked for a place to park and found a small patch of clear land that I could pull off just before the shoulders closed up.  I drove the length of the cutout road and got turned back around.  That small pull out was my only choice for a place to park, and it was at a pretty steep angle.  I carefully pulled off the road and up the incline to get the truck safely out of the road.  I accomplished my goal, but when I tried to get out of the driver’s seat I about fell out of the door.  The good news was that the rain was slowing once again and I figured that I might be able to get another image in the bag.

I started to walk towards the falls to see what my composition options might be and decided that instead of shooting them from across the road, I would actually compose an image from the same side of the Parkway using the road itself as the leading line through the scene.  The falls would be my anchor and focal point on the left third of the frame with the wall carrying the eyes into the distance.  For this, I was thinking about going wide, but I didn’t need an overly wide angle lens.  I chose my 24-70mm once again for its versatility.  This time, I added a polarizer because the glare from the sky was overpowering for this scene and I wanted to be able to control it a bit.

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

I built up the camera and got into position where I thought my composition was going to be.  It was in close and I was shooting at around 30mm or so which looked really good except for the problem in the upper right corner of the image.  The featureless sky was taking up too much room in the frame and the brightness of it was pulling the eyes away from the waterfalls.  There was also another problem that I was having.  Even with holding my hat above the lens, I was getting rain drops on the filter and I was seeing them in the images.  I had left my bag in the truck which was where my lens cloths were.  I didn’t want to be slowed down by bringing the camera back, so I decided to leave my hat on top of the camera as it sat on the side of the road and I ran back to the truck.  I grabbed the lens cloth and thought about grabbing my ND Grad filters to control the sky, but figured that with the rain falling I was going to be hard pressed to manage just the one filter so I left them in the bag.  I ran back to the camera and pulled the filter off so that I could wipe the drops off.  The lens itself was clear which was good.  I got things mounted back up and started to look at the composition once again.

My answer was going to be changing the focal length.  I needed to narrow the field of view and back up in order to minimize the background sky.  Essentially, I was going to keep the size of the waterfalls in tact, but change the relationship of the foreground to the background.  That seemed to do the trick.  I wasn’t able to eliminate all of the sky, but I reduced it down to a small segment just at the top.  While I was getting recomposed, the fog was changing in the background and I could actually make out more of the mountain which helped to minimize the expanse of brightness in that right corner.  I fired off a few images with this composition and decided that since the trees were now visible in the background, I would be able to deal with a bit more of the sky.  That would allow me to include another waterfall on the other side of the Parkway.  That waterfall made for a nice balancing point of interest on the right side of the frame so I was committed to keeping it in place.  I fine tuned that composition and dialed in the polarizer so that the roadway was darkened from the removal of the glare and the rocks retained a little bit of glare for some added visual interest and texture on that wall.  This was the composition that I was most excited about, and managed to shoot about six frames here with different shutter speeds and with different fog positioning.

I was pretty sure that I had what I wanted from here and I was noticing that the rain had stopped, but I was still getting a lot of water coming off of the cliff above which was forcing me to continually cover the lens.  The other side of the road was looking to be free of water in the sky and I was also seeing some interesting cloud formations around the mountains on the opposite side now.  I decided it was time to move my location and get into a dry area for once.  Once I got across the road, I started to walk along the barrier wall until I found the angle that I wanted to capture.

Dawn’s Clearing“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

The view that I chose to work was a section of mountains with the low clouds hovering in all the right places to show the contours of the mountain.  The sky above was filled with clouds, both gray and white to add a cohesive element.  The blue sky was also visible through the clouds just as the lush Summer greens were visible through the clouds below.  I had thought that I would be shooting a black and white image here, but looking at the colors involved I decided that they were part of the story.  I got the camera into position and started to dial in my composition.  I almost didn’t have the reach that I needed with the 24-70mm lens though.  I didn’t have the time to run back and grab my longer lens so I carefully worked my position on the barrier and worked the zoom lens until I had the perfect composition at 61mm.

The exposure was looking good, so I wasn’t going to need any ND Filters which was a good thing.  I could see that the light was changing quickly and I was going to have time for just one or two exposures before the sun got too harsh.  I fired off the first image and it was a tad overexposed.  I reduced the shutter speed a third of a stop and fired the camera again.  This time, I got a well exposed image with nothing showing to be overexposed.  With that, the clouds flattened and the light got a tad harsher.  The moment was over.

I looked around for any other compositions and found that the light was no longer as good here as it had been.  It was time to move on and find something else to photograph.  The conditions were wonderful and I was excited to see what was around the next bend.  The sky was changing quickly, and the lighting was fluctuating which meant that I should have ample opportunity to capture many more images through the morning.  I gathered up my gear and made the short hike back to the truck.  I put everything away and wiped my camera down for the second time this morning due to all the water that had fallen on it.  I seriously don’t know what I would do without a weather sealed camera!

Climbing back into the truck was kind of an interesting ordeal.  Remember, I had just about fallen out of it earlier.  Now I was having to climb back into it.  I stretched out my foot to the slider and grabbed onto the steering wheel with both hands to hoist myself up into the driver’s seat.  It was a bit of gymnastics to swing my butt up and into the seat, but I managed to get inside and then squirm my way into a proper seated position to fasten the seatbelt to lock me in.  Then I had to carefully reach out to grab the door to close it.  I was in, and it was time to move on again.  I carefully worked my way back down the steep hill to the road and was happily back on my way once again.

Paving Paradise“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

My first images of the day had been from milepost 241, and I had just finished working the waterfalls at 242.  I didn’t have to wait long at all before I found my next scenic view.  When I got to milepost 244 I could see in my rearview mirror that the sky was looking particularly interesting in that direction over the Parkway.  I got myself turned around and came back to the location to pull off the road.  Before I grabbed my camera, I took out my phone and started to look at the compositions that I could do.  This was not an area that I had done much with in the past.  In fact, I had only stopped here once before on a landscape workshop to demonstrate the use of ND Grads to one of the participants.  This time, the lighting was really even and there was no need for any grad filters.  Looking at the composition that I was wanting, I figured that my 16-35mm lens was going to be the lens of choice, and I wanted to get a little extra contrast in the sky.  Since there were a lot of clouds, I wasn’t going to have to worry about the polarizer effect of the wide angle lens too much as long as I was careful about how much of the effect that I dialed in.

I got the camera set up on the opposite side of the road and worked on getting the three closest trees in the composition as anchors with the Parkway itself pulling your eyes through the image.  It was a careful balancing act to get the trees to be well represented in the frame while maintaining as much separation as I could muster, especially with the large tree to the right.  I also wanted to keep the fences on either side of the Parkway visible.  I did finally find the composition that I liked and started to make exposures with subtle changes to my position with each click of the shutter.  It was all going to be about compromise and how the elements related to each other.  While shooting this one, I was sure it was going to be a color image with the sunlight that was going through the scene making the colors quite vibrant.  However, when I got it back home to the computer I was seeing a different story with this image.

The color was nice, but it was primarily green and blue with the black roadway being the focal point.  The color started contradict the road and they battled for the attention.  I tried different things with the colors and never found the right balance for the image and was about to trash the whole thing because it wasn’t making sense.  I then thought about taking advantage of the contrasts in the scene with the light and make a black and white conversion.  I started the process and began working on the tonal values of all of the colors to achieve the right harmony in the light and dark tones.  It was not an easy task since it had not been shot with monochrome in mind to begin with.  After a good deal of tweaking though, I was able to find the right balance of tones that really pulled the image together.  It wasn’t what I had in mind originally, but it turned out pretty decent in the end.  In fact, it got the seal of approval from Toni who is the resident B&W aficionado.  Usually, when she gives one of my monochromes a seal of approval it is relatively successful.

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

When I was satisfied with my wide angle shot, I decided that I wanted to get a different composition of the road a bit further down.  I didn’t want to have large elements in the foreground this time, only the sweeping roadway and fence.  For this, I was going to need a bit tighter of a focal length so I swapped over to my 24-70mm lens and kept the polarizer attached.  The sky was changing quickly at this point and the sun was getting covered up.  The fog was rolling in pretty good at this point as well so my concept for the images was no longer based on light, but on lines and composition.  I knew that these were going to be subtle images and I actually shot them with monochrome in mind just so that I could pull out the detail in the sky a bit better.

I started out on the opposite side of the road from where I had been, and I moved forward about 30 yards or so.  I found the right composition with the road and fence and then waited for the sky to do something  interesting.  That moment didn’t take too long and the dark clouds above started to separate  showing a bit of the blue sky and a bright white cloud right above the Parkway.  This was great to pull the eyes into the scene so I fired off the shutter and captured that image.  The hole in the sky lasted for a little bit and I was able to fine tune the composition just a tad and get a few other images before the sky went dark again.

When I got this image home, I didn’t think that it was going to look all that great as a black and white image even though it was quite simple in composition.  There wasn’t enough lighting to really make this work as a monochrome image.  Instead, I decided to embrace the color and I went with a muted and desaturated presentation.  I felt that it helped to tell the story of the weather that day.  You can still get the sense of Summer greens, but there is a cool moist quality here that belies the beginning of the end of Summer.  The fog gives it great atmosphere and helps with the depth of the scene.  The greens are the only real color in the scene which works well I think as green can be both warm and cool depending on use.  It is its own balance in a way.

When the Fog Comes“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As the fog continued to roll in I looked for other compositions and thought that I might do well to go back to the other side of the road to change the visual weight of the fences.  I left the 24-70mm lens attached and found another composition very close to the last one that I had shot, only from the opposite side of the road.  The exposures were very easy with the lighting.  The clouds were dark and gloomy and the sun was covered by other clouds.  The lighting was flat and there was really no need for any special filters to get the exposure right.  I did keep the polarizer to remove the glare from the wet road and to add a little contrast to the clouds though.  Once I got the composition dialed in, it was a matter of waiting for the sky to do interesting things.  I thought that I had the shot that I wanted, but just as I was about to pack up, the fog started to really move in and it covered most of the midground which added tons of mood.

I fired off another series of frames as the fog and clouds moved by.  The light stayed pretty steady through the whole process which made the exposures very easy.  The only thing that changed was the progression of the clouds and fog.  As with the other one, I was planning on this one being a monochrome image as well, but that flat lighting killed that for me when I got it home.  There was just no character to the image without color.  The color added dimension and it was very much needed for the overall balance of the composition.  As with the other one, I decided to go with a very subtle edit on it and pulled a lot of the saturation out of the colors and kept the color pallet very simple with green being the primary color with just hints of faint blue tones cooling the image slightly.

I had now worked this stretch of road with two lenses, and had gotten three basic compositions all in a matter of about 30 minutes.  The clouds were thickening up and the light was gone by this point.  It was time to call it a day and head home.  Looking back over my images in my mind, I was seeing about five compositions that I really liked and figured that I was going to end the day with five images which wasn’t too bad at all.  I felt relatively satisfied with my time on the Parkway and the fact that I had only worked a three mile section was really rather incredible to me.  I happily got things loaded back up in the truck and started back North to hop back on Hwy 18 once again to retrace my steps from earlier this morning to see what I wasn’t able to see in the dark.

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

As I was on that route I was watching for new subjects that I could photograph.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for today, although the clouds were looking really good.  It was getting very close to the middle of the day and the light was rather harsh, but I could see a lot of potential along the way.  In fact, I found one location that I would have shot except for the fact that there was nowhere to park, and there were some signs indicating that visitors were not really welcome.  I have filed it away in my head for a later time if I can figure out a way to photograph what I want without needing to access the property.  There were also a couple of barns that might prove to be good subjects at some point in the future.  I was pretty sure that I was done for the day though.  My creative energy was faltering and I was just looking forward to getting home to see what I had captured with the camera.

About seven or so miles from home I happened past a repair shop with some vehicles in the front.  Most didn’t catch my eye, but there was an old tractor there that I liked so it had my attention.  On the opposite side of the property was an old Ford tow truck which immediately caught my attention.  These are some of Toni’s favorite vehicles and I am always on the hunt for old tow trucks.  It was sitting off on the side near the trees just far enough off the road to give me room to work.  I got turned around and pulled into the parking lot to give it a closer look.  I could see several compositions available and decided that the light was good enough to give it a try.  I went up to the door to the shop to see if anyone was working there and if they minded if I got some pictures.  There was no answer at any of the doors.  Since I was planning on shooting from the street, I went to grab my camera.  As I was about to open the hatch on the 4Runner, a truck pulled in with two occupants.  They were watching me so I approached them and greeted them.

They confirmed that it was their shop and I explained why I was there and that I was glad that they showed up.  They were happy to let me work the old tow truck and only requested that I bring them print which I was happy to do.  With their blessing, I got my gear and mounted up my favorite old iron lens, the 24-70mm which was getting a good bit of a workout today.  I screwed on my polarizer as I always do with my automotive photography to remove the glare from the glass and the metal.  At this point, it was all about finding that right composition.

The easier composition that I wanted to do didn’t work out because the truck was too much in the shadows on the driver’s side.  The second composition that I wanted to do was over to the passenger side which embraced the sunlight.  I positioned the camera up high because there was a power pole with multiple lines attached as well as a light just above the tree line.  My goal was to angle the image so that I was able to crop out the pole and use the trees as the background.  However, when I framed up the image I could tell that wasn’t going to work at all.  There was not enough visual interest to carry the image with just the truck and the vegetation.  I needed to include the sky, but in order to do that, I was going to have to include the pole and the lines which was not a fun option for me.

The composition worked though and the sky had just that right amount of visual interest with the clouds and blue sky mixed in.  There was just enough blue to keep the image very balanced with the blue truck.  I committed to the image despite having the pole, light, and four lines that were in the way.  My intention from the beginning was to clone them out using the content aware fill tool in Photoshop which I don’t use all that often.  It is a nice tool and one that should prove a lifesaver for this image.

When I got the image home and started to work it, I was happy to see that the composition worked very well, and I had made the right choice in the field.  I got the full edit done in Lightroom and then moved it over to Photoshop and started to remove the offensive element from the sky.  It didn’t take but a minute to do, and when I was done, you couldn’t tell that it was ever there.  I don’t really like removing elements which are this big in images, but it did nothing for the story and it was a huge distraction that I didn’t want to have in the final image.  It is only fair that I let you know that I did remove a significant feature here which is why I am mentioning it.  It didn’t substantially change the image so I felt that it was within my realm of reasonable manipulation.

That turned into the last image of the day and it was time to get home so that I could see what I had from the morning.  I had shot over 140 frames between my three locations on the Parkway and one additional one on the way home.  It was my far my most productive outing in quite some time.  I also knew that I wasn’t going to get that 10% hit rate that I am used to getting.  I hadn’t shot 14 different compositions and I was still thinking that I was only going to have about a half dozen or so images that I deemed good enough to be keepers.  Most of my day had been spent shooting the same composition over and over with different lighting or fog formations which always pumps up the frame count.  I was nevertheless surprised to find that I had eight images that I felt were good enough to be keepers, and a few of them were good enough to be in the gallery here which was a nice surprise.

It was a great morning and I do hope that you enjoyed coming along with me on my adventure.  Even more, I hope that you enjoyed the pictures that resulted.  It is always good to get out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and I’m very thankful that I’m now much closer to it than before.  It is quite nice to be able to go on the spur of the moment now.  I’m not sure where my next adventure will lead, but I am actually working on few ideas that are completely different from my normal subjects.  I just need to find some locations and I hope to be sharing some very different images with you soon.

Until next time…
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