Venturing out to Lake Brandt

· Reading Time: 11 minutes

Saturday, April 20, 2019

If you are following my blog entries, you have noticed that I have started to do more and more long exposure work with my landscapes.  Most recently was a trek out to Salem Lake just yesterday where I captured several new images that I really liked.  Wanting to build on that experience I started to look at the weather for Saturday and saw that there was going to be wind and low clouds most of the morning until the rain came in the afternoon.  This was the formula that I was wanting for some more fun with clouds and water.  I didn’t want to return to Salem Lake though.  I felt that I have shot it enough lately and wanted to try something different.

I have been eyeing Lake Brandt in Northern Greensboro for some time now as a possible location.  I know that there are two different marinas on that body of water, and looking at the satellite images, I could make use of several different areas of these marinas.  I decided that was going to be where I was going to go on Saturday morning.  It was close enough that if it didn’t work out I wouldn’t be out anything, and if it turned out to be great, I could return there many times without much trouble at all.  The stage was set and I was ready for some more long exposures.

The morning was a little different from most.  I was awake when Toni left for work and remained that way for about an hour.  In that time, I checked the weather and confirmed that my goal for the morning was going to be the right one.  I eventually drifted back to sleep about an hour before my alarm rang.  When it did…well, I think it did…I don’t remember it going off at all, and I slept well past it regardless.  I woke up on my own shortly before 7am and looked outside to see the last parts of what looked like a pretty nice sunrise.  Oh well, I wasn’t prepared for that, so I was not worried about missing it.  The clouds were breaking up quickly and I was not seeing the conditions that I was expecting.  I got up and got ready to go…just in case.

The clouds continued to thin out and the sun was really bright which was a terrible recipe for the photography that I was wanting to do.  I spent the morning doing some marketing online and eventually wrote the rough draft of my coming Behind the Camera which will get published on May 1st.  It was a very productive morning sitting at the computer and I wasn’t hating that I didn’t get a chance to go out at all.  However, as the clouds started to roll back in, my want to go to the lake returned.  It was getting to be late morning, but if the clouds cooperated I wouldn’t be bothered by the midday sun as it would be diffused behind the clouds.

I grabbed my gear and headed East towards Greensboro.  The marina at Lake Brandt was about 20 miles away so it didn’t take too long to get there.  When I arrived, I was surprised to see so many people out fishing.  It was windy and very cold.  I looked around and saw one small pier that was flanked by two boat ramps that looked to be promising.  The rest of the features in the water were floating and had too much movement for my purposes.  The lighting wasn’t exactly right just yet so I decided to go to the other marina which is actually at Lake Higgins to see what I could find there.  It was a short drive around the lake and I passed by a really nice Barn in Summerfield on the way.  I put that barn in my memory for another look, but I wanted to scope out Lake Higgins first.

When I got there, I found a lot more elements to work with, but they were all floating and would blur terribly with a long exposure.  There were also a lot of people there as well.  After scoping it out for a few minutes, I realized that for my purposes there was nothing there for me.  I decided to work my way back to the barn and see if there was a way that I could do something with that.  After a few minutes I was at the barn and was able to look at it more closely.  It was set on the other side of a small ridge that prevented me from photographing it from the street.  I would have to get in close to get it the way I would want, and then I would lose the ability to capture the full setting that I liked about it.  This was not going to be an easy subject to shoot and with the high winds the trees were swaying too much to really bother with forcing a composition.  I continued on down the street headed for Lake Brandt once again.

Then I saw it….

Over on the side of the road, in a field were two trees that were standing out from the rest.  They were on a ridge so there was nothing to be seen on either side of them.  It was a perfect minimalist composition.  I got turned around and returned to the location.  The clouds were looking fantastic at this point blocking all of the blue sky.  The sun was shining on the trees and lighting up the leaves. I pulled over on the side of the road and grabbed my camera.  I started off with the 16-35mm lens which I left naked with no filters. With the wind, I was going to be coaxing as much speed out of the shutter as I could and a polarizer would slow it down too much.  I got things set up and ready to frame the shot.  The wide angle didn’t do me any favors with the completely cloudy sky.  I shot a couple of exposures with the intention of cropping them to a 1×1 composition, but in the end I really didn’t like the results.

Peeking Into Spring“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2

Needing to get a narrower field of view, I ran back to the truck and grabbed my 24-70mm lens and left the polarizer off.  I got back into position and framed up some tight shots on the trees that worked nicely for a composition.  By this point though, the clouds were starting to break up and the tight shot was not working at all.  The blue made no sense in the frame.  Fortunately, I was able to zoom out near the wide end of the lens and get a stunning simplistic composition of the two trees.  I timed this so that the large expanse of blue sky came in right over the trees to highlight them.  The large foreboding cloud maintained the visual balance on the left side of the frame while the green strip of grass at the bottom drew your eyes to the leaves on the trees.  What I loved about this scene was the interaction between the two trees.  You can almost hear a dialog between them.  There is one in a dominating position, and one that is shrinking away.  This is the fun of woodland subjects for me.  I just love how the trees appear to relate to each other.

After about 20 minutes I had about two dozen or so images from these two trees with lots of variations in the clouds.  The blue sky was becoming more and more prominent as time went on and I decided that it was time to call it a day here.  I was satisfied that I got something pretty decent and was ready to go home.  When I cranked the truck up, I remember thinking to myself that I might be satisfied, but this was not what I had come out to capture.  I was really wanting to do some more long exposure work with the lake.  I was close, and I figured that it would be worth giving it another go.  I did after all have the first shots in the bag which are always the most difficult.

When I got back to Lake Brandt I was happy to see that the one fisherman that was at the end of the short dock had moved on.  The clouds were also looking really good with a slight movement from left to right.  It was not ideal, but it was workable.  I got parked and grabbed my gear.  I wanted to include the life-preserver that was mounted to the post so my composition was calling for the 16-35mm lens so that I could get as much of the sky as possible as well as the dock and the post.  I screwed on the Lee Filter Holder and set up the shot.  I set my focus and got an exposure reading before sliding in my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 10-Stop filter.  I figured out the exposure with the 10-Stop to be 20 seconds.  That couldn’t be!  It didn’t seem that much brighter than I was used to, but that was it.  The best I could do was stopping down the aperture to f/22 which would barely give me 30 seconds.  It was time to break out my new 15-Stop ND filter which I had yet to use.  Figuring out the exposure with that filter showed it to be much too long at 16 minutes.  I had to work things out to get the time somewhere near 2-3 minutes taking into account the movement of the clouds.  In order to do this and have the depth of field that I wanted with an aperture of f/11, I needed to boost the ISO up to 200 which I don’t like doing, but there was no way around it this time.  That gave me a full 3 minute exposure which was just right for what I was wanting in the image.

I shot my first image and found that the balance between the sky and the lake was a little off, so I pulled out my Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-Stop ND Grad which pulled the exposure down in the sky to match it better to the water.  At this point, my exposure was dialed in, and I just kept shooting because there was no indication about what the clouds were going to look like in the final exposures.  I just wanted to have several to choose from.  I was conscious of the fact that with each exposure my sensor was heating up and I was going to be getting hot spots in the final image.  I tried to let it cool for a few minutes between exposures to keep the hot pixels at bay.

You can see from the cell phone picture that I have added above that there was a lot going on with this picture.  The clouds were dramatic, and the water was very choppy.  The pier seemed to get lost in the image because of all of the textures in the wind whipped water. It just looks like a snapshot and that was not my intention for this image.  I wanted to create something much closer to the fine art spectrum of things.  That is where the long exposure comes into play.  Let’s see what difference 3 minutes of exposure makes to this same scene.

“The Fabric of Life”, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Hard Edge ND Grad, and 15-Stop Mor-Slo ND Filter.  Flipped horizontally in Lightroom

This is my favorite image from the series that I shot at Lake Brandt.  You can see immediately that I flipped the image on the horizontal axis.  I do this to make the image “read” better since our eyes track from left to right.  The big visual interest is on the left, but there is enough balance on the right to keep the eyes moving through the frame.  The trees are thicker and the clouds are whiter. This allows our eyes to enter at the lower left and pursue to the right and up.  The long exposure streaked the clouds which calmed the textures of the sky down while adding to a surreal drama to the sky.  The choppiness of the water is no nonexistent which allows you to really focus on the pier which is rendered perfectly sharp and steady.  This visual anchor also leads your eyes to the break in the trees where the lake actually continues around the bend.  The life-preserver is another important element.  It bridges the lower third with the upper two-thirds of the image since the horizon is so straight.  The bright yellow draws your attention and balances out the cooler tones in the sky.  It also helps to magnify the warm tones in the water and the pier.  The trees give that sense of texture and interest in the distance so the image has both a foreground and a background.  If you look between the two images from the lake, you can see what a huge difference the long exposure makes.  I just hope you like the effect. It is an effect that I am really enjoying these days and want to do more of.

I would have liked to have shot several more compositions here at Lake Brandt, but this was the only workable one that I could find.  When it was all said and done, I had shot 35 images for the day.  Considering this was more or less an experimental shoot, I was satisfied with that number and figured that I would probably have two images that I would keep from this.  It was not a high hit rate, but I was dealing with the wind and the unknown effects of the movement in the sky over the lake.  These things add up to more exposures than normal and I expected that.  I was very happy to get these two images that I felt really captured the day for me.

I feel like I am growing once again as a landscape photographer and that is exciting.  I think that all the time I spent over the winter shooting decay has really paid off some big dividends when it comes to how I am shooting landscapes.  I have learned a lot more tricks both at capture and in post processing since I was shooting last Fall.  I’m excited to see where this is going to take me through the coming months.  I’m looking at the world with fresh eyes, and that is a great thing!!