Monday, May 27, 2019
I found myself talking to a couple of photographers who were new to the area about places on the Blue Ridge Parkway where some good pictures could be created. Of course, the simple answer is pretty much anywhere on the Parkway will likely yield good photographs depending on the light. When pressed for a more specific answer, I started to list out the areas that I knew within about an hour or so South from Mabry Mill. The more I thought about it, the more places came up that I have shot at with varying levels of success. One of the locations happened to be an overlook that I pass each and every time I get on the Parkway from US421 and head South. This is the Osborne Mountain Overlook at milepost 277.9. It kind of surprised me when I mentioned it because I don’t shoot here often, and when I have in the past, it has been an afterthought for the most part. My most successful time was a couple of years ago when I was chasing clouds and found an old New Holland Tractor in the field that I made some really good images of. This was also the location of one of the first Parkway shoots that I did back in 2005 when I was getting started.
Both of these memorable times here had nothing at all to do with the overlook as it is not all that inspiring. Sure, it has a nice grand vista to look out over the valley, but there is just not much there photographically. What I have always had the most fun with was the field across the street. There is a nice gate and a ridge with growing Christmas Trees. In 2005, there were two different trees on the ridge that matched each other’s height, but one was much, much taller and growing near the bottom of the hill. Not too long after I shot this scene, the tall tree fell down and has remained on the slope for more than 10 years now. It has added another level of interest to the field. What I discovered when I shot the New Holland was that the actual fence was missing several sections and was not being maintained. I took my chances and went into the field on that day which allowed me a lot of flexibility in how to shoot the landscape.
When I was talking to the two photographers, these memories all came back and I realized that this is a really interesting location that I just don’t visit nearly enough. It stuck in my head and I was determined to get back to this overlook to shoot it with a purpose. As it turned out, my schedule was allowing a full day available for photography on Memorial Day. Looking at the weather, the only place that was going to have any kind of significant clouds was Boone, which just happened to be very close to the the Osborne Mountain Overlook. The clouds were forecasted to be high clouds with nearly 100% coverage. This could go many different ways with the worse case scenario meaning that the sky would be featureless. It could also mean a good sunrise, although the sunrise forecasting site I use was not calling for much in the way of color for Monday Morning. If I went, it was going to be a gamble. Of course, this is normally the case with landscape photography as we just can’t control the weather which is the most important part of the equation.
My main goal wasn’t to get a sunrise…in fact it was to go and shoot some black and white images which is always a lot of fun. However, I would hate to miss out on any color, so the plan was to get up to the Parkway in time for a sunrise if there was one worth shooting. Looking at the weather, there was a chance, but I was really expecting to sit this one out and wait for the chance to do some other compositions. With that plan, I was going to need to get up shortly after 3am which is absurdly early, but part of what I have to do to get the shots. That would put me on the road by 4 which would get me there by 5:30ish. Toni and I went to sleep before the sun was even fully gone. That worked out since she was waking up at 4am to go to work, lucky her!
When the clock went off, I looked at it in a less than favorable light and had to gather my thoughts as to just why I was waking up so early. It registered quick enough and I started to look at the weather forecasts. Not much had changed, but the clouds were looking to break up much earlier than I was expecting. I was still going to have high clouds at sunrise, and a couple of hours after that to work some compositions with a bit of drama in the sky….hopefully. The morning clicked by as normal and I was on the road about 10 till 4 which was good enough to give me some extra wiggle room.
I got to the Parkway just after 5:15 under clear and starry skies. This was not good at all. I needed some sort of clouds in the sky for what I was wanting to do. I stopped briefly at Osborne Mountain and saw that there were a few clouds in the sky moving to the East. This was promising, but I figured that I might do better to move on down the way a bit to see if I could find more clouds. I snaked my way along the Parkway until I got to the Grandview Overlook by Old US 421 and found it completely devoid of clouds. It looked like my best chance for drama in the sky was going to be my intended location. I pulled back out and returned to that overlook and looked at the conditions briefly. It wasn’t ideal, but I was kind of out of options. It was 5:35 now and the sun was set to rise at 6:10. It was now or never. I grabbed my gear and started across the Parkway hoping that the fence was still opened.
With my flashlight in hand, I found the section of fence that was missing and quickly made my way through into the field. I was excited to find that there were fresh bales of hay rolled up in the field. These are always a lot of fun to use as foreground interest. I started to look for compositions and quickly found that the sky was actually starting to show some color to the Northeast. This was going to be the direction that I was going to shoot in. I found a hay bale that worked and helped lead the eyes into the distant valley. I got the camera low on my Manfrotto Tripod, and mounted the Canon 5D Mk3 to the Acratech GP-S Ballhead. I fitted my 16-35mm lens and the Lee Foundation Kit for any filters that I might need. I found the composition that I wanted and got things fine tuned. My first exposure was too underexposed and I wasn’t really happy with it at a minute long. The sky looked good, but the hay bale was too shadowed. I decided that I needed to add a filter to control the sky. Since I was using a wide angle lens, it was a perfect opportunity to use my Singh-Ray 3-Stop, Daryl Benson Reverse ND Grad. This allowed me to darken the horizon more than the top of the frame for a more even exposure in the sky at sunrise. After fitting this filter, I could tell that things got very dark in the camera.
I didn’t have time to do a lot of fiddling with trying to figure out an exposure time, so I based my next exposure on the minute long previous one that was a tad underexposed, adding to it the 3-Stops less light in the sky, and estimated 2.5 minutes worth of exposure time at f/11. When the image review came up on the LCD I knew I had just nailed the exposure. That is the nice thing about doing long exposures. You can miss the mark by 20 seconds or more and it really won’t bother the image much at all. I don’t know if this was the exact time I should have used, but it worked well looking at my histogram. I was on a roll now, and I moved on to my next composition as the sun was starting to brighten the sky a bit more.
I kept the same basic setup for the next shot, but as the sun came up, the ground was starting to get a little lighter and I didn’t need such a dense ND Grad on the lens. I replaced the 3-Stop with a 2-Stop Daryl Benson Reverse Grad and got things composed around a pair of hay bales that were on the edge of the field. Looking at the histogram, I was going to be just right for the exposure latitude in the scene. I was no longer shooting in near darkness so my exposure time dropped back down to about 5-10 seconds which is rather normal for a sunrise exposure. I shot a bunch of images with this composition as the sky was ever changing. The longer I sat there, the more brilliant the sky became and I was very content to watch it unfold in front of me. The image that I considered the keeper was from the highlight of the color show when everything was very vibrant and there were a couple of dark low clouds scooting across the frame to add a bit of contrast to the sky. That was what I was looking for. The color started to fade after that and it was time to move onto something different.
I moved my attention to the hill where the two trees were with the rows of Christmas Trees. This was the image that I had been looking to shoot originally, but honestly, I was very satisfied with the day already. I did get in close to the hill so that I could use the fallen tree as a foreground interest and accentuate the division of grasses for a nice “S” curve leading up to the sky. I looked at what I was working with and determined that my best bet would be to swap out my lens for my 24-70mm as it would give me the framing that I wanted better than the wide angle glass. My goal here was to do this image as a black and white shot. For that, I was going to need some drama in the sky. The clouds were soft and not all that impressive. I could pull detail out of them in Lightroom, but I wanted something more. That something more was movement in the clouds.
I took this opportunity to add my Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND Filter which slowed the shutter speed enough to have movement in the clouds. Since I was shooting to the West, there was really no need to worry with an ND Grad as the exposure was pretty uniform across the histogram. With the one filter on, I was able to get an exposure time of 2 minutes which gave me just enough movement in the clouds to achieve the effect I was after. There was a bright spot in the clouds that was just to the right of the tree at the top of the hill that looked like a swirl which really complimented the tree. The fallen tree made for a great foreground with the pale look of the wood against the tall grass. This image was made for black and white, and I was really looking forward to getting it processed as such.
There was still color in the sky though, and I saw another opportunity to capture one more image with the fading color to the Northeast. As I finalized the exposure, I moved the camera over to get set up on the other hay bale that I was wanting to shoot. However, the image on the LCD was locked. I tried hitting multiple buttons on the camera but to no avail. I turned it off and back on. I even took the battery out and waited for things to reset. No matter what I did, I wasn’t able to get the camera unfrozen. I was looking at the last of the morning light, and I was unable to do anything with it because the camera was frozen solid. I tried one more time to reset things, and this time, I pulled out the remote shutter release that I had been using for the timed exposures. That did the trick, and the camera went back to normal.
I got the composition set up and with the light fading fast, I decided to keep most everything the same with the camera, but I added a Galen Rowell 2-Stop hard edge ND Grad to control the sky since I was shooting into the sun at this point. I didn’t have time to find the correct exposure and I just decided to wing it. I plugged the remote release back in and the mirror flipped up in the camera. That wasn’t right. I looked closer and found that my issue had been operator error. I had accidentally engaged the button on the remote which made it look like I was starting an exposure which was why the camera was acting strange. Nice that I figured that out minutes after I did it, but I was losing light quickly. I set the focus and released the shutter and started to look at the scene as the counter was ticking. I estimated a minute and a half exposure for this scene. As the last few seconds clicked by, the light all but disappeared. If this exposure missed, then I would not have another chance. The processing seemed to take forever before the review images popped up and I saw the histogram. I nailed it! It looked good, and the exposure was dead on which was a stroke of luck after technical difficulties threatened to sideline me.
I was elated with the morning and the images that I had shot so far. I could have gone home and been happy with the day, but something told me that I needed to walk up the hill. I have shot this property from the other side of the hill at the Carroll Gap Overlook, but I’ve never been on foot here before. I packed up the camera and set to walking up the incline. I had no idea what I was going to find, but the sky in that direction was looking really good. I crested the ridge and started on the back half and found that there was something in the grass down the way. The closer I got, the more I thought I knew what this was. Yep, it was my old friend the New Holland that I had shot a couple of years ago. I got close enough to see that it was in some very tall grass and it looked like it was no longer in use. You know how I feel about my decay subjects! This was going to be a fun shoot, I just needed to figure out how I was going to shoot it. The most logical angle was from the back showing the mountain range to the North. The only problem with that was there was too much man made clutter which detracted from the image. I moved around to the front quarter and found the field with more hay bales to be much better for a background. There wasn’t as much depth, but it was a simpler image that told the story of the tractor much better. Now to figure out how I wanted to compose this one.
I definitely wanted to get the sky in the shot, and the more of it the better. For that, I figured that my 16-35mm lens would be the right choice as it would allow me to include much more of the background. I found the angle that I wanted and positioned myself in close and made sure that the exhaust pipe went between two bales of hay in the background. It is all about the details you know! This was looking pretty good, but I wanted more definition in the sky. Since there were a good many clouds present, I was comfortable using my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to punch up the sky just a little bit. The fact that I was shooting nearly West meant that the effect wouldn’t be that pronounced anyway. In fact, I had to look at the histogram in live view to see the effect of the polarizer. Bet you didn’t know that as the effect of the polarizer takes place, the histogram will shift to the left. That was how I had to determine the effect, and it worked well. However, looking at the histogram I could tell that the exposure latitude was a bit too wide. I could capture it in one shot, but I didn’t want to have to pull so many details out of the shadows later. I decided that it was probably best to add a Singh-Ray, Galen Rowell 2-Stop Soft Edge ND Grad to give the sky a little bite. That did the trick!
My only problem now was the wind which kept blowing around. I tried to embrace it and show some motion in the grass, but I really didn’t care much for how that looked in the LCD, or at home on the computer. Fortunately, I was able to get a couple of images where the wind lulled just enough to render the grass sharp. That was the look that I wanted as the textures really accentuated the overall image. It was still the blue tractor and the blue in the sky that created a nice unity for the entire image with the warmer tones of the grass and field. This old tractor has been a lot of fun to photograph both of the times that I have been able to do it. I would have loved to worked with it a little bit more, but this was the only workable angle, and I really didn’t see much else I could do with the composition to make anything different. I decided to pack it up and move on back to the truck. I had been here for nearly two hours at this point, and was wanting to spread the love on the Parkway a bit more.
As I was walking back down the hill I couldn’t help but notice that the clouds were looking really interesting. I decided that I could do one more composition here before I left for something else. I found a location that included three different bales of hay (one happened to be a double) that led up to the “S” curve that I loved so much. The sun was still to my back putting the foreground in shadow which worked very well since I was likely to cast a shadow standing there. Looking at the composition, I decided that this was a job for the 24-70mm lens which has always proved a very versatile piece of kit. To this, I added my Color Combo Polarizer and a Galen Rowell 2-Stop Soft Edge ND Grad to help control the exposure. This seemed to do just the trick because the histogram showed that I had a nice bell curve exposure with this combination. I shot a couple of different compositions around this basic theme trying to be very careful where the bare tree ended up in the frame. It wasn’t long before that switch flipped in my head that said I was done.
Funny thing about being an artist. There are times when things are going fantastically that a normal person would want to stick with it and try other things. I’m all for that, and I do that quite often, but there gets to be a point where I have reached the end of what I want to shoot at a particular location. I don’t look around for anything else, I just pack up and move on. Even if I see something else that might make a good photograph, I will leave it because mentally I’m done at that particular location. It is not a bad thing at all, it just means that I am very happy with what I have captured at that location and have no further need to continue. I walked back across the Parkway to the truck and put my gear in the back. I didn’t even spend any real time looking out over the overlook because I was done here.
I was actually considering driving home at this point, but since I was on the Parkway, I felt that I owed it to myself to see if there was anything else that was worth shooting on this particular day. I continued South towards Blowing Rock. I passed by all of my old haunts and found nothing worth stopping for at any of them. I even passed by Fred and Ethel which are always worth a shot, but there was nothing really special about them today. I was really starting to think that my creative energy was spent at this point and really considered turning around. As I was considering that thought, I got to the Cone Manor which has a lot of trails to it that I have not been on before. Since I wasn’t all that interested in more photography, I thought that today would be a good day to take a little walk on that trail to see what was there. I might get inspired, or I might find something for another time. Either way, I was going to go for a little hike.
I grabbed my gear and started up towards Flat Top and the Cemetery. The trail was simple enough and I passed a couple of photographers by a fence shooting into a valley. I didn’t see anything that I particularly wanted to capture there so I kept on walking. As I wished them a good morning, they asked me if there was anything worth shooting up the trail. I felt odd saying that I didn’t know after visiting this part of the Parkway dozens of times over the years. I honestly had no idea what I was going to find though.
I continued on the trail and saw a few vistas, but none of them held any interest for me. The further I went, the more enclosed the trail became. I started to see all sorts of potential for woodland photography and made a mental note to come back here on a foggy day. I imagine it would be an epic time! When I was about ready to turn around and give up for the day, I saw a clearing just ahead on the trail. I pressed on and just as I was about to leave the woodland, I saw an interesting tree trunk catching the warm light from the sun. It was surrounded by a deep green and I thought it was worth a little exploring with the camera.
I pulled my gear out and decided to use my 70-200mm lens as it is great for compression of a scene. Of course, with a woodland shot I usually like to use my Color Combo Polarizer which I added to the lens as well. I found a nice simple 1×1 square composition that had a little bit of depth to it which became my composition. It was just a matter of waiting for the sun to hit the tree which is kind of did. The clouds were starting to cover it a little bit and I didn’t get the bright sun that had caught my attention originally, but it was still a worthwhile shot. I tried a few other woodland type images with lesser levels of success before moving on. I had said that I would go out to the clearing before turning around to see if there was anything there where I could make use of the clouds.
I went by the cemetery and found a nice hill with the trail moving around it. At the woodline, I found a fallen tree that I could use as a foreground. I got the camera set up with the 16-35mm lens and looked for a composition. What I found was decent, but not special. The clouds were not doing me any favors either. They were really thick on the right side, and absent on the left. That caused a lot of balance problem in the image and in the end, I decided not to use any of them as they were just snapshots at best. I could see that with different lighting it would be a much better image though. Something else to file away in the back of my mind for another day.
With that, I was done with the day. I could tell that my creative energy was pretty much gone after the whirlwind of a morning that I had at the Osborne Mountain Overlook. I made the 10 minute hike back to the truck and loaded the gear in the back. I got in, put on my sun glasses and set a course to home. It had been a great day and I had 87 images on my memory cards. Thinking back on the day I was pretty sure that I had six compositions that I was pretty sure would make the cut. At the end of the day, I had a total of seven images which isn’t quite my normal hit rate; but when shooting sunrises with a lot of duplicate compositions the hit rate will drop, so I wasn’t worried about that at all. The funny thing was I had set out once again to capture black and white images and ended up with a bunch of color images. I did get one monochrome image and it was one that was planned from the beginning as a black and white shot.
I hope you enjoyed tagging along with me today, and don’t forget about my upcoming Landscape Workshop at the end of June at Doughton Park. You will have the chance to ask questions and learn some of my tricks first hand. There are still spots, and this will be an intensive workshop where you will do all the shooting. I will just be there to help you achieve the images that you are after.
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