What if I Did it That Way?

· Reading Time: 52 minutes

Friday, October 9, 2020

I’m glad to see you all again.  I’m going to do this blog entry a little bit different than I normally do them for my treks.  You see, I went on this particular one Friday morning, which is now two days ago.  When I came back, I didn’t have time to go through the pictures before going out of town.  When I returned home yesterday, I was too tired to mess with the pictures so I waited until this morning.  During that time, I have been pondering how the pictures might have turned out.  For the first time in a very long time, I was particularly happy with the trek and came home thinking that I had some really great images captured.  I still hope that I have since I have over 200 frames captured from just under six hours worth of work.  It is that hope that has prompted me to do the first part of this blog entry before I even put my eyes on the images from the day.

I went to Doughton Park for sunrise which isn’t all that special.  That park has become one of my favorites for sunrise over the years as it offers many different ways of capturing the colors and the drama of the new day.  It was more a choice of convenience than anything since I was needing to be home and getting ready to go out of town by around lunch time.  I didn’t want to spend the time driving, so I needed something close by, and Doughton is only about 40 minutes from the house.  I didn’t have a clear plan in place, but had seen that the forecast was for high clouds and a great potential for color at sunrise.  I wanted to go out there and just listen to the landscape and determine the best course of action once I got there.

I’ll get into the details of how the day went here in a bit, but after my first composition which was a fairly standard one for me with the tree at the top of the meadow, I started to get a little wild at the top of that hill.  I broke out my Rokinon 14mm lens which is one of those seldom used lenses, but one that repeatedly wows me with its sharpness and perspective on a scene.  I started to use the small balds in the meadow as my foreground while using the lens to capture so much in the background as well as the sky.  That sky wasn’t exactly colorful, but it was quite moody and I was excited to capture it with all of the atmosphere it provided.  I went place to place to get different views and decided to leave that lens attached for most of the time.  There were a couple of exceptions when I saw the color developing to the East.  I would fit the 70-200mm lens and occasionally along with the 2x teleconverter to get the reach to get past the trees at the edge of the meadow.  Those were not quite as exciting, but I wanted to try and capture the colors in the sky more than anything and there was a great deal of atmosphere with the way the clouds looked and the lower level inversions.

After spending quite a bit of time on the Meadow, I decided to take a walk along the main road to the Parkway and started to shoot some isolated woodland settings on the way.  There was a bit of Fall color in places that really set off some of the features that I had seen before.  It wasn’t long before I hopped up on the trail through another field and started to hike back towards the old hotel.  Along the way, I found a really interesting tree that I worked for a bit with the hopes of getting a good abstract image.  As I proceeded along, I came upon the side of the field that offered a different view of the hotel which captivated me.  The clouds were not right at this point, but I saw a tree that offered another interesting subject along with some interesting clouds.  I spent some time there working a few compositions and then found that the sky over the hotel was much better.  I tried some different things here, but eventually decided on doing a panorama of the scene.  I shot two different groups of images here and really started to get excited about the way that this image might turn out.  I played with some more compositions along this path as well.

By the time I got to the entrance and my favorite grouping of trees by the fence, I was still seeing a great sky and started to work some compositions there.  I tried all my regular methods, but that just wasn’t getting it.  I ended up shooting another panorama here which I think will turn out great, but the one that really surprised me was that since I still had the 70-200mm lens attached, I tried to shoot a different composition of the trees in the rocks at the entrance.  I wasn’t liking how they were looking as they made more sense to me as an element in the panorama I had just shot.  They looked flat and lifeless, but I knew that there was a story here, so I ended up doing an isolation of one of them between the rocks.  This was the image that I became most excited about and even sent Toni a cell phone picture of what I was seeing on the back of the camera.  I think the reason that it spoke so loudly to me was that I had never considered doing this as an isolation shot before and it was completely different from what I was used to seeing here.

After I played a bit more with the compositions at Doughton, I made my way back to the truck and started the slow journey back home still on the hunt for more images.  The Fall color had started to come in through the route that I was taking home and I was enjoying seeing the color, but it was a lot more drab than it had been in years past.  Many of the trees were already bare and what was left was more brown than anything.  It was still beautiful nonetheless and I was searching for a composition to shoot.  I am just not a fan of playing the blind photographer and pointing towards the color and pressing the button.  Sure you will get wonderful color, but there is no story to the image and nothing to really keep the attention.  The trick here is to make the color a supporting element to the image and capture something else as a visual anchor.  In a way, it is a lot like long exposure photography where you find a good visual anchor that isn’t moving to make the photo around while the movement becomes a setting or a backdrop for the scene.  That makes it rather difficult for a landscape photographer in a purely natural location as there isn’t much to anchor the scene unless you look for the structure of the trees, or something else of a complementing color to include.  What I found was a nice reddish orange tree off to the side of the Parkway right behind a stone barrier for the side of the road.  It wasn’t perfect, but I was thinking that I could get a really nice image here so I pulled over and gave it a shot.  I still don’t know if I managed to get the scene captured the way I intended, but I was excited about the possibility so I sent Toni another shot of what I was up to.

That turned into the last landscape composition that I shot for the day and it was getting to be time to head home so that I could get packed and out the door once again.  However, I am never so rushed that if a composition happens to present itself I won’t stop and at least try it.  It just so happened that I ran into just that scenario when I got about 6 miles from the house.  I had taken a road that I had not been on before and was looking.  The lighting was not great, but I happened to find an old chicken barn right next to the road that was recessed into the landscape that I thought might make an interesting picture.  I found a narrow part of the shoulder to pull over and got out and sized up the situation.  It was going to be a difficult capture with the light and the direction of the sun, but it was worth a quick try.  I worked that area for about 10 minutes and ultimately ended up shooting from the middle of the travel lane to get the perspective that I was after.  I’m still not sure how that one will turn out, but I am hopeful for a good result.

When I got home, it killed me to just put the bag on the shelf and get on with the task at hand, but that was what I needed to do.  I was wanting to see what images I had gotten, but just looking at the 200+ images on a critical scale would take hours and I didn’t have that time to kill.  I had made the right choice in spending the time in the field when the weather was good because the rains were coming, and they are still here today.  I knew that I would have all of Sunday to work on the edits which made a lot of sense so that I wasn’t rushing myself with the images.  Thinking back on the morning, I was thinking that there should be right around ten images that I really liked.  About 45 of those 200+ images were tied up in panoramas, and I had a lot of images just watching the clouds move through the scene trying to capture the right balance for the composition.  If I end up getting those ten images, that would only be a 5% hit rate, but would be the most successful trek that I have had in recent times.  It was rare for me to come home so excited about the images because usually I am let down after a day in the field until I go through and edit the images and then I start to feel better about it.  I’m really hoping that the trend doesn’t continue and I have an opposite reaction to the edited images.  We will know in about four or five more hours when the process is done and I return here to post whatever turns out as the keepers.  I’m still very excited about four or five of the images that I will be looking through shortly.

Stay tuned, I’ll be back in a blink of an eye…well, it will seem like a blink of an eye for you anyway.


Here I am!  Told you that you that would be quick.  Well, it was quick for you I think, but definitely not for me.  I last saved this blog entry at 8:52 this morning and it is now 4:20, so about 7.5 hours of steady work on hat turned out to be 223 images from the day.  I was really worried that I would get into them and find out that they were junk since I was so excited about them.  Well, I am happy to share that they really turned out so much better than I could have imagined.  In that seven hours of work, I managed to edit 15 new images from the day which is quite a bit better than my ten images that I had suspected.  I’m now excited to share them with you and talk about the creation of them in a bit more detail.  Since I’ve already introduced the day and a bit about the conditions I was greeted with I’ll get right into the meat and potatoes of this one with the first composition that I shot for the day.

Reaching Into Morning“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

When I arrived at Doughton about 40 minutes before sunrise I made the unique decision to hike up to the top of the meadow…as I tend to do every time I visit this location.  That is for good reason though as there are a lot of things that can be done from that meadow depending on the sky.  With the sky still very dark I could see that there were very little clouds in the sky even though I was supposed to be seeing nearly complete coverage with high clouds.  There were some off in the distance that I chose to work with.  My idea was as the sun was getting close to the horizon the clouds that were there would pick up the color.  It would be a narrow strip at best and I wanted to have some form of interest in the composition so I decided to include my favorite tree in the park.  It has the best structure and stands all by itself which makes it a natural visual anchor.  Granted, it is not a composition that necessarily stands out in my catalog as I have shot this tree many, many times over the years.  Today wasn’t going to be much different, but it was going to get me going and I wanted to figure out how I needed to position to get the best sky that I could.

I decided to use my wide angle zoom here as I was intending on getting in close to the tree in order to capture a good deal of the blue sky above which always makes the color in the sky pop a little bit better than it would otherwise.  Since the one horizontal branch was stretching out to the right, I wanted to put the brightest part of the sky under that branch to balance out the larger section of the tree.  Once I got that in place, I noticed that there was a gap in the silhouetted trees in the midground which was a distraction.  It wasn’t too far away from the trunk of the tree, so I shifted my position so as to cover up that gap.  I was able to maintain the basic composition that I had started with so I was happy.  I was much more fluid in this fashion and the midground blended in much better.  At this point it was a matter of waiting for the sky to come alive.

As the sky got brighter and the clouds started to pick up color, I started to fire off exposures with the hopes of not missing the best color.  It is easy to delete pictures, but it is very hard to roll back the clock to get that best light that you didn’t capture.  The color didn’t last long and I think I only got about 10 frames of the sunrise.  I was also a bit bored with this composition as I have shot it many times over the years.  This capture was less about the exposure and more about putting my post processing skills to work to see if I could come up with something better than before.  I had my first shot in the bag, even if I wasn’t exactly excited about it.  That is always the hardest part of the day was getting those creative juices rolling, especially that early in the morning.

Division of Worlds“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

Wanting to do some more compositions with the color I decided shift my focal length gears a bit.  I pulled off the wide angle zoom and mounted my telephoto zoom lens.  The idea here was to capture just the color in the sky along with the inversions that I was seeing down in the lower sections.  This is tricky here in Doughton because there are a lot of pitfalls to the compositions facing East.  The biggest problem is the trees which are always in the shadows during the sunrise.  I’ve tried to create images with a strong foreground in this direction only to have a dark strip of trees that block the eyes from pursuing the rest of the scene.  If I use the trees as a foreground, they are generally too dark to really add much to the image.  What I was trying with this attempt was to capture the tips of the trees which were actually picking up a bit of the light and I thought that I could pull some color out of them to help give better depth to the image.  I tried a few exposures and really wasn’t happy with any of them.  I even slid in my 2X teleconverter and shot some distant images at nearly 400mm but those were just not good at all.  I removed the teleconverter and went back to the range of 100-200mm.

I found a section that seemed to work out well for me.  I had a single tall pine tree that stretched above the rest of the trees which gave just enough interest to the trees to keep them important to the composition.  I was able to position myself so that the tall tree was right at the base of two converging mountains which allowed the landscape to point to the tree which added validity to its inclusion and cemented it as a visual anchor.  The midground consisted of the receding hills in the haze of morning under the inversion  This is always the iconic part of the Blue Ridge Mountains and while I do get a little tired of seeing that same image, I certainly don’t mind including it as part of a larger composition.  The final part of the image was the golden hues in the sky above the horizon.  It was odd for the sky to have this kind of color above a layer of lower clouds but who was I to disagree.  This was the best way to establish a horizon for the image.  I had the composition that I was after and I made an exposure.  It turned out fair, but I was worried about the shadow detail in my foreground.  I needed to have crisp details there and I was doubting that I had managed to capture what I needed based on the histogram.

I took a second to evaluate my situation and decided that this was a situation where I needed to use a grad filter so I pulled out a 3-stop soft edge ND grad and slid it into my Lee Holder.  I used the gradual transition to cover the distant mountains and the lower clouds so that the full effect of the filter would be near the top of the frame.  Using a soft edge grad on a telephoto lens made the transition very…VERY gradual and that was why I used the 3-stop.  I didn’t actually get the full effect anywhere in the frame, but I did see significant darkening of the image except for the foreground which I wanted to keep out of the shadows.  The histogram on the image review told me that I had made the right choice and I had much better shadow detail and nothing was blow out in the highlights either.  I was satisfied with this composition and tried several more with the same idea, but none of them turned out nearly as well as this one.

Reveal“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No Filters

The sun was getting very close to the horizon at this point and I was having a very hard time with exposures at this point so I started to look around to see what else I might have to work with.  Of course, I looked back to my favorite tree because I knew that there was a workable composition from where I was standing.  Sure enough, the sky to the North was starting to pick up color and texture.  I knew it wasn’t going to last long and I had my long lens still attached.  I needed some more space between me and the tree so I moved down the hill leaving my bag where I had been working seconds before.  I started to frame the composition that I had shot before which was a minimal image that included just the tree with a sliver of the ground beneath it.  I liked it, but there was something about this scene that dictated that I not stick with the minimal approach.  I stepped back a bit further and included one of the small balds in the field.  This was where I was really happy that I had my long lens attached as it allowed me to fill the bottom of the frame with the stone while keeping the tree relatively large in the frame.  The compression of the elements worked out fantastic here.

I started to set the exposure and realized that the grad filter was just not needed here at all.  The light was much too even, so I pulled that filter off and just held onto the filter holder while I made a few exposures.  Judging by the histogram, I was getting plenty of detail in shadows by exposing to the right pushing the sky all the way to the right without blowing out the highlights.  There was plenty of dynamic range for this image and I knew that I wasn’t going to have any problems when processing the image.  I tried a few different variations on the composition before the light faded and I went with my minimalistic approach which actually didn’t turn out all that fantastic.  My favorite one was one of the first exposures that I made of the scene while the color was still very vibrant in the sky.

I paused to think about what my next step would be and realized that I was just retracing my steps here and doing a lot of the same things that I had done before.  I can’t grow as a photographer if that is what I am doing.  I needed to get out of my comfort zone so I thought about how to shake things up a bit.  I remember one of my last treks out to Thunder Hill when I challenged myself to use only my Rokinon 14mm lens.  By doing that I forced myself to see the landscape completely differently than before.  I was hoping that would be the case here so I made the swap.  It was like a culture shock going from a 70-200mm lens to a 14mm prime, but I immediately loved it.

Greeting the Sun“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

My first task was to get a dramatic view of the sun as it was cresting the horizon.  The color was fading in the sky, but there was a wonderful transition between the warm and cool light in the sky and I had the best lens in my kit to capture foreground interest.  remember that bald that I was using as a foreground for the last picture?  Well, I walked up to it, and positioned myself about three feet from it and worked my way around until I had the sun in the upper left third of the image.  Focusing was easy at f/11 with this lens.  Since my distance from lens to foreground was more than ten feet counting my elevation, I just set it to infinity and everything was in focus.  Since this is a manual aperture lens, I can’t use my live view and histogram the same way as I do with my other lenses.  I can use it, but the exposure will be wrong every time and the image will come out way overexposed.  This was old school photography using the light meter in the viewfinder to get my exposure right.  That was another tricky aspect since I had deep shadows in the frame as well as an exposed sun.  I had to estimate the exposure based on the evaluative metering since I didn’t have the time to do a spot meter in different areas.  My first exposure was a little hot by the histogram in the image review, but I was close.

Another problem surfaced at this point and I can’t say that I was surprised to see this pop up.  The exposure latitude was very wide with this image.  The foreground was barely out of the shadows and that was with the sky overexposed.  I backed off a third of a stop on the shutter speed to darken the exposure knowing that the foreground was going to go very dark.  This was the perfect time to use an ND Grad to control the exposure, but that just isn’t possible with this 14mm lens.  Because the lens is bulbous and has a fixed petal hood on it, there is no way to mount one of my filters to the lens.  I have even tried to hand hold a 4×6 filter, but the angle of the lens shows the edges of the filter when I try that.  Filters were not an option.  I could have done an HDR image, but I knew just how good this lens was when it came to sharpness and figured that I would be able to rescue the details without them becoming muddy as they would with other lenses.  I decided to stick with single exposures here so that I could get more variations of the scene before the sun came up any further.

My gamble worked here as I was able to get a histogram that included plenty of detail, if only barely.  The sun was blown out which I was fine with since the human eye was never able to see detail in the sun anyway.  The shadows were close to the edge, but I had just enough detail to pull out what I needed from the shadows to get an image that I feel is quite dramatic.  I have captured a similar composition before, but never with the rock taking up this much of the image, and I certainly didn’t have the sun creeping over the mountain giving a nice little light burst.  In fact, this is one of those sunrise/sunset images that I don’t normally do.  I much prefer the sun below the horizon just giving soft light in the sky.  However, with the super wide angle of this lens, the sun and harsher light made for a much more exciting image than I would have expected.  For me, the most exciting part is that I captured it without any filters and this was the perfect opportunity to use filters if I could have.

Moving Mountains“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No Filters

Getting into the wide angle groove as I did on Thunder Hill I started to look for other compositions.  With the sun fully up now, I was no longer going to be looking to the East.  I shifted my attention behind me.  From the top of this meadow you can see the other side of the parking lot which is another meadow that goes out to Alligator Back.  I could see that there was a bit of Fall color on that distant ridge which was the first time I had had enough light to see what the color situation was.  The colors were drab, but they were there.  I decided that instead of going over to my normal spot where there are some nice jagged rocks to use in the foreground, I would use the same rock that I had just shot from.  I switched sides and framed up a very similar composition where the rock was right there in the foreground.  I then shifted a bit to put the distant ridge in the upper right third of the frame which allowed some of the textures of the sky to come into the frame to the upper left.  The clouds were not looking great just yet, but I figured that I would be able to pull some detail out of them in post processing.

I focused the lens the same way here at f/11 and found that the exposure was much easier with the flatter light.  The LCD review and histogram ensured me that I had all the data that I needed to include plenty of detail in the highlights as well as the shadows.  The only thing that I wasn’t liking was the fact that the sky was kind of boring.  I was thinking that this was going to be a black and white image so that I could really work the textures and contrasts.  Just as I was about to throw in the towel and move onto another composition the sun did something very interesting.  It broke through the clouds to my rear and gave a beautiful warm light on the ground right where the rock was.  As the clouds moved, the distant ridge started to get a bit of warm highlights as well.  You better believe that I was making exposures during this time.

I loved what I was seeing and I was getting excited all over again for this composition.  It still was missing an interesting sky though.  In fact the sky had flattened out since I had started shooting this scene.  I now had better light and a worse sky whereas before the sky was tolerable, but the light was bland.  Just as I was about to move my location in search of better light, the sun poked behind the clouds again and I could see that the clouds which were well behind me were now coming into the frame in front of me.  These clouds were much more interesting and I decided to wait until they got into position over the landscape that I was shooting.  As they moved along, the sun poked back out again and allowed it to spread the warm light all over my scene once again.  I now had great light as well as great clouds.  This was the image that I had been hoping for and I finally had it.  It lasted just long enough for me to get two frames captured with slightly different light.  Not only did the ground benefit from the sun, the clouds also reflected some of warm tones which added even more interest to the sky.  I was on a roll now.  I was getting images that I had never thought to get before and I was loving this 14mm lens once again.

Timeless Doughton“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

The light was changing, and I needed to move onto another location before the good light was gone for good though.  I went a little further down the hill to another bald and started to look at things from this angle.  This bald had a bit more direction to it and seemed to point to the section of the meadow in the distance. I still had the warm light on this section so I figured I would try an alternative composition from here in case nothing from the previous one would turn out.  I had lost the warm highlights in the sky, and the clouds were not quite as dramatic as they had been minutes earlier.  I was still hopeful for this composition though.  I worked on the placement of the camera to take the full advantage of the 14mm lens.  The lighting was more even at this point, but there was still enough contrast here that I was really interested in doing a black and white image here.

As it turned out that was exactly what I ended up doing with it.  The light was nowhere near as good as the previous composition and the clouds just failed to live up to the drama I had gotten used to.  It wasn’t a boring image, but it lacked the pop that the previous scene had delivered.  However, the composition was very strong, especially as a 16:9 crop.  By converting it to a monochromatic image I was able to really pull your eyes to the foreground and match it up with the distant ridge for a bit of cohesion for the image.  The sky, while not all that exciting came to life with the monochrome conversion.  I have so much more control over the contrast when I lose the color, and I took full advantage of this to pull all the detail out of the clouds that was there.  The soft textures of the grass gave that final touch to the composition and pulled it all together.

I know it sounds like I took a weak image and “fixed it” with this conversion and there are a lot of occasions where photographers will do just that.  That is not what I am doing with my black and white conversions though.  Monochrome has certain strengths to it that color doesn’t have, and there are just certain images that work much better as monochrome.  I could have left this one as color and had I not just seen the previous one in color, I might have.  This one just didn’t have the strength in the color like the other one had, but it did have a strong composition and that was what I wanted to highlight.  When I am shooting the Rokinon lens I am always thinking about black and white as that lens makes some incredible monochrome images with its sharpness.  It just so happened that I did go that way with this image.  I also followed that up with another one next.

Takin’ it Easy“, Canon 5D Mk3, Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, No filters, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I had explored pretty much all of the meadow at this point and was finding nothing else to put in front of my 14mm lens.  I wasn’t quite done with it though.  I knew of another composition that would suit this lens quite well near the parking lot.  In fact, I could see the tree that I was going to be shooting from where I was standing as I was wrapping up the last image.  I made the quick walk down the hill and crossed through the gate to the other side of the fence.  I had shot this before with a 24-70mm lens in the rain and knew that it would work with the wide angle.  The leaves were all off of the tree which actually made the image even better.  When I got there what I didn’t like was the bland sky to the East.  The lighting was nice and even thanks to the clouds, but the sky showed very little texture and for me to capture the detail that I wanted in the tree and fence, I was going to have to push the exposure in the sky too much to keep the little bit of detail.  I had a choice to make here.  On one hand, I could add a soft edge ND grad and pull down the sky a bit with the side effect of darkening the top part of the tree.  This would force me to go with my 16-35mm lens which would fit the filter but this would change the composition.  I could make several exposures and blend an HDR to keep the detail in the sky, but there was a breeze which would cause all sorts of ghosting in the branches.  My last option was to shoot it exposed for the tree and fence and let the sky fall where it would.  By doing that, I was almost guaranteed to lose any detail in the sky, but I would keep interest in the main subjects of the image.

With those three options, I chose the latter option knowing that I would be doing this as a black and white image which took the impact out of the featureless sky for the most part.  I got into position where the broken section of the fence was at the edge of the frame to give a natural breaking point for the eyes to stop at before exiting the frame.  The tree was placed along the left third and I got in close enough that the branches of the tree filled the sky taking the place of the textures of clouds.  I was really liking how this was looking in the viewfinder and found the exposure was actually pretty straightforward using the light meter.  The image review and histogram confirmed that the sky was going to be featureless, but it wasn’t blown out which I was very happy about.  I had plenty of detail in the shadow areas so I was sure I was going to be be able to get this image processed as I had visualized.  I only shot four of this composition with some very subtle changes in position to make sure I had one that would work the way I was intending.

At this point, I had been out in the field for about two hours.  The sky was no longer all that interesting, but the light was good.  I could pack things up and go in search of other subjects, or I could stick around Doughton for a bit longer and go hiking down the road and trail to the front of the park where I knew of some other great subjects.  I can say that Doughton is one of those places that I can spend hours shooting and that is why I choose to start one of my yearly workshops here.  If the lighting is good, a group could spend at least a half a day here alone and it was looking like that was going to be the case for me for this trek.  I grabbed my gear and started down the road to see if there were any woodland images that jumped out at me where I could take advantage of the Fall color that was dappled through the park.

Forget Me Not“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

It wasn’t long before I found something that caught my interest.  I had seen this scene many times over the years but had never really seen a photograph.  This time, there was a beautiful tree dressed yellow behind the collapsed split rail fence.  There was a dense nest of trees in the shadows behind the fence that helped it stand out as the fence was lit by the diffused light of the sun.  There was just enough interest there to give me a reason to spend some time here.  Obviously, this was not going to be a job for the 14mm lens so it was time to retire that one for a while.  I decided that my 24-70mm would be a better choice for this as I didn’t need to go too wide for fear of including the bright sky above the trees.  This was going to be a total woodland image and I didn’t want any sky in the frame at all.

It was now a matter of finding the right positioning for the camera.  That took quite a bit of doing so that I could get the elements all organized correctly in the frame.  I shot a bunch of this scene trying to get everything in the right place and the perspective correct between the fence and background.  I really wasn’t sure if this would turn out or not and even when I started editing the best one of the group I wasn’t convinced.  The colors were all great and I loved the soft lighting, but there was something about it that really bothered me.  The more I worked it, the more I realized that the barbed wire was causing a distraction that I just didn’t like.  It kept the eyes from moving through the scene as I envisioned.  I liked the image enough to justify going into Photoshop and removing the barbed wire with the help of the content aware fill tool which took just a few seconds to do.  That did the trick and the eyes could now explore the entire scene without getting cut on the fence.  It was that yellow tree that made the scene work and the last thing that I wanted to do was keep the eyes from seeing that tree.

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

Speaking of trees, I had managed to get back on the trail  by crossing one of the fields and found myself face to face with a very cool tree that was partially hollow.  In one of the hollowed out parts there was some fresh growth, and the textures were really amazing all around it.  It had been a while since I had done an abstract of a tree like this so I thought that it was time that I gave it another try.  I left the 24-70mm lens attached with the polarizer that was already on it.  That was the perfect lens for this composition.  In fact the last two images really show the versatility of the 24-70mm lens as I had a fairly wide angle composition from close in to the fence to a very isolated narrow field of view capturing the tree.

As with the last scene, the lighting was very flat here and the exposure was very simple.  There was a breeze which made it difficult to freeze the movement of the delicate vegetation.  By opening up the aperture to f/5.6 I was able to get the shutter quick enough to freeze everything.  It all looked good in the LCD, but I missed the depth of field that I really intended.  It wasn’t by much, but enough that I am kicking myself over it.  I should have gone with about f/8 and then boosted the ISO instead, but I wanted a clean image with the details and textures involved.  I also knew that I would be doing a good deal of dodging and burning of the image which necessitated a very clean image to start with.  All in all I am happy with this one and I don’t think that the depth of field issue will cause any problems in the final print which is my main goal.

When the Leaves are Shed“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

I was having a good time on the trail since I had never hiked this section before.  It wasn’t long before I came out to a familiar part of the park near where I have photographed many time.  From this particular vantage point I could see the old lodge that has been closed for many years now.  I have often thought about photographing this historic place that reportedly has a problem with black mold that forced the Park Service to close the doors a while back.  I had an angle on the back of the building that was actually quite interesting and I thought that I could get something to work out here, but I wasn’t quite sure how to frame up an image to capture the grandeur of the scene I was seeing.  While I was pondering that composition, I looked around for anything else that had a more readily apparent composition.  I found a tree to the left of the trail which had an exposed rocky outcropping just in front of the base.  The tall grass had gone brown and there were a lot of interesting textures to go along with the gnarly old tree.  It was worth shooting while I considered my option with the lodge.

I left the 24-70mm along with the polarizer attached.  that gave me a lot of flexibility while I looked for a composition that worked.  I started off with a horizontal orientation that was reasonably pleasing to the eyes.  However, when I looked at it critically, it lacked presence.  The tree was placed along the left third and the rock was at the bottom, but there was negative space that really didn’t add to the image to the right.  I decided to flip the camera vertical, shift over and place the tree directly over the rock so that the opening was pointing to the tree trunk.  That allowed me to fill the frame with the tree and rock with a nice balance.  I worked the camera up and down until I got the horizon along the top third for a little visual tension to the image.  That was the composition that worked the best here.  It was a post card shot, but sometimes that is the best option.

As I was getting the exposure fine tuned, I realized that the sky was a little bright and it was causing the ground to go a bit darker than I intended.  It wasn’t bad, but enough that I wanted to address it in the field.  I opted to add a 2-stop soft edge ND grad which took just a little bite out of the sky while not really affecting the tree too bad.  That did the trick and allowed me to capture a much more even tonality across the image.  I just did a few small adjustments to the composition here and there until I was sure that I had what I wanted.

I didn’t spend a lot of time here as I still wanted to get back to the lodge shot that I had considered.  There were a lot of possibilities here to consider with different elements being included.  I ended up listening to my own speech that I do at workshops about including what you like, excluding what you don’t, and filling the frame with what you like.  As I went through all of those questions the answer became more and more apparent.  In order to include all that I liked I was going to have to shoot a panorama of the scene.

Bluffs Lodge“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 11 image panorama stitched in Lightroom

Doing a panorama of a scene with several different isolated points of interest is dangerous.  It is easy to get too many things in the frame and then nothing really sticks out.  Organization was going to be the key here since I liked the lodge (of course), the grove of colorful trees above the lodge, the fence that surrounded the lodge, the other grove of trees below and to the right surrounded by another fence, and finally I liked a small rock that was about midway down in the field.  The sky was just interesting enough with some nice and soft textures throughout.  What I didn’t like was the parking area to the left of the lodge, another bunch of trees to the right of the lower grove of colorful trees, and the blank grassy area that took up most of the foreground.  To capture this scene with a single shot I would have had to use a wide angle lens and then I would have too much sky, and too much grass in the foreground.  My idea was a panoramic image which placed the lodge in the upper third to the left of the frame with the trees providing a framework just on the other side of the drive going into the parking lot.  The lower grove of trees would be along the right third of the image and slightly below the lodge showing off the lay of the land.  The lower boundary of the image would be dictated by the lone rock in the field that provided just enough interest in the foreground.  The negative space to the lower left wasn’t so negative as there were rows of dead grass where the field had been bush hogged recently.  The diagonals should provide some repeating patterns leading into the frame.

For this idea, I was going to need to fit my 70-200mm lens.  Since I was going to be covering so much area I wouldn’t be able to use a polarizer as it would have different effects at different angles.  There really wasn’t much articulable need for it with this scene so it was just easier to remove it.  I set the lens to 70mm in a vertical orientation.  I leveled the tripod in the spot that I felt would provide the best perspective.  I then leveled the camera on the Acratech ballhead before doing a dry sweep of the arch that I was going to be shooting.  Once I was sure that the camera was completely level, I plotted where the elements were going to appear in the frames and got the camera tilted just right.  I then checked the exposure through the scene and found that it was actually quite even and wasn’t going to be a problem at all to shoot.

I started the series from left to right, progressing through the scene about a third of a frame at a time.  When I was done with the first run, I had 11 images recorded in succession.  I was pretty sure that this was going to to work, but I had a thought that I might want to include a bit more just in case I needed to crop differently than I had planned.  I went back to the beginning and recomposed slightly and started another series with the same settings.  This time I did 19 frames and included the next grove of trees to the right.  This one looked to be impressive, but I was only able to see it a frame at a time.  To really know how this came together I was going to have to wait until I saw it on the computer all stitched together.

Well, the large panorama choked the computer with the 19 full sized images being stitched together.  It took three different attempts to get it to process the image and I had to cease all other operations on the computer in order for it to not freeze up.  It took me about 45 minutes to build that panorama.  The sad thing was I ended up not using it at all.  I was going to cut off a large portion of the right because it really didn’t add anything to the image.  In fact, the cropped image that I was going to use was very close to my first series and it didn’t include the rock in the foreground.  I decided to go with the first series after all which was exactly what I had intended when setting up the shot in the first place.

I then went into shooting the individual elements that I liked about the entire scene just to be sure that if the panorama didn’t work out I would have the elements that I liked to work with individually.  Plus, one of the things with panoramas is that when you include too much, they lose their overall impact and I was worried that would be the case with this one.  Ironically, the pano was the absolutely right choice as the individual elements that I liked didn’t measure up to the pano on many levels.  I loved the scope of the large scene and how it really showed off the entire story of this historic site.  Isolated, the lodge didn’t really tell a story, and it failed as an image.  The grove of trees that was below it also had no context and failed as a composition.  I’m very happy with how the story turned out with the panorama that I shot as a first attempt.  In fact, the only cropping that I did to the original file was to flatten out the edges and to bring the edge in just slightly on the right hand side.  This is a huge image and will make a very large canvas without losing any detail.

In Quiet Solitude“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters, 17 image panorama stitched in Lightroom

After working some of the isolated areas of the field, I decided that I would go up and see what I could do with the corner of the fence with the isolated trees which I have often enjoyed photographing.  When I got to that section which was just down the trail from where I had been, I was a little disappointed with the sky.  It had lost the textures in the direction that I would want to shoot.  The light was good, but rather flat.  I started to look at what my options were.  There was nothing really jumping out at me this time, but I wasn’t able to get the panoramas that I had just shot out of my mind.  They had been really exciting and I was looking at this scene with the same questions in mind with many of the same answers.  The parts that I liked here were all along the fence line and to include them all would mean a very wide angle lens which I had done plenty of times in the past.  It was the softness of the scene that was keeping my attention at this point.  The soft clouds, the soft rolling hills, the soft curves of the mower tracks all contrasted with the jagged trees and rocks to the right.  This was a panorama for sure and I knew how it would look since I shot one here years ago during sunrise with the twilight wedge in the sky above the fence.

I started to look for the right place to set up which meant making sure that there was something colorful on the other side of the gate to help pull the attention to that unique section of the split rail fence.  When I found that location, the rest of the scene kind of came into place.  I then just needed to get the camera elevated so that I had separation between the elements in the scene and the distant meadow ridge was fully visible.  When I settled on the location, I went through the routine of leveling the tripod, camera, and then doing my dry sweeps to ensure exposure while setting the focus point.  Once I was all set up I started a series of images from left to right.  I lost count of them but I knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to finish.  When I was done, I had a final count of 17 images which were destined to create just a single composition.  As with all panoramas I had no idea how it would turn out so I considered any potential problems and then made slight adjustments and shot a second series.  As it turned out, it was my first composition that won the day.  The second one included more frames, but was a weaker composition overall.

This was another one that caused my computer to sweat a little bit.  It was quicker than the 19 image one and didn’t require me forcing a stop and rebooting the computer at least.  It took about 20 minutes for the computer to build this one, but it was well worth it and I was very happy with the outcome.  Thinking back on the images I had been most happy with through the day, they all started out with “why not try this?” or “why not use this lens?”  I was doing some experimenting from my normal methods and it was working out quite well for me, at least I really thought that things were going well.

As I did before, I started to break the scene I had just shot into individual compositions.  The sky wasn’t quite powerful enough to pull the smaller compositions together and I wasn’t really liking anything that I was shooting during this time.  I even tried the isolated trees which I am always thrilled to capture.  Normally I go wide with them, but since I was shooting with the long lens I decided “why not just use this lens?” and I framed up several images.  The compression was nice, but it just didn’t really excite me.  I had shot better skies with similar compositions before.  In fact, everything that I was shooting I kept thinking that I had better in my catalog already so there was really no reason in going forward with these.  It was getting late in the morning at this point, nearing 10am.  If I was going to shoot other locations I was going to need to get back to the truck and get back on the road.  I only had three hours before I was needing to be back home.  I started to pull the camera apart and then saw something that I had never considered before.  Since the sky wasn’t all that great anymore, it would provide a great backdrop for a monochrome isolation of the shapes of the trees between the rocks.  “Why not give it a try?”

I put everything back together and started to frame up some isolations of the group of trees and the rocks bypassing the limbs at the top which forced the inclusion of the sky.  I was onto something with this and I could see some potential, but I wasn’t there just yet.  It was too complex for a minimalist composition, and had neither a woodland nor a fine art feel to it.  I needed to make a change, but what?  Then it hit me after I asked myself what I liked about the scene.  I liked the tree in the background the best along with the rocks on either side.  What I didn’t like about the scene was the disorganized tree in the foreground.  I had my answer, I flipped the camera on its side and went with a vertical composition.

Boulders and Branches“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I positioned myself so that the camera angle put all the background behind the rocks and out of sight.  I wasn’t concerned with the sky here because I was really thinking that it would be a black and white image since color really didn’t play much of a part to the composition.  I did want to make sure that the exposure on the tree and rocks was perfect because I wanted that texture to be in the story.  It took just a little bit of shifting around to get the composition and very little exposure tweaking to get the histogram looking just right.  I fired off the first frame and knew that I had something.  I recomposed and tightened it up just a little bit and fired off another one.  I was pretty sure that nailed it, but just to be sure, I adjusted the exposure just a bit to make sure I had plenty of detail in the main subjects.  The sky was almost overexposed, but it stayed within reason quite well.

This was the one that I snapped a picture of from the back of the camera to show Toni who loves trees, abstract, and monochrome images.  This was right up her alley I was sure.  In fact, it was right up my alley as well with the minimal aspects that it had with just shapes.  I was really hoping that I had done this one justice and was thinking about all the different ways that I wanted to process it when I got to it later on.  There was just something in the back of my mind that said I had probably messed up something or overlooked something.  I mean it was a brutally simple image with no filters and no dramatic lighting.  What could I have done different to make it better?  There was nothing that I could think of, but I kept second guessing myself all the way back to the truck.  This was either going to be my favorite image of the day, or the biggest flop image of the day.  it was 50/50 in my mind.

When I finally got around to downloading the RAW images this morning it took me about an hour and a half before I could get to that group of images.  I had already been really impressed with what I had seen and just knew that this one was going to be a flop, or not nearly the image that I was hoping for.  When I saw it, I was floored.  I had nailed it and I could see all the possibilities that I had imagined for it coming together.  When I finally got around to editing it I looked at it critically.  There really wasn’t much color to it, but I didn’t want to make it monochrome.  It needed color for the story.  I had great detail in the main elements, but what about the sky in the background?  I had come to terms with there being no texture and it being basically a high key image.  However, I had a lot of information to play with and found that there was plenty of detail in the clouds.  I didn’t overcook the clouds though as I just wanted a soft background so as not to distract from the tree.  The edit was quick, and I ended up desaturating the image quite a bit to add to the simplicity of the whole scene but left enough color to set the mood.  By the time this one was done it was my favorite of the day which is saying a lot for how many images I had captured.  It was just what I had in mind and the execution was just about letter for letter on par with my intention.  It was a fitting end to my time at Doughton for the day.  It was time to go out and explore the Parkway a bit before going home.

The Edge of Autumn“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

When I left out of the park, I headed back to the South towards Hwy 18 which would take me home.  As I was traveling I was looking for color.  There were patches of nice color, but it was still rather drab.  I was also having to find compositions that used the color as a supporting element rather than the primary, in your face, element.  That is the key to interesting Fall photography.  I just wasn’t finding it as easily as I had hoped.  However, as I was getting close to my exit I came upon the Bluff Mountain Overlook which I had shot at sunrise last year with great success.  The lighting was completely different this time, but so were the colors around the overlook.  There were trees bathed in red and the browning grasses all mixed in with the remaining green trees.  The one that really caught my eye was bordered by one of the stone retaining walls that lines the Parkway in different areas.

This wall hooked around the tree and I knew that it would make a great foreground element that would help to bring the cooler tones of the sky into the landscape while the warm tones of the tree would provide the excitement to the scene.  I pulled off the road and grabbed my gear.  I walked over and looked at what I had to work with.  I saw a composition developing as I walked around the scene.  It involved using the wall to frame the lower edge of the composition and going through the right edge of the frame.  I would keep the lower left corner opened up to allow the eyes the ability to enter the scene and gaze upon the tree.  There was another one behind and to the right which was about 50% changed that would provide a great background.  The sky was looking pretty good overhead as well.  It was going to be a simple composition and one that would be easily handled with the 24-70mm lens.  I just added a polarizer to it to help saturate the colors and remove the glare from the leaves.

I got the composition set up the way I thought it would work best and started to make exposures.  the lighting was even and I was not really having any problems with the exposure latitude according to the histogram, but I wanted to add just a little more drama to the sky.  I pulled out a 2-stop soft edge ND grad which was slid over the lens and brought down just to the horizon.  It wasn’t low enough to really get the full effect, but it was just enough to allow for a bit more exposure to the ground and a bit less exposure to the clouds.  The histogram closed up a little bit and I knew that I had plenty of information to work with and the LCD review looked much better after the filter was added.

I spent a little bit of time here fine tuning the composition so that I kept the wall in the frame for the majority of the run down the right side, but wasn’t including much of the overlook in the background.  This was all about balance, and the final image that I ended up with I think fits that balance requirement to a “T”.  Everything falls into place just right and it has that visual impact that I was after with the Fall color.  Having all of the other colors in the scene makes you appreciate the warm tones so much more.  The wall really pulled the cool tones of the sky through the image which was my goal from the beginning.  There wasn’t any use in working other compositions as this one was exactly what I was feeling.  It was time to move on as I had about an hour and a half before I needed to be home.

Wilkes County Heritage“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge ND Grad, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

I was still looking for that one last subject as I drove home though.  I found nothing else on the Parkway though.  I wasn’t concerned as I had more than enough images to process and I was feeling really good about all of them even though I had forgotten many of the compositions that I had shot during the morning.  I just sat there in my seat and pondered the possibilities of the image that I remembered, especially that lone tree between the rocks.  Gosh, I was really hoping that one was going to turn out good.

I found myself on a road I had not been on before and it seemed to have a lot of potential rural subjects but no compositions were jumping out at me just yet.  As I rounded one of the last bends on the road I saw one of the old Tyson Farms chicken barns to the left.  I have often wanted to photograph one of these but have never found one in a situation that provided a composition.  This one was down from the road a bit which allowed me an elevated point of view and more importantly put trees in the background rather than the sky which was really bright at this point in the day.  The clouds were starting to clear a little bit and the sun was nearly at the top of its daily travels casting some harsh light on the scene.  However, I saw potential with it and decided it was worth giving it a quick shot or two.

I grabbed my 24-70mm lens and added a polarizer.  It wasn’t going to do much as the sun was overhead, but I wanted to get rid of as much glare as I could from the scene.  I started the difficult task of finding a composition that really worked.  These barns are shaped rather awkwardly which makes a composition not quite as easy as you would suspect.  I did find a position that allowed for a 16:9 crop in the camera which included a yellow tree at the end of the barn and a section of an old fence to the right that balanced out the scene.  The sky was taking up a good portion of the frame, but not nearly as much as the native 3:2 crop of the camera.  Looking at the histogram that sky was going to cause some problems.  I needed to control the exposure if I was going to have a chance of capturing a workable image.

I pulled out a 3-stop soft edge ND grad which I was hoping would take a big bite out of the sky.  It did and allowed me to get a much more balanced exposure according to the histogram.  My first shot still managed to blow out the highlights in the center of the sky though which forced me to drop the exposure 2/3 of a stop to get the sky properly exposed.  The barn was in the shadows, but not too terribly.  I could see that I had enough data to recover the shadow details.

Now that I had the exposure figured out I started to experiment with the composition which put me in several different places and there at the end it put me in the middle of the travel lane.  I didn’t stay here long as I didn’t want to get run over, but fortunately there was only one car that came by while I was out there.  When I got this composition home I wasn’t all that happy with the lighting as the sky was just not right.  I loved the composition though and wanted to work the image a little bit to see if I could make it work.  It was readily apparent that color was not going to be the answer though.  I converted it early on to black and white to make use of the particular strengths of the presentation.

That conversion really changed things up quite a bit and allowed for a very grungy feel to the image.  I worked the tones and contrast to make for a very gritty image with atmosphere and mood which fit the lighting.  I would have preferred to have had different conditions to shoot this in, but considering it was pretty much noon, and with very thin clouds it turned out very well indeed.  I think that it does a great job at telling the story as the barn is obviously out of service and has been left to decay.  This is happening all over the county with these barns and to me, they are an iconic part of this part of NC which is why I have been wanting to capture them for some time now.  I think with the experience that I have gained with this one, I will be better prepared for shooting them in the future.  Since I live here, finding them will be much easier and I expect to have many more of them in time.

That brings me to the end of this trek.  It seems like forever ago that I woke up that Friday morning.  It also seems like forever ago that I started the editing process of the images even though that was just this morning.  Here it is 8:45 and I am finishing up the blog entry that I started over 12 hours ago.  Photography is not a fast process, but at least it is one that I enjoy.  I do hope that you are enjoying the images and the narrative that goes along with them.  I have heard from many of you that this blog is a bright spot to their day and they enjoy coming along with me on my adventures.  This was a short one in the grand scheme of things as I often go out for much longer, but there is no debating that I did a whole bunch in the time that I was out that morning.

Remember, if there are any images here that speak to you on that deep level I would love the opportunity to match you up with your very own print.  I would love to see any of these in a tangible form going out to be hung on a wall.  One or two of these might actually end up getting printed and framed for my personal collection as there are a few that I really love.  Of course, my one tree isolation is at the top of the list for a print and I actually thought about making that a limited edition print, but I just can’t justify a limited edition right now as my print volume really makes all of my prints limited editions.  My most popular image still has only been done three times, most are one off prints.  That being said, I would love for some of these one of a kind images to find homes with some of my amazing clients.

Also, don’t forget that I have three more workshops coming up in the remainder of the year.  Time is running out for my Fall Foliage Workshop that is scheduled for October 30th at Stone Mountain where I will cover a lot of the things that I have discussed in this entry.  If you like the rustic side of my photography more, then you really should consider joining me on November 14th at Outlawed Restorations for the Fall Decay Workshop which is always a crowd pleaser.  I’ll be wrapping up 2020 with my very popular Waterfall Workshop at Hanging Rock on December 5th.  Of course, I am always happy to conduct One on One Instruction for individuals and small groups where I can cover any number of techniques and skills to help get you to the next level.  I’m all about getting you where you want to be as a photographer and really enjoy the opportunities that I have as an instructor so consider making use of what knowledge I posses with photography.

Thank you for joining me and I am looking forward to the next time I go out with the camera, but I must say that I am rather tired from this last trek so it might be a while before I undertake something so intense.

Until next time….

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