When the Sky Kicks Off

· Reading Time: 24 minutes

Sunday, August, 15, 2021

I was in such a good rhythm today with getting pictures edited and ready to add to my website.  Everything was going smoothly since I had been working since roughly 7:30 this morning.  At 12:42 that rhythm was interrupted in a bad way.  Picture it…I was just starting to get the skeleton of the blog done.  The pictures were edited and ready to upload.  I was loading in the second image and the description when the office went dark and quiet.  All noise stopped except for the last song that had started on iHeart Radio which wasn’t but about 20 seconds from finishing….then absolute quiet.  The power had gone out on me.  Normally when this happens, it is back on in a matter of seconds so I just sat here in the dark and waited.  After about a minute I could tell that this was not normal.  I started to turn off the power strips in case the power came back on intermittedly which wasn’t easy considering the only available light in the office was from a single window upstairs filtering through the staircase.  As I was getting that under control, I received an email from Duke Energy stating that there was an outage  in the area affecting 630 people and they were expecting to get it back up and going by 4pm.  Well, this is new as the power usually isn’t out long enough to justify a message.  A few minutes later there was a follow up message stating that there were now 900 and some affected and restoration was due around 4:30.  OK, four hours until I could get back to the blog and finish up what I had started earlier in the morning.

Well, there I was stuck working on the phone working out a plan with a client for a photograph that she is wanting created to fill a spot on the wall that has been empty for years.  Yeah, I do that too.  I’ve been looking for something to shoot that would work with the colors in the room without luck and had finally decided on a concept for a still life shot that would not only match the room decor, but her personality.  Anyway, we are getting into the nitty gritty of things and I was looking at the examples that she had come up with and was evaluating them for possibilities in front of my camera.  In between doing that, I was doing more studying on dramatic lighting for portraiture which was not the easiest thing for my old eyes without my reading light.  Fortunately, Toni was able to complete here Zoom conference for her last day of training with Trellis as she was on a laptop with battery power and was using her phone as an internet hotspot which reminded me of how I had to work for the first month after moving into our home last year before cable was installed.

Well, power was returned a bit earlier than expected and the house was alive again at 3:20.  I waited a bit before getting the computer fired back up again though, just in case.  Here we are and the power is still on and I’m getting started with the blog again.  Of course, my concentration is all kinds of gone at this point so we shall see how this goes.  I guess I should start off by saying how this trek came to be.  Well, it was yesterday and I’m not entirely sure I remember how it happened exactly.  I know I didn’t really have anything in mind for a destination and hadn’t really considered going out for the day.  It was Sunday and I was happy staying at home and resting for the most part.  I did start the day off by getting some emails sent out for my Rust and Dusk Workshop since I had a new participant sign up late Saturday.  That actually got me a little stoked and in the mood to do some photography.

When I got done with that, I went upstairs and started to read in my book about studio lighting for that dramatic look.  The more I read the more I realized that I was spending too much time learning an aspect of photography and not nearly enough going out and pressing the buttons.  This was now how I liked to learn, and I was starting to realize that I needed to get out and work the camera to level my head during this educational process.  Looking at the weather, the rain that was supposed to be off and on all day was pushed back till after 4pm and there were good varying level clouds in the area until then.  That was all I really needed to get motivated to go out.  I gave Toni a kiss and grabbed my gear and set off on a trek.

The question was what did I want to shoot.  Honestly, I wanted to shoot people and start putting some of this stuff into practice to see just how much I was retaining from all that I was reading.  That wasn’t all that easy to do though since I kind of needed people to put in front of the camera…which I was lacking at the moment.  What I did have was my staple of landscapes, decay, and rural scenes.  One of the last times I had been out in the Miata, I had gone up around the area of Ceilo Falls up on the top of the mountain and had seen some potential out that way.  Of course, I was going a little too fast around the corners to really pay attention to what I was seeing on the sides of the roads, but it was worth another visit up there since I had not been out that way since last Winter.

Dreamland“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft ND Grad

I made my way up the mountain at a much slower rate than I did in the convertible and fortunately didn’t have anyone behind me.  I was seeing the different scenes that I had passed by, but nothing was really jumping out at me as a composition.  The light was great and the sky was wonderful with lots of texture, but the subjects just didn’t appeal to me.  There was one unique barn that I saw which I almost stopped to photograph, but I was wanting to include the sky and the barn which was going to be difficult with a grove of very tall trees behind the barn and the fact that I was going to be forced to shoot this from a distance with a long lens.  The only way that I was going to be able to include the sky was to shoot vertical and the scaling of the barn would be off and it wouldn’t be connected with the sky at all.  With the trees being as dark as they were I could tell that the image wouldn’t work at all.  However, it would very possibly work in the Winter when the trees went bare.  I’ll be back to check on it then for sure.

I continued riding around and eventually made it back to US 421 and got turned around to go back through and look at things from another point of view.  Still nothing was jumping out at me and the sun was coming out which was ruining the light that I was after for the day.  Oddly enough, the sun also brought rain with it.  I had been out for about an hour at this point and had yet to see anything that I felt would be a photograph.  I was getting a little disappointed in myself not being able to find a nice rural setting to put under this sky.  I was in one of the best areas for rural scenery and I just wasn’t finding anything at all that I liked.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the sky was just too good to play second fiddle to a less than stellar subject.  The sky was worth being my subject and I figured the best way to make that happen was to focus on landscapes.  Well, as luck would have it, I knew of a shortcut from this area up to the Blue Ridge Parkway that would bring me out around The Lump Overlook which has long been a favorite of mine for minimal landscapes.  That was just what I wanted for this sky and I would be there in about 10 or 15 minutes.

When I got up on the Parkway, the sky wasn’t quite as dramatic as it had been from down lower, but there was still some promise to it.  When I got to the Lump, the lighting was not all that great on the portion that I was thinking most about photographing.  The hill itself was looking a bit blah actually so I started to consider other options.  Maybe I just wasn’t meant to get any pictures today after all.  I started back out on the Parkway and as I was looking to the right, I could see where the road curved around the mountain and I could see the lower mountains off in the distance receding in a typical Blue Ridge hue that matched the soft clouds above.  I really liked the looks of this although I didn’t see the composition right off.  It was enough for me to get pulled off on the side of the overlook and grab my gear.

There was a slight drizzle so I was going to have to be careful not to get any water on the lens element during this shoot, but it wasn’t so bad that it was going to cause a problem.  Looking critically at the scene, I could tell that my best shot was going to be tighter than 70mm for sure so I fitted my long lens.  With the soft light, there was really no need for a polarizer so I just left the lens sans filter to get started.  I worked my way around looking for a composition that I liked and before long I started to hone in on what I liked.  I used the bend of the road as a dramatic curve into the background mountains.  The hazy tones worked up into the sky and then the clouds started to bring in more detail as the eyes went up.  The trick here was finding out just how to frame the image.  I started off with a vertical format and worked on where the edges would be.  Knowing that I was going to crop this down to either a 4:5 or 5:7 aspect ratio, I just focused on the lower edge and the two sides.  I let the top of the frame go where it would knowing that I was going to find that frame later on.

After lots of different positions I found on that bypassed the “S” curve and just focused on the last part of the curve so as to give the majority of the visual weight to the sky and clouds.  The light was pretty even, but I wanted to bring a little more density to the clouds so I added a 2-stop grad to the lens which gave just a little reduction to the exposure of the clouds and added so much mood to the image.  I got the composition fine tuned and made several exposures as the clouds moved around the sun overhead.  The more I looked at this, the more I felt that it deserved a landscape orientation with the focus on the mountains in the distance.  That was going to be a little more difficult because of elements that would start to come in from the sides.  It was worth trying though.

A Bend in the Road“, Canon 5DS R, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft ND Grad

I started off by flipping the camera and seeing what I had from the spot that I was standing.  It wasn’t quite right so I moved in closer and zoomed in a bit as well.  I found that the framing that I had on the sides for the vertical image were pretty much the extremes of what I liked.  I had tried one shot with a bit of the mountain to the left included, but it was more of a distraction as it was dark and full of textures that just climbed up the left hand side of the frame.  I much preferred the full attention going off into the distance so I repeated that same side framing with the horizontal shot.  Of course this meant that I was losing a great deal of the clouds above which had been the focus in the previous image.  I found that the trade-off here was that while the clouds didn’t have as much of a part in this composition, they did help complete a frame within a frame matching the presence of the roadway in the lower third.  The upper third and lower third were now framing the middle third which was the gentle rolling mountains in the distance.  It made this grand landscape feel much more intimate and I thought that the mood of this shot was a very workable one for the scene.

I was able to keep the filter the same on the front as it added to the density of the clouds which kept them in line with the exposure of the roadway.  The brightest part of the image was that middle third and the bright yellow line that brought the eyes into the image.  I was really liking this composition and felt that it was going to be the more successful one of the two.  While it is still true to my vision, after looking at them on the large editing monitor, I like the breathing room of the vertical one the best, but the story is definitely different between the two images as is the main focus.  In that vertical image, I keep wanting more of the mountains to show up which wasn’t possible while keeping the sky as a main element.  Instead of trying to include it all into a single shot, I was able to make two very different images out of this one scene by changing the focus of framing which is why I chose to keep both images.

I spent some more time here at the Lump dodging raindrops and trying to find other workable compositions with the dramatic sky that I was seeing behind me.  There was a great tree at the edge of the parking lot, but sadly it was surrounded by green vegetation and the more I tried to capture it in an appropriate context, the more that I found I had to include a fence that was at the base of it.  The more I added, the more complex the scene became and the focus got lost.  It wasn’t the image that I wanted to capture and I eventually abandoned the concept in favor of working some of the hill that I usually work when I am out here.  Keeping with the minimalist theory I stuck with my long lens and started to find points on the hill to put under the clouds.  Because of the look of the hill today, I wasn’t really liking anything and while I shot a couple of square cropped images, none of them turned out good enough to even start to edit to see if I could pull out what I was seeing.  The pictures were just not good and not worth any more of my time.

That was kind of where I decided that I was with this location after playing around with the other areas of it.  I went ahead and loaded up my camera and got back on the road headed South.  The rain was coming in at this point pretty heavy so I was happy to have moved on.  It wasn’t too far down the road that I came to one of my favorite locations near Mt Jefferson’s overlook.  I’ve stopped here for pictures more times than I can count.  It is with good reason as the fence and gate offer great foregrounds and there is a section of mountains off in the distance which I really enjoy seeing with the right light.  It wasn’t that fence that caught my eye this time though.  It was a lone tree that sits on top of a slight hill just beyond a barbed wire fence that captured my attention this time as I came around the bend.  The sky wasn’t quite right behind it, but I saw a minimal composition that isolated the dead tree quite nicely and I was left hoping that the clouds would move over behind the tree to provide a bit of interest to the composition’s background.

Near and Far“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

I got pulled over and looked at the fence and gate as I have so many times in the past.  It was decent and I wanted to see if I could get the sky photographed successfully with this foreground element.  I got my 24-70mm lens out which I knew would give me the most versatility for this location.  I’ve shot it with everything from a 14mm up to 200mm and know that the 24-70mm range is the sweet spot for most compositions.  Seeing that the sky had some hot spots in it from the sun, I went ahead and added a 2-stop grad and grabbed my ball cap to shield the filter from the lessening drizzle that was overhead.  I took the whole rig over to the gate and started to look for compositions.  Of course, I was familiar enough with the basic composition that I just instinctively went to the location that I like to shoot this from.  I set things up not unlike I had done many times in the past.  Since there was a post with some white flowers at the base, I chose to make that my foreground interest which introduced the gate further into the scene.  I had to elevate the camera a great deal to get the gate well below the horizon of trees so as not to interrupt the view of the distant valley which I wanted to be a main focus here.

I could barely see the live view due to the height of the camera, but I was able to make out the rough shapes that were involved in the composition and I could see the histogram well enough to make the exposure choices.  I had to guess at the focus point and aperture because I couldn’t see anything in detail.  Fortunately, I was able to place the box where I thought I needed to focus which was just beyond the gate on the “X”.  I needed to make sure that the foreground was in sharp focus and beyond the trees, I really wasn’t all that concerned with sharp focus.  I knew that there was going to be enough depth of field to get this to work.  I just sat back and made exposures every so often as the light and the shadows changed.  Occasionally, I would make a small adjustment to the composition as I saw the potential for an improvement.

Eventually the sky started to go stale and I began to look for other opportunities.  I had almost forgotten about my first concept for an image here with the one lone tree on the hill.  It was looking like the clouds might be coming into position finally so I grabbed my tripod and set off across the road to see what I could do with it.  To my memory, this was the first time I had tried this tree as a solo image.  I had used it in conjunction with the roadway a few times in the past though.  This time, I was actually up on the hill next to that fence with the full intention of making this tree the star of the image, and not just a foreground element to a broader landscape.

When Youth is Gone“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft ND Grad

The composition was not quite as easy as I had thought it would be.  I had some scraggly trees over to the left that got progressively taller and unorganized as you went away from the bare tree.  There was also a fence that I had to take into account.  there was a group of posts off to the right of the hill that bunched up with a single post a little further away separated from the group.  I couldn’t figure out how to get an image in balance with those fence posts so I moved in closer and shot over the barbed wire.  When I was composing that image I found that the trees to the left threw the image way off balance as there was nothing at all on the right of the tree except for the hill that was sloping away from the tree.  I needed something to keep the eyes from just rolling out of the frame.  That bunch of fence posts was the answer to that question.  However, by including those, I was going to have to include the one that was a little further away which would have to be to the right of the tree.  That left me with a group of four lines of barbed wire tracing off to the left with no anchor point.  That wasn’t going to work at all.  I was going to have to back up away from the tree and include the next post to the left which happened to be a good distance away because the nearest one had fallen down.

I found the right place to be in order to capture the one lone post well off to the left.  It left a long distance between the first two posts, but the fallen one provided a subtle diagonal line pointing to the trunk of the tree which I liked.  The posts provided the right balance to the image and the group of posts balanced out the scraggly trees on the left of the frame as well as keeping the eyes in the frame.  My last bit of the compositional puzzle was what to do with the fence crossing the horizon.  There was no way to avoid it because the post closest to me was well below the top of the hill and the ones in the distance were always going to be above the horizon of the hill.  I had to find a place for the wire to cross and I found that by elevating the camera to the top of the travel, well above my head, I had the top line crossing right at the base of the tree.  It was another aspect that helped to draw attention to the placement of the tree and help keep the eyes from pursuing too far down the hill.

I had my composition set at this point and I was really happy with it.  The primary focus of the image was the shape of the bare tree which was my goal.  The fence was there to keep the eyes where they needed to be through the risk of getting poked by the rusty barbs.  Hey, whatever works!  I had figured that the light was going to be even enough that I wasn’t going to need any filters, but I still had the 2-stop attached and nowhere to put it.  I would have happily held it if needed, but I was kind of liking the effect that it was having on the sky in relation to the ground.  My only concern was the tree as I didn’t want it reduced in brightness any more than being on the shaded side of the light was already doing.  With it just being 2 stops though, I was pretty sure that I could pull that exposure out easy enough and as long as the sunlight was diffused by the clouds, the shadows should be minimal here.

I just waited for the clouds to move around and took exposures every so often as the sky changed around.  It was getting rather dynamic as the storms clouds were closing in.  The rain had stopped and the breeze was almost nothing at this point.  I was actually expecting to get dumped on at any moment, but that didn’t make me want to give up on this composition though.  I had too much time invested in figuring it out and I was seeing that the clouds were going to be really helping it out in short order if I could just hold on for a few more minutes.  My patience did pay off and after about 10 minutes or so, I had a bank of clouds that came through that just about perfectly framed the tree with the same upward motion that the primary branches had.  It was the perfect background to the image and I was thrilled that I had been able to capture that.  I was pretty sure that was the best that I was going to get from this so I decided to go ahead and pack things up before the rain hit.

Hold the Line“, Canon 5DS R, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad

As I was making my way back to the truck, I happened to look down at the red gate once more time and saw the clouds were getting really dramatic over that gate once again.  The light was nice enough that I was prompted to go back and see if I could do any better than before.  Since I had just spent so much time working in portrait orientation I just left the camera attached on its side and started to look at the scene.  Since the clouds were my main concern here and there was a particular section that had a lot of interest moving towards the fence a vertical shot was going to be the right choice here.  Not only would it allow the focus to be on the gate, it would allow for more of the sky above kind of like the opening image that I had shot back at the Lump earlier.  I got the camera set up in the right spot and elevated it well above my head once again to mitigate the gate interrupting the horizon in a bad way.  I was able to leave just enough overlap to connect the foreground and the midground which was just what I was after.

I kept the same grad filter on for this shot and just waited for the clouds to move into position right above the fence.  They lost some of their structure, but the overall texture to them was awesome and I was glad that I had seen this shot developing from across the road.  It was just a matter of getting the right moment to take the image and I had the image that I was looking for.  With that, I went back to the truck feeling pretty good about the 57 images that I had captured thus far today.  After getting everything back in the truck, I got in the driver’s seat and texted Toni to let her know that I hadn’t gotten lost and that I was on my way back home.  I had told her earlier that I would probably be home around 4pm.  Well, it was about 4:20 at this point and I was about 25 minutes away from home give or take.  No sooner than I had sent that text did the bottom drop out.  I was glad that I was back in the dry truck and headed home because this rain was not something that I could work in.

I waited to do the edits on these images so that I could spend some time With Toni after work.  It wasn’t until this morning that I even imported the images into Lightroom.  They weren’t as great as I had remembered them being which was par for the course when looking at RAW files.  I sorted through them and found five that I liked enough to edit.  As I worked through them, the ones from the Lump Overlook were early favorites for the color palette as well as the compositions.  I just really liked the way the rolling mountains were incorporated into these images both as a primary element and as a supporting element.  I started to work on the ones of my favorite red gate and just lost interest in those because the composition didn’t flow the way I wanted it to.  I moved on to the single tree that turned into my favorite image from the day.  All the thought that I had put into it had paid off.  Even though I was looking at this image well after shooting it, the method to my madness was very recognizable and all of the elements flowed together as intended for me.  I now had three images that I really liked and I went back to the ones of the gate which had promise, but not the right flow.

As I was working on the vertical one which was my favorite of the two, I ended up loving the edit, but there was a problem with the composition.  The gate was proving to be a visual blockade for my eyes and keeping them from really seeing the image as a whole.  Most of my attention was on the shoulder of the Parkway which had very little interest for me.  As I pondered how to make this better, it occurred to me like a bolt of lightning.  I was forcing myself….and viewers to read this composition backwards.  I went up and flipped the image left to right which changed the direction of the main diagonal line.  That immediately allowed me to see the midground and background much quicker.  The composition turned immeasurably better with that one change and I was happy with it finally.

I took that same approach to the horizontal image and found that it had the same impact.  I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier in the process because that is one of the concepts that I teach regularly in my classes and workshops.  I know that we read an image from left to right just as a book, but from bottom to top unlike a book.  In the original format, the images just weren’t allowing the eyes to pursue through the frame smoothly and without obstacles.  By flipping them, they eyes were able to follow that strong diagonal and stay on the left side of it where the interest was.  So simple, yet so important to the image.

I do hope that you enjoyed this trek and the images.  I’m sorry that it took so long to get them out.  I guess it’s better late than never in this case.  I’m still happy with all of them and I’m really loving the single tree and the winding road going off into the hills.  I’ve realized that I haven’t been doing much in the way of landscapes lately so that fact makes this trek kind of stand out since this is the time of year that I am usually doing almost exclusively landscape image.  I’ll be interested to see what happens during the Fall and whether or not I am out there getting the Fall colors as in years past or if I just continue on with my current track of capturing only what I am moved by.  It is nice that I am finally at that point in my portfolio that I have a wide range of images from the seasons and I don’t really need to build on that just for the sake of building.  I’m enjoying the freedom that comes with shooting what I want when I want.

If there are any of my images that you would like prints of, please let me know.  That is the best way to enjoy photography because each of my images is created with the idea that it will end up on a wall to be enjoyed by all who see it.  I is that tangible print which is the definition of photography.  With all of the monitors out there and the different ways of seeing an image, there is no way to truly see and appreciate the vision of the photographer digitally.  Not only do you get an awesome print, you are also helping me out as a creative artist that depends on income from photography to be able to continue with the craft.

Until next time….

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