Wilkes County Back Roads

· Reading Time: 23 minutes

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

I think it is safe to say that I am in my version of photographic heaven right now.  I am about 20 minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway for any type of landscape that I could imaging.  I happen to live right in the middle of rural Wilkes County with barns and old cars around every turn.  I can quite literally throw a rock and find a photograph withing eye-shot from that rock.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything that I see is worthy of a photograph, but you get the idea.  I have so much to capture, it is just a matter of waiting for the right conditions and the motivation to go out and capture the scenes.  The last few days I’ve been working around the house getting the yard in shape and detailing cars along with doing some modifications to my new toy which I will hopefully be introducing here in photographs before too much longer.  Today was the start of the rainy days so my outside activities were going to be limited, but with the rain comes clouds and interesting atmosphere for photography.  The question was….what direction was I wanting to throw the rock?

Looking at the weather forecast, it appeared that the more complex cloud layers were going to be close to home with them thinning out towards the Parkway.  That was all the encouragement that I needed to select rural subjects for my trek.  There was no reason to get up terribly early which was nice since there was not going to be much in the way of a sunrise and I really don’t have anything local that would work for a sunrise just yet.  I was just wanting some nice soft filtered light from the clouds to get some barns and possibly some old cars.  That was going to get started around 8am or so which was still early enough in the day to keep the lighting interesting and not too flat.  I had been out on a short exploration trip not too long ago and had seen a barn not far from the house that had an interesting barn quilt on it.  I was thinking that the forecasted sky would be a good backdrop for this barn.  Also, not too far down the road from that barn I had seen a bunch of really cool old cars by a house.  I had skipped it that day because it was just too early to go knocking on the door for a Weekend.  There was every possibility that I would be able to make contact with the owner today, so I was planning on swinging by there to see what I could get accomplished.  Beyond that, I was set to just drive until about lunch time when the rain was supposed to be coming into the area.

I didn’t wake up as early as I had hoped to, but Toni got up and woke me up early enough to get out and get started close to when I had planned.  The only problem was when I looked out the windows at the house it was looking like a very bright blue sky day.  This wasn’t good at all for me, but I knew that there was a front moving in shortly and the hourly forecast supported that.  I slowly got ready to get going and about the time the clouds arrived I was ready to head out.  I made a quick side trip into Wilkesboro to dump some recycling and then it was back out to Purlear where I was interested to see how the barn was looking under the clouds.

When I got there, I realized that there was something that I hadn’t fully considered about this subject.  There was really no shoulder to park on except for the front yard of the house across the street.  The shoulders were very narrow and I didn’t like the idea of parking on a nicely cut lawn.  The barn was looking very good, but there was just no place to pull off.  While I considered my options I continued down the road to check the possibility of photographing the old cars which were about five miles away.  The clouds were coming in strong by this point and it was even starting to rain a few hours early.  It wasn’t too much rain and I was letting it dampen my spirits at all.  It wasn’t long before the rain stopped and I was at the second location.  There was an old ’30 something car as well as a mid ’50’s Fairlane and some other vehicles that looked to have great promise.  I pulled in the driveway all excited about the potential here.  When I got out of the truck I saw another half dozen or so subjects that I could make compositions on.  I walked up to the front door and knocked.  I heard nothing on the inside, but there was a newer car by the garage that I had not seen before.  I knocked again just to make sure that I had been heard.  It was late enough in the morning that I didn’t feel bad about knocking.  Still nothing.  I noticed the camera above the door and figured that if anyone was home they would have come to the door by this point.  Not wanting to give up, I walked to each side of the house hoping that the owner would be within earshot of me saying hello.  No answer that way either.  Not seeing any other option, I went back to the truck and slowly backed down the driveway saying goodbye to some of the best subjects that I had seen in a while.

When I got back out to the road, I decided that I would look at parking options at the barn one last time.  I was feeling a little beat down at this point because my plans for the day were not working as smoothly as I had hoped.  Such is the life of a photographer I suppose.  I was back at the barn in a few minutes and while I wasn’t desperate, I wasn’t willing to let a simple thing like no parking spots get in the way of this image.  There was a section of shoulder that had been mowed a little bit, but was not part of the “official” yard of the house.  I felt that I could get about 80% of the 4Runner pulled off the road here and for no longer than I would be there I thought that I could get away with it.  I hadn’t seen much traffic at all on this road so that added to my perceived safety of the compromise.  I hugged the brush and trees with the truck and turned on the flashers since I was still in the road a little bit.  I got out and started to build the camera.

Wilkes County Quilters“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 2-stop soft ND Grad

As I screwed on the 24-70mm lens and added a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to remove the glare from the tin roof, along with a Galen Rowell 2-stop soft edge ND Grad to pull some of the exposure from the sky, I started to count the cars passing by.  One…two….three….four….five….this was getting to be a busy place, and here I was sitting partially in the road.  Well, I wouldn’t be here for a minute so I ran across the road and set the tripod where I thought the best composition was going to be.  Well, that wasn’t going to work.  I was actually needing a bit more reach than the 24-70mm lens was going to provide.  I could go back and swap the lenses, or I could use my best zoom feature and get in closer.  I stayed on the road and moved up closer to the barn trying to keep the same angle which masked the buildings behind the barn which were somewhat visible through the trees.  The closer I got, the more the buildings showed up.  To combat that I had to go down the embankment a little bit.  Looking around, this was not attached to any residential property directly so I felt confident to approach a little closer than I would if there was a house nearby.

I got my position figured out and started to compose the shot which was now coming together nicely in the standard lens that I had fixed.  In fact, I was able to go a little wider than I had anticipated to include more of the surroundings that I had originally considered.  I was seeing a really nice 16:9 ratio image developing with the gentle slope of the hill.  I was going to have to be very careful with the depth of field here though.  I stopped the lens down to f/18 and focused about 1/3 of the way into the scene which gave me suitable focus up close as well as with the barn.  I was very happy that I had my ND Grad on the lens because the sky was just a tad bright even with just a little bit of it visible above the horizon.  What I had not considered though was the humidity in the air with the warmth compared to the still chilly camera from being in the air conditioned office.  The lens was fogged over even though I had manged to get the filters cleared from just being out in the air.  The lens was causing a really bad fog on the images though and I had to do something about that.  Well, here I was about 25 yards from the truck, in the middle of the road with my camera on the opposite side of the road about 15 feet from the pavement.  I abandoned the camera to run back to the truck to grab a lens cloth.  I then sprinted back to wipe the lens off.  So much for this being a quick picture.  I had been here for at least 10 minutes now and hadn’t even made an exposure.  At least now I had the composition, exposure, filters, and clear glass. It was time to start pressing the button.  I only made about five exposures here with various compositions.  Without being able to move much from where I was, I had very few options to work with.  The fact that traffic was picking up also prompted me to not linger.  On the positive side, I was pretty sure that I had a really good composition with the barn on the right side, near the vegetation on the embankment with the composition trailing off to the left behind a grove of trees with some very interesting clouds overhead.

When I got it home, that was the image that I liked the best of all.  The quilt really showed up nicely in the image.  In fact, I could see so much more detail on the quilt than I could in person.  The quilt actually had the texture of a quilt stamped into the backing.  When I zoomed in on the image I could actually see the stamp of the Wilkes County Quilters in the lower right of the quilt.  I think that this was done as a civic project a few years back so that became the title for this image to pay homage to their hard work.  I was really glad that I had been a little stubborn about getting this image because it turned out much better than I had even thought when I was passing it by.  I had my first image in the bag, so I was ready to see what else was ready to be in front of my lens.

Madison Mansion“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

I decided to go back to the collection of old cars to see if I could do anything from the road or if I could make contact with the owner.  When I got back out there, there were no different cars visible so I didn’t bother going back up the driveway again.  Instead, I pulled off on the shoulder where there was a paved turn out across the street.  I’m not sure of the purpose, but I was very appreciative of the parking pad after my time in the middle of the road.  As I was getting pulled off the road, I could see another old International truck parked next to a singlewide trailer behind the trees where I couldn’t see them from the road.  It was going to be a long shot (a very long shot distance-wise) to get this without going deep into somebody’s property but I wanted to give it a try.  I was hoping that while I was working on this truck the owner of the house across the road would come out to investigate my activities.  I got the camera out and mounted the 70-200mm lens which I thought would be sufficient to capture the composition that I was seeing.  I added the polarizer again, but didn’t need any grads because the sky wasn’t going to be included.

I set the tripod where I thought it would be best oriented.  Well, even at 200mm I wasn’t able to get a tight enough crop to isolate the truck and the end of the trailer.  I wasn’t too far off, so I advanced my position about 20 feet which put me just at the trees that blocked the view from the road.  In these situations, I don’t want to appear like I am trying to sneak around out of sight so I was conscious about remaining visible while working this subject.  I was able to get the composition that I wanted at 170mm which was just perfect.  There was a lot of greenery in this composition so I was very thankful for the red color of the trailer which helped to balance the overall color tones in the image.  The complimenting elements filled the frame and helped add a lot of context to the story. When I got it home and started to look at it in detail I was amazed at how much that 70-200mm lens picked up.  I could actually make out the manufacturers plate on the top of the trailer.  The label of “Madison Mansion” kind of stuck with me.  It was that last piece of the story puzzle here and became the name of the piece.

I think I shot just a few images because there really wasn’t much that I could do different with the composition.  I also didn’t want to wear out my welcome and luck by remaining too deep into the property for too long.  Satisfied that I had gotten the image that I wanted, I picked up my gear and redirected my attention to the opposite side of the road.  I could see that there were two vehicles that I could reasonably get from across the road without even stepping foot on the property.  The slope of the yard dictated that I stay on the opposite side of the road to keep the angle of the camera reasonable.  With the distance involved, I felt that it was best to leave the 70-200mm lens attached for the reach.  That was easy enough and allowed me to leave everything the exact same from the previous composition.

Rose Colored History“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, 2X Mk3 Teleconverter, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

Well, I thought it was going to be enough.  My first subject was to be what I thought was the most interesting subject.  The Ford Fairlane tucked behind a flowering tree was what had caught my attention even from the front door of the house. I loved the way it was sitting under the magenta flowers which gave such a great counter element in the sea of green.  The problems here were a large post to the left which limited my angles from across the street.  To the right was the ’30’s car.  Even at 200mm I wasn’t able to compose the image tight enough to avoid those two objects.  I went back to the camera bag and grabbed my teleconverter which made my 70-200mm lens a 140-400mm lens with only a stop of light loss.  I mounted it between the lens and the body and found the right composition at 300mm which was enough to justify the extra glass in the mix.  With only one composition available, I only needed to fire off a single frame and with a confirmation that the exposure was right I moved on to the next image.

The older car had also caught my eye, and it was the easiest from the road to capture.  A quick framing of the composition I had in mind showed that I didn’t need the teleconverter anymore, so it was removed and placed back in the bag.  I then went about framing the composition that I wanted.  My first goal was to use this car to block the view of the Fairlane behind it.  That was easy enough, but I also wanted to use the magenta flowers on the tree as well as the distinctive trunk of the tree just to the front of the car.  Getting these organized were a little more difficult.  The compromise that I came across was to put the tree trunk just off the front bumper for separation which left the magenta color nearly centered in the frame.  It wasn’t ideal, but I shot a few frames of this composition hoping that it would work out.

Time Without End“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

When I got this image home it didn’t make the initial cut in favor of the next image that I will share which was a little better balanced.  However, I did like the simplicity of the single car in the frame.  I pulled it back into Lightroom after dismissing it and started to do a black and white conversion on it.  After working with it for a little while I decided that I liked it better as a color image.  I then brought it back into the color realm and edited it in that fashion.  After dinner, I had Toni come down to the office to look at this one and the other composition.  Like me, she liked them both equally as well, but was bothered by the centered nature of the flowering tree.  She suggested that I convert it to monochrome.  I let her know that was how that image had started life in the editing process.  I did a quick conversion with a red filter and she liked it better that way.  It was my earlier idea of a final presentation for this composition and here I was right back to it again.  I think that Toni was right about this one.  The lack of color took the biggest qualm away with the composition and left the focus on the car and the tree trunk.  I completed the edit in monochrome and decided that I really liked how this had turned out.  There was a certain timeless quality to it based on the relatively unmolested appearance of the car and the lack of color.  There is no indication of the age of the image other than the patina of the car which would be a relative aspect.  The story here is the timeless quality of the design of this car and it works quite well in this presentation.

The other image that had been running neck and neck with the black and white one was also a keeper.  I had shifted the composition slightly to move the flowering tree to the left third of the frame which effectively blocked the trunk of the tree with the front of the car, but more importantly, it uncovered the Fairlane behind the car.  I had originally wanted to avoid that, but in this particular case it provided a nice balance to the image and introduced a triangle of elements for a bit of visual appeal.  The post to the left prevented me from separating the two cars, but fortunately there was a bit of greenery between them which gave a little bit of a visual break between them which simplified the image.  It was not the easiest of compositions to pull off, but I managed to make it happen with only a few subtle movements of the camera to really fine tune the whole image.

When I was finished with this composition I remember pulling out my phone to text Toni and let her know how things were going.  I remember saying that I had found a great little property with a lot of cars but I needed the owner to come home so that I could get access.  I was really hoping that I would get lucky before deciding to leave.  I was actually about at that moment as I had shot all of the compositions that I could from the street.  Almost as if on cue, when I had decided to break it down and move on to another subject, a truck came down the road and I could tell by the deceleration that they were going to talk to me.  I was hoping that this was the owner.

They did stop on the other side of the road so I approached them and asked if this was his property.  He responded that it was.  I told him what I was doing and and that I had been hoping to get to talk with him.  He seemed very receptive to what I was saying and I went ahead and asked if he would mind if I shot some pictures of the cars further in on the property.  His facial expression didn’t change but he simply said no.  He clarified that I could shoot the black car, but the rest were his personal collection.  I asked if that meant that I could get closer to the black car.  He stated that I couldn’t, but he didn’t mind if I stayed right where I was to photograph it.  Fair enough, I had the images that I could get from the road.  While I was disappointed that I couldn’t get in closer, I did give him one of my cards and offered him a print if any of the images turned out that I had shot.  He took the card, and I am hoping that if he sees the images that I shot from the road he might be willing to have me come back out and get in closer.  I guy can hope…

Respecting Elders“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

With nothing else left to shoot here, I packed the camera up and got back in the truck.  At this point, I had no idea where I was going to go.  I was happy that I had shot the two locations that I had in mind, but my creativity was still in play and I wasn’t quite done with my photography for the day.  I just set out to get lost in the area of Wilkes County.  I ended up driving through Elk, Beaver Creek, and Boomer checking out the side roads.  I found a lot of potential, but nothing was jumping out at me as a photograph.  These are frustrating times for me when I am wanting to create and can’t find anything that strikes me as a composition.  I’m getting used to it though, and I have learned that usually something will just appear and speak to me.  It wasn’t happening right now though so I just kept driving and getting more familiar with communities that are around the new house.

It was getting later and later in the day at this point.  It was actually well after noon and I was still out looking.  The weather had the rain coming in between 11 and 12, but instead the sky was actually clearing in most places and the light was getting a little harsh.  It was looking like whether or not I wanted to be done I was coming to the end of my usable light.  I set the GPS for home and just started working my way there.  It put me on Hwy 268 which I have been on for much of its length with pretty good results photographically so I kept my eyes out for anything that had potential.  It actually wasn’t too long before I came around a bend in the road and saw a barn on the side of the road with a silo just on the other side of it.  There was a tractor parked under the canopy near the road which added to the interest as did the raised garage built into the side of the barn.  My favorite part was the color of the tin roof with the warm rusty tones and some really vivid greens mixed in as well.  The sky overhead was looking pretty good as well.  After my earlier experience with the barn at the beginning of the day I was thrilled to find a great little place to park on the opposite side of the road.  There was a house off to the side of the barn, but I saw a “no trespassing” sign on the front porch.  Figuring that I could get what I wanted from across the street there was no real need to go and knock on the door.  I just got the camera out and fitted the 16-35mm lens to start with as I wanted to really accentuate the size of the barn.  I knew that I was going to have to correct the perspective distortion in post processing, but I thought that this was the way to go.  I added a polarizer to deepen the colors of the roof and add a little contrast to the sky.  I wasn’t worried about the wide angle effect on the sky since there were plenty of clouds to break up the blues.

I started to get the compositions set up and quickly realized that the wide angle was probably not the best choice for this barn and my shooting position which was lower than the barn.  It just started to get very distorted very quickly.  About the time I was considering swapping lenses, I head the front door open at the house.  I looked over and and saw them come out and sit on the front porch.  They didn’t seem too concerned about me, so I decided to introduce myself and see if they minded if I came onto the property to get a better view of the barn.  She had no problem with me doing that so I brought my wide angle lens and elevated my location a bit from within her property.  I still wasn’t liking what I had composed so I went back to the truck and swapped my lens for my 24-70mm.  I kept the polarizer in place and started to work other compositions from a little further away to relax the perspective distortion.  These were looking better, but I was cutting the tree off oddly to the left of the frame which I didn’t like to do.  I kept moving around and eventually came back into her yard and decided to include the road to the right which allowed me to get a little more of a relaxed composition.  This actually started looking very promising so I spent some time fine tuning the composition from this basic idea.

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

As I was working the composition out, the sky was starting to do some really interesting things.  The clouds were starting to form lines radiating from the barn itself.  This was just perfect and helped to balance out the road and keep the eyes in the frame much better.  I kept the camera locked in on the composition that I was pretty sure was the best and waited for the clouds to move into the position that i was hoping that they would.  I would take exposures every few seconds thinking that this this was the best it would be.  I took more frames of this composition than I had over all of the previous subjects together.  This is what happens when you are waiting on lighting and clouds.  You don’t want to miss the best, but you are assuming that the best is yet to come which means that you take a lot of images.  I’m glad that I had done that though, because the one that I selected here as the best one was roughly 3/4 of the way through the series.  It was the only one where the sun was shining on the barn while the clouds were in a proper position above it to draw the attention to that corner of the frame.

It was this one image from probably 30 minutes of time that made it through the culling process and was easily the best of the group.  The edit went really easily because the light was right and the elements were all flowing together quite well.  I did clone out a white wheel that was mounted to a post to the left of the barn.  Originally, I had liked that as an element to the scene, and even did a little dodging and burning to it before deciding that it didn’t really add to the composition. I cloned it out and the scene simplified quite a bit without it so I left it out.  It didn’t make a huge difference either way, but it is worth mentioning that a element was removed from this image.

After I was pretty sure that I had the image that I was after here, I went back to talk with the lady that had come out on her porch earlier.  We had a nice chat and I gave her one of my business cards and offered a print of the barn should she find that she liked it.  I am always very appreciative of those who allow me access to their property so that I can get the images that I do.  I would be so severely limited in my subject matter if I never got access to property, so it means a lot to me when folks don’t mind my presence.

It was a very productive trek today despite the weather not really going as planned.  I managed to get two locations that I had been considering for a while now and I found another location that turned into one of my favorite images from the morning.  With the light getting harsh and the clouds clearing, it was time to head home to see what I had.  With 51 exposures, I was rather surprised to see that I had a total of six which I deemed worthy of keeping.  Easily half of that number was just of the last barn, so my hit rate from the earlier subjects was rather high to say the least.  I do hope that you enjoyed the results of this morning and remember, if any of them speak to you in a way that you want a print, please let me know and I will make sure that we match you up with the perfect print to add a little beauty to your walls.

Until next time…

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