One Day, Two Destinations

December 20, 2013

It had been a very long week at say the least.  I was finally off, and able to do some more work with the camera.  The problem was that the weather was just not right for my first day off.  No clouds in the sky to speak of.  At least until the late afternoon when the sky was quickly covered with a whitewash of overcast.  There was just nothing that could be done with those conditions at all.  My second day off, however, brought with it the promise of some clouds.  This was good news, because I have been really wanting to return to Stone Mountain State Park in order to photograph what I believe to be some of the more interesting trees in the area.  The partly cloudy conditions seemed right for that, so I made the plan to head out to the park with my wife and photo wench, Toni.

Before loading up and heading out to Stone Mountain though, I decided to take a quick morning walk down the road to a barn which is about one mile from the house.  I wanted to play around with some long exposures and try to come up with some interesting pictures in some very low light.  While I have tried to do similar shots in the past, this was the first time I was using all existing light, and was trying to include a subject that was not exactly light colored.  I tried exposures from 2 minutes up to 20 minutes with moderate results.  While my results weren't all that grand, I was learning with every press of the shutter button.

Work to be Done
While my low light shots were lacking punch, I quickly realized that the sky was starting to develop some color in the few passing clouds.  This was promising!!  I swapped some filters around and started to dial in my exposure.  With the help of a 3 stop, hard edge, reverse ND Grad filter I was able to control the sky, and still get a reasonable exposure on the barn.  The highlight of this picture is the tree framing the color behind it.  This the only the second time that I've gotten a sunrise to mimic the shape of the landscape below.  I just couldn't have been happier the way that this early morning "test shoot" turned out.  Had it not been for the surprise color in the sky, I don't think I would have had anything to show from the hour that I was out in the cold.

After walking back home, I got things put together for a short hike at Stone Mountain.  The best part of this was that Toni was going to get to go with me.  This is the first "Trek" that she has been able to join me on since I got started with photography again.  We packed some snacks and got all the equipment that we would be needing and headed out to the park.

All the way there, the sky looked rather boring...a wash of white for the most part.  Occasionally, there would be some texture, or a peaking sun, but for the most part, I was uninspired.  However, we kept on driving down the road knowing that things can change at any moment when it comes to the weather conditions.  As it turned out, this was one of those times.  As we got closer, there was more texture in the clouds, and a little more density to boot.  It was still going to be a gamble as to whether or not we stayed low in the park, or if we climbed to some of the elevated vantage points.  After a quick discussion, we started gaining altitude along the Wolf Rock Trail.

Hiking the Trail

Mossy Stump
Toni, always interested in trees saw this section of the trail and pointed it out to me.  I have to admit, I would have normally passed this by, but I have learned over the years to trust her eye when it comes to potential subject matter.  I unpacked the camera, leaving the 24-70mm f/2.8L lens in place.  I worked to find compositions that made sense of the chaos of the trees I was seeing.  To make matters worse, the sun was starting to peak through the clouds which made for some difficult exposure settings.  When things got too difficult, I moved further along the trail and shot in the opposite direction.  That seemed to do the trick, and I ended up with two images which I feel pretty good about.  That was just from the hike up to where I really wanted to be!  I was feeling pretty good about the potential in this Trek already.

Before long we arrived at Wolf Rock to see that the clouds were moving in, and that they had pretty decent texture to them.  We hunted around quickly to find the right area to take advantage of the clouds where they were in the sky.  My favorite tree was in the wrong position for a shot just yet, but I had high hopes that the clouds would be moving that way shortly.  In the meantime, I found another small tree which was positioned just right for the clouds.  Since the tree was so small, I decided that I would make it appear much larger by using a wide angle lens, so I swapped my lens out for a 16-35mm f/2.8L, which would accentuate the tree, and show a lot of the sky and mountain range behind.

Crippled Limbs
While the sky was nice and cloudy, I quickly realized that it needed some help in the exposure department.  I really wanted a moody sky for this particular shot and the best way for me to achieve that was the use of my ND Grad filters.  I played around with several combinations until I found ones that worked for the look I was after.  The resulting shot is very moody, and full of saturation in all of the colors.  Since the star of the image is the tree with the knotted and beaten down appearance, I decided to title the piece Crippled Limbs which I think calls the attention to the tree which is still very picturesque against the dramatic sky.

From here, it was time to go back to my original subject and see if the sky was more forgiving now that some time has passed by.  Sure enough, the clouds had moved over to that location and it was ready for the photographic treatment.  Again, I had to make use of the ND Grad filters in order to keep the sky under control.  They worked like a charm, and gave me the overall exposure that I was after.

Stout Resolve
This has to be one of my favorite trees in the whole park.  I wish that it was a little more isolated, but it is easy enough to compose the image without allowing the neighboring tree to take up any valuable real estate in the image.  It took a few exposures to get things sorted out, but I was able to get one that I really liked out of three attempts.  I was having a lot of fun working these trees along the ridge of Wolf Rock.  So much fun that I had Toni help me find another tree to photograph.  The one that she found wasn't exactly like the others that I had been working on....but it was very cool in its own right, and I knew she had picked a winner!

The Fallen
Here was this amazing tree which had fallen some time ago.  The root system was a mangled mess, and very much exposed since it had been growing on the rock face for the most part.  There was no clods of mud and dirt to block the lines and angles.  The stark, bleached look of the wood helped it to stand apart from the rest of the landscape as well.  Everything just worked about this tree, and in just a few exposures, I had this image worked out.

While I was working on the fallen tree, Toni had found another scene with a tree and a pair of rocks positioned kind of close to each other.  It had captured her eye, but the way she was seeing it wasn't going to transform all that well into a photograph.  However, I did see some potential there, and started to work it out by including another element...the dished out places on the rock surface that holds little pools of water.

Wolf Rock
Again, I needed the help of my ND Grad filter selection to keep the sky under control while I exposed for the foreground.  I was able to include the single tree along with the rocks to the left.  Using these two recessed elements in the foreground, I was able to create an image that made visual sense.  An interesting element to this image is the sense of scale, and place.  There are just a handful of visual clues that help to establish scale.  The leaves in the puddles are the best clues, but they are exaggerated due to the wide angle lens that was still mounted to my camera.  The foreground has some strange curvatures which make you feel a little off balance...just as we were standing on the rocky surface.  Finally, your eyes will hit the horizon and the image will start to feel tilted.  It isn't, there were two spirit levels which were utilized to ensure that everything was plum at the time of the capture.  This is just the way the NC mountains are at times.  All in all, it does make for a visually interesting piece.

After working all of the readily apparent subjects atop Wolf Rock, Toni and I went back to the trail and continued on in search of Cedar Rock.  This was the next overlook area and I recalled it having a pretty good view of Stone Mountain itself.  While we were running out of time, and the sky was starting to clear, we felt that we owed it to ourselves to drop by for a visit and see what we could see.

View From Cedar Rock
I had a very hard time finding a suitable foreground element, but I really wanted to capture the distant exposed rock.  The sky was still interesting, but I knew that my time was short.  I finally came to a place that was quite difficult to stand on because of the extreme slope of the landscape.  I decided to make that my foreground interest.  Beyond is the highlight of the image, the namesake of the park.  I would like to have worked this out a little longer, and tried some more compositions, but in a very short amount of time, the clouds had passed over the ridge and left a very blah, and plain sky in its wake.  It was time to pack it up and hike back to the truck.  I felt pretty good about the day as I had a good many pictures saved and waiting on my review.

It was a great day in the mountains.  Not only did I get to spend some quality time with Toni, I got to add a whole new category of picture to my resume.  While winter is not my favorite time of year to capture landscapes, there are some scenes which can actually benefit from it.  I think that many of the scenes at Stone Mountain lend themselves to the barren look of the season.

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