The Southern Side of Hanging Rock

Saturday, February 25, 2017

This is one of those days that I really should have just stayed home and rested.  However, I had a free day to myself and I decided to go out and do some pictures.  Based on the weather forecast, it was looking promising to do some landscapes, but it was going to be iffy depending on how the clouds acted.  I had wanted to go up to Grayson Highlands and spend the day, but looking at the distance, and having to pay to park, I wasn't all that excited about doing that without a much better forecast.  I ultimately decided on Hanging Rock since it was close.

My goal was to hike down on the Southern end of the park along Cook's Wall Trail.  I had never been on this trail and wanted to see Wolf Rock and House Rock.  I started the day early enough and got to the park when it opened.  I decided to park at the lake since that was going to be the general direction I was going to start hiking in.  I also wanted to capture the sunrise over the lake.

The Boat House
Well, the sky really didn't cooperate with me for the sunrise.  There were breaks in the clouds to my right, but the colors just never materialized.  Before the sun fully got into the sky, I had set up my first shot of the boat house.  Ironically, I had thought that they had taken this away because I didn't see it the last time I was at the lake.  Turns out I was just looking in the wrong place for it.  I was extremely happy that I found it, and was excited about seeing the sunrise with the reflections in the water.  I went ahead and set up the shot with nothing more than a polarizer attached.  With the low light that was over the lake, my exposure time was 30 seconds.  That effectively smoothed out the water, and caused the clouds to blur in the sky.

What started out as just a test shot of the boat house turned out to be my best image from this location, and about 30 minutes of shooting.  It had a very serene feel to it, and the exposure worked very well without the need for any ND grads.  I really liked the reflection in the water of the distant trees which were still bare from the Winter.  It wasn't what I had envisioned prior to setting the camera up, but I liked it just the same.

When I decided that there was going to be no color in the sky, I went ahead and packed up my bag and set off on the trail.  I was going to stop by Wolf Rock first and see what I could do there.  I knew that it was an outcrop, and had seen some hiker's pictures of it, but had no idea what to expect.  When I got there, I was impressed and disappointed all at the same time.  The outcroppings were wonderful, but there was so much brush grown up around them that a clean picture could not be shot except for a couple of compositions.  Those compositions would have needed a much different sky to work, and even then I was doubtful about the outcome.  I decided to look for some different subject to shoot around Wolf Rock.

Welcome to the Shadows
I ended up finding a view that was relatively clear at the base of one of the outcrops.  I located a nice little slot between the rock formations just beside of a few trees.  The sweeping pine needle bed worked its way right up to the opening.  It wasn't ideal, but it would have to do.  I set the camera up and tried several different points of view.  My first composition turned into the best out of a half dozen or so attempts.  With that, I decided to go and see what House Rock was all about.

The hike took a little while, but it was clearly marked and enjoyable.  When I got to House Rock, I saw my previous problem with the sky.  The clouds were just not working with me at all.  I found a place to set up on one of the distant outcrops, shooting over House Rock.  I tried several exposures to no avail.  There was just not enough interest in the sky to make it work.  I decided to explore a little bit and see what the sky would do.  I worked my way around to the base of the outcropping and found a little cave which caught my eye.

Into the Fold
Sugar Cone
I really liked the textures I was seeing and decided to work a little bit in the abstract arena to see what I could come up with.  For this, I used my 70-200mm lens and worked on isolating parts of the cave and using the light to my advantage.  This wasn't my favorite subject, but it was nice to try something a little different from my regular shots.  I made about seven or so exposures before deciding that I was just getting a little too far outside of the box.  I started my way back up to the top to see if the sky had changed any.

Distant Undulations
Well, the sky was starting to break up a little bit.  I was able to see some texture to the clouds, and that meant that the camera would see that as well.  I got things set back up again with my 24-70mm lens attached.  I moved up a little closer than I had been previously, and worked out a composition that captured the outcropping as a foreground and the distant peaks as a background.  It was then a matter of waiting for the clouds to move around to achieve the look I was after.  I never got the full illumination from the sun on the elements that I wanted, but the clouds were interesting at least.

I stayed up here for about an hour waiting on the light to change, and it never did.  Reluctantly, I decided to cut my losses and start back to the parking lot.  I kept my eyes out for other subjects to photograph, but never could find anything.  I even tried to work out some compositions with the lake in an attempt to take advantage of the clouds overhead.  It just wasn't working at all.  It was time to leave.

Before setting a course to get home, I decided to go and hunt old cars along Hwy 89.  Surprisingly, I actually found one sitting on what looked like an old service station parking lot.  It was in the shade of a semi trailer, but with the clouds, I was going to be able to take advantage of that.  I pulled off of the road and got the camera set up....just in time for the sun come out.  Well, I was going to have to wait until the light evened out a little before I could get the picture.

I would never have that time though.  A pickup truck came into the parking lot and I was asked what I was doing.  Well, I was trying not to be a smart ass since I was standing there in broad daylight with a camera on a I simply answered "taking pictures".  Well, He didn't like that answer, and wanted to know of what.  I said the truck.....and things went downhill from there.  I apologized and said I would leave his property, but he still wanted to talk with me.  Nothing like trying to leave, but they won't let you.  I managed to get the camera put away, while I'm sure I was being covered by a firearm of some sort from inside of the truck.  I left, and was followed for a while by the truck.  Yeah, that kind of put a damper on finding old cars to photograph.

I decided I would give up and head home...but before I got there, I decided I would try one other truck that I have been wanting to photograph for some time now.  It was well off of the road and I would have to venture onto the property for this one.  That meant I was going to need to ask.  Well, there was nobody home.  The truck was looking nearly perfect in this light, and could have done so much with it.  But alas, the owners were not there, or were not answering the door.  Either way, had I continued, I would have been very much in the wrong, so I decided to save it for another day.  This day was done.

While I came back with some keepers, I wasn't really happy with this set of images.  The lighting just wasn't what I wanted, and I seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time repeatedly.  You win some, you lose some as they say.

Hiking the Linville Gorge

Saturday, February 18, 2017

After last week's Trek to Stone Mountain, I was still feeling pretty pumped about doing some landscape photography.  Looking at the weather for the weekend, there was going to be developing clouds in the morning, followed by rain in the mountains.  That really makes for a great opportunity to shoot a sunrise, followed by some waterfall shots, and quite possibly some dramatic landscapes under the clouds.  As Friday came to a close, I formulated a shooting plan for the day.  I would get up on the Blue Ridge Parkway early enough to shoot a sunrise, and then roll on down to Linville Falls, and hike down to the bottom of the gorge to get the main waterfall up close and personal.  It had been every bit of nine years since I've ventured down that trail.

As is my norm, my day started way too early at about 4am.  I got everything loaded up in the 4Runner and set my course to the Parkway.  I'm starting to get used to seeing the stars and the moon as I'm driving to the mountains expecting clouds, and today was no different.  Well, at least I knew that Linville Falls could be photographed in full sun if needed.  I was more interested to really test out the 4Runner, and get some hiking in for the weekend.  I arrived on the Parkway in plenty of time to get set up for a sunrise shoot...the trick was going to be finding clouds to work with.

Good Day Sunshine
At least there were clouds developing in the sky finally.  I was actually starting to see some color in the distant horizon as well.  This was going to be a good day!  I decided that I wanted to shoot against a fence, and I knew just the place to go.  I found this location a few months ago just North of Raven Rocks.  I pulled over to the side of the road, and opened up my gear.  I decided that for this shot, I was going to go wider than I did last time to take advantage of the clouds.  I fitted my 24-70mm lens with a 3-Stop reverse ND grad.  I found a good position that allowed me to place the fence posts against the sky, and use two of them to frame the distant mountain range.  From here, it was a waiting game to see what color developed.

I played around with the exposures until about 6:50 which was about 10 minutes from sunrise.  Things were going great until I saw that the light on the horizon was becoming very difficult to deal with.  I adjusted my ND grad and realized something.  I had forgot to move it down when I had adjusted my composition early on.  I had a big old bright line right at the horizon.  All but the first 3 shots of the day were ruined because I had made a stupid mistake.  Oh well, no time to dwell on that now, it was show time for real, and I just needed to drop the filter a few millimeters.  With that, I was back in business, and the exposures immediately improved.

Well, for the first time in a long time (it seems), the clouds cooperated with me, and the sun popped up right below them.  This is that perfect situation where the early morning warm light reflects on the clouds and makes the sky erupt in color.  I had also figured my sun position pretty well.  I wanted the fence to lead the eyes to the sun, and was hoping that the tree in the distance would be a visual barrier to keep the eyes in the frame, and into the clouds.  It all worked out very well, and the colors were just amazing!

After sitting here and making exposures for about 30 minutes, the sun became too hot to control, and I needed to move my composition over a bit.  The part of the image that I was really enjoying was the distant mountains which were nearly purple in the early morning light.  I just kept thinking about "Purple Mountain Majesty" while I was shooting these frames.  When it came time to recompose, I worked on compositions that highlighted that single aspect.

Morning Trio
The colors in the sky continued to change as the sun rose, but the mountains maintained their purple hue.  I was really enjoying this sunrise.  Despite the early technical difficulty, I was seeing great potential in what I was capturing as the images popped up for review after every shot.  It is such a shame that they look so drab on the LCD since I shoot with both the contrast and saturation zeroed out, and I use the neutral color setting.  This gives me a very flat image, but that flat image retains every ounce of color and light detail afforded me with the sensor on my 5D MkIII.  I have gotten used to waiting until I get home and process the images to really know what I've got.

As the sun continued its march into the sky, I decided to ditch the fence since it was becoming very much back lit.  I still wanted the distant purple mountains, so I got a little elevation with my tripod, and composed a shot over the fence.  I was still using my 24-70mm lens which was working very well for me.  However, with the lighting changing as it was, I decided to get rid of the ND grad.

New Beginnings
The trick with this picture was to create a visual flow.  I used the highly contrasting ridge just on the other side of the fence as the foreground.  It was picking up the warm tones from the sun, and was well lit...although from a low angle which really showed the textures.  The next layer was the distant trees on the next ridge.  They tended to go in an opposite direction from the foreground, which added some much needed visual tension.  Of course, where the trees dropped, the purple mountains showed up.  They had a completely different color, and the texture was much softer than the first two layers.  This allowed them to really draw the eyes into the picture.  The sky was the payoff for looking into the image.  The deep golden hues really showed the warmth of the sun, but there was still a dark cloud in the upper left.  That cloud provided some visual balance for the purple mountains, and the lack of dark trees on that side of the frame.  Simply put, that cloud provided the visual balance to the scene.  Speaking of visual balance, the slightly blue sky in the upper right gave a nice balance to the purple in the mountains.  It was not an easy picture to "assemble", but I really liked what resulted.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to use by hat to shield the lens here since my first test shot had some really bad lens flare from the sun.

Like I said earlier, this trip had as much to do with getting used to my new photo expedition vehicle as getting pictures.  I have to say...this truck is a great fit for what I am needing.  It is comfortable, and has no problems with any terrain.  It really looks good in the early morning sunlight as well.  My pickup truck was capable, but there just wasn't enough usable room to store my equipment while I was out doing the road trip thing.  The tripod kept falling off of the shelf in the cab, and the camera bag had to be wedged behind the passenger seat, which sometimes was difficult to get out on the side of the road depending on how wide the shoulder was.

Now, I get to have everything spread out so I can easily get to it all.  I keep my tripod in the bag on the left which has the ability to open just on the end, or along the top.  So storing my tripod when it is muddy is no problem at all.  I have room to have my camera bag open, and still have room to swap lenses, or clean filters with ease.  There are two bright lights on the lift gate that illuminate the cargo area so working in the dark is a piece of cake.  Oh, and if I really need to have a work station, the entire floor will slide out well past the bumper giving me a desk to work on.  I would say that this little 4Runner is nearly perfect for my needs...but I digress.

With the sun now fully in the sky, it was time to leave this location and set my course to Linville Falls.  The sky wasn't exactly what I had been hoping for, but I knew that clouds were not a must have for this least not from the locations I was going to be shooting from.  I was just hoping that I was going to be able to find some compositions that I liked from the gorge floor.  I recalled it being difficult at times to get into position based on the water level.  I was expecting a fair amount of water, but how much was a mystery to me.

I arrived in the parking lot and there was only one other truck there, which was a very good sign.  I was not wanting a repeat of last week's Stone Mountain adventure when there were so many people that I couldn't walk 20 feet without having to say excuse me.  I grabbed my camera bag and tripod and set out on the trail to the Linville Gorge.  The trail was a lot easier than I recalled, but they have had a lot of years to fix the issues that I had with it before.  I do know that the trails are a lot easier to follow, and are now marked which is very nice!

When I arrived at the fork for the Plunge Basin and the Gorge, I debated about checking out the Basin overlook first, but decided to go for broke and head down to the bottom of the Gorge.  I was immediately met with a rise in the difficulty of the trail.  It started to descend very rapidly, and the terrain was very rough...but that made for a fun hike.  The closer I got to the bottom the more I could hear the water rushing in the distance.  I had forgotten the roar of Linville was impressive, even from a distance.

Balancing Act
When I finally emerged from the trail, I was right at the river, but the waterfall was still out of sight.  There were some rapids, but nothing I was overly interested in photographing at this point.  However, as I got closer, there were a good many little rapids, and a large boulder that I remembered being there so many years ago.  I decided to have a go at this scene.  It was not an easy one to put together since there was very little order to the elements that I was seeing.  I decided to use the rocky shore as my framing element and the one large cascade as the foreground interest, and visual anchor.  I positioned the camera in such a way that you could follow a loose line through the cascades to the opposing shore, and them follow the more continuous line of the rather large cascading element near the shore.  This leads the eye back to the large boulder, which is then framed by another cascade.  Finding patterns in chaos is one of those fun little things that photographers get to do.

However, I needed to get a "simple" shot of the main falls, and for that to happen, I needed to skirt the rocky wall to the right.  Fortunately, the water level was low enough that I was able to walk on a ledge without having to test the Gortex in my boots just yet.  When I got to the area I was looking at, I realized that there were a couple of trees that were in my way.  I tried to go high, but they were too big for that.  Everywhere I went, they were blocking the view of the waterfall.  Granted, they were bare, and I could see the waterfall through them, but they were a distraction that I didn't want.  I pondered and pondered where I could shoot Linville Falls from, and decided I had but one option.  I was going to have to climb the cascades to the right of the boulder that you can see in the above picture.

Linville's Pool
I still had my 24-70mm lens fitted to the camera with a polarizer attached.  I figured that would be a fine option for what I was intending on shooting.  Since where I was going would not have anywhere to lay the bag to get anything set up, I had to leave the camera on the tripod as I was rock hopping, and ultimately climbing up the cascades.  It was now time to fully test out my Gortex, which I've come to really appreciate working waterfalls over the years.  I cautiously selected the rocks that I would step on, and then tested them to see how slick they were.  I tried to avoid fast moving water, and deeper sections.  It was a slow process, but I finally made it to the area that I was looking for.  Fortunately, the top of the cascades was flat so setting up the tripod was not difficult.  However, the water flowing by caused some issues since the legs were set up on very slick rock, under the water.  I had to play with the position for a bit to get it secured.  Meanwhile, I was having to play with my position which was slightly below the level that the tripod was on.  I was on a ledge that was narrower than my feet, and partially under water.  I had a cascade pouring on the toe of my boot, and I was basically standing on my toe.  I had nowhere to move, or to shift my wight without really getting off balance.

To make matters worse, In order to get the composition that I wanted, I needed the camera higher than it was.  The legs were already extended as much as they would.  It was time to extend the center section, which put the camera about six inches over my head.  I was already balancing on one foot, with my weight on the ball of my foot.  Now, I had to stretch to see what I was doing with the camera.  Come to think about it, that is why my toes are so sore right now.  I did get the composition that I wanted with the rocks in the foreground providing a visual frame for the scene.  There was even a slope on the left side of the frame that balanced out the slope of the waterfall to the right.  Every element had a counter element, and I thought I had a really good visual balance here.  Now, if I could just not fall into the water, pulling the camera with me!

This was not a simple point and click affair either.  I was waiting for the sun to light it up the way I wanted which meant that I was snapping exposures every couple of minutes.  At least the exposures were not my typical 3-13 seconds long. With this much power, I didn't need more than about 1/5 of a second to get the milky look while retaining plenty of detail in the water.  After about 15 minutes of standing there, I finally decided that I had what I wanted, and needed to get off of that ledge.

That was going to pose a problem.  My feet were numb from standing there so static, and my knees were locked.  That made it difficult enough to retreat to the shore, but I had to carry my fully assembled camera on the tripod as well.  Boy, that was slow going back down the cascade.  I couldn't remember the route I had gone up, so I created a new route on the way back down and remember thinking to myself, I just needed get out of the water before I slipped because my legs were so fatigued from holding their position for so long.

Fortunately, I made it back to the shore safe and dry.  I looked around for other areas that I could set up at, but was unable to find anything that I liked on this side.  I decided to go back downstream and see about blending the two images that I have included so far into one composition.  It was a little easier to skirt the rocky wall to get back to the trail area after rock hopping in the cascades.  Even holding the tripod with the camera didn't really bother me at this point.

In the Gorge
I found the approximately position that I wanted to shoot from, but I had a problem.  There was a huge boulder right where I wanted to shoot from.  Not wanting to try to climb on top of it with the camera, I opted to climb a slightly smaller on just to the side of the big one.  Unfortunately, the big one was still in the way of the scene I wanted to capture.  This meant that I was going to be extending the tripod all the way up again in an attempt to shoot over the boulder.  Surprisingly, I was able to get enough altitude to make this happen.  Of course, with me standing on the downward slope of the rock, back on my toes to see the camera, I was having a real hard time making the composition.  I had to rely on instinct more than anything else to set things up.  Every move was cautious to keep from losing balance with a camera backpack still on my back.  I was able to dial everything in and get some good exposures based on the histogram.  I was using the same shutter speeds that I had for the main falls earlier since I knew that those worked for the water flow.  I wasn't sure how the smaller cascades were fairing, but I had to trust that they were looking good too.

Once I had a couple of different shots, I decided to bring the camera down to my eye level and start to review the shots.  I was pleasantly surprised with how they were looking.  Considering I was shooting basically blind, they looked really good, and I had high hopes that I would be looking at a keeper out of this bunch.  With that, I was ready to get back to solid ground.  My sense of balance was really being put to the test, and I didn't like it.

I got back on the trail and started my way back to the parking lot after I stored the camera back in the bag.  The hike out of the gorge was long and steep, but went rather quickly.  I arrived back at the fork where I had decided to forgo the Plunge Basin overlook about an hour ago.  I was feeling froggy, and hadn't been to this overlook since 2006.  I figured....why not give it a try.  It was not one of my favorite views, and when I photographed it in 2006, I had climbed over the wall and set the camera up on a very small ledge.  I was on that same ledge, and if I had lost my balance, I stood a very good chance of falling a couple hundred feet.  I wasn't going to do that today, and that made me apprehensive about how I was going to shoot this view.

When I got there, I looked over the wall at the ledge that I had shot from all those years ago.  One thought came to my mind...."I'm an idiot for doing that!"  Sure, I got the shot with the colorful flowers in the foreground, but that ledge was just no joke.  I'm older and wiser now...and a little more scared of heights.  I was also seeing a problem with the available compositions from the overlook though.  The bush that had yielded the flowers 10 years ago was now higher than the wall, and was blocking the view of the waterfall.  Now, it was bare, but like in the Gorge floor, it was going to prove to be a distraction for the picture.  My only other option was to climb up on the rocky outcropping that formed a natural wall to the overlook.

Climbing up to it was not difficult.  The view down from it was very difficult though.  There was a straight drop on the front and to the right.  there was enough room to set my tripod up, but not much extra.  With me up there too, there was no room to put my camera bag to build the camera.  Since I had to climb up there with the camera safely off of the tripod, I had to build it while standing on the ledge.  The bag happened to fit nicely under the tripod, and I was able to build the camera there.  I had many thoughts of standing up and bumping the tripod though...which would have launched it right over the edge since the legs were as far forward as they could to so that I could get past the bush and avoid it in my composition.

I decided that my 70-200mm lens would be the best option for this shot, and fitted it along with a polarizer.  I tried a horizontal shot at first, but found it to be lackluster in composition.  This one needed to be shot vertically, but I was going to have to pay a lot of attention to the composition sine the perspective was so extreme from this vantage point.  I decided on a close in crop which highlighted the waterfall as well as the feeding stream above.

The Plunge Basin
I wasn't quite sure how this was going to turn out, but when I saw it on the LCD image review, I was sold on the fact that this was going to be a really great image.  There was so much balance in the composition, and the relatively fast shutter speed provided a lot of visual drama.  Despite not having a dedicated foreground, the extreme angle of the image provided a lot of depth to it.  From this angle, I even got to take advantage of the green water at the base of the falls, as well as the feeder stream.  I worked with several different exposures to make sure that I had the right shutter speed.  I even repeated the shots with the camera slightly off plum to ensure that when I started to process the images away from the location, I was going to have the right perspective.  

After standing in this precarious position for far too long, it was time to pack the camera up and head back to the truck.  It was a slow and arduous task as I didn't want to send anything over the side of the ledge.  I was able to get everything put away without incident, and got back on the trail with no worries.  There were starting to be more and more people on the trails, and that meant it was time to get on out of here.

After getting back to the truck, I decided to go out and look for some other landscapes before going home.  That was easier said than done, however.  The clouds were pretty much just an overcast.  There wasn't much detail at all in them, but that didn't stop me from trying one overlook before getting back on the highway.  I shot about 25 frames, but sadly, none of them turned out to my liking.  It was time to call it a day and head home.

While I didn't have my normal hit rate from this trek, I was still very happy to add these seven shots to my catalog.  They represent exactly what I set out to accomplish this morning, and that makes me very happy.  I tried some other experiments that didn't pan out, but I still learned from them.  It was a really good day...and if I never have to perch myself atop slick rocks in a river, or on a narrow ledge, I'll be even happier.  Yeah, I put myself in a dangerous place once again, but it was nowhere near as bad as where I set up last time I was at the Plunge Basin overlook.

A Summer Hike in Mid-February

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yes, you read it right....I went on a Summer hike in the middle of February!  For those of you not familiar with North Carolina, allow me to clarify.  If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.  It has been an odd Winter to be sure.  It has been a lot milder than normal, yet we had a pretty deep snow in the middle several days below freezing.  This weekend has been getting progressively warmer, which has brought on the affliction of "Spring Fever."  Wanting to get outside and go for a hike, I was looking forward to the warm temperatures, and was getting rather excited about the clouds that were forecasted for the general area.

There have been a couple of things that I have wanted to do here lately.  One of which has been working with my 10-Stop ND filter for some daytime long exposure photography.  I have tinkered with this a couple of times now, but nothing like what I want to do with it.  The other thing is a technique that I have never even tried before.  This would be stitching together two or more images to make a panorama.  I have always loved the idea, but the computer end of it was a little too technical for my brain.  Now that I'm working with Lightroom, the stitching process is quite easy, and I wanted to give it a try.  However, I had not come across the right scene for a panorama, mainly since I don't usually "see" in that format.

The best place for me to work on both of those techniques was Stone Mountain.  I can find some of the most interesting vistas there with the many balds that are scattered around the park.  There are several different trails that go to the high points of the park, and that gave me lots of options to take advantage of the clouds I was expecting.

My morning started out rather early, but I stayed in bed for an extra 30 minutes past my 5am alarm.  I'm not complaining at all!  I had checked the weather, and the cloud forecast was much thicker than I had expected with a forecasted 100% coverage.  This meant that there would be no real chance for a sunrise, and I didn't need to stress getting to the park right when the gates opened this time.

When I left the house at 6:15, I looked up and saw stars and the moon.  Well, that is a little funny looking for a totally cloudy sky.  I was already in motion, and I figured I would go to Stone Mountain as was my original plan.  Hey, I might get some patches of blue in my sky...that is, if the clouds actually did arrive.  The entire trip to the park was filled with clear skies.  I could see some distant clouds over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but they were much too far away for me to benefit from them.  I was starting to work on alternate plans for my Trek since it was not looking like I was going to get what I wanted on the upper trails.

At least there wasn't anyone else in the park when I arrived.  That is always a nice thing to have the area to myself.  This also marks the first "real" Trek that I have done in my new 4Runner.  Other than a quick after work trip to Pilot Mountain, this is the first dedicated trip I've made in this truck.  It worked out great for transporting my equipment, and I have no doubt that when it comes time to leave the paved roads it will do even better for me.  I've still got a few things to do to it, but it is mostly ready to be put into service as the photo expedition vehicle.

But I digress...Let's revisit the current situation.  The sky was mostly clear, but there were some clouds starting to move in.  That was promising and motivated me to continue on with my original plan of hiking the upper trails around Wolf Rock, Cedar Rock, and Blackjack Ridge.  The air was slightly crisp, and was about 51 degrees when I started out.  I was comfortable in my long pants, and I hoped that they wouldn't be too much later in the day.  I got to Wolf Rock in about 20 minutes or so and set out looking for some compositions.

Nothing was hitting me today at this location.  Normally, I can find all sorts of things to photograph, but I just wasn't feeling it because of the lighting and the locations of the clouds.  I chose to give this spot up, and return later in the afternoon with the sun in a different position.  It was back to the trail I went, and Cedar Rock was my next stopping point.  I was just hoping that I had better luck there!

The clouds were not doing me any favors, but at least the lighting was decent.  I had wished the light was situated so that I could shoot out over the mountains, but without clouds, I was at the mercy of the sun.  At least Stone Mountain has some wonderful erosion paths worn into the granite surface.  With the low sun, I decided to work these leading lines with hopes that the clouds would soon arrive.

Uphill Battle
Just when I was about to give up on the clouds, I saw a bank of them starting to move across the tree tops.  I flipped the camera over to fully take advantage of the visual interest in the sky.  The leading lines that I was working made for a perfect foreground interest.  I was using my 70-200mm lens which was doing an excellent job at compressing the image and keeping the background to an appropriate scale.  Since I had my intensifying polarizer attached, I was unable to use my lens hood.  This meant that I had to use that well worn boonie hat that I've had for about 10 years now to shield the lens from the intense sun directly to my right side.  This is one of the reasons I always wear this hat when shooting landscapes, and it has earned its place in my tool box because of it.

Bleak Existence
I worked my way around the landscape and found one view that I have worked before.  Just on the other side of the tree line is where I normally go, but today, I was feeling a little froggy and decided that I would step back and go with a different approach.  I swapped out my lens for the 24-70mm, and fitted it with a polarizer as well as a 2-Stop ND grad to control the sky.  This picture represents about 30 minutes of work.  The clouds were starting to come in, but those same clouds were blocking the sun.  I was having to wait for the clouds to break and let the sun shine through, while the clouds were still over the mountain.  This is probably the most frustrating part of photography, but also one of the most rewarding when it works out.  This time, it actually did work out, and I got the shot I was after.  The barren foreground worked much better than I had anticipated, and provided a great visual balance with the distant Stone Mountain.

Bleak Existence in B&W
When I got home, I looked at this photograph with a slightly different eye.  I was really enjoying the textures, and the sky was quite interesting.  It just screamed to be rendered as a black and white.  With a quick conversion, and some fine tuning, I was really quite happy with the monochrome look for this picture.  Everything that I enjoyed in the color version was amplified here, and that is always a good thing!

I shot some other compositions here, but none of them really turned out all that great.  While I was thinking that I had a few good shots, I was pretty much just trying to salvage the day.  Granted, the hike was wonderful and something that I was desperately needing.  Of course, I was really wanting to make it worth my while bringing this 30LB bag with me.  I knew I wasn't capturing the images that I had set out to get, but I figured the more I tried, the more chances I would have to get a few really good images.  It just wasn't going to be here at this section of Cedar Rock.

I hiked back to the main trail, and continued on to Blackjack Ridge.  I don't think that I have ever been on this trail before, and I was excited to see what was to be seen.  Well, I now know why I haven't been on this trail before.  There was actually very little to see in terms of photography.  There were no overlooks, or breaks in the trees where I could shoot the face of Stone Mountain.  The trail was really nice though, and was mostly downhill.  At least until I hit the valley.  Then it was a steady climb back up again.  I kept my eyes out for photo ops along the way as it wasn't looking like I was going to get anything out in the open to shoot.

Find Your Grip
There are times that even though Toni isn't with me that I hear her talking to me.  This was one of those times.  When I passed by this one particular tree with a single exposed root, wrapped around a rock, I knew it was going to be something that she would like.  I pulled the camera back out, and kept the 70-200mm lens fitted, but I added an intensifying polarizer to remove the glare from the leaves and bark.  I started out with a simple horizontal shot that took advantage of the three tree trunks.  In case you didn't know, three is the magic number in photography.  If you can group things in threes, then there will be more visual balance.  Shooting at a relatively wide aperture (f/5.6), I was able to show depth in this image by throwing the background out of focus.  That also helped in keeping the main attention on the tree root, and the deep green leaves right beside of it.

Getting a Leg Up
Not wanting to stop working on this subject, I decided to try some more compositions.  Of course, a vertical orientation was a given to emphasize the tall and narrow aspects of this one tree.  I flipped the camera on its side and there it was.  An overwhelmingly simple composition that highlighted all the elements that I wanted.  I even lucked out that there was a large rock behind the leaves which helped to give them some visual pop.  This was a really cool shot, and one that I would have missed had I not opted to go down this rather long section of trail.  

I continued until I got to the next intersection that brought me to the other end of the Cedar Rock trail.  Having had some good luck with Cedar about an hour ago, and wanting to go back to Wolf Rock, I decided to head back up the trail that I had started a while ago.  My other option would have kept me in the low lands of the park, and the sun was causing too many issues for that to be a good idea for much longer.

The Granite Slopes
When I first stepped onto Cedar Rock slightly off of the trail, I found a fallen tree limb next to a little patch of vegetation.  In the distance was one of the balds.  The clouds were actually coming toward me, and there was a good deal of blue in the sky.  This was going to be my chance for a long exposure shot!  I fitted my 16-35mm lens with the Lee filter holder.  I composed my image, and calculated the exposure before adding my 10-Stop ND filter.  I then added a 2-Stop ND Grad to control the sky.  I was able to shoot at f/18 for 25 seconds at 100ISO, which was pretty good considering the amount of sunshine I was dealing with.  As I did before, I used my boonie hat to shield the lens since I couldn't fit a hood on it, and I used my hand to block the light through the viewfinder.  I tried about 4 exposures until I got the one I wanted with the clouds just so.  Well, at least I was working on my long exposures once again.  This is a fun little technique!

I kept my rig built as it was, and started looking for other possible compositions.  I moved up towards where the actual trail was and was pleased to find a nice island of vegetation, including a reddish plant. As I moved closer, I could see that Stone Mountain was positioned in a way that I could use it as a background for this little island.  My 16-35mm lens was just perfect to make this image work, so I left it attached.  The wind was a little gusty here, and with the foreground consisting of small bushes, I didn't want to risk blurring the foreground with a long exposure.  I stripped off the 10-Stop filter and chose to set the shot up with no filters.  Since there was blue in the sky, I was worried that a polarizer would cause banding at such a wide focal length.

Precarious Dwelling
After I shot a few test shots, I decided that I needed to fit an ND Grad filter to control the sky a little bit. I went with a 2-Stop Grad and found that the exposure was quite nice with that filter...that was until the sun started to peak through the clouds.  The surface immediately lit up, and caused the exposure to look funny with the sky much darker than the foreground.  I pulled the filter off really quick, and dialed in a new exposure. Yep, that was what I was looking for!  The histogram showed me that everything was looking good and nothing was getting clipped.  About as quickly as the sun hit, it was covered up once again.  But I was quick enough that I captured that moment.

I wondered what was on the other side of the trees, and hoped that it was another chance to get a nice view of Stone Mountain.  I left everything built on the camera and just walked down the little trail.  Once I cleared the trees, I was very happy with what I saw.  There was Stone Mountain, just as clear as the day is long.  I've been here before, and had a very hard time getting a composition since there isn't much in the way of a foreground.  I started to hunt something...anything to put in front of the camera to avoid the post card shot.  I wanted to show depth, and that was going to be kind of difficult.  The answer came in the form of some weird luck.  Just under the shade of the trees, I found a patch of moss that was growing on the stone surface.  Along with the shadows, I figured that I had the foreground that I was after.  I just needed to work on a composition.  I knew that I wanted to use my 16-35mm lens which was still on the camera.  I started out shooting with no filters, and found the image a little blah.

Nothing but Time
What this image needed was some excitement!  There were no dramatic leading lines that would draw the viewer into the picture, so I had to come up with something else.  Well, I did still have my 10-Stop ND in my pocket, so I figured I might as well give that a try.  I wasn't looking at anything up close that would be bothered by the wind, and the clouds were moving at a nice clip.  With the filter attached, my shutter speeds slowed to 30 seconds at f/20, 100ISO.  I fired off about half a dozen frames with this composition until I could get the clouds to look like I wanted them to.  The textures here are really the best part of the story.  There is the soft dreamy look of the clouds, and the rather crisp rocky surface in the foreground.  The trees add another texture to the mix as well.

Nothing but Time in B&W
With all that texture, and the range in light to dark, this one was a natural for a monochrome conversion.  As with the other conversion, I went into Photoshop and tweaked the image until I was happy with the black and white version.  I was able to really emphasize the textures and light in this picture.  I'm still thinking that I like the color version better, but both make me very happy and they both stand on their own merits as images.  I'll always consider that a success!

I was really starting to enjoy Cedar Rock.  I was finding all sorts of little treasures up here.  I kept searching for other compositions, but was finding myself running out of dramatic options.  I had ended up back at the section where I had been earlier in the day.  There was still some very nice lighting, and the clouds were much better now.  I started to set up to reshoot some of the compositions I had done earlier and then thought I didn't want to do that.  I was looking at a large area with lots of little points of interest, but nothing that really jumped out independent from the others.  Could this be?  Was this going to be my chance to do a panorama?  I had a very wide area that I had never captured before, and the lighting was relatively uniform.  Yeah, I might as well give it a try.

I swapped out my wide angle lens for my 70-200mm.  Yeah, I know this seems a little counterproductive to take an ultra wide view with a long lens.  There is actually a method to my madness though.  If I had shot with my wide angle, I would have had a lot of perspective distortion to deal with.  It isn't an issue with a single shot, but when I am stitching several together, it causes problems...or so I've read.  Using my lens at 70mm, I wasn't going to have that issue to deal with.  The issue that I had was getting enough height to the image.  To deal with that, I flipped the camera on its side, and shot portrait orientation.

Cedar Rock
I set the tripod up as level as I could make it using the spirit level.  I then did a few mock sweeps of the camera to make sure that it was going to be level through the entire sweep, left to right.  I also used this time to pick my proper exposure for the average lighting of the image.  I picked out my edges, and set my focus to about a third of the way into the image.  I then started making my exposures...nine of them to be correct.  I wasn't sure how this was going to work out since looking at the image reviews showed individual pictures that had no real composition to them.  It wasn't until I got home and stitched the images together that I saw the final result.  What you see here is an image that is 577mb in size, and can be printed as a huge image.  I'm happy with my first attempt at a panorama, especially after thinking that today wasn't going to be the day for it.

With the pano done, I had had gotten all of the goody out of Cedar Rock.  There was nothing left that excited me with the current conditions.  I packed up the camera and walked down the steep slope, back to the trail.  When I got to the bottom, I happened to look over at the old wooden stage that has been falling in for some time now.  There was a lot of interesting trees in the area to the side of it. With the clouds coming in pretty thick now, I thought that I had the chance to do some woodland shots before going back to Wolf Rock.  As I was working my way off of the trail, I saw an old chimney that I had forgotten was there.  The way that the light was, I knew I had to shoot this.  I pulled the camera back out again, and left the 70-200mm lens on.  I added an intensifying polarizer before getting low to the ground.  I chose a position that would allow me to frame the fireplace between two trees with the branches providing the upper frame for the image.

I just loved the warm tones of the bricks and stone used to make this fireplace.  The surrounding greenery, and pale tree trunk really made the stonework pop.  For something so simple, I was really excited about how it was looking in the LCD when I reviewed it.  It was really happy with it when I got it home and saw it on the big computer monitor.  This image just

Wrinkled and Spiked
Like I said, it was the fallen trees that drew me off of the trail, and I wasn't going to leave until I had given them a chance as well.  Although, I have to admit, after the fireplace, I wasn't all that excited about the trees anymore.  There was one that caught my eye though.  I went over to it, and decided that I really liked the textures of the bark, and there was a little bush growing right to the side of it which provided a great contrasting element.  I left the camera as it was with the long lens and polarizer fitted.  I shot it first in horizontal orientation thinking that captured the flow the best.  I liked the shot, but it was missing a certain intimate quality that I thought this called for.  I flipped the camera on its side...

Old and New
That was what I was looking for!  I had all the textures I needed with the two subjects, and there was enough color there to really make both elements pop.  This was another one of those that I heard Toni talking in my head.  It wasn't one that I would necessarily normally have shot, but I was really happy with the outcome.  So happy, in fact, that I saw no need to shoot any of the other trees out there because they wouldn't have turned out nearly as good as this one.  It was time to pack the camera up, and head out to Wolf Rock.

It didn't take me long to get there, and when I did, I was really surprised to see so many hikers out there.  I had only passed a handful of other hikers on the trails up to this point.  Now I was looking at easily 25-40 people just on the first section of Wolf Rock.  They were loud, and spread all over.  I looked for some workable compositions, but honestly, all the noise was killing my creative mood. It was time to hit the road to home.  That was probably for the best since it was now over 80 degrees, and I was starting to get very hot in my long pants.  That should not have been a concern in mid February!

I had been in the park for about five hours.  In that time, I had shot 119 frames, used all three of my lenses, and used four of my filters.  I had done my long exposure shots as well as my first panorama.  Despite the lackluster start to the day, Stone Mountain didn't let me down today.  This is quickly becoming my favorite place to shoot, as every time I come here, I leave with a camera full of images to process.

Searching a Sunset in Forsyth County

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I had planned on heading out to Stone Mountain for a day long hike with (hopefully) lots of pictures.  The weather changed a bit overnight and when I woke up, there were going to be precious little clouds to work with in Roaring Gap.  I decided to give up on that idea and stay in bed for a while longer.  When I got up, I wondered around for a bit around the house, and eventually changed the oil in the Chevy.  After that, I was noticing that the clouds were starting to come in a bit.  That gave me the idea to go and shoot a barn that I have tried to do several times here recently.

I loaded up the car and made my way out to the barn.  When I got there, I wasn't happy with what I saw once again.  There were just too many buildings behind the barn, and there was just no way to shoot this with the trees bare like they were.  While I had a workable sky, the picture just wasn't going to be what I wanted.  The decision was made to try again in late Spring, with some stormy skies.  For now, I was going to try and find a good location for a sunset, and see if there was anything else that I might want to shoot.

Well, the lighting was great for a change, but I just wasn't too happy with what I was seeing as far as subject matter.  I had a completely open mind for a change, and was looking for landscapes, old cars, and barns.  I would have looked for waterfalls, but there just aren't any on the back roads of Forsyth County.

As I was milling about on Sandy Ridge Rd, I saw an old medal sided shed that I had passed many times before.  It was set well off of the main road, and there was an American Flag, as well as 101st Air Cavalry markings on the side.  I had never stopped to shoot a picture here before, because while the decorations were pretty cool, the shed just lacked any punch for me.  Today was a bit different though.  Today, there were some deep clouds in the background, and the sun was poking through some holes on the other side of the road.  It was magic light!  I remember thinking to myself that great lighting can make a so so picture wonderful.  I decided to give it a shot...or two.

Air Cavalry
The hardest part here was actually getting the elements to line up just right.  You see, it was windy, and the clouds were moving very fast.  That meant that the lighting was changing almost by the second.  I didn't want to waste a lot of time finding the right composition, so I went with the view that caught my eye to start with.  I chose to use my 70-200mm lens to get the reach I needed from the side of the road.  With the clouds and lighting that I was seeing, there was no need for any filters, so I shot nekked...Get your mind out of the gutter!

It seemed that every time the wind died down, the sun would hide behind the clouds.  One of the most important parts of this scene was the flag on the side of the shed.  If it wasn't hanging straight, I lost the primary grab of the subject.  Without the lighting, the shed didn't pop against the clouds.  The intersection of those two elements were rather elusive, but I was able to get a couple of successful shots where everything lined up pretty well.  What you see above is one of the best ones where I managed to time the exposure at that perfect moment.

Golden Glow
Before I packed up my gear, I decided to put a little attention on the tree to the left that was catching the sunlight rather nicely as well.  It is odd to see buds on a tree in the first half of February, but then again, I was shooting with shorts and sandals in the middle of the Winter.  North Carolina weather is strange!

I used the reach of my long lens racked out to 200mm to frame the tree really close against the clouds.  Once again, I played a waiting game for the sun to bathe it in a warm glow.  This was much easier than trying to get it to correspond with the wind dying down too.  I grabbed a couple of shots where I was happy with the exposure, and called it a day for this location.

I continued on with my search, and tried to find some places I could shoot a sunset.  Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything else that could take advantage of the light I was seeing.  Also, I could see the clouds building up in a way that I was seriously doubting that I was going to see a good sunset.  With 30 some frames taken, I decided to quit while I was ahead.  I wanted to see what I had captured, and I was hoping that they turned out as good as I was thinking they would.

Tomorrow, I should be doing some hiking at Stone Mountain with some grand landscapes, and possibly some panoramas being shot.  I'm looking forward to my day in the mountains, and I have my fingers crossed that the forecast goes in my favor for a change.

Quick Morning Hike Before Work

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Easy Going
My work schedule doesn't allow me much time for photography other than on the weekends when everyone is out and about, so when I get the opportunity to go somewhere on a weekday, I will rarely pass it up.  Since I had a meeting late in the day, I got to go in later in the morning.  That meant that I had a few hours at the beginning of the day that I could play with.  With the weather calling for 75% clouds, I thought that the safest bet would be to work some waterfalls.  This was especially promising since there were some pretty heavy rains on Wednesday night.  The problem was, I didn't have long, so I couldn't spend it all traveling.  I needed something close, which has always been Hanging Rock.

I've photographed Hanging Rock so many times in the past, that I am pretty sure I could walk through the compositions in my sleep.  however, waterfalls are always different depending on the water flow.  The last couple of times that I have gone there recently, Hidden Falls has been nearly dying of thirst.  With nothing but a trickle, I chose not to do much with this waterfall on those occasions.  I had much higher hopes for it this time though.

I left the house at 6am so that I could be at the park when the gates opened.  I was actually hoping for a really good sunrise that I could shoot over the lake.  The reality of the morning was was windy, and there were very little clouds in the sky.  That meant that my sunrise idea was not going to work, and I was going to have to really hustle to get to the waterfalls before the light hit them.  As I got to the park, the clouds were starting to build up, but I wasn't seeing the clues for a good sunrise.  With the time constraint on making the waterfalls, I chose to skip the sunrise and start the quick hike out to Hidden Falls.

When I got there, the water flow was quite good for a change.  I opted not to go with my wide angle lens, and chose to stick with a more restrained 24-70mm.  Of course, I fitted an intensifying polarizer to control the glare and to add some pop to the colors.  As it turned out, I was starting to shoot before the sun even was above the horizon.  This added some interesting elements to my shot.  First of all, the color temperature was very cool, with me being in the shade, and then having the early dawn sky above.  No matter what my white balance was set on, I was looking at a completely different color pallet than I was used to.  I wasn't sure how this would turn out, but I went ahead and framed the shot anyway.

I chose to get down low, which I don't normally do.  This provided an interesting perspective that I don't usually get in my photos of this waterfall.  I wanted to add a bit of size to it, and power.  I thought that with the color tones, that was the appropriate thing to do.  I was liking what I was seeing, and with the light being so dim, I was able to get a 20 second exposure without needing a ND filter.  That was pretty cool!

Elegant Layers
This waterfall works as both a landscape and portrait shot, so I decided to flip the camera and compose one in vertical fashion.  I had to change my location a bit to get things organized the way I wanted them. I also raised the camera to get a little more detail on the upper surfaces.  It lost some of the visual punch, but gained a little bit of serenity with the change in composition.  While very closely related to my opening composition, this one stands on its own with a completely different feel and flow.

While I was shooting this particular composition, the sun was starting to come up, and the lighting was changing quite a bit.  In fact, my exposures were down to only 10 seconds, but that was still plenty to get the detail that I was wanting in the cascades.  The down side to the sun coming up was it wasn't going to be long before I was going to have highlights to deal with which don't usually work well for waterfall photography.  I was also seeing some very good color in the sky.  Maybe I should have stayed up at the lake and shot the sunrise.  It was actually quite pretty from what I could see!  Unfortunately, I was just too far away to make it up there in time.

I was finished with this waterfall though, and had packed up my camera.  My initial thought was to go out to the lake and shoot some of the cloud movement in the sky over the water.  I've really started to enjoy doing long exposure clouds here recently, and this was going to be a perfect opportunity to do just that.  I got maybe 100 yards down the trail, and reconsidered.  You see, Window Falls was just a little further down the trail, and the last time I shot it, there was not much water flow at all.  Having been rather impressed with Hidden Falls, I thought that the water would be worth the continued hike to the next one.  The lighting was going to hold just long enough for me to do that one other waterfall.

The Unveiling
It didn't take but a few minutes and I was there.  The water looked almost like I was expecting.  It made for a pretty sight, but the surrounding scenery was still not all that great.  There were fallen trees at the base of the waterfall, and other general clutter.  This wasn't all that new, as most of that had been there for a long time.  This usually meant that I had to zoom in close to the waterfall to avoid the ground clutter.  Today, I decided to try something a little different.  I fitted my 16-35mm lens with the same polarizer, and stood up on the elevated embankment.  I had the tripod partially on an old stump, and using my lens almost racked out, I was able to shoot over the ground clutter, while still getting a fair amount of foreground interest in the shot.  The rocks to the lower left provided a great leading line to the waterfall, and the rocky wall gave a nice treat of texture for the eyes just to the side.  It was a variation on the usual composition of this waterfall.  What I did next was an even bigger variation on what I normally see.

Double Drop
I hiked down to the base, and then crossed the water to get to the other side.  Using the same lens, I found a position that cropped out the overlook of the waterfall, while keeping a very odd perspective on the two layers of rock that the water cascaded over.  This is the second time I've done a shot from this side, and every time I do it, I'm surprised.  It doesn't look anything like the Window Falls that I know so well.  From this angle it is hardly recognizable.  For me, that aspect alone makes the composition worthwhile.  Too many photographers have shot this waterfall from the other side, and while it is a pretty angle, the pictures lack that something special.

For me, this slightly odd view of Window Falls is my favorite.  Being different in photography is usually a good thing.  By this point, the sun was starting to get brighter which was causing me problems.  I decided that it was time to pack things up and head back to the car.  I did have enough time to try something at the lake if I chose to do so...if I hurried.

When I got to the car, the clouds were looking really nice, but it was sure windy and cold.  Since I had the time, I decided to try an few compositions at the lake. has been some time since I have been to the lake.  From my memory, there was a really nice boathouse that I wanted to include in the composition.  It would make for a strong visual anchor beneath the moving clouds above.  I was excited about the possibility with this shot.  That was until I got there.

Somebody took my boathouse away, and replaced it with a pier in the shape of an "L"!!!  Hmmm, I guess I could still use that.  I walked out on the pier and looked for a good composition.  I found one near the end.  I set the camera up, and used my 24-70mm lens with my Lee filter mount.  I composed my photograph, and got everything dialed in before adding a 10-Stop filter, and another 2-Stop ND Grad.  I was set for about a one minute exposure.  I released the shutter and waited for the minute.

I kept getting this uneasy feeling every time the wind would blow.  I could see the spirit level moving just a little bit.  I knew that meant that there was going to be motion blur in the picture which I didn't want.  Sure enough, when I reviewed the image, I could see the blur in the distant trees.  I tried the exposure one more time when the wind lulled.  However, in the next minute, there was a gust that felt like it was going to blow the pier over.  That was all I needed.  I stopped the exposure, and saw all the blur in the image.  I moved back to solid land and composed a fair shot with the pier as my leading line.

I tripped the shutter with about a minute long exposure.  While the camera was recording, there was a big gust of wind that came along.  I found the source of my uneasy feeling on the pier.  It was fully floating, and moved about 2 feet from one side to the other.  No wonder I was getting blurry pictures!  Well, that movement meant that my all important leading line was going to be blurred as well.  That was confirmed in the image review on two different shots.  Yeah, this wasn't working in 20-30mph winds.  It was time to pack things up and head to work.

When I got home and looked at the couple of images that I thought might work, I was completely disappointed with the outcome, and they were trashed.  The waterfall shots, however, worked out pretty well.  Out of 44 frames, I was happy with a total of four of the images.  Not too bad for going out before work.