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|
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.
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.
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 waterfall...at 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 Falls...it was impressive, even from a distance.
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.
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|
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|
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.