Winter is Back With a Vengence

Saturday, March 11, 2017

For the past month now, North Carolina has seen temperatures in the lower 80's for several days.  Average temperatures have been in the low to mid 70's.  In short, we have been having a wonderful Spring.  Early this week we were still in that trend, but the long term forecasts were calling for lows in the 20's over the weekend with snow in the forecast...SNOW?!?!?!?  I was wearing shorts washing the vehicles just a week ago.  As the week marched on, I kept an eye on the weather and saw that there was more and more evidence that winter was going to be paying a return to the state as predicted.  The change in weather was going to happen on Saturday, and that worked out just perfect for me!

Looking at the hourly, there was going to be partial cloud cover in the morning, followed by increasing clouds later in the day, with snow developing in the mountains by afternoon.  That was setting up the potential for some really good weather patterns to develop.  It had been a while since I was able to get out with my camera, so I decided that I would made the best of the situation and head out early to catch what I could of the sky.  All that was left was to determine where I was going to be going.  Sunrise was looking promising, although quite cold.  My destination was about as scientific as a coin toss, and I just randomly selected Doughton Park.

Doughton has always been a favorite of mine, but after several attempts, I have not gotten a really good sunrise shot from there.  There is a lot to work with, which makes it fun to stroll around regardless of an early morning light show.  I had high hopes for creating a really good picture here this morning.

When I woke up at 3:30, I checked the weather which was still holding constant with what I had seen before going to bed.  It was going to be a matter of luck to get the right sky, but I had no chance of capturing a sunrise if I stayed in bed.  I went ahead and got up and ready to go.  By 4, I was on the road with hopes of getting to Doughton by 5:30 which would give me plenty of time to get set up for the sunrise.

Night Slips Away
When I arrived at the park, I couldn't help but notice that the forecasted 40% cloud cover was generally lacking.  I was losing hope for my sunrise, but went ahead and parked the truck and opened the door.


I was instantly hit with a wind that could only be described as "frikkin freezing!"  Fortunately, I was prepared for the cold and had several layers on.  They weren't enough.  I opened the back of the truck and pulled my gloves from inside of my camera bag.  That should keep my fingers functioning.  I grabbed my bag and my tripod and started out to see where my best vantage point was going to be for the sunrise.  Looking at the clouds (or lack there of), I decided to go to my favorite tree at the top of the hill.  I figured if I couldn't get any real color in the sky, I could at least get a strong silhouette.

As I was walking up the hill, I found myself getting colder and colder.  I was losing feeling in my fingers...even with my gloves on!  This was going to be brutal, as the wind was cutting right through my clothes.  When I arrived at my spot, I found there to be barely any clouds to work with.  Knowing that the wind was moving with a purpose, I was hoping that in the next hour it would blow some clouds my way, so I went ahead and set up.  I decided to go with my 24-70mm lens along with my Lee Filter Holder in case I needed to use any ND grads.  I got down low so as to put the background clutter beneath the ridge and simplify the image.

In order to see how the composition looked, and to accurately judge the color intensity, I fired off a 30 second test shot of the tree.  There were 3 more that followed before I decided that this was going to be a lost cause as the color was fading fast.  I started looking for something else that I could anchor the sky with which might be a little lower.  As I was looking, I was just not happy with anything...until I happened to look over my shoulder.  Hey....what's that?

There was a nearly full moon which had been up all night long.  I have never had much luck shooting the moon, so I hadn't really given it much thought.  However, I was standing there looking at this HUGE moon setting over the mountains.  It was positioned nearly perfectly in the cradle of the ridge.  It was dropping fast, and I knew that I couldn't get it with the current lens which would cause it to be rendered very small in the frame.  I needed reach...and I needed more than my 70-200mm would provide me.

I went back to my bag and started to move things around so I could do a lens swap.  This was when I realized that my numb fingers were going to pose a slight problem manipulating the equipment.  I had to take my gloves off in order to have a chance of not dropping anything.  I fished out my 2x extender which went on first.  Then my 70-200mm was attached to that, giving me an effective reach of 400mm if needed.  I buttoned the 24-70 back up and mounted this ridiculously long camera back to the tripod.  I set up my position, and framed the first shot.  The moon was right at the ridge, so I focused really quickly and fired off the shot.  The exposure looked to be dead on, but I wanted to try to lighten it a little bit.  I got ready to fire the second shot, and once I released the shutter, I saw that the moon was already more than half way below the horizon.  The LCD review confirmed my suspicions...too late.

Dragon's Breath
The second one might have been too late, but the first shot really came through.  I honestly wasn't sure what to expect looking at it through the LCD, but when I started to edit it at home, I was quite impressed with it.  For being a quick grab shot, it turned out fantastic.  I loved the magenta hues under the clouds, and the way the moon lit up the haze was magical.  There was enough exposure in the foreground that there was plenty of depth to the image, and composition was pretty strong.  I ended up shooting this at 370mm which allowed me to render the moon as big as it shows.  So many moon pictures have been post processed to make the moon look bigger than it actually was which is photographic cheating in my book.  This is the real deal image, and for that I am very proud!

With the moon now far gone from the sky, I turned my attention to the sun again.  There were some nice clouds in the sky, but they just refused to settle over something that I could use for an interesting foreground.  I tried many shots where I loved the clouds, but ultimately the shots failed to meet my expectations.  With the color fading around the sun, I once again turned to the rear.  I noticed that there was actually some alpenglow starting in the sky, which I would be happy to make use of.  I quickly found a small rock outcropping that would catch the morning light here shortly, and I set the camera up.  I found that I had to leave the 70-200mm lens on (I had taken the extender off after the moon shot).  I could no longer manipulate the lens as my hands were absolutely frozen.  The sad thing was, I had been using chemical hand warmers since setting up for the sunrise.  Those warmers were now in my gloves, and my fingers were still throbbing.

Alpenglow Over Doughton
The wind did not ease up at all, and I was really starting to wonder if I would be able to break the camera down when I was done without getting in the truck and running the heat...yes, I've had to do that before.  That was going to be a problem for the future.  Right now, I needed to make pictures, and that meant I had to make due with what feeling I had left in my hands.  Once I was satisfied with the alpenglow shot, I moved off of the ridge to try and get out of the wind.  The rising sun was feeling very nice on my frozen body, and I made a conscious effort to stay on the side of the ridge with the sun.  I also found that there were some interesting clouds finally developing in the sky on this side.

After a little looking, I found an area with a few trees that I could use as an anchor for the clouds.  I got things set up, and figured that I would go ahead and fit a polarizer to the long lens to add some contrast to the clouds.  This was no easy matter with numb fingers.  Somehow I manged to get the adapter ring and the polarizer on without dropping anything.  I probably could have swapped the lens at this point, but I decided to keep the same one attached to minimize my fingers being exposed to the elements.

Slow Start
Because of my lens choice, I had to do a little bit of backing up in order to get everything in the frame.  This was fine by me, because keeping the wide end at 70mm kept the distant mountains a little more prominent which was very desirable for this shot.  I was pleased that there was still a little color in the sky just below the clouds.  It balanced the warm tones of the grass in the foreground, but I was going to have to wait until the sun actually cleared the clouds and lit the foreground before I could take advantage of that color element.  Fortunately, I didn't have to wait very long, and the sun lit everything up quite nicely.  So well in fact, I was able to dial down the exposure in the sky and keep everything evenly exposed without having to fumble with an ND fingers were very appreciative!

Evergreen Cluster
I found one other group of trees that seemed to be situated with a perfect natural balance.  I went ahead and framed those up nice and tight, using the clouds as a supporting element for the trees.  I had to wait for this one as well because the sun was behind the clouds when I first got the shot set up.  Once it escaped the clouds, the magic light was on.  This isn't my typical shot, but I'm actually quite pleased with how it turned out.  I was also quite pleased that I was starting to be able to feel my fingers once again.  The warmers were starting get my hands feeling right.  I was sure glad I had them, cause without the chemical warmers, I would have had to give it up.

It was time to get off the ridge and see what else the park had to offer.  My nose was feeling a little frost bitten, and I didn't want to push my luck any more.  My slow hike back to the parking lot gave me time to look around and find where the clouds were.  There were some interesting ones over to the North, and I worked my way to that end of the parking lot.  It took a little doing to find a workable composition to get these clouds though.  There was just not that much in the foreground for visual interest.

Prime Real Estate
What I settled on was a close range with a cleared out section for a green roofed cabin.  It was balanced out with a bunch of evergreens, and that made my foreground.  The layers and textures of the other ranges provided the path through the image, and then the distant peaks under the fading clouds.  At least there was still a little bit of color left in the sky at this point, but it was all but gone when I shot this frame.  I didn't make but a couple of exposures here because I didn't have a lot of faith in the outcome, and the light was fading too fast to do multiple compositions.  After about 5 minutes, I picked up and headed back to the large meadow going to Alligator Back.

I have spent a lot of hours in this meadow, primarily shooting this one tree smack dab in the middle of the field.  I don't know why I like it so much, but I always stop and make a few exposures here.  Sometimes I like the pictures, other times, I trash them all.  Today, was a day that I didn't have much hope for this old tree.  There were no clouds in the sky for visual interest.  It was just a tree, and clear blue above.  I kept framing shots that had too much grass below the tree, or too much blue above it.  If I narrowed the field of view, I lost the balancing element of the other bunch of small trees to the left.  I wasn't liking this at all.  I started to pick things up and continue my hike...then it hit me.

Doughton Meadow
I have been working on a new editing technique that allows me to shoot panoramas.  I haven't done many of them yet, but I instantly saw the potential here.  It provided me with the option to include the tree, as well as the other grouping of trees in the distance.  I could eliminate the extra sky and grass as well using the elongated framing.  I decided to set this up as a simple two shot pano.  It took about a minute to get both images, and I felt pretty confident that I had something usable with those.  I still would have liked to have a bit more interest in the sky, but occasionally, I find that the negative space provided by the blue sky works.  In this situation, it actually balances nicely with the generally simple meadow below.  There is a great color balance here as well between cool and warm tones.  I'm actually quite happy with this one...more so than other ones I've shot here previously.

I was starting to feel lucky now.  I had a few images I was excited about stored away on my memory card.  I wanted to add some more.  I looked for other things that I could shoot that would take advantage of the stark blue sky.  I mean, let's face it...this is North Carolina, and Carolina Blue skies is what we are all about.

Agonizing Reach
What I found was on the edge of the meadow.  There was a bare tree that was rather sun bleached.  It was standing over a nice green tree for balance.  I wanted this tree, and I actually saw it in monochrome originally.  I love how the blue sky renders as a dark tone with a red filter in black and white.  I composed the image for the maximum impact, and dialed in the right amount of darkening with my polarizer.  It was a simple shot, and only needed one other shot to try a tighter composition.  I didn't like the tight shot at all once I got home.  The Black and White conversion, went off without a hitch.  I didn't even need to massage any of the was perfect as it was.

Agonizing Reach in B&W
An interesting side story about this tree.  I had talked with Toni about a project that I would like to do at some point with her.  In this project, I am going to attempt to depict in my photographs what it is like for somebody with Bipolar Disorder.  There are many emotions that come with BPD, and they tend to be rather extreme.  In an attempt to more fully understand what she is going through, I am going to try to listen to her cues, and take guidance from her about what pictures to take, and how.  When I saw this tree, I thought about depression, and how prominent it can be in someone's life.  Even when surrounded by happy things like a clear blue sky.  Hey, it's a start, and I did it without guidance from my muse.  It does let me know that there is potential to my idea.  It is just going to take a long time to really put the collection together.

I continued my hike over the ridge and towards Alligator Back.  The sky wasn't looking good at all in that direction so I decided it was time to head back to the truck and get mobile again to look for something else to shoot.  As always, I took my time going back and looked for any other possible subjects to shoot.  I saw a few, but none of them really worked enough to even turn the camera on.  However, when I got back to the truck, I looked at the fence right behind where I had parked.  It lead to a that I had photographed several times before.  I liked how the shadows were playing across the ground, and there was a little bit of cloud cover above.  Why not?

Receding Shadows
Well, I left my 70-200mm on since I wasn't quite sure how this would turn out.  I had to back up a good bit, but I found that I was able to take full advantage of the strip of clouds by shooting at 70mm, and no wider.  It is a relatively plain shot, but I like how it turned out.  The shadows, fence, and the clouds seem to point to the tree.  The sky is a beautiful shade of blue as well.  It was good enough to make it into the keeper stack from the day.

I wasn't sure how many keepers I had, but I had shot about 65 frames at this point.  I was hoping that the sky would get more interesting as the day went on.  I had supplies to keep me out there till sunset if conditions developed as I was hoping for.  I pointed the truck South and headed down the Parkway to see what I could see.  It was actually the only direction that I saw clouds, and when I have my camera, I tend to chase the clouds.

I stopped at several overlooks that looked promising only to find that there was really nothing there for visual interest in the current lighting.  The clouds were marginal at best.  I might not have been finding anything, but at least I was riding in style.  I'm really liking this 4Runner for my treks.  The only problem I've found with it is the roofline.  It is very hard to see out and up when chasing clouds.  I'm sure I'll get used to it in time, but the Tacoma had a much better viewing angle of the sky.

The roofline wasn't my only problem.  Remember when I said that there was snow in the forecast?  Well, it was scheduled to start around mid afternoon in the mountains.  I wasn't worried about that, and I was actually kind of looking forward to it.  Well, the park rangers weren't sharing my enthusiasm for the pending weather.  Much to my surprise, I started to see rangers going up and down the parkway with their blue light activated, and they were starting to close up the gates.  Hmmm, maybe they knew something I didn't know.  I was hoping that the path ahead would stay clear....but it wouldn't.

I ended up having to turn around on the Parkway just before 321.  I was then forced off of the Parkway at Aho Gap, which put me on 321.  I guess that was the end of that.  I wasn't wanting to play find the Parkway at this point.  I figured I would just head home the long way and look for barns and old cars instead.

As I was heading down 421, I turned down a road where a friend used to live and I recalled there being some old homes out that way.  Most of it had been cleaned up, and I wasn't finding anything promising to shoot.  I ended up on Bamboo Rd which I remembered intersected on the Parkway.  I had been watching a couple of really interesting clouds overhead, and decided that my best chance to shoot them would be from an overlook.  I went ahead and got back on the Parkway, headed South.  I seemed to remember that the next gate would be past the 421 exit, so I had a little distance to travel.  

The clouds were looking really cool, but every time I found a place to shoot them, they would change up, and I would lose the visual interest in the sky.  It wasn't until I stopped at the Grandview Overlook that I found the clouds I wanted.  This is a very popular overlook, but one that I have a hard time shooting from due to weak foregrounds.  The sky was just too good to pass up though.

I set the camera up with the 70-200mm lens to reduce time.  I also wasn't going to be needing much in the way of a wide angle since I didn't want to capture the recently bushwhacked edge of the overlook.  I found interesting peaks on the mountains and composed them with interesting clouds, but I wasn't happy with any of them.  I probably shot 15 frames without actually getting happy over one of them.

I stopped for a moment and asked myself a very important question.  "What was I wanting to capture here?"  For a photographer, that is probably the single most important question that can be asked.  It was...for lack of a better answer...the "Grand View."  I wanted to capture the epic sky over the vast rolling landscape.  That was not going to happen in a standard ratio photograph.  I was going to need to shoot a panorama for this to really make sense.  I estimated my edges, and figured out exactly how I wanted things composed.  I flipped the camera on its side to shoot portrait, paying close attention to where the horizon was.  I also made sure that I was going to capture the clouds that I wanted.  It was then time to make the exposures...five of them to be exact, keeping the exact same focus point and exposure for each frame.  It took about 90 seconds to get all five shots done.  Looking at the LCD, I could only tell that the exposure was right.  The composition was going to have to be checked when I got home and put all of the images together.

An Epic View
When I got the images stitched together, I was in awe.  My Grand View had been captured epically!  I'm really starting to get the hang of this panorama thing, and I'm seeing a lot of potential to it.  I'm starting to think that I actually see more in a panoramic fashion, which is directly opposite of what I have thought for the longest time.  I'm really looking forward to playing with panoramas more often, especially when Spring fully hits.

My epic panorama was the last shot of the day.  I came to the end of the Parkway, and since I was needing to get gas soon, I decided to work my way home.  While I didn't get anything that I expected to get on this trek, I have to say I'm very pleased with what I did capture.  Once again, I'm stretching my creative boundaries and I'm finding that I have several tricks up my sleeves that I never even knew about.

I also found that the heater works phenomenally well in the 4Runner!!!


  1. I wonder what Agonizing Reach will look like in the Summer...........

    1. If I recall correctly, it stays bare year round now. The trees behind it turn green for the most part. I'll have to take you out there at some point when everything is alive again.