Highs and Lows at Stone Mountain

January 15, 2014

Winter is an interesting time for a photographer in the Southeast United States.  While much of the country experiences snow and other "typical" winter conditions, North Carolina usually is graced with bare trees, and dormant vegetation for much of the season.  When I started out as a photographer, I would struggle to find suitable subjects to photograph in the winter months.  I deemed the colors too drab, and the the lack of vegetation to be rather dreary.  While I still subscribe to the notion that the other three seasons are much more photogenic for the most part, I have learned a certain appreciation for winter in North Carolina.

Ironically, I decided to dive back into photography after a nearly three year hiatus right at the end of Fall.  While many photographers are taking a break from their cameras until Spring, I was gearing up to reacquaint myself with a Canon DSLR, and looking forward to the coming months.  I quickly got back in the swing of things photographing barns and old homesteads.  I even fanned the embers of a new genre which I had just started toying with...abandoned, vintage automobiles.  It seemed that there were plenty of subjects for my camera to capture, but when it all boils down, I am a landscape photographer after all.  I cut my teeth capturing scenic mountain vistas starting as early as 2004 when I was learning on a 2MP Sony digital which saved files to a 3.5" floppy disk!

I've shot a few landscapes since unwrapping the new Canon kit in November, but I want to do more.  The trick to landscapes is the weather, which means that I have to wait for the right time to go out.  With the right weather, I have to choose a location that will fit with the specific weather patterns which are expected.  I have been watching the weather closely over the last few days and decided that today would be a decent day with partly cloudy skies to begin with, followed by mostly cloudy skies toward the end of the day.  There were also no heavy winds forecasted for the day.  The weather was right, and seemed to be rather varied which would allow me the opportunity to shoot several different types of landscapes in one day.  Based on what I was seeing on the weather, I could do some grand landscape work incorporating the sky to start the day off, and move into more intimate landscapes to wrap the day up once the sun was obscured.

I woke up with plenty of time to get ready and make the drive to Stone Mountain State Park, located in Roaring Gap, NC.  This is one of my favorite locations for the diversity of its contents.  I have some vast views from the upper elevations, as well as some interesting details in the lower elevations.  There are also waterfalls, streams, and an abundant population of wildlife.  My plan, after looking at the weather once again was to hike the Stone Mountain Loop trail which is a little over 4.5 miles long.  I would climb to the summit first to take advantage of the (hopefully) dramatic clouds before dropping down to the lower sections near the waterfalls to take advantage of the heavy overcast of the afternoon.  It was one stop shopping, and I was looking forward to what I might find.

I arrived at the park shortly after it opened under mostly sunny skies.  The weather forecast wasn't exactly accurate up to this point as I was expecting some more clouds.  Oh well, I was here, might as well get to steppin' and hope for some clouds by the time I got to the top of the summit.  I started following the trail and quickly found myself going up.....up....and up.  For about a mile and a half, I was climbing until I reached the first exposed section of granite nearby the actual summit.  I was ready for a break as I could barely breathe from doing all that climbing at a fairly quick rate.  I noticed that the clouds were starting to come in, and the sky was pretty interesting.  I needed to work out a picture, but none of the grand landscape options seemed to look promising with the existing light.  I remembered reading in a book years ago, "always look behind you when you are looking at the obvious composition."  I've always taken that mantra to heart, and it has payed off more times than I can count.  I turned around and started looking further up the mountain instead of down and out over the valley.  What I found was a few interesting elements scattered along the granite, but more importantly, the sky was infinitely better from this angle!

Struggling Sapling
I looked at many of the bit and pieces of foreground interest that were available to work with, but I found that none of them had the visual pop, quite like a little sapling that was growing out of a small patch of soil.  The problem was, it was rather small and insignificant in the whole scene.  That's ok, because I have a little trick up my sleeve that will change the proportions of objects in a photograph.  Its call lens choice!  The focal length on a lens doesn't just mean that you can fit more or less things in the frame.  Focal length is actually much better utilized to change the relationships between objects in the frame.  In this situation, I wanted to give the small sapling a good deal more visual weight in the image, while minimizing the background.  The way to do that was to use a very wide focal length and get up close to the sapling.

I snapped this picture with my cell phone to show what I am talking about when it comes to perspective.  The cell phone shot is a typical point and click while standing up.  The little sapling actually gets lost in the overall composition, even though the yellow tones should make it stand out on its own.  By choosing my 16-35mm f/2.8L lens and capturing this view at about 20mm, I was able to really accentuate the importance of the sapling in the overall composition.

I'm sure that you will also notice that the sky is completely washed out in the cell phone image.  There was just too much exposure latitude to deal with.  Fortunately, I also had a couple of tricks to help with that as well.  First of all, I fitted a color enhancing polarizer to help bring out the color, and then I added a 2-Stop hard edge ND Grad filter to hold back the exposure in the sky.  This gave me a nice and consolidated histogram to work with so I was sure to get a complete range of tonalities in the final image.  All that was left was to wait for the sun to pop out from behind the clouds and provide a little pop to the sapling.

When I was done with the little sapling, I packed things up and went back to the trail.  I continued on until I made it to the actual summit of Stone Mountain.  Again, I was having a hard time finding a suitable composition that would work with the existing lighting.  There was also a lack of visual interest due to the bare trees below.  In the fall there are lots of workable compositions from here with the bright colored leaves, but today, there was very little to be found.  I decided to repeat my trick from earlier to see if I could find another hidden composition atop the summit.  Nope....wasn't that easy.  I started to walk around...well down the slope actually.  I was careful not to get in any steep sections that would be dangerous to work from, but I did make it about 75 feet from the trail before I found a single tree growing from a crack in the granite.

Facing Adversity
Not only was this a really cool tree, it happened to be next to a nice eroded section that added to a visual line leading into the image.  Beyond the tree was a nice set of diagonal lines which lead up to the sky above.  Yeah, this will work out nicely!  I had to get a little creative here though.  I was shooting from well below the tree due to the slope of the summit.  If I kept my camera at a typical elevation, the slope would appear flat and rather static.  Fortunately, I had selected a tripod that would extend much taller than I was, and I used that feature to elevate the camera as high as I could get it.  Another issue that I was facing was the clouds.  They were starting to thicken up and I was worried that I would lose visual interest in the sky.  To help combat that, and add a little contrast to the sky, I kept my color intensifying polarizer on the superwide angle lens.  I ditched the ND Grad since the actual exposure was working out well here without it.  Plus, I needed to keep the detail in the tree.  All that was left was to wait for the sun to peak out a little bit and shine some light on the tree.  While I never got the full power of the sun on the tree, there were times when the clouds were thin enough that I had sufficient illumination to make the composition work.

As you can tell, lens choice, and filters really helped based on my lighting here.  You also can get an idea of how high up the camera is.  Without the center tube extended, the camera sits at eye level to me, and I'm 5'11".  Had it not been for the extended center tube, the slope of the landscape would have been lost in this image.  Honestly, that was an important aspect of this composition, and one that I really wanted to keep.  Interestingly enough, with all the work that I did to make sure that the colors came through as vibrant as I was seeing them, I still thought that this would be a good candidate for a monochrome conversion.  With the addition of a digital red filter and a few minor tonal tweaks I ended up with a black and white version that I think works very well in its own right.

Facing Adversity In B&W
As I was leaving the summit to return to the trail, I found a an old tree that was hollow inside.  Ever since I was a kid, I have been intrigued by these rotting trees.  They tend to take on a personality, and even appear as though they could come to life.  I'm pretty sure that they can't, but as a kid you couldn't tell me any different.  What I loved about this tree that I had just found was that it stood by itself at the edge of the trail with the rest of the wooded area well to the rear.  Its rare to find "uncluttered" woods in North Carolina, so when it happens, I feel very fortunate.  That was the case with these woods, as they were fairly well organized, and lacked the typical ground clutter I am more accustomed to.

I decided it was time to pull the camera back out and get it set up.  In a creative choice, I decided to leave the wide angle lens on with the intensifying polarizer as well.  I started with a vertical shot to accentuate the height and power of the tree.  I didn't like anything about that composition, so I flipped the camera back into landscape mode.  There it was!  I was getting the wide open mouth with the other trees in the background.  I happened to notice a shadow that was cast when the sun hit the tree.  If I were to move a little to the right, I would be able to capture the shadow as it created a diagonal path through the frame, providing a ruler of sorts for the other trees to line up on.

Hollow Inside
As with so many of my other compositions for the day, I had to wait for the sun to add its special touch in order for the image to really come together.  There were a few breaks in the clouds and I was able to take advantage of most of them to get the right illumination on the scene.  And you thought photography was a simple thing!  Since the exposure wasn't all that difficult here, once I was happy that I had enough lighting choices to select from, I packed up and continued back on the trail.  At this point, I was starting to descend below the summit.  It was nice to be able to let gravity help me walk as opposed to all the climbing that I had been doing.  I thought that I was done with my grand landscapes and I started to look for more intimate subjects which worked out just fine since the clouds were steadily moving in.

However, I reached another granite bald just off of the trail that I went out on and checked out.  This one was a bit different than the others because it actually offered a view of Stone Mountain.  This was worth a shot or two for sure!  I quickly found a nice tree to use for foreground interest and set up my first series of shots with the tree to the right of the granite bald.  Surprisingly, the sky had opened up right over and there was a nice rich blue above the dome.  I composed, and set my exposure using my wide angle lens with the color intensifying polarizer still fitted.  It was then just a matter or waiting on the sun to give the tree a little added pop to complete the composition.

Unlikely Resident
After working this scene for a little while, I decided that I might like the composition better using the tree on the left hand side, rather than the right.  I moved the rig over to the right and recomposed.  I had to be careful though because my shadow was starting to become an issue at this angle.  After setting the shot up, I realized that I did like this view as well.  It had a completely different feel to it, and seemed to work just as well.  The main issue was the clouds were moving over me, and I was having a hard time keeping the exposure in the sky from blowing out.  I decided to fit a 2-Stop soft edge ND-Grad in addition to the polarizer.  that did the trick!  My exposure latitude was once again within a normal parameter.

The Granite Face
It was still a waiting game for the sun to cooperate with me.  I would fire off an exposure every time the clouds thinned in hopes that I would get a little color added to the tree.  I was lucky that I was able to squeeze a little bit of light for this composition.  I think the added pop of yellow and light green are very important to this image.

An interesting aside about this particular image, while reviewing the last two frames (this is one of them) on my LCD, I could hear some movement in the woods behind me.  I could hear the leaves rustling, and what sounded like heavy breathing.  I thought that it was a deer at first.  I started to look around in hopes of seeing it.  What I ended up seeing as a man with his dog walking along the trail above.  He waved, and I said hi as I remained sitting on the rather steep incline working my camera.  I then realized that the dog was not on a leash, and was breaking away from his owner.  He was making a direct line to my camera bag, which was open, about 15 feet from me.  I wasn't able to get up quick enough to intercept him.  The only thing I could do was say "no, stop that!", which fortunately worked.  After a quick sniff, he lost interest in the bag.  However, I think my request was lost in translation since apparently he thought I said "hey, come over here and play with me!"  He started trotting over to me, and I had no time to react.  I was still sitting down on the slope, and fortunately I was still holding my camera.  The dog went right for the tripod and bounced his nose across the LCD (apparently, he liked this one too).  Had I not been holding onto the camera it would have gone over without a doubt!  I was now struggling to push the dog away with my shoulder, while holding onto my camera for dear life, knowing that if I were to lose my grip on it, and it fell, it would likely slide down the side of the mountain never to be found by me.  All the while this was going on the dog's owner was slowly walking my way saying very slowly "I'm sorry, we didn't expect to see anyone else out here."  Well, that's just dandy, I didn't expect to play with a dog either, so I guess both our intentions for the day were altered.  He asked if I was alright while I'm still trying to keep the camera upright, and the dog off of it.  My reply was something along the lines of "I'm fine, do you think that you could maybe take control of your dog so he doesn't knock over this camera?"  He slowly got a hold of the dog, and then proceeded to stand there with the dog still trying to get to the camera.  I had to use my adult voice and give some very clear instructions at this point because I was not in the mood to have a $5000 catastrophe today.

Unlikely Resident in B&W

With the canine adventure finally concluded, I was able to get back to business.  Unfortunately, the light was gone at this point, and my mood was less than creative.  I decided to pack up my equipment and be very thankful that there was no damage.  I made my way back to the trail and worked my way back down the mountain to the lowlands of Stone Mountain.  The clouds were coming in, and I knew that I had some waterfalls, and some nice streams that I could work.  For some reason that didn't really excite me like I had planned.  I mean, the whole purpose of coming out and doing this particular trail was because I could make use of the clouds during the second half of the day by shooting moving water.  Regardless, I wasn't feeling much like doing waterfall photography today.  I did continue on though because I was over half way done with the trail at this point.

I followed the stream for a good while and found some areas that I had shot years ago, but there were too many low limbs this time to get any good compositions.  I did find one area where I have not photographed before which looked promising.  They were small cascades, so I decided to swap in my 24-70mm f/2.8L lens so I could get in close to the cascades.  Even with the clouds, I was having a hard time getting the shutter speeds I wanted, so I added a variable ND filter to the polarizer.  I was able to get my shutter speeds, but wasn't happy at all with the compositions I was coming up with.  After about a dozen frames, I gave it up and packed the camera back up again.  I was pretty sure that I was spent, and all my creative energy was expended.

I continued on down the trail knowing that the parking lot wasn't too far off from where I was.  I was tired, and I was ready to get home.  While I was walking, I was thinking back to a November trip to this very trail a few years ago where Toni and our daughter joined me for a snowy hike.  There were a lot of good memories from that hike, but one of them was a tree that was along the bank of the stream with a really interesting root system.  I remember trying to photograph it several times before without success.  On that day, with a light snow covering, I was able to capture an image that I did like for once.  I was wondering what it would look like today.  I was even wondering if I had passed it already.  Almost as I was thinking that thought, I saw it off to my left.  It lacked the visual interest of the snow from the last time, but there was something about it that warranted a second look, and possibly a frame or two before leaving for the day.

This was the view that I had as I approached the tree.  You can see the roots very easily, and you can immediately tell that this is an odd tree.  My creative juices were once again flowing, and I wanted to capture this tree again.  I decided to drop down to the water in order to capture a different perspective than I had previously.  I kept the 24-70mm lens on the camera as well as the intensifying polarizer to help saturate the colors in the woods.  I framed my first shot using the tree trunk as an anchor for the stream.  This lacked punch, and had no clear purpose to my eyes.  I altered things, and flipped the camera vertical to accentuate the tree.  Again, there was no clear purpose to the picture.  The roots were getting lost.  I returned the camera to the horizontal position and framed just the root system.  Whoa buddy!!!  That's the ticket!

This was what I had been looking for with this tree.  I don't know why this composition eluded me for so long.  it was a natural one!  It showcases the roots, which were my inspiration for the picture to begin with.  Secondly, it allows me to hide the odd offshoot trunk on the right side with a tree that is growing a little further down the stream.  In the picture, they look like they are one and the same, reducing visual clutter.  The emphasis is on the roots, and the color comes from the rich moss which adorns the tree.  I have to say, this oddball tree is my favorite image from the day, and after a quick review, I think that Toni agrees with me on this one.

I had a bit more pep in my step now, and my creative energy had returned, but I was still nearing the end of my energy reserves.  I decided to make one last stop on the way out.  I knew that I had to pass the Hutchinson Homestead before getting back to my truck.  I knew of a really cool tree there which I have shot a number of times in the past.  I wanted to give it another go today.  I was after all, having a lot of luck with trees.

As you can see, this tree is a very strange one, in a beautiful kind of way.  What I love about it is that when framed just right, the distant cabin fits nicely under the limbs.  The fact that it was overcast didn't bother me one bit since the backdrop for the scene is Stone Mountain and you can't see the sky if the image is framed right.  The clouds also would help keep highlights down to a minimum, and would unblock shadow details as well.  Keeping my 24-70mm mounted, I found the right point of view that placed everything in the proper perspective for my vision.  It took some work, but I finally found the perfect shooting location, as well as camera height.  Everything came together and I was able to create my favorite image from this location ever!

Torment and Comfort
I struggled with the title for this one a little bit.  After several minutes of batting around different ideas, Torment and Comfort popped into my head and hit me like a ton of bricks.  Since Toni and I plan on retiring to a cabin in the mountains because we both feel like they are very relaxing, the comfort of this picture really shines through to me.  On the other end of the spectrum is the tree.  It is twisted, torn, and mangled.  I think its safe to say that this old tree is definitely tormented.  Since I really enjoy a certain dichotomy in my pictures, the title just came together and ultimately "made" this image.

That pretty much wrapped up my Trek.  I had been in the park for about six hours and had shot an even 100 frames.  I wasn't sure what I had, but I was really interested to see if what I had captured mirrored what I had seen at the time.  I'm pleased to say that the final images do justice to my visions from the top to the bottom of Stone Mountain!

Be sure to check out images from other treks by clicking on the gallery links at the top of this blog.

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