Chasing the Clouds to the Blue Ridge Parkway

April 2, 2014

I haven't fallen off of the world, and I haven't given up on photography.  I know that it has been a very long time since I have written about a trek here....a full month to be exact.  Its not for lack of trying though.  You see in the month of March, we had ice storms about once a week which made travel difficult.  There was also the fact that if there wasn't ice falling from the sky, the sky was a very blank blue which I don't care much for, especially in the Winter months.  Add to that, I was still working a full time job that prevented me from going out on the few days that I would have been able to.  Actually, I was able to head out a couple of times during the month, but conditions weren't right, and my creativity was lacking on those treks.

After many frustrating days, I looked at the weather this morning and saw that we were in for another sunny, blue sky day.  While this is great for the average outdoor activities, it just won't cut it for photography.  I started to check different locations with the same outcome.  When I clicked over to the area of Boone, I saw building clouds starting at about 4pm.  Hmmmm, this might be the break that I was hoping for!  I made the quick decision to head out to the mountains for an afternoon trek, and hopefully ending up with a sunset in the mountains.  I loaded my gear up in the truck after making a quick check of everything since the camera had been asleep for a full month.  By 1:30, I was on the road headed West.

As I was traveling to the mountains, I was starting to see some clouds...even earlier than was forecasted.  I started to get all excited, which was a nice change of pace from my last two attempts where I found myself more frustrated than anything.  I started to think about what I was going to photograph along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Honestly, I just wasn't sure what I would find.  I was relatively familiar with the area I was going to be in today (Between US421 and Rough Ridge), and knew that there were a lot of different opportunities along those miles.  I decided to wing it and just see where the clouds took me.

When I first arrived at the Parkway, I turned to the South (my only choice due to road closures) and found an overlook that I have passed countless times before.  It happens to be the location of my first trek to the Blue Ridge Parkway back in 2005.  I could see some clouds in the area, and the sun was in the right location so I decided to stop and give it a go.  I was hoping that this would jump start my creativity as it had in 2005 when I first set up a camera here.  I found myself drawn to the same hill as I was back then, only this time there was one less tree standing.  I worked a couple of different angles until I got what I thought was the best composition I could create with what I had.

The Hill
The Hill in B&W
What I love the best about this particular location is the red gate which has been the focal point of many of my compositions here.  I have a soft spot for these old metal gates which seem to be everywhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Fortunately, the grass is starting to get green again, which makes the red really pop and stand out.  The composition here was rather simple, and reminded me of what I had shot so many years ago.  I decided to try a slightly different angle and see if I could incorporate the old gate under some better clouds.  I went to the left of the gate and pointed my camera due South and found a couple of more interesting compositions from this side.

The Weathered Gate

The Weathered Gate in B&W
I was starting to feel much better about photography again after having so much frustration in the field.  I was starting to make images again.  I wasn't quite as fluid as I was hoping that I would be, but after a month away from it, there was a slight learning curve that I had to go through.  I managed to get up to speed rather quickly though.  The lighting really helped, as it was very even, and required very little tweaking from the camera.  In fact, I only used a polarizing filter for these shots attached to my 24-70mm lens.  The slight adjustment in contrast to the sky was enough to make for very good exposures without any additional filter tricks.

After I had worked the scene to my satisfaction, I decided to move on and see what else I could find.  After working the fence with the old gate, I was geared to looking for more fences along the Parkway.  Fortunately for me, this is something that the Parkway has in abundance.  It wasn't long before I spotted another fence which I had never photographed before.  It caught my eye because of how the light was falling on the trees and there were three lone trees which were standing out from the crowd.  This was worth getting the camera out for and seeing what I could do with it.

The Tree of Us

The Tree of Us in B&W
Not only were the trees a good focal point for the camera, the clouds were really rolling in and from some angles they looked almost ominous.  I chose to get that view first and foremost. I isolated the trees using my 24-70mm with the polarizer still attached.  I was able to get some very good contrast in the clouds with this combination, and as with the lighting before, I needed no other filters to make a very even exposure.  Yeah, I was having fun by this point.  I was happy with the isolated image, but wanted to see what I could do with the fence as know I am a sucker for those things!

Change is in the Air

Change is in the Air in B&W
I found that the fence gave a completely different feel to the scene than the trees alone had.  The sweeping flow of the fence line made for an excellent leading line into the image, and the reddish dormant vegetation along the left side of the fence added a very nice color contrast to the scene and helped to give it a sense of depth.  The clouds were another very important part of this composition and because even more pronounced in the monochrome example.  I tell you what....clouds are worth chasing when you are a photographer.  they are as important, if not more so than the sun itself.  They change the intensity of the sun, as well as provide some much needed visual drama to a scene.

I stuck around and tried several different variations of this scene until I decided that I had about all I could manage from it.  It was time to move on down the road and see what else I could find to aim my camera at.  It took a little bit of driving this time because the clouds were in some very specific places in the sky.  I drove back and forth over a few sections in an attempt to find a landscape to put under a patch of clouds that really caught my eye.  I was unsuccessful in that endeavor, and the clouds broke up after about 30 minutes.

There was a barn near Price Park that caught my eye.  I have photographed this barn on a few occasions before, and have found it to be a really good composition when the yellow flowers start popping up around the fence.  Those flowers were not there today, but the sun was in the perfect position to illuminate the barn, and with the green coming back into the grass, I thought that this would be a good time to give it another frame or two.

Little Red Barn
The interesting thing about this barn is that it is about twice as high as it appears.  It is built well below the level of the field that I am shooting it from.  To get on the level of the barn would mean trespassing on the other side of a gate and fence, which I choose to not do.  The brilliant red color of the barn helps to offset the fact that I'm only able to capture the top portion of it.  As you can see, there are not near as many clouds in the frame.  While I will always welcome a dramatic sky, the colors in this image are hard to beat.  Overall, the image appears rather neutral thanks to the large portion of green which anchors the very warm red tones, and the cool blue of the sky.  There are just enough clouds in the sky to make it pop...and that was the part that was the hardest to capture with this image.  I had to wait for that time when the sun was lighting up the barn and the field, while there were clouds in the field of view of the lens.  It was a game of chance, and a test of my patience...but it paid off in the end.

One of the little tricks that I learned about photography years ago when I got started was that I should always look behind me and to the sides when I am working a subject.  Often times, you get tunnel vision with the first thing that you see and that can cause you to miss an opportunity which is right under your nose.  This was one of those times.  When I was satisfied that I had enough examples of the barn that I should be able to choose a really good one, I started to look around.  What did I find you ask?  I found another lone tree with a fence.  The problem with this was it was a good ways away beyond another fence.  I was going to need some long reaching glass for this tree, but the sky was too good to pass up.


Defiant in B&W
As with the barn, this tree became a waiting game as well.  The sun was behind a very thick patch of clouds and would only peak out every few minutes for a brief second or two.  I knew that I had to get set up quickly and be prepared to click the button when the sun shined through.  I swapped out lenses and fit my 70-200mm which was racked out to nearly 200mm to get the framing of this shot.  I went ahead and set my exposure for the clouds knowing that they would be a constant.  When I was dialing in the exposure, the ground and tree were well in the shadows and had very little detail or color.  I didn't want to fit an ND Grad filter to balance the exposure because I knew that when the sun hit, the exposure would be nearly perfect the way I had it set up.  I waited and I waited.  every so often I would release the shutter as the light changed just in case that was the best I could get.  After about 35 minutes of waiting (I saw the same cyclist pass me three times), the clouds moved out of the sun's way, and bathed the tree and field with daylight.  It happened to be at that perfect moment when the clouds above the tree were at their most dramatic.  My patience had paid off in spades.  Between the barn and the tree, I had spent about an hour and a half on this stretch of road.  It was time to move it was getting close to sunset time.

I had high hopes for a good sunset since the clouds seemed to be the most interesting in the Western half of the sky.  If I could just get lucky enough to have the sun dip below them and illuminate them from the bottom I would be able to capture some stunning color.  I just needed to find a place where I could showcase that color to the fullest.  I had planned on going to Thunder Hill Overlook which I had worked several sunsets from before.  I knew what elements I would need to include to make an interesting composition, and it would make for quick work setting things up.  The only problem with that plan...It would seem that everyone driving on the Parkway had gotten the memo that this was the place to view the sunset from.  There were about a dozen cars in the parking area and there were people sitting on the rock that I was hoping to use as the foreground interest.  This wasn't going to work at all.  Fortunately, I had seen an interesting view about a half mile South of the overlook.  I quickly went back there knowing that I was running out of time before the light show was going to start.

I was looking at the scene with both human eyes and the eyes of a photographer.  You see, our eyes have a much wider exposure latitude than a camera does.  I could see all the detail in the landscape as well as the colors in the sky.  I knew though, how the camera would perceive the image.  To document that fact, I snapped this shot with my phone and it does a pretty good job at showing what a camera is capable of picking up.  So, how did I expect to capture the image that I was seeing before my human eyes?  Simple, I was going to have to use filters of some sort to help control my exposure.  I could also take several different images and merge them together in post processing...but for my photography, that is cheating and I choose not to do that.  I much prefer to use filters at the time of the capture.

Here you see what I was seeing after fitting a Singh-Ray 3-Stop Reverse ND Grad filter.  This filter is specifically designed for capturing sunrises and sunsets.  Half of the filter is clear, while the other half is a neutral gray.  Unlike my other ND Grad filters, it is darkest at the dividing line, and then tapers off to very light by the top.  The logic here is that the brightest part of the scene is likely going to be right at the horizon where the sun is, but you don't want the top of the sky to render as dark which is what happens with a typical ND Grad.  My reverse grad was the only filter that I needed attached to my 24-70mm to render the scene just as I previsualized it.  As you can see from the histogram, I am able to get a complete range of tones with only the sun blowing out, which is perfectly acceptable for this image.

Peace in the Valley
By using a very small aperture, I was able to get sun rays coming over the trees.  I used that aperture in hopes that I would see this effect.  Its not a guarantee that it will happen, but it just turned out that the situation was right for the rays to develop.  Unfortunately, I had a little bit of lens flare that showed up near the sun due to its intensity.  I was able to clone the spots out in post processing without any difficulty.  While I don't usually like to do things like that, I felt that the image was strong enough to justify a little digital cleaning.  The beauty of the Singh-Ray filter is that even though I am shooting fully into the sun, I was still able to capture plenty of detail in the landscape, and was able to do it with a single exposure.

The sunset that I was hoping for did not materialize unfortunately.  The clouds continued to move towards the sun, eventually covering it and blocking it at the horizon.  While I would have loved to have seen an explosion of color over this valley, I have to say I am rather pleased with how this image turned out.  It was fun getting to use the reverse grad again since it is a relatively new filter in my collection.  I'm really starting to see the benefits from it every time I use it.

With the sun down, it was time to head home and start the processing of the images.  As you can see, I have a bunch of these images which have been rendered as monochrome.  Sometimes it just works out that the compositions work just as well without the aid of color.  There is a certain classy appeal to a black and white image, and I'm always happy when I shoot a strong enough image that it will work without color.  With 12 images added to my portfolio, I think this might be the most successful trek that I have taken this year.  I'm really glad that I decided to chase the clouds, and will continue to do just that when it comes to when and where I decide to shoot.

1 comment:

  1. I am so excited to see new GEORGEOUS photos on your Blog. Instead of your skills getting rusty from your recent hiatus due to weather, the innate talent you have seems to have bee!n "steeping" into your very soul. Nearly every photo left me breathless!! I am so delighted that the weather is beginning to cooperate with you and can't wait for your next Trek. Your work just gets better and better!!