Dodging a Storm at Stone Mountain

May 22, 2014

It seems that I am always chasing clouds when it comes to my landscape photography.  Either I need the diffused light while working with intimate subjects or I am wanting the dramatic sky above a grand landscape.  What can I say, blue skies are boring for the most part.

I had been watching the weather for several days and keeping track of where the clouds would be.  It seemed that my best chance for some dramatic skies would be in the area of Roaring Gap on Thursday.  There was a chance of a severe thunder storm early in the morning followed by around 50% cloud cover after that.  This is usually when the best skies happen, but the tradeoff is that I tend to risk getting rained on so watching the developing weather is very important to me.  The recipe was something like this.  From 8-9am there was a good chance of storms, followed by partial clearing (this is the best time to photograph clouds) until around noon when things would finish clearing up.  Stone Mountain State Park opened up at 8am, so I figured that I would plan on getting there around 8:30 or so in order to make sure I didn't miss my window.

I checked the weather again when I got up and the forecast was pretty much the same as it had been, only with a little less cloud cover than I was hoping for.  There had been some rain recently, and the storm was still forecasted.  I went ahead and made the decision to give it a try and hopefully reap the benefits of the passing storm.  As I was driving out to the park I noticed that the sky was mostly blank white which was not good for what I was hoping for.  I was starting to think about diverting and working on some waterfall photography instead, but that would have been about an hour further down the road and from what I remembered they weren't having the same cloud cover.  I pressed on to my destination.

It was almost like an exercise in perfect timing when I arrived at the park.  The clouds were starting to get dense and there was a lot of definition in them now.  This was what I wanted, but there was no rain at 8:30 which meant that we had either missed it, or it was late.  I pulled out my phone to check the hourly so I didn't get caught out in a downpour.  Just my service at all.  I couldn't check the weather, and nothing had updated since I left the house an hour and a half ago.  I looked up, smelled outside and decided that it appeared that the rain had passed by.  Just in case, I had a poncho in my camera bag, so if I did get caught in a storm, I could at least stay dry.

I made my way down the trails quickly headed out to Wolf Rock where I had been many times before.  It is not a bad hike, but there is a lot of climbing involved so I was getting winded quickly.  The trail finally leveled out and the going got much easier and quicker.  It was at that moment that I started to feel the rain drops on my hands as I walked.  Hmmmp....this is not good.  I was almost at the top of the trail and it was about to be time to get to work.  I didn't need the rain to start now!!  The drizzle kept on going, but fortunately it wasn't enough to really concern me, as long as it didn't pick up pace.  When I finally arrived at Wolf Rock, I came out onto the granite surface and was pleased to see the sky above.  There were some great clouds and just to balance things out, there was even a good deal of blue near the horizon.  There was not much wind so I wasn't overly concerned with the clouds moving too fast, so I had time to work.

I still put the camera together quickly and started working on compositions.  For what I was after, I knew that my wide angle lens would be the glass of choice.  My 16-35mm allowed me to emphasize the foreground while including a good bit of the sky above.  It is my grand landscape lens and it does remarkably well with almost a 180* field of view.  I went ahead and fit my Lee System filter holder on the front and skipped the polarizer (not a great choice with wide angle).  I was planning on putting my ND grads to good use today to bring in the exposure of the sky, balancing it with the foreground.

Island of Resolve
One of the best things about Stone Mountain is the terrain.  I have always wanted to photograph the bare landscape of the West Coast mountains, but that is far from a day trip for me.  Stone Mountain gives me that opportunity to work with a bare granite surface, or a bald if you like.  There is more to it than that though.  This park offers lots of little tidbits that can be used for foreground anchors, and there are lots of leading lines from the runoff stains along the surface.  In short, there is a lot to work with up here!  That is always a very good thing when you are taking into consideration that you never know in which direction the interesting sky will appear.  Today, I found myself shooting in just about every direction, except due East.  The landscape was very forgiving of my need to change directions depending on where the sky was the most interesting.

I spent about an hour on Wolf Rock finding things that interested me, that I could place under the clouds.  There were quite a few things there that I had not had the opportunity to shoot before, and several objects that I have photographed several times before.  I always enjoy working the trees, but this time I found myself gravitating towards lots of moss and small vegetation which stayed well below the horizon.  When the sky is good, that really is all you need above the horizon.

Staying Grounded
The storm never did hit, but the clouds were indicative of that storm.  Fortunately, I was able to stay dry and benefit from the spectacular textures and colors brought on by the front.  In the picture above, there was a hint of yellow in the sky in the distance because of how the sun was being diffused at my back with some higher clouds.  Those higher clouds became visible when the low storm clouds stopped near the horizon.  While this was shot nearly three hours after sunrise, the way the lighting was playing tricks, it appears as though we are much closer to the beginning of the day.

Not wanting to forfeit any other locations, I decided to pack things up and leave Wolf Rock having shot what I felt was the best compositions available.  I continued on the trail to Cedar Rock and found another bald which I had worked before.  This one has a stellar view of Stone Mountain itself, but unfortunately the sky wasn't cooperating with me for this shot.  The sky was much too blown out on top of the mountain, and there was no sunlight on the bald to give it a splash of color.  I wasn't happy about it, but I decided to abandon any pictures from this location and continued down the trail to another bald.  This one was slightly off trail and I hadn't been here before.  The sky was still good here, but there was very little for me to use as foreground interest.

Mossy Path
Just when I was about to give up, I happened to look down at the area where I had entered the bald.  There was a large patch of moss and debris next to a rutted drainage groove.  It wasn't much, but it was something.  I still had my 16-35mm lens fitted so I was able to exaggerate the size of the moss, while including a good bit of background and sky.  The composition is a little deceiving since it appears almost flat in the picture.  In truth, this sloped down at a fairly steep angle.  While this was the only picture that I was able to get from the latter stages of my bald hikes, I was pretty happy with it considering I had almost abandoned this location as well.  Just goes to show, sometimes the best pictures can be made with some of the strangest ingredients.

The clouds were clearing and things were starting to change.  It was getting closer to noon than I was really comfortable with.  Landscapes rarely benefit from direct overhead light.  I packed things up and started toward the truck.  The hike was mostly downhill at this point which was quite nice.  After hiking uphill to start with and jockeying position on some rather steep slopes it was very nice to have an easy time walking again.  even though the sun was out, and it was approaching noon, I kept my eyes out for any other potential subjects that I could shoot.  It might not be the best of conditions, but I was already here and I had my camera right?

Stairway to Bliss
I'm glad I was keeping my eyes out, and my mind open for this one.  I came down some steps and crossed a bridge.  As I did, there was a little voice in my head (that sounded a lot like Toni) saying "You should photograph this bridge!"  I answer the voice and said that there were too many highlights from the sun, and it wouldn't work.  I did turn around and see what the situation was.  There were highlights from the sun sure enough....but they were concentrated on the bridge.  The rest of the scene was fairly evenly lit thanks to the lush canopy above.  Maybe the voices in my head were onto something.

I pulled out the camera, and swapped in my more reserved 24-70mm lens and fitted an intensifying polarizer to the front before mounting it to the tripod.  I started to work on several different compositions from close up to further away.  I found that in order to keep the stairs behind the bridge in appropriate scale, I preferred getting into the telezoom range of the lens at about 65mm.  With this, I was able to frame the bridge between two trees, and even include a third as a foreground element.  The bridge led right into the stairs on the other end, and the sun was highlighting just perfectly.  Usually, I wouldn't care for the heavy shadows that the sun was causing, but for this particular subject it just worked!

When I got home and showed the picture to Toni she liked it immediately and I knew that I had finally captured one of her bridges that she has wanted me to do for so long now.  I was excited to process it, and was very happy to determine that other than a little fine tuning in white balance, there was nothing else that this picture needed.  The contrast was perfect, the saturation levels were spot on, and everything just fit, it needed nothing.....except.....well.....

Stairway to Bliss
I tried it as a monochrome since I know Toni really likes B&W photographs.  Hmm, I kind of liked this.  Again, it was all just perfect.  The more I looked, the more I decided that I liked this as much in mono as I did in full color.  The bridge was still the star, and the transition between the light and dark tones was even more powerful now that the color had been shed.  When I printed out both versions and showed them to Toni there was a strange pause.  I honestly thought that she didn't like them at first.  She then started to slowly state. "I..........(hate it, don't like it, think its horrible..what????).........LOVE this!"  She was pointing to the black and white version.  She followed up with "and I really like the color one, but the black and white is beautiful!"  She then said that I was going to print out a large format one for the living room to replace something that is already hanging.

Yeah, I count that as a win!  I'm always tickled when I can create a picture that Toni really loves.  Its safe to say that will cement a place in the Monochrome Room here in the gallery for all to enjoy.


  1. These are great Greg! I love them all but my favourite is 'Toni's' bridge, it positively glows!! I hope you get more good weather this summer to show off your photography skills, I'm so glad you've got back into it! :)

    1. Thank you Jeanette! I'm very happy with how the bridge turned out, and I owe the inspiration for it to Toni for sure! She has been wanting me to get a shot of the bridges there for some time now. It was finally the right time, and I'm glad I listened to the voice in my head. I'm sharing your hopes for a good summer of photography. I think I am finally back on track with it after many months of getting back in the swing of things.