Final Leaf Trek to the BRP

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Me:  What is that noise?.....Oh, it's the alarm.  Starts to look at the weather in the mountains.

Toni:  Are you going to get up and go?

Me:  There are 30mph winds in the mountains today, and the wind chill is in the 20's.  I should just stay home and curl up with you today.

Toni:  You really should go.  This will probably be the last day you can catch the leaves.

Me:  Yeah, I guess you are right...Ugh

That was how my morning started at 4:15am.  I really didn't want to get out of the bed, especially seeing the weather conditions in the mountains.  The winds were up with 20mph sustained, and 30mph gusts forecasted.  Not to mention that the temperatures were in the mid to upper 30's with a wind chill in the lower 20's.  That was a complete shock to my system after being in the mid 80's just days before.  But Toni was right, this was going to be my last good chance to capture the Fall colors in the mountains since peak was a few days ago.  The wind would be better tomorrow, but I would lose the clouds which were forecasted to be about 45% coverage for most of the morning.  This should provide me with some visual interest in the sky, and keep the sun diffused for a decent morning of photography.

Holding Back the Day
Honestly, I was tired.  I have been in the mountains every weekend for the last month, and the long days were starting to wear on me.  I didn't have much of a plan for this Trek.  I figured I would wing it, and follow the light, and try to dodge the wind the best I could.  I knew that above 3000 feet the trees were mostly bare by this point.  I tried to focus on sections that were a bit lower to try and get some good color.  Since I was going to make a morning out of the Trek, I got to the Parkway before sunrise.  I was not holding out much hope of a good sunrise though since there were no clouds in the sky.  I wasn't surprised at this, since typically, 45% coverage means a single small puffy cloud in the sky.

I started out headed South because I knew of a few really good places to capture a sunrise, should one appear.  As I got close to Raven Rocks Overlook, I happened to catch sight of a fence to the left and I was pretty sure I saw a small patch of clouds over where the sun was coming up.  This was an unknown vista for me, but it was worth turning around to check it out.

Sure enough, the clouds were actually coming over the mountain and rushing toward the horizon.  If I timed it right, I would be able to get some good color this morning.  I parked the truck and opened the door....then considered how badly I wanted to try a sunrise.  Ultimately, I fought the wind, which was howling at this point.  I spread my tripod out for maximum stability as I was having flashbacks from when I busted a lens due to a sudden gust of wind.  I decided to keep my 24-70mm lens on, but I fitted the Lee filter holder in anticipation for using my flat filters.

I set up and tried to get the fence to contribute to the composition.  I found that by getting really low, the fence became a prominent feature against the colors in the sky.  The wind was really causing problems though, as everything was blowing around wildly.  For this level of light, my shutter speeds were not fast enough to freeze the motion.  Instead, I had to time my shots with the lulls in the wind, and hope that they stayed calm for the duration of the exposure.  That never happened though.  The color in the sky was good, and the clouds held promise, but weren't moving fast enough.  As the sky started to wash out, I realized that when the clouds lit up with color, it would be too late for the picture that I wanted.  I'm just not a fan of a white sky between colorful clouds, and the ground.  So, I decided to cut this short in favor of what was developing behind me.  The clouds were much more dramatic to the rear, and I wanted to make use of the wonderful lighting before it was gone.

Autumn Ignited
There is just something magical about the light that the low sun casts when the subject is under an overcast sky.  The warm light explodes under the moody clouds, and this was exactly what I saw was about to happen.  I quickly got my camera in position, and pulled the reverse ND grad filter off the front.  I wasn't going to be needing any filters for this shot.  I just had to sit back and wait for the light to hit.

The only problem was...I was getting numb.  I could no longer feel my fingers, and my nose was running like a faucet.  But I waited.  In a window of about 3 minutes I had the light that I was waiting for, and I took advantage of it with several exposures to make sure I got it right.  The composition was a little more difficult that I expected.  I had set up a foreground, but there was a deep shadow that covered it, and with the wind, there was too much movement for my tastes.  I had to crop in tighter in order to really focus on what was the most interesting.  The change in composition was easier said than done with my numb fingers.  Things like focusing became a chore, but the biggest issue was I was now switching lenses.  For the composition at hand, I needed my 70-200mm.  It was everything I could do to swap the lenses while keeping the wind away from the sensor.  I was finally able to get the image that I wanted, seconds before the light faded.

My body was telling me to put the camera away and get back in the truck.  But, I saw in a slightly different direction another opportunity to catch the golden morning light.  There was a single grove of trees atop a hill, where one of the trees still had about half of its leaves left.  I was still using my long telezoom, so reaching the tree would not be a problem at all.  The cows that were slowly walking my way were promising to cause some issues though.  The last time this happened, the cows ruined my composition, and I had to abandon my location until they left me alone.  These guys were not quite that bad.  In fact, they didn't bother me at all.  The bigger plus was they actually held still for me, and even faced in the same direction.  I couldn't look this gift cow in the mouth, now could I?  I opened up the composition and included them.  This worked out wonderfully since the rising sun was lighting up the clouds to the right of the frame.  This was good timing!

However, in the world of photography, good light lasts just moments and then it's gone.  With the sun quickly rising, I was losing out on the warm tones, and they were being replaced with very contrasty light.  It was time to listen to my body and get back to the truck.  It took some doing to get the camera put away though.  I had no fine motor skills, and I could not tell what kind of pressure I was applying to buttons, and levers.  I looked quite funny, but I eventually got it all broken down, and back in the bag.  Then it was time to make use of the heater...on full blast!

Appalachian Breeze
Now it became a game of find the light.  On one side of the Parkway, there was bright blue skies.  On the other, nice and dense clouds.  Of course, I was looking for the clouds, but I wanted the sun to light up the landscape below...yes, I ask for a lot!  I found one of my little favorite settings near a recessed barn that looked like there was promise.  I was going for a lone tree on a slope.  The composition was there, but the lighting was not what I wanted at all.  However, the distant mountain range showed much more potential as the sun was dancing across the hills already.  I moved over to that side, and started to compose the image using my 70-200mm lens again.  I wanted to keep the distant mountains prominent, and using a wide angle lens would reduce their size too much.

Because of the distance, I needed some form of foreground interest.  Fortunately, there was a nice split rail fence that I could use.  I just backed up and framed the mountains in the vertical posts.  My one issue was the wind was still howling, and the weeds in front of the fence were moving like crazy.  There was no chance of freezing them, so I went ahead and embraced the movement.  I stopped down the lens, and slowed the shutter speed to a speed that I thought would provide enough motion in the weeds to reduce their visual impact, but keeping them detailed enough that the eye recognizes them without having to examine the form.  It was a fine balance!

The second element of this photograph is the light.  The clouds were moving quickly in the wind and the light from the sun would illuminate various parts of the landscape randomly.  I just sat there and made exposures when I thought the light was doing something special.  For the most part, it was going across the nearest mountain, and would occasionally hit the one to the rear.  For a moment though, the light hit both mountains, and also fully illuminated the middle ground for the first and only time.  That was the shot I was wanting, and didn't even realize I was waiting for that formula.

Once again, it was time to fumble with the camera and put it back in the bag.  I couldn't feel my extremities once again.  I needed to find other vistas to photograph while the light was still good.  I got turned around at this point, and started heading North in search of more color.  I could see that the closer I got to the Rough Ridge area, the less leaves remained.  I was hoping for better luck on the Northern sections of the Parkway.

Confining the Blue Ridge
As I made my way North, I passed by a favorite section of fence that I've photographed many times before.  With the clouds in the distance, I figured that I would continue that tradition.  I pulled off the road, and built my camera, once again with my 70-200mm lens to keep the distant mountains in proper proportions.  The histogram showed a nice and even exposure, so there was no need for any filters.  I worked on several different compositions using the red gate as a visual anchor for the entire image.  Since the last time I photographed here, the gate had been damaged.  There was now a pronounced bend to it, and it happened to match up very nicely with the dip in the distant mountain range.  It all seemed to come together very nicely looking at the image review in the camera.

Standing Guard
Just a little ways down from the gate is another scene that I enjoy trying to photograph.  I'm not sure why it gives me such a hard time, but I've never been truly happy with the images that I've shot here.  I really like the concept, but something with the way the colors and textures behave makes it feel weird to me.  Today, I got to add in the colors of Fall to that mix which complicated things even more.  However, the image that resulted had a drama that I have not experienced with this scene in all the years I've tried to photograph it.  It turned out much better than I expected, and I was very happy that I gave it another try.  I'm just wondering how much longer the dead trees in the front will remain there.  In my opinion, they absolutely make the scene.

After finishing this image, and trying another scene a short distance up the road (wasn't happy with the results), it was time to pack up the gear once again.  I wasn't really sure where I was gong to end up, but things were going pretty well so so far.  That is, if you forget the fact that my fingers were now tingling from exposure, and would not stop.

Behind the Gate
Not too far up the road, I came upon another one of my favorite spots.  The lighting was just right today, and I had to stop and give it a go.  When I got out of my truck, I was about blown over by the wind.  The best I could tell, the wind was being channeled through the very valley that I was about to photograph.  I was essentially standing in a jet blast, trying to get a picture.  Well, I was going to give it a try at least.  Again, I have found one of those old red gates which seems to find their way into my pictures more often than not.  Since the trees to the left were nice and golden, I wanted to counter that with the red gate.  In order to do that, I composed the image making the gate the visual anchor.  It was positioned directly opposite of the orange trees creating boundaries for the eyes, forcing them to go deep into the picture.  The hardest part about this image was waiting for the wind to die down long enough for a steady exposure.  The sustained wind was enough to make the camera visibly move, and that would make for a very soft image.  I got my chance about 3 times and took advantage each time with slightly different compositions.

Behind the Gate in B&W
Since it has been a while since I've done a monochrome conversion, I thought that this one would make a decent specimen for that process.  While I like it better in color, it works as a B&W image for different reasons.  The textures are what really draw me into the frame.  The "X" in the foreground cradles the distant mountain which causes the eyes to follow through the image.  I do enjoy working with monochrome images, and with Winter approaching, it is about time to start doing those again.

Home Sweet Home
The further I drove, the more the clouds were starting to break up.  I can't complain though...the forecast showed them all but gone by 11am.  Here we were coming up to about noon and there were still some really good clouds in the sky.  That was good, because without them, I would have been done shooting as the mid day sun is just too harsh to work with unless the light can be diffused.  My last stop of the day happened to be a historic cabin which I photographed many, many years ago in the snow.  I've not been all that interested in it since that time, but it was calling my name today for some reason.

With my 24-70mm lens, I gave it a go.  Since the clouds were breaking up, I went ahead and fit a polarizer on my lens to help with the contrast in the sky.  For being a cute little cabin, it is not that easy to photograph.  There is not much in the way of foreground interest, unless you count the bramble off of the corner of the house.  By opening up wide, I was able to get the sky in the frame, and also a shadow in the foreground.  More importantly, I was able to get the Fall color that was present in the background of the house.  The cool sky balanced out the warm tones of the trees and the cabin and made for a nice, and well balanced image.

Home Sweet Home in B&W
Of course, when I got home, I wanted to see how this worked as a monochrome conversion.  For me, the sky seals the deal and makes this a successful image sans color as well.  It really felt good to get back into processing B&W images once again.  It seems like forever ago since the last time I did one.

Sticks and Stones
With all of the wondering about foreground interest, I almost forgot to try a vertical composition.  With the chimney, and the tall, bare trees to the rear of the house, a portrait orientation really lends itself to this old home.  Of the two compositions, I think that this one is my favorite for the simplicity of it all.  I still get the deep blue sky, and the warm tones of the main subject matter.  The size of the house is very apparent with the trees in close proximity as well.

After I was done here, it was time to head back home.  It had been a very fun day on the Parkway.  It might have been the excitement of fighting off the high winds, or it might have been the challenge of staying warm.  I guess, it could also be the fact that I came home with quite a few new images to add to my collection.  No matter how you look at it, I am glad that I followed Toni's advice this morning and went to the mountains once again.

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