Halloween at Old Salem

Monday, October 31, 2016

For a little more than the past month, I've been concentrating on the mountains of NC for photography.  Of course, this is largely due to the season, and the chance to see the leaves changing.  This has taken a large toll on my time over the weekends, but has been very much worth it.  With the color about gone in the mountains, I can start setting my sights closer to home now.  Since I worked all through the previous weekend, I did not have the chance to get out at all with the camera.  Ironically, with the actual work week starting back up, I found that I had a little bit of time in the evening that I could get out real quick and hunt some pictures.  The sky was a little boring when I left work, but the hourly forecast gave me some hope for some decent skies right before sunset. 

For some reason, I had been thinking about Old Salem, which is a historic location about five miles from home.  I don't normally think about going here much any more, so that was strange.  I've been to Old Salem several times over the years and found some moderate scenes that I could shoot, but overall, I was never overly impressed with the layout.  One thing that I have found over the years is that the Fall colors seem to be pretty vibrant there, if nothing else.  With questionable weather, and limited daylight, I went with my urge to go to Old Salem.

Autumn in Old Salem
When I arrived, I was less than excited about things, but there was something pulling me into Old Salem.  I've learned over the years that there are times when I get strange urges to go places with the camera.  When I listen, I'm usually rewarded with some pretty good pictures.  Considering how tired I was, I was actually in a pretty creative mood, and I was ready to try some new things.  One of the first streets I came to had some very nice color in places.  I happened to find a nice rustic gunsmith shop in close proximity to a bright yellow tree.  This would be my first shot of the day.

In the spirit of trying new things, I decided to use different glass than I would normally think about for this scene.  While I have always used my mid lens (24-70mm), I decided that I would go with my telephoto 70-200mm instead.  This would give me a different perspective, and would help to emphasize the background as much as the foreground.  I added my Singh Ray Intensifying Polarizer to help bring out the color in the tree as well.  Because of the reach, I had to set up a fair distance away from my composition.  While this felt strange, the image that I was seeing in the viewfinder was well worth changing things up.  I was instantly excited about how this Trek was going to turn out!

Once I left the street scene, I was really hunting Fall color.  I started to look for individual trees that were set apart from the others.  It wasn't long before I found a lone tree, a maple, I think.  It was close to one that I had shot before that really has a vibrant color to it, and it is also right over a bench.  Unfortunately, that tree was still 90% green, and did not look all that special today.  The one close by, however, was in full color, and had a little bit of character to it.  It was worth grabbing a few shots of.  I left the camera set up the way that I had it for the last scene with the telephoto, and color intensifier.  I worked on a composition that utilized a fairly uncluttered background, while finding an angle that showed the trunk, while not letting too much of the sky through.  That really narrowed my possibilities, but when I found the sweet spot, I knew I had it.  Thinking back to one of my new photography mentors, Josh Cripps, I decided to fill the frame with what I liked.  In this situation, I loved the colors of the leaves.  That was what filled the frame for this composition.  The fallen leaves provided a much needed balance to the bright leaves still on the tree, and I really like the composition here.

The Hidden Face
Just in case I thought that the leaves were too much when filling that much of the frame, I cropped in a good bit, and used the leaves to frame the tree trunk.  As I was focusing in on the trunk, I happened to notice something kind of spooky though.  Maybe it was the fact that I was out on Halloween night, or maybe I'm just a sucker for the macabre...but I was looking at what appeared to be a rather dramatic skull in the bark.  There was an eye, nose, and a creepy, grinning mouth looking to the right of the picture.  It wasn't until I started to look at this in detail that I found a second, smaller skull below.  If nothing else, this photograph gets an emotional response from me, and I see a certain animation in this static image.

With the light quickly changing, I decided that it was best for me to keep moving rather than stay one place too long.  I continued on through Old Salem figuring that my ultimate destination would be the cemetery where there is usually a very large yellow tree right smack in the middle.  That was what I was looking for, but I told myself that I would not pass up other shots along the way.

Lavender Bouquet
One scene that I came upon was the Single Brother's House (If I'm not mistaken).  I've shot this building a number of times, but never quite like this.  Today, I was drawn in by the purple bush at the corner.  That was really all that grabbed my attention.  I thought about shooting the entire building, but the sky was generally overcast and not all that interesting.  The building was also big enough that the size would reduce the scale of the flowering bush and make it barely a supporting player in the final composition.  So, what I decided to do was leave my camera as it was, and shoot a tight composition using the building as a backdrop instead of a primary element.  I was able to use a deep green bush as a counter element, and there was enough warm tones in the picture to give it a bit of visual drama.  I wasn't quite sure I liked this one, and I asked Toni's opinion before I gave it my final blessing.  She really liked it, and since I value her artistic opinion, I decided I liked it too.  Again, today was about doing things different than I normally do them.

As it turned out, there was a little garden on the other side of the street with a small house on the other side of a fence.  It was mostly obscured by the vegetation and the fence, but there was something very German about the scene, and I liked what I was seeing.  I decided to give it a try with the camera and see what I could come up with.

There were two things going in my favor for this image.  The sun was low in the sky, and was positioned over my left shoulder.  This provided a nice warm hue over the scene, and helped to brighten the house.  Second, the trees behind it were big enough that I could exclude the sky which was still rather boring.  With my tele lens still on the camera, I started composing shots.  I found that horizontal worked best for this particular subject, and grabbed a number of variations before deciding that the sun was dropping too low in the sky to keep the warm tones on the house.  I decided to head back into the main section and keep looking while working my way to the cemetery.

As I was walking, I happened to look to my left.  At first all I saw was a white fence, but as my eyes started to explore the scene, I found a really nice tree framing what was almost a pink tree.  I stopped in my tracks and heard Toni saying I had better shoot that.  It was more of a squeal, but I got the message and started to look at the scene, trying to imagine what she was seeing.  Yes, even when she is not actually with me, I know her well enough now to know what kind of pictures she likes.

Dream Catcher
There was a lot here that I wanted to capture.  I really wanted to keep the tree as dominant as I could, and I wanted to keep the power of the fence in tact by photographing it as completely as I could.  The colors would be a soft textured background for the scene.  In order to do this, I figured that I would actually need to keep the telephoto lens on, and would need to zoom in a pretty good amount.  As it turned out, the composition I liked the most was with the lens racked to a full 200mm, with me standing across the street.  This is really different than the way I would normally shoot this type of scene, but I found that the resulting composition was yards away better than I was expecting.

With the 200mm zoom, my depth of field was very shallow.  In order to expand it to where I needed it, I stopped down to f/20 (to maintain sharpness, while expanding depth of field), and focused about a quarter of the way down the fence.  With an exposure of five full seconds, I had to wait until the breeze died down as much as possible before tripping the shutter.  The resulting image had several nice surprises.  First of all, the depth of field was not quite front to back sharp.  There was a noticeable softness to the background as the leaves fell out of focus.  The lighting was not so much difficult as it was atypical for me.  The scene was essentially backlit so the leaves carried with them a certain vibrance, and glow which contrasted beautifully with the shadowed tree trunk.  There was also the contrast between the white fence and the dark wood of the tree.  The fallen leaves introduced a wonderfully warm foreground which helped to make the colors in the trees pop.

When I started to look at this picture critically, I found that I loved everything about it.  The soft focus in the leaves, along with the back light, gave the scene an ethereal tone, and the shape of the tree was holding those leaves so gently.  The fence was there as an obvious barrier, but for some strange reason, did not provide a visual obstacle to go deep within the image.  However, the assumption can be made after seeing two sides of the fence, it is designed to keep things in.  All of this worked together and made me think of a dream.  Knowing that Toni has always put a lot of emphasis in her dreams, and has expressed an interest in dream catchers, the title almost created itself.  Yes, this one was Toni's picture from the beginning, and remained right up to the finalized title of the print.

Main Street
Shortly after I shot Dream Catcher, I continued on to the cemetery and found that the tree I was looking for was still very much green.  Not wanting to bypass any more potentially good images, I returned into the main portion of Old Salem.  I stopped to talk to a resident for a few minutes, who gave me a bit of a history lesson before I continued on looking for other scenes.  The sun was dropping fast, and the sky was not looking like a sunset was going to be all that possible.  However, I decided to stick it out for a bit instead of packing it in just yet.

I'm glad that I did because I found that there were a few places where the street lights were throwing a pretty glow on the buildings.  I happened on one of these lights and decided that it was worth grabbing a few frames.  After a quick read of the scene, I decided that I needed to swap glass, and go with my 24-70mm lens, and I needed to shed the polarizer due to the low light.  I quickly got into position and composed this shot as the opening exposure.  I would try a few more in the horizontal orientation, and a few additional in a portrait orientation.  When it was all done, my favorite was my initial composition as far as balance and color.  Again, it was not my typical picture, but I really enjoyed the process and result of shooting this one.

With the end of the day quickly approaching, I struck out to see if I could take advantage of the sky which was starting to get some really good texture to it.  The sun was down, so I didn't have long to find something, and that meant that I might not be able to be too picky.  As I passed by the tavern, I noticed the woodshed behind was lit up from the inside, which was really cool.  But even better was the fact that the sky was fascinating above it, and the wind was moving the clouds towards me, as opposed to moving side to side like they normally are.  I set things up quickly, knowing that I had about five to ten minutes before the light was gone.

In order to capture the sky, I left my 24-70mm lens on, and set up low to the ground.  This allowed me to angle the camera up and into the sky.  The clouds were moving fast, and with a 20 second exposure, I was hoping to see some movement in the sky.  There was no time for any filters for this shot, I just composed, and exposed.  Looking in the LCD, I was pretty sure that I had a winner, but can never be sure looking at the desaturated and flat image that the image review shows.  It was not until I got home and started to process the image that I was able to realize the scene that I had previsualized when I came upon the woodshed.  There was drama, action, texture, mood, and it all played together so nicely.  Again, this was not a typical image for me, and I was very lucky that there were lights on since I did not have a flashlight in order to light paint the shed.  The highlights and shadows were a natural marriage, and the sky was the glue that kept the whole image together.  I'm hoping to shoot more images like this one in the future!

With the woodshed now in nearly total darkness, it was time to head back home and get some dinner.  I kept thinking to myself that I really felt like this was a largely successful Trek even though I only shot 40-some frames in a couple of hours.  It wasn't until I was done processing that I realized just how successful this outing had been.  With eight images deemed keepers, I was well over my standard 10% keeper ratio, and just about every image was shot in a different flavor than I normally do.  It is fun to keep things fresh, but when it comes to photography, it is always so much easier to keep things in your comfort level so you don't stand the chance to miss that one great shot.  By experimenting, I have found out that I might not get the typical image that I like, but I'm finding so many other approaches to the same old scenes.  Honestly, I'm really liking the different feel that my photography is starting to take these days.  It is a constant struggle to kick myself out of my own ruts, but when I do, I'm overwhelmingly impressed with the results.

As it turned out, I did very good listening to myself when I decided to go to Old Salem.  Everything I shot today was done in a different fashion than how I usually do business, and that paid big dividends in the end.  Now to pick what images go in the gallery!

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