Searching out Fall Colors on the BRP

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mountain Red Head
Here in North Carolina, October means the leaves start to change color in the mountains.  Historically, when I've been doing photography, I would try to get out to the mountains right at peak to photograph the leaves in full swing.  I'm doing things a bit different this year, and I'm making it a point to go to the mountains every weekend in search of Fall Colors.  This marks the third weekend I've been out to the Blue Ridge Parkway so far, with one more in the works.

Hurricane Matthew made landfall late in the week, and started to severely affect the weather patterns in NC, clear out to the mountains.  Ironically though, I was looking forward to the freaky weather, and was ready to embrace it come Saturday morning.  I woke up early...about 3:45am so that I could get out to the Parkway in time for a sunrise.  My plan was to head out to Rough Ridge, and work a slightly different angle than I had previously for a sunrise.  I figured that getting there long before sunrise would cement me a solo visit to the trails.

Rough Around the Edges
My hope was to be all alone, but the reality of the situation wasn't quite what I was expecting.  There was already a car in the parking lot when I arrived, and before I could get my bag on, another car showed up.  The folks in the cars obviously knew each other as they started carrying on loud conversation about hiking in the dark.  Oh goody, I get to share the trails with what appeared to be ASU students.  Oh well, as long as they were hiking, they would not bother me. 

They got a head start on the trails since I was still getting things ready at the truck.  I could keep track of their progress from their talking.  It is amazing how far a voice carries in the mountains in the early morning hours!  As I made my way along the trail, I could hear that they were still moving, so all was well.  It was when they stopped going forward that I got a little worried.  It sounded like they had paused on the boardwalk. I was going to have to listen to them while I was trying to internalize the atmosphere.  Well, it was worse than that...they were now sprawled out on the precipice that I was planning on setting up on.  They had bags to sit on since it was raining lightly, so it did not appear that they were going anywhere anytime soon.

I had to make alternative plans for sunrise.  That was ok I suppose, since the clouds were pretty thick and I didn't really see much chance of morning color like I had hoped for.  I continued on though the trail in search of another vantage point I could take advantage of.  I found what I was looking for in a jagged rock outcropping.  I could photograph it three different ways, just in case the sun decided to light up the sky.  Of course, that didn't happen, so I climbed up on another outcropping and set the camera up, pointing Southeast.  The elevation allowed me to exclude the sky for the most part, and use the distant terrain as my backdrop.  Exposure was a little tricky with the extremely dim, and cool light.  I managed to get it set up without the aid of filters which was great.  That allowed me to use my lens hood on my 24-70mm to keep the front element dry in the early morning mist.

When I was done, there were a pair of other hikers that decided to climb up on the outcropping and take their own pictures.  They didn't even see me until they had started to climb up on the rock.  I think I scared them a little bit.  It wasn't long and they were done.  The sky was making it so that I was done as well.  From here I continued hiking along the trail to see what else I could find.  My hopes were not high as there was very little detail in the early morning sky, and the wind was a little high to worry about photographing intimate landscapes within the trails.

A Golden Crown
What I found was another small outcropping with trees at the end of it.  These trees were bright orange, and really captured the mood of Fall.  The trick was going to be getting the sky to expose correctly behind the tree.  Again, I was able to work with no filters since the lighting was fairly even.  The part that was hard was the waiting.  I waited in this spot for about 30 minutes waiting for the sky to do something interesting.  It finally got some detail in it, and gave me a picture for about 20 seconds before the clouds covered it back up again.  Oh well, that 20 seconds was all I needed to grab this shot, and at least the wind died down for a bit so that I could keep the tree nice and sharp.

Rain Clouds
I hiked for a good little ways on the trails, but ultimately found nothing all that entertaining.  I decided to turn back around and head back to the truck again.  As I passed by the boardwalk, I noticed that everyone had left.  I went ahead and stepped out on the primary outcropping to see if my original idea for a composition would work out.  The idea was good, but the lighting was not right for it now.  However, the distant mountains were looking pretty good, so I decided to set up and give them a try.  I started working with another outcropping as a foreground interest.  The composition was good, but the clouds were not feeling quite right for the image.  I tried a couple of different things and finally settled on the above picture.  I found that the better compositions were actually looking straight into the the side of the mountain instead of finding the sweeping vistas.

Rough Ridge Fall
It has been a long time since I've photographed this particular outcropping.  It only looks right in the fall when there are splotches of color all around it.  It was looking pretty good this morning, and after I attached a color combo polarizer, the colors really jumped out at me.  It only took a few frames to be satisfied which was good because the rain was starting to be a big problem for my lens and filters.  It was time to pack it up and head back down the hill to the parking lot.

A Secret Path
As I made my way down the trail, I looked behind me and saw an interesting composition developing.  The winding rocky path, and the slightly curved trees made for something like a portal.  I was hooked, and went ahead and built the camera once again.  This was a slightly difficult shot to make.  It wasn't the exposure, or the composition that was causing me problems was the wind.  Because of the dim lighting on this section of the trail, my exposures were all in excess of 13 seconds.  Every breeze that came through caused the leaves to move, and thus blur.  With a good deal of luck, I was able to get the timing right a couple of times, so that everything rendered sharp and motionless.  While setting up the shot, I did move a couple of leaves to the front of the frame.  The yellow and orange leaves you see to the right, were moved from a point closer to me, but out of the frame.  I felt that the splash of color would benefit the composition.

As I was leaving, I stopped to photograph the foot bridge, but really didn't find anything significantly different than what I had done before.  Since the leaves hadn't really changed at this point, I decided to trash the pictures from that location.  I did meet another photographer while I was working on some of the compositions.  He was also out in search of leaves, and like me, was a little disappointed  in the lack of color along Rough Ridge.  With the altitude, this is usually one of the first places to change in this section of the Parkway.  He did let me know that Linville had a good many trees that had already changed.  With that information, the Linville Gorge turned into my next destination.

A Steady Stream
As I got closer to the Linville Gorge, I could tell that there were a good many more trees that had changed which is quite strange.  The Linville Gorge is at a lower altitude, and therefore should change after Rough Ridge...but I was seeing it with my own eyes.  There was color to be had here, it was just a matter of finding the right composition to showcase the color.  

I decided to go on a little hike at Linville Falls.  It has been a long time since I've been here, and with the cloud cover, it was a good day to work waterfalls.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one with that idea though.  The parking lot was nearly full, and there were people milling around as far as my eyes could see.  To avoid the crowds, I decided to go down the self guided nature trail to see Dugger's Creek Falls.  This is a favorite of mine, and I was hoping to find it with good water flow today.

The hike was uneventful and I didn't see any other hikers which was great.  I went ahead and dropped beneath the bridge, and started standing in the water which I have become quite good at over the years of doing waterfall photography.  I already knew that I was going to need the reach of my 70-200mm lens due to the layout of the cavern the falls are in.

Dugger's Creek Falls
This waterfall works well in both horizontal and vertical perspectives, so I did both to make sure I had everything covered.  As I was shooting, about 10 or so hikers came by, walking over the bridge, and some even came down to where I was.  I don't remember ever seeing this waterfall so busy, but I guess it is due to the season, and I will have to get used to it.

I played with Dugger's Creek Falls for about 30 minutes or so before I packed it all up and started back out to the main trails.  I wasn't looking forward to being in with so many other people, but I wanted to do more waterfalls since it seems like forever ago that I photographed one.  I was also hoping that I was going to find some nice fall color along the way as well.  

I followed the first trail that I came to, knowing that it would take me to the upper falls, and three different viewing platforms of the Linville Falls.  I wasn't overly interested in getting the big waterfall today because I knew that everyone and their mother would be out to do just that.  In turn, I decided to check out the Upper Falls.  It has been many years since I have been here to photograph the pair of cascades, and the subsequent rapids that flow to the main falls.

Turning Point
I was a little surprised to see about 35 people in the viewing area for these falls.  I've never seen it this crowded.  I was here, and I saw some color, so that meant I was going to have to deal with the crowds.  I found a little place out of the way to build the camera.  I chose the 70-200mm to start with, and then ultimately swapped it for the 24-70mm.  I used a polarizer, and occasionally an ND filter in order to get the shutter speed where I wanted it.  The last time I worked these falls, I made the mistake of trying to get both waterfalls in the same picture.  That was a mistake, and resulted in a rather boring composition.  This time, I went about it a completely different way.  I isolated each waterfall, and worked them independently from one another.  I found that this was a much...MUCH better approach.

Seasonal Shift
With the heavy rains we have had recently, both of these waterfalls were full of character.  I don't remember enjoying them nearly this much the first time I photographed them.  Yep, despite the hoards of people, I was very much enjoying myself.  Waterfall photography has always been a fun thing for me, and now that I don't get to do it that often, I relish it when it's possible.  The crowds were increasing, with another 15 or so added just since I arrived.  However, they were all very respectful of my space and asked any time they walked in front of me.  That really made it much more tolerable.  If only I could keep the rain from blowing directly into the lens of my camera!

With a Quickness
Rocky Layers
In order to point my camera away from the rain, and hopefully keep the front element dry, I decided to focus my attention on the rapids moving to feed the main drop of Linville Falls.  The direction worked out perfect, and my lens stayed dry.  I also was able to get quite a few compositions.  I was still using the long lens, but I was starting to see some restrictions to my compositions using this lens for everything.  So, I decided to go and check out one last section before switching out my lenses.  

Water Carvings
The final twist and turn before the drop is always an interesting feature to photograph.  There is a certain abstract aspect that is presented by photographing from a highly elevated position.  There is not much here to visually anchor your eyes on, so it takes a moment to really find out what you are looking at. For me, that is the draw for this photograph.  It is the third time I've photographed it, and the first time I really liked the outcome.  Everything just came together so nicely for this one.

Swift Water

Gentle Flow
It was now time to swap lenses so I could entertain some different compositions with the water.  I started to work my way back to the twin falls, but I wanted to do some more with the rapids first.  It is a very cool thing to look at a familiar subject with a different focal length.  All of a sudden, new possibilities are opened up, and the scene in front of you is new once again.  I started to let myself get a little more creative, and began working the water into larger compositions that incorporated the trees was Autumn, after all.

Autumn Rapids
This one is one of my favorite from this part of Linville Falls.  As with some of my other pictures of the morning, I had to do a good bit of waiting in order for the wind to stop blowing.  The exposure was 1.3 seconds I believe, which is slow enough to show the wind blowing the vegetation around.  Fortunately, the wind did cooperate, and I was able to get Autumn Rapids which showcases the beginnings of the Fall color in the mountains.  Honestly, I just like the overall feel of this image.  It is very relaxing to me.

Froth and Foliage
This one is another one of my favorites from Linville.  Not only is the waterfall showcased, but I have a good bit of Fall color in the frame.  It is another relaxing one for sure.  I might have to choose between these two pictures to see which one gets printed and framed at some point in the near future.  Not like I actually need more pictures, but it sure is fun to seen them printed out large, and then get them framed.

After working the twin falls for a second time, I realized that I had gotten the goody out of this location.  The fact that there were now about 50 people on the viewing deck, it was time to go.  I thought about heading up to the other viewing platforms, but decided against it.  I had seen the first two platforms while I was at the upper falls.  Both appeared to be full of people on a rotating basis.  This was not something that I wanted to get involved with at all.  The decision was made to pack it in, and head on down the Parkway to see what else I could find.

Distant Peaks
I got back on the Parkway headed South once again.  I didn't have a destination in mind, but I was watching the sky, and checking for compositions I could utilize.  I happened upon an overlook (can't recall the name) that had great skies and good viewing distance.  There was just no foreground interest to be had.  It was good enough to justify me getting out of the truck and seeing what was there to use.  Much to my delight, there were a few trees that were brightly colored, placed in a location that I could use for that much needed foreground interest.  I turned the truck off, and set the camera up.  I would have loved to used the long lens, but I needed the wide angle of the 24-70mm in order to capture the colorful trees in the foreground.  Without these trees, the composition would have been rather flat.

Summer Says Goodbye
Considering there wasn't nearly the amount of color that I was expecting for the areas I went today, I was actually kind of happy that the color was just patchy for these particular compositions.  Had it not stood out among the sea of green, I would not have been able to make these compositions work near as well.  The clouds from Hurricane Matthew were really helping with the drama of the sky as well.  After Linville Falls, and this overlook, I was starting to feel really good about this Trek.  Things were really coming together for me, and I was excited to see what was around the corner for me.

Well, my next stop was just a few miles down the road and around the corner.  Had I not been looking in my mirrors, I would have missed it, as I have many times in the past.  Tucked over a hill, well off the side of the road, I saw some bleached wooden walls of what could only be a barn.  I stopped, and backed the truck up, pulling it off of the road.  I got out and went over to the barn to see what it looked like.  It was fenced off unfortunately, but I was able to previsualize a couple of compositions that could use the fence.  I walked back to the truck and got the camera out....just in time for the rain to start.

Sun Bleached
I went ahead and found the place for the tripod and set it up, hoping that the rain would quit soon.  When it started to slow, I went ahead and built the camera with the 24-70mm lens, along with a polarizer.  I had to leave the lens cap on though because the rain was coming right at the front element.  When the rain paused for a second, I pulled the cap off, composed, focused, set the exposure and shot about 4 frames before the rain came back.  While it didn't take much time to get this shot, I was sure hustling to make it happen while not getting the camera too wet.  With the rain now coming down, it was time to move on to other things down the road.

Distant Squalls
Again, I happened on another overlook with a tree that had changed already.  While not a fiery red or orange, it was yellow, and that worked just fine.  I had the foreground I needed, and I had some really ominous clouds to work with.  The really nice bonus was the break in the clouds allowing the sun to shine through, and the rain visible in the distance.  This was kind of a magical picture for sure, and it only took about 5 minutes to capture before it was all over.

Gnarled Centurion
As I was nearing the end of my Trek, I found yet another overlook with some good clouds.  The only problem was, I wasn't able to really find an interesting composition with the mountains in the distance.  Just when I was ready to pack the camera up and call it quits, I saw this old tree right off of the parking area.  I'm not quite sure how I missed it, but when I saw it, I could hear Toni saying "get it, get it!"  The fact that it is shaped like a "T" didn't hurt either.  I swapped my 70-200mm lens for a 16-35mm so that I could get the big tree in the frame without having to be in the parking lot to do it.  The exposures were very difficult because of the lighting conditions, but I managed to make one work out very well I think.  Just after I snapped this picture, a gust of wind came along and almost knocked my camera over, and blew off my hat.  With that, I decided that it was time to go.

At this point, I was closer to I-40 than getting back on US-421, so I worked my way onto I-40.  I knew that I was going to be going by the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, and decided that it would make sense to go there on my way home.  You see, I have a friend that has been after me to get a picture of it for quite some time.  I was going to have good light, and the time, so why not?

The bridge was not far off of the highway, so it took nothing at all to find.  When I got there, I was a little disappointed in its condition though.  There had been a great deal of vandalism to this bridge, and the spray paint detracted from the look of this historical landmark.  I almost bypassed the shoot, but decided that I would go ahead give it a shot so that I could say that I have.

Bunker Hill Covered Bridge
I tried really hard to minimize the graffiti on the walls.  Considering what was there, the picture turned out pretty good.  I'm glad that I went at this time of year since the bare trees would make for an exposure nightmare later in the Winter.  It didn't take very long since I was very limited in my compositional choices.  With that, my Trek was over.  I had been out since 4:30am, and it was now a little after 6pm.  I was tired, and hungry.  Now, at 3am the following day, my mind is shutting down.

With that, I'm going to end this blog entry and hope that it makes sense.  My mind wandered more than once, and I caught myself typing things that I said my dreams...that I had while typing.  Yeah, I'm that kind of tired.

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