Light Chasing at Stone Mountain

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Widow's Pool
Last weekend, Toni and I headed out to Stone Mountain to make use of the forecasted, cloudy sky.  Well, all the way there, we watched the clear blue sky that never materialized more than a thin cloud here and there.  We made it to our destination of Widow's Creek Falls, but the light was just too harsh to really even try anything.  We enjoyed the trip and I did some scouting on the way back, but the camera never left the bag.

Today was another chance to try and work that waterfall again.  The forecast was for Cloudy and spotty rain for most of the day.  There was even a little ice forecasted for the morning.  Because of that, I held off going until I was relatively sure that the roads would be fine...not to mention that I don't like slipping on the ice when I have my camera in tow.  I did that several years ago, and it cost me a lens and a camera body...but I digress.  Anyway, I checked the weather one last time around 10am, and found that it was satisfactory for waterfall photography.  It was a bonus to look outside and see the same clouds that were in the hourly forecast, unlike last week.

The trip was quick, and the clouds maintained a perfect look for my needs.  When I got to the falls, I grabbed my gear and made the excruciatingly long hike to the falls.  It might have been a full tenth of a mile!!  I knew that the water level was low from my visit last week, but that wasn't going to bother me.  I have spent the last week thinking about how I could do different isolations on this waterfall.  My plan was to use a different lens entirely from what I was used to using here.  Normally, I stay on the wide side of my focal range, and use either the 16-35mm or 24-70mm.  My plan was to fit the 70-200mm lens and not to look back.

At first it was strange to be photographing here with a long lens.  I just have never done that before.  However, much of the end of 2016 has been about pushing my limits and trying new things with the camera, so I worked the scene as best I could with the lens.  What I found out (and part of why I chose this approach) was that I could actually get a nice full view of the waterfall from further away, which changed the relationship of the foreground and the background.  Since the water flow was lower than normal, I needed to increase the relative size of the waterfall to the other elements.  Shooting at the long end of my lens was making that possible, with an added benefit of staying out of the water.

The other nice thing about shooting with the long lens was the ability to create isolations of the waterfall.  You see, I've always really loved this waterfall because of the character it has.  Right between the two primary water slides, there are a series of holes which at times look like a face.  It has always been these holes in the rock that have caught my attention over the years.  With a minor flow of water, now was the best time to get up close and highlight these features.  Today, I even found another element that I really liked that I don't think I had ever paid attention to before.  There is a slightly gold colored rock at the base between the two slides.  It just really stuck out to me today, and it begged to get a little attention.  I framed several of my shots so that this single rock would grab the eyes, and the water would then pull them through the scene.  It worked every time, in my opinion.

The Pondering Spot
In addition to the golden rock, there was also some very vibrant moss on the wall.  This gave me that splash of color that I needed in the landscape oriented frame.  There was a nearly perfect visual balance with the mossy patches at the upper left, which posed a photographic dichotomy with the bare rock to the bottom right.  Of course, the golden rock was still doing its job grabbing the visual attention to the cutouts in the rock face.  While I do prefer this waterfall with more flow, I have to say that even with a limited flow, there are lots of great opportunities with this particular waterfall.

By this point, I had spent about 45 minutes or so photographing this waterfall from various different points along the side of the creek.  I was getting rather excited to see what I had captured, but knew I would have to wait until I got home to really see since the LCD review of my RAW images is so flat and bland.  All I could really tell was that I got well exposed images with no clipping on the extremes of the histogram and that the compositions were as I had intended.  Other than that, I was going to have to wait for the digital negatives to be processed.

Mossy Shiver
Before deciding that I was done, I wanted to try one more thing.  For those of you who know this particular waterfall, you will recognize the last image here.  Down stream from the waterfall, there are a couple of places where the water slide develops some small cascades.  I have tried to photograph these before, but never satisfactorily.  Today, I happened to notice that the spray from the miniature cascade had caused a sheet of ice to form on the neighboring rock.  Under that ice was some moss which kind of bled through in green.  Since I had my long lens on, I decided to use that, but step back away from the scene I was wanting.  Normally, I would get up close to it, and shoot a little wider.  I see now, that was my problem all along.  I had the perfect composition with the long lens, and even better was the fact that I had the ice to balance the shot.

I had shot about 40 or so pictures from this waterfall in about an hour's time.  As I had intended, I kept resisting the urge to swap out my long lens, so every one of the pictures that I made here were done between 70-200mm which was a first for me.  I was very excited about them all, and couldn't wait to get home to see what I had captured.  It was a good thing I was done because I could see that the sky was starting to clear up.  Well, the weather had forecasted partial clearing between 1 and 3 before the clouds returned.  Things were going right as planned...

But I didn't really plan for what was next.  Looking at the sky, I could see that the clouds were moving at a nice pace across the sky, and the blue was that perfect Carolina Blue that I love seeing in pictures.  Hmmm, I was wanting to go home, but I was seeing the chance to really try out some long exposure shots using my 10-Stop ND filter.  In order to do that, I was going to have to get some elevation, and get out of the trees.  Fortunately, I was at Stone Mountain, and there are some great vistas along the various trails.  I knew that I needed to work fast, and looking at where the sky had interest, I knew that I was going to need to shoot toward the North.  That meant I was going to need to get to Wolf Rock.

The Wolf's Cry
The hike to Wolf Rock isn't all that long, at just over a mile I think.  That mile is a constant climb though which makes it a little strenuous compared to many of the hikes I do.  It was what I was going to have to do in order to get the elevation I needed to shoot the clouds.  Of course, as I was hiking up the trail, it appeared as though the clouds were coming back into the picture.  Since I had committed to the climb, I decided to continue on to see what I could do once I got to the overlook.  I was losing hope though, as it was getting darker and darker once again.

When I arrived at Wolf Rock, there was a small bit of blue sky right where I expected the break in the clouds to be.  It wasn't much, but enough to where I started to work on some different compositions.  For this, I decided that my 24-70mm lens would be most appropriate for incorporating foreground interest and keeping the mountains from shrinking into rolling hills in the distance.  The trick was keeping the horizon high enough to just include the small bit of interest in the sky right at the horizon.  I wasn't really happy with what I was photographing, but I kept working the scene.

Then it happened....

The sky broke open, and there was a lot of blue, and the white clouds were moving at a pretty nice clip.  This was what I was waiting for.  I found a composition that I liked, using a section of trees growing out of the rock.  I set the valley in the distance to the left as a background, and grabbed as much of the sky as I could.  Once I got the proper exposure set, 1/13 of a second with a polarizer, I fitted the Lee filter holder and added my 10-Stop filter.  I started to do some test shots and found that a minute was pretty close to what I needed for the right exposure.  However, I wanted more to show more movement in the clouds.  I stopped down to f/16 and went with a 1:30 second exposure...viola!!

I hadn't been completely sure how the clouds would display with this long exposure since I had not really used my 10-Stop seriously in the past.  What I saw was exactly what I was going for, and I almost started to jump up and down in celebration.  I didn't though, as I wanted to move to the other side of the trees and fire off another shot for a slightly different feel.

Together in Time
Well, I found the composition that I wanted, and thanks to being able to look through live view with the filter still on, it went pretty quick.  However, not quite quick enough.  By the time I had set the shot up, and dialed in the focus, the clouds were starting to clear.  There were still a few, and I had to get down very low to the ground in order to catch those.  I fired off a Hail Marry shot using the same 1:30 exposure at f/16.  It wasn't quite what I was after, but I did get the remaining clouds in the frame and they started right above the tree as if to highlight it.  It was going to have to do, because the clouds were just about gone at this point.  The sun was now out of the clouds, and was making the lighting very harsh.  It was time to pack up and head back to the car.

Going downhill is so much faster than going uphill!!!

When I got back to the car, I decided that I would head out to Pilot Mountain hoping that when the clouds came back in, I could duplicate my long exposure with the Knob as the visual anchor.  The plan was great, but the clouds came in too quick for me to have a chance to get there in time.  I diverted about halfway there to head back home.  I wanted to see what I had captured anyway.

I had a total of 69 frames which I had exposed in my few hours at Stone Mountain.  Most of the second half were tossed due to less than pretty skies in comparison to the long exposure images.  I ended up with these six images which considering the amount that I trashed from the second half was actually very good for the day.  I always have so much fun at Stone Mountain since there is something for just about every lighting possibility I could run into.  I went from total overcast, to dramatic clouds against a blue background.  It just doesn't get much better than this.

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