From Price Lake to Mt Mitchell

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Peace and Tranquility
Before I get started, I have to take a quick second and point out that this is my 100th blog entry since November 19, 2013.  That date marks the fresh beginning to my photography after a long hiatus.  Over these last few years I have been changing my approach to photography from what it was between 2005-2011.  Those years represented an extreme frustration with photography.  I was trying as hard as I could to make a business out of it, and was constantly going out, taking pictures.  When I wasn't taking pictures, I was doing tutorials, spotlights (on other photographers), and talking about some of my pictures at length.  It was a lot of fun, but I really pushed myself too hard, and ultimately burned myself out.  Since returning to photography, I have had a much lower emphasis on selling my pictures, or even making a business out of it.  I do it for the fun of it now, and work on my skills more than anything.  Sure, I enjoy selling the occasional print...I mean come on, that's a great indicator that I hit my mark with the picture.  But, I'm putting far less time and energy into "the business" of photography these days, and that means less blog entries.  So, this 100th entry is a pretty big milestone as the vast majority of them represent going out to actually create my photographic art!

For this rather important occasion, I wanted to go to the mountains again.  I seem to have much better luck in the mountains these days than I do closer to home.  It is nice not having to worry about trespassing issues, and dealing with the "hand of man" clutter that is everywhere I want to compose a picture.  The only problem is the distance.  For today's trek, I entered the Blue Ridge Parkway from 421, which is right at 80 miles from my house.  So, just to see the Parkway, I am in it for 160 miles...then add to that actually getting to my destination.  It is an investment in time for sure, but the beauty of the mountains sure does make it worth it...most of the time.

The Golden Shore
Looking at the weather, I was expecting to see mostly cloudy skies all day.  I wasn't wanting to do waterfalls, and I had been stuck on wanting to do a sunrise over water for a few weeks now.  With the clouds, I was taking a chance a to the quality of the sunrise, but that was what I wanted to do.  It has been some time since I've been to Price Lake for a sunrise shoot, and I knew that there was a portion of the shore that was perfect for catching the first light.  That was going to be my destination for the day.  That meant, in order to get there for the 7:19 sunrise, I would have to be at the lake no later than 6:50.  I was going to need to leave the house at about 5am to ensure I could do that.  I hate getting up early!!!

I managed to leave on time, and got to the Parkway right when I expected.  However, my ride down to Price Lake took a while thanks to all of the deer which were there to welcome me.  They made progress very slow down the road, but somehow, I managed to get to Price Lake at 6:45.  I was cutting it close, but there was no hike involved, so I was in good shape.  The first signs of color were starting to show as I got the camera set up.  This is where experience really pays off.  I knew what lens I wanted, and I knew what filters I would be needing.

My trusty 24-70mm lens was attached to the camera body, and I added the Lee Filter Holder, but left it empty for now.  I would need some grad filters later.  I got down close to the shore and found a part of the shore that jutted out into the water.  That was going to be the base for my image.  As I composed the image, the sky was starting to turn pink.  I wanted a nice long exposure to get a smooth foreground with the water, so I dialed in a 30 second exposure.  Fortunately, I was shooting rather wide, so I didn't need an overly narrow aperture.  At ISO 100, I was able to dial in an aperture of f/10 which kept everything nice and sharp through the entire picture.  I fired off a test exposure to see if I was in the ballpark.  Not only was I in the ballpark, I nailed it!

Not a Sound
The light in the sky was getting brighter, but the color was fading.  I wasn't worried about this at all though because I knew that as the sun got closer, it was going to light the clouds up....or so I hoped.  I moved around and got different composition ideas, and then saw the sky turn bright orange.  Yep, the sun had done what I expected for a change.  I started moving the camera around, and I added an ND grad to bring back the exposure of the sky a little bit.  I was glad I had fitted the filter holder since I was now working very fast, and moving over a 20ft area as I changed my compositions.

Morning Meditation
As I progressed with the sunrise, I changed my filters from a 2-Stop reverse grad, to a 2-Stop soft grad, and ultimately to a 3-Stop hard grad.  This was all to keep the sky at the same exposure as the reflection in the water.  It was a lesson I learned a very long time ago, and it has served me well over the years.  The long sunrises of Winter seem to be long gone as this one lasted about 25 minutes before the sky faded away.  It seemed as though I had just gotten started with the session when it was over.

Well, this is the time I change gears and look to my rear for subjects with the warm morning sun lighting them.  There are several little gems that I have shot along here that make use of the low sun in the East...but none of them had any life today.  There was just no color at all to be had on the landscape at this point.  After searching for about 15 minutes, I gave up and packed it in.  The clouds were not looking all that promising with very little texture left to them.  I couldn't complain though...they had provided me with an awesome sunrise at least.

I chose to continue my travels South on the Parkway to see what I could do with some of the overlooks down that way.  I'll be honest, the sky wasn't giving me much hope at all to start with.  Then the sun popped out from a hole in the clouds and lit them up once again with a bright yellow hue.  I started really searching for somewhere to set up to take advantage of this.  But, when you are chasing light, you will rarely outrun it.  I wasn't able to find anything in time to get a shot of the sky.  Oh well, you win some you lose some.  I continued on my track to find something interesting to shoot.  Sadly, everything was still very much dormant along the Parkway as Spring hasn't really hit here yet.  I was in search of textures more than anything since colors were rather drab.

The miles ticked by, and I wasn't seeing anything at all.  The clouds were very blah, and the sun was totally hidden.  I decided since I was almost at Crabtree Falls, I would stop there and go on a little hike to shoot the waterfall.  Well, that was a pretty good idea except I didn't have my waterfall boots with me.  I was going to have to stay out of the water which was hard to do with this waterfall.  It was my best option at this point though...until I pulled into the parking lot.  Really?!?!?!?!  Now the sun was out.  There was too much contrast for me to shoot a waterfall under this sky.  I evaluated my position, and found that it wasn't going to be beneficial to stay here with the sun.

Airborne Invasion
I pointed the 4Runner South once again, starting to feel rather hopeless about things.  The sun was out, but the thin clouds were still all over the sky.  I wasn't able to shoot waterfalls or intimate woodland scenes because of the sun.  The high clouds kept me from shooting grand landscapes too.  That pretty much left me with not much I could shoot.  I should have turned around and gone looking for barns at this point, because that was really my only workable option....but I persevered with a stubborn purpose.  Somewhere around milepost 340, I saw the sky was breaking up, and the low clouds were popping against the blue.  This was my chance...I just needed to find something to put under the clouds.

I came to a shoulder on the side of the Parkway with some very tall weeds and brush.  Just on the other side, however, was a section of mountains with some very nice textures, and the clouds right above.  There was even one dark cloud (almost looked like a Lenticular Cloud) which reminded me of a spaceship.  It was interesting enough to get the camera out at least!

I opted for my 70-200mm lens since I wasn't going to be able to use the foreground where I was standing due to the ground clutter.  In fact, I was going to have to get the camera as high as I could make it to clear the clutter.  With the legs fully extended and the center column extended as well, I was just able to get the altitude I needed to be able to clear the only section of brush I had a chance of shooting over.  Now, imagine my 5'11" self standing on tiptoes in order to see what the camera was seeing through live view.  There was no chance I could see through the viewfinder at that height.  But I got the shot!

Waking From Winter's Slumber
I wasn't totally happy with the composition though.  I wanted more textures, and more clouds in the shot.  I couldn't go with a wider angle though because of all of the distractions at the bottom of the frame.  I could shoot a panorama though, and get a longer picture.  I set the tripod up as level as I could get it, and scoped out the image that I had in mind from left to right.  I shot a total of five images to make sure that I had enough information to crop what I wanted from the picture.  While the final image doesn't look much different from a regular horizontal image, it was actually shot in portrait orientation at about 70mm.  This one had a little better balance to it, but was missing my spaceship cloud that had caught my eye to begin with.

Once the pano was done, I went back to picking out areas of interest, trying to link the clouds to the textures in the mountains.  It seemed that the clouds were starting to lose the contrast that I was needing, and the pictures in the LCD review were looking less and less promising.  I decided to pack it up and see what else I could find down toward Craggy Gardens.

The closer I got to the Craggy Gardens the less the sky was cooperating with me.  The clouds were rolling over the Parkway now...and not in a particularly pretty manner either.  I was not able to enjoy any views off to the side of the Parkway, and Craggy Gardens was starting to look less and less promising to me.  However, as I was just about to turn around, I saw the entrance to Mount Mitchell.  Hmmm, that is the highest peak around.  It might actually be high enough to get above the clouds.

You see, I still remember a hiking trip to Grandfather Mountain when I was still at ASU.  it was cloudy and rainy when we all started, but as we climbed higher and higher, we actually got above the clouds.  I could see all of the mountain tops peeking through the dense clouds.  I was really hoping to see something like that again, and actually photograph it this time.  That scene was the one that got away from me (long before I took up photography), and I've wanted to have another chance to see it for quite some time now.

When I got to the top of Mitchell, I didn't see what I was hoping that I would.  My theory was still sound though as the clouds were much better up here.  I found a couple of views right off of the parking lot that worked out for me.  It wasn't the best of options, but the sky was changing quick, and I knew I didn't have long to work.  I pulled the camera out, and fitted my 24-70mm lens along with a polarizer.  I knew I would be working with some foreground interest, and I wanted to try and get as much contrast in the clouds as I could.

Over the Clouds
Similar to my last location, I was having a hard time with foreground interest.  There were some nice trees, but they started quite a bit below where the ground was.  I don't normally like to chop the tops on trees, as I much prefer to give them a visual foundation, but I had no choice here.  I grabbed a quick composition that used the trees to frame the distant mountains underneath of the rather interesting clouds.  There was just enough blue in the sky to make this work.

I slightly changed my position, and was able to include a nearby summit as it was framed between two pine trees.  The real story of this picture though, is the sky.  The clouds were doing all sorts of interesting things, and seemed to have a pattern developing of organized randomness.  The center of the cloudy tie dye was conveniently positioned right over the summit, which really strengthened the composition in my mind.  I just had to wait for a lull in the wind which was getting rather strong all of a sudden.

Elevated View
From there, I stepped back into the parking lot in order to try and get the fence into the composition.  As it turned out, the edge of the fence went almost perfectly with the pine trees that I had been working with.  I got my composition set and had to take the shot really quick because the sky was starting to fill with thin clouds once again.

Sometimes photography is all about waiting, and other times it happens so fast that you can barely capture it...if you are even able to.  That is part of the thrill, and part of the frustration of this art.  There are too many times that I just don't have enough time to think things out.  I just have to react to what is happening in front of me.  fortunately, I have done this long enough that I can fairly successfully react quick enough to get the shot...if I'm not still driving to find the composition.

I hope that you are enjoying the fruits of my labors.  I'm looking forward to many more entries here, with new pictures getting added to my gallery from time to time.  If there is one that really speaks to you, and you want a print, I would be happy to make that a reality for you!

A Little Off Trail Exploring

Saturday, March 18, 2017

I have to admit, last week really had me pumped up with photography after my success at Doughton Park.  Landscape photography is a lot like that...when it's good, it's really good.  When it doesn't live up to your expectations, you just want to curl up and hide for a while.  Well, I would have loved to have gone on an all day adventure, but the weather wasn't quite what I was going to need for that.  The forecast was this...scattered showers in the morning, followed by dense clouds, then quick clearing to a sunny afternoon.  With this type of dynamic in place, I decided that I would do better to stay close to home, and do something where the sky wasn't going to be a big player in the compositions.  Well, since we were having rain overnight, that made waterfalls the prime candidate for the morning.  When it comes to waterfalls close by, Hanging Rock will always win out since it has five named waterfalls in the park.

When I woke up, it was raining, so I opted to stay in bed a little longer than I had planned...but I didn't complain about that at all!  I got up after daybreak, and it was still raining a little bit, but the map showed that it was clearing around Danbury, so I figured that I should be good to head on out to the park.  When I got to the park gate I sensed that it was getting brighter all of a sudden.  I looked to my left and saw that the sun was starting to peek through the clouds.  Well...this could make things difficult as sunshine is not really helpful in waterfall photography.  I was hoping that the thinning clouds would keep the sun at bay while I was working.

A Melody Visualized
I had one destination in mind for this trip since I knew it was going to be a quick one.  I wanted to return to the Upper Cascades which is just a short hike off of the parking lot.  I have been here many times, and ironically, the first time I decided that I didn't like this waterfall at all.  It wasn't until about my third time that I started to see real potential here.  You see, this waterfall has many different personalities depending on the amount of water that is flowing over the rocks.  The lighting also plays a small part in how things appear as well.  Early on, I never really saw much water here, so it left me rather disappointed.  I've since learned the conditions where I can find a little more visual impact.

I quickly got down the steps to the base of the waterfall and unpacked my camera.  I decided to go with my 24-70mm lens to give me as much flexibility as I could get with compositions.  I added a single polarizer, and took everything out into the water.  The best compositions of this waterfall require you to stand in the water, which opens up the gap between the rock edges.  I went down low to the water with the tripod in order to emphasize the rock to the right which was slightly higher than the one to the left.  This visual tension was needed in the composition I though.

Rock and Ribbons
Speaking of rocks, I decided to try something completely new with my composition.  I liked the textures of the rock wall to the right, and figured that the sweeping diagonal lines would make for a dramatic foreground to the waterfall.  I changed my position slightly, and flipped the camera on  its side which yielded this interesting composition.  I wasn't sure how I would like it when I was setting it up, but I have to say, it turned out quite well.  There is a bit of a jump in the picture which adds to the drama, and keeps the viewer's eyes involved in the scene.  The lack of a prominent mid ground really gives this a lot of depth.

A Melody Visualized in B&W
Rock and Ribbons in B&W
When I got home and started to edit these pictures, I started to see a lot of potential in a monochrome version.  I brought the images into Photoshop and did a quick conversion using a blue filter.  After a little bit of contrast adjustment, I found that both of the images worked very nicely as black and white renditions.  There is just something so satisfying about how the lack of color really brings your attention to the textures and contrast in a scene.

Before I completely finished with my work around the Upper Cascades a family arrived.  There was just not enough room for me to do anything else here with them enjoying the waterfall, so I decided to pack up the camera and work my way back along the trail.  After climbing up to the boardwalk, I saw that the sky was just about totally clear now.  The sun was not too far from cresting the mountain, and that was going to be the end of my waterfall work for the day.  I had at least photographed my primary subject, so I was content...but I wasn't ready to leave just yet.

Golden Nugget
Instead of going in a different direction in the park, I remembered reading about a secondary waterfall below the Upper Cascades.  I could see the approximate area where it would be, but wasn't exactly sure how to get to it.  I figured that I would just start following the paths that have been worn away over the years off of the main trail.  There was a little bit of scrambling involved, but it didn't take too long before I got to the bottom of the hill.  I still couldn't see the other waterfall, but I was pretty sure I was hearing it.  I needed to get around a large boulder to see if I could find the waterfall.  To the left, I saw a path worn away, but to the right, I saw a shallow stream that I could easily navigate with the boots that I was wearing.  that was the path that I took, and it was the right one to take.

After roughly 11 years of photographing waterfalls in this park, I finally made my way down to a brand new waterfall I had never seen before.  While not an impressive waterfall, it was big enough that it should have been named at some point.  Of course, if it got too much publicity, then I would not be enjoying this location absolutely alone.  So, I'm fine that not that many people know about this little gem.

One of the parts of this waterfall that I liked the best was the diagonal rock that juts out in front of the waterfall.  I suppose I could have gotten in closer and avoided this rock, but that would have subjected my lens to a pretty good sized spray.  Plus, in all actuality, I thought that the rock really added something to the composition.  The decision was made to include it along with the waterfall.

A Cool Spray
Once again, I decided to use my 24-70mm lens, but could have easily used my 16-35mm after seeing what compositions worked.  I added a polarizer, and since the sun was providing a bit too much light, I added an ND filter as well.  I only needed about 2 extra stops of light reduction to make the exposures where I wanted them...around three seconds.  I moved quickly, racing against the sun which was threatening to crest over the waterfall at any moment.  Once that happened, I would be shooting into the sun, and that would cause all sorts of exposure problems, not to mention lens flare.

A Cool Spray in B&W
I probably spent about 15 minutes working this waterfall.  I would have liked to had time to try a few more things, but at least I had time to get about a dozen or so exposures.  One of them actually made a very nice black and white image to showcase the textures of the water and the rock.  Overall, I really enjoyed finding this waterfall, and plan to return to it again.  I'm sure that just like the Upper Cascades, it has a number of personalities as well.

Winter is Back With a Vengence

Saturday, March 11, 2017

For the past month now, North Carolina has seen temperatures in the lower 80's for several days.  Average temperatures have been in the low to mid 70's.  In short, we have been having a wonderful Spring.  Early this week we were still in that trend, but the long term forecasts were calling for lows in the 20's over the weekend with snow in the forecast...SNOW?!?!?!?  I was wearing shorts washing the vehicles just a week ago.  As the week marched on, I kept an eye on the weather and saw that there was more and more evidence that winter was going to be paying a return to the state as predicted.  The change in weather was going to happen on Saturday, and that worked out just perfect for me!

Looking at the hourly, there was going to be partial cloud cover in the morning, followed by increasing clouds later in the day, with snow developing in the mountains by afternoon.  That was setting up the potential for some really good weather patterns to develop.  It had been a while since I was able to get out with my camera, so I decided that I would made the best of the situation and head out early to catch what I could of the sky.  All that was left was to determine where I was going to be going.  Sunrise was looking promising, although quite cold.  My destination was about as scientific as a coin toss, and I just randomly selected Doughton Park.

Doughton has always been a favorite of mine, but after several attempts, I have not gotten a really good sunrise shot from there.  There is a lot to work with, which makes it fun to stroll around regardless of an early morning light show.  I had high hopes for creating a really good picture here this morning.

When I woke up at 3:30, I checked the weather which was still holding constant with what I had seen before going to bed.  It was going to be a matter of luck to get the right sky, but I had no chance of capturing a sunrise if I stayed in bed.  I went ahead and got up and ready to go.  By 4, I was on the road with hopes of getting to Doughton by 5:30 which would give me plenty of time to get set up for the sunrise.

Night Slips Away
When I arrived at the park, I couldn't help but notice that the forecasted 40% cloud cover was generally lacking.  I was losing hope for my sunrise, but went ahead and parked the truck and opened the door.


I was instantly hit with a wind that could only be described as "frikkin freezing!"  Fortunately, I was prepared for the cold and had several layers on.  They weren't enough.  I opened the back of the truck and pulled my gloves from inside of my camera bag.  That should keep my fingers functioning.  I grabbed my bag and my tripod and started out to see where my best vantage point was going to be for the sunrise.  Looking at the clouds (or lack there of), I decided to go to my favorite tree at the top of the hill.  I figured if I couldn't get any real color in the sky, I could at least get a strong silhouette.

As I was walking up the hill, I found myself getting colder and colder.  I was losing feeling in my fingers...even with my gloves on!  This was going to be brutal, as the wind was cutting right through my clothes.  When I arrived at my spot, I found there to be barely any clouds to work with.  Knowing that the wind was moving with a purpose, I was hoping that in the next hour it would blow some clouds my way, so I went ahead and set up.  I decided to go with my 24-70mm lens along with my Lee Filter Holder in case I needed to use any ND grads.  I got down low so as to put the background clutter beneath the ridge and simplify the image.

In order to see how the composition looked, and to accurately judge the color intensity, I fired off a 30 second test shot of the tree.  There were 3 more that followed before I decided that this was going to be a lost cause as the color was fading fast.  I started looking for something else that I could anchor the sky with which might be a little lower.  As I was looking, I was just not happy with anything...until I happened to look over my shoulder.  Hey....what's that?

There was a nearly full moon which had been up all night long.  I have never had much luck shooting the moon, so I hadn't really given it much thought.  However, I was standing there looking at this HUGE moon setting over the mountains.  It was positioned nearly perfectly in the cradle of the ridge.  It was dropping fast, and I knew that I couldn't get it with the current lens which would cause it to be rendered very small in the frame.  I needed reach...and I needed more than my 70-200mm would provide me.

I went back to my bag and started to move things around so I could do a lens swap.  This was when I realized that my numb fingers were going to pose a slight problem manipulating the equipment.  I had to take my gloves off in order to have a chance of not dropping anything.  I fished out my 2x extender which went on first.  Then my 70-200mm was attached to that, giving me an effective reach of 400mm if needed.  I buttoned the 24-70 back up and mounted this ridiculously long camera back to the tripod.  I set up my position, and framed the first shot.  The moon was right at the ridge, so I focused really quickly and fired off the shot.  The exposure looked to be dead on, but I wanted to try to lighten it a little bit.  I got ready to fire the second shot, and once I released the shutter, I saw that the moon was already more than half way below the horizon.  The LCD review confirmed my suspicions...too late.

Dragon's Breath
The second one might have been too late, but the first shot really came through.  I honestly wasn't sure what to expect looking at it through the LCD, but when I started to edit it at home, I was quite impressed with it.  For being a quick grab shot, it turned out fantastic.  I loved the magenta hues under the clouds, and the way the moon lit up the haze was magical.  There was enough exposure in the foreground that there was plenty of depth to the image, and composition was pretty strong.  I ended up shooting this at 370mm which allowed me to render the moon as big as it shows.  So many moon pictures have been post processed to make the moon look bigger than it actually was which is photographic cheating in my book.  This is the real deal image, and for that I am very proud!

With the moon now far gone from the sky, I turned my attention to the sun again.  There were some nice clouds in the sky, but they just refused to settle over something that I could use for an interesting foreground.  I tried many shots where I loved the clouds, but ultimately the shots failed to meet my expectations.  With the color fading around the sun, I once again turned to the rear.  I noticed that there was actually some alpenglow starting in the sky, which I would be happy to make use of.  I quickly found a small rock outcropping that would catch the morning light here shortly, and I set the camera up.  I found that I had to leave the 70-200mm lens on (I had taken the extender off after the moon shot).  I could no longer manipulate the lens as my hands were absolutely frozen.  The sad thing was, I had been using chemical hand warmers since setting up for the sunrise.  Those warmers were now in my gloves, and my fingers were still throbbing.

Alpenglow Over Doughton
The wind did not ease up at all, and I was really starting to wonder if I would be able to break the camera down when I was done without getting in the truck and running the heat...yes, I've had to do that before.  That was going to be a problem for the future.  Right now, I needed to make pictures, and that meant I had to make due with what feeling I had left in my hands.  Once I was satisfied with the alpenglow shot, I moved off of the ridge to try and get out of the wind.  The rising sun was feeling very nice on my frozen body, and I made a conscious effort to stay on the side of the ridge with the sun.  I also found that there were some interesting clouds finally developing in the sky on this side.

After a little looking, I found an area with a few trees that I could use as an anchor for the clouds.  I got things set up, and figured that I would go ahead and fit a polarizer to the long lens to add some contrast to the clouds.  This was no easy matter with numb fingers.  Somehow I manged to get the adapter ring and the polarizer on without dropping anything.  I probably could have swapped the lens at this point, but I decided to keep the same one attached to minimize my fingers being exposed to the elements.

Slow Start
Because of my lens choice, I had to do a little bit of backing up in order to get everything in the frame.  This was fine by me, because keeping the wide end at 70mm kept the distant mountains a little more prominent which was very desirable for this shot.  I was pleased that there was still a little color in the sky just below the clouds.  It balanced the warm tones of the grass in the foreground, but I was going to have to wait until the sun actually cleared the clouds and lit the foreground before I could take advantage of that color element.  Fortunately, I didn't have to wait very long, and the sun lit everything up quite nicely.  So well in fact, I was able to dial down the exposure in the sky and keep everything evenly exposed without having to fumble with an ND fingers were very appreciative!

Evergreen Cluster
I found one other group of trees that seemed to be situated with a perfect natural balance.  I went ahead and framed those up nice and tight, using the clouds as a supporting element for the trees.  I had to wait for this one as well because the sun was behind the clouds when I first got the shot set up.  Once it escaped the clouds, the magic light was on.  This isn't my typical shot, but I'm actually quite pleased with how it turned out.  I was also quite pleased that I was starting to be able to feel my fingers once again.  The warmers were starting get my hands feeling right.  I was sure glad I had them, cause without the chemical warmers, I would have had to give it up.

It was time to get off the ridge and see what else the park had to offer.  My nose was feeling a little frost bitten, and I didn't want to push my luck any more.  My slow hike back to the parking lot gave me time to look around and find where the clouds were.  There were some interesting ones over to the North, and I worked my way to that end of the parking lot.  It took a little doing to find a workable composition to get these clouds though.  There was just not that much in the foreground for visual interest.

Prime Real Estate
What I settled on was a close range with a cleared out section for a green roofed cabin.  It was balanced out with a bunch of evergreens, and that made my foreground.  The layers and textures of the other ranges provided the path through the image, and then the distant peaks under the fading clouds.  At least there was still a little bit of color left in the sky at this point, but it was all but gone when I shot this frame.  I didn't make but a couple of exposures here because I didn't have a lot of faith in the outcome, and the light was fading too fast to do multiple compositions.  After about 5 minutes, I picked up and headed back to the large meadow going to Alligator Back.

I have spent a lot of hours in this meadow, primarily shooting this one tree smack dab in the middle of the field.  I don't know why I like it so much, but I always stop and make a few exposures here.  Sometimes I like the pictures, other times, I trash them all.  Today, was a day that I didn't have much hope for this old tree.  There were no clouds in the sky for visual interest.  It was just a tree, and clear blue above.  I kept framing shots that had too much grass below the tree, or too much blue above it.  If I narrowed the field of view, I lost the balancing element of the other bunch of small trees to the left.  I wasn't liking this at all.  I started to pick things up and continue my hike...then it hit me.

Doughton Meadow
I have been working on a new editing technique that allows me to shoot panoramas.  I haven't done many of them yet, but I instantly saw the potential here.  It provided me with the option to include the tree, as well as the other grouping of trees in the distance.  I could eliminate the extra sky and grass as well using the elongated framing.  I decided to set this up as a simple two shot pano.  It took about a minute to get both images, and I felt pretty confident that I had something usable with those.  I still would have liked to have a bit more interest in the sky, but occasionally, I find that the negative space provided by the blue sky works.  In this situation, it actually balances nicely with the generally simple meadow below.  There is a great color balance here as well between cool and warm tones.  I'm actually quite happy with this one...more so than other ones I've shot here previously.

I was starting to feel lucky now.  I had a few images I was excited about stored away on my memory card.  I wanted to add some more.  I looked for other things that I could shoot that would take advantage of the stark blue sky.  I mean, let's face it...this is North Carolina, and Carolina Blue skies is what we are all about.

Agonizing Reach
What I found was on the edge of the meadow.  There was a bare tree that was rather sun bleached.  It was standing over a nice green tree for balance.  I wanted this tree, and I actually saw it in monochrome originally.  I love how the blue sky renders as a dark tone with a red filter in black and white.  I composed the image for the maximum impact, and dialed in the right amount of darkening with my polarizer.  It was a simple shot, and only needed one other shot to try a tighter composition.  I didn't like the tight shot at all once I got home.  The Black and White conversion, went off without a hitch.  I didn't even need to massage any of the was perfect as it was.

Agonizing Reach in B&W
An interesting side story about this tree.  I had talked with Toni about a project that I would like to do at some point with her.  In this project, I am going to attempt to depict in my photographs what it is like for somebody with Bipolar Disorder.  There are many emotions that come with BPD, and they tend to be rather extreme.  In an attempt to more fully understand what she is going through, I am going to try to listen to her cues, and take guidance from her about what pictures to take, and how.  When I saw this tree, I thought about depression, and how prominent it can be in someone's life.  Even when surrounded by happy things like a clear blue sky.  Hey, it's a start, and I did it without guidance from my muse.  It does let me know that there is potential to my idea.  It is just going to take a long time to really put the collection together.

I continued my hike over the ridge and towards Alligator Back.  The sky wasn't looking good at all in that direction so I decided it was time to head back to the truck and get mobile again to look for something else to shoot.  As always, I took my time going back and looked for any other possible subjects to shoot.  I saw a few, but none of them really worked enough to even turn the camera on.  However, when I got back to the truck, I looked at the fence right behind where I had parked.  It lead to a that I had photographed several times before.  I liked how the shadows were playing across the ground, and there was a little bit of cloud cover above.  Why not?

Receding Shadows
Well, I left my 70-200mm on since I wasn't quite sure how this would turn out.  I had to back up a good bit, but I found that I was able to take full advantage of the strip of clouds by shooting at 70mm, and no wider.  It is a relatively plain shot, but I like how it turned out.  The shadows, fence, and the clouds seem to point to the tree.  The sky is a beautiful shade of blue as well.  It was good enough to make it into the keeper stack from the day.

I wasn't sure how many keepers I had, but I had shot about 65 frames at this point.  I was hoping that the sky would get more interesting as the day went on.  I had supplies to keep me out there till sunset if conditions developed as I was hoping for.  I pointed the truck South and headed down the Parkway to see what I could see.  It was actually the only direction that I saw clouds, and when I have my camera, I tend to chase the clouds.

I stopped at several overlooks that looked promising only to find that there was really nothing there for visual interest in the current lighting.  The clouds were marginal at best.  I might not have been finding anything, but at least I was riding in style.  I'm really liking this 4Runner for my treks.  The only problem I've found with it is the roofline.  It is very hard to see out and up when chasing clouds.  I'm sure I'll get used to it in time, but the Tacoma had a much better viewing angle of the sky.

The roofline wasn't my only problem.  Remember when I said that there was snow in the forecast?  Well, it was scheduled to start around mid afternoon in the mountains.  I wasn't worried about that, and I was actually kind of looking forward to it.  Well, the park rangers weren't sharing my enthusiasm for the pending weather.  Much to my surprise, I started to see rangers going up and down the parkway with their blue light activated, and they were starting to close up the gates.  Hmmm, maybe they knew something I didn't know.  I was hoping that the path ahead would stay clear....but it wouldn't.

I ended up having to turn around on the Parkway just before 321.  I was then forced off of the Parkway at Aho Gap, which put me on 321.  I guess that was the end of that.  I wasn't wanting to play find the Parkway at this point.  I figured I would just head home the long way and look for barns and old cars instead.

As I was heading down 421, I turned down a road where a friend used to live and I recalled there being some old homes out that way.  Most of it had been cleaned up, and I wasn't finding anything promising to shoot.  I ended up on Bamboo Rd which I remembered intersected on the Parkway.  I had been watching a couple of really interesting clouds overhead, and decided that my best chance to shoot them would be from an overlook.  I went ahead and got back on the Parkway, headed South.  I seemed to remember that the next gate would be past the 421 exit, so I had a little distance to travel.  

The clouds were looking really cool, but every time I found a place to shoot them, they would change up, and I would lose the visual interest in the sky.  It wasn't until I stopped at the Grandview Overlook that I found the clouds I wanted.  This is a very popular overlook, but one that I have a hard time shooting from due to weak foregrounds.  The sky was just too good to pass up though.

I set the camera up with the 70-200mm lens to reduce time.  I also wasn't going to be needing much in the way of a wide angle since I didn't want to capture the recently bushwhacked edge of the overlook.  I found interesting peaks on the mountains and composed them with interesting clouds, but I wasn't happy with any of them.  I probably shot 15 frames without actually getting happy over one of them.

I stopped for a moment and asked myself a very important question.  "What was I wanting to capture here?"  For a photographer, that is probably the single most important question that can be asked.  It was...for lack of a better answer...the "Grand View."  I wanted to capture the epic sky over the vast rolling landscape.  That was not going to happen in a standard ratio photograph.  I was going to need to shoot a panorama for this to really make sense.  I estimated my edges, and figured out exactly how I wanted things composed.  I flipped the camera on its side to shoot portrait, paying close attention to where the horizon was.  I also made sure that I was going to capture the clouds that I wanted.  It was then time to make the exposures...five of them to be exact, keeping the exact same focus point and exposure for each frame.  It took about 90 seconds to get all five shots done.  Looking at the LCD, I could only tell that the exposure was right.  The composition was going to have to be checked when I got home and put all of the images together.

An Epic View
When I got the images stitched together, I was in awe.  My Grand View had been captured epically!  I'm really starting to get the hang of this panorama thing, and I'm seeing a lot of potential to it.  I'm starting to think that I actually see more in a panoramic fashion, which is directly opposite of what I have thought for the longest time.  I'm really looking forward to playing with panoramas more often, especially when Spring fully hits.

My epic panorama was the last shot of the day.  I came to the end of the Parkway, and since I was needing to get gas soon, I decided to work my way home.  While I didn't get anything that I expected to get on this trek, I have to say I'm very pleased with what I did capture.  Once again, I'm stretching my creative boundaries and I'm finding that I have several tricks up my sleeves that I never even knew about.

I also found that the heater works phenomenally well in the 4Runner!!!