Little Switzerland Trek

Sunday, August 13, 2017

With my creative slump behind me, I was looking forward to getting a little photography in this weekend.  I had finally photographed the old truck that has been occupying my thoughts for weeks now, and I was free to think about other subjects.  I had a lot of subjects to think about all of a sudden, and what I was wanting to focus on was moving water.  Looking at the weather, there was going to be a good cloud cover for most of the morning, with a thunderstorm around midday, followed by clearing skies.  This was more or less the pattern across the Western part of NC.  Having not been to Crabtree Falls in a period of about three years, I decided that I would head out that way.  Since it is close to Roaring Fork Falls, I was going to make it a two for one kind of day.  The idea was to start off at Crabtree Falls since it stands to get a bit busier than Roaring Fork Falls, and I wanted the smallest amount of crowds that I could get away with.

Summer at Crabtree Falls
My day started out like so many days behind the early o'clock!  I was up with Toni at about 4:15am so that I could be on my way to the mountains in time to catch a sunrise if possible.  I was also looking at getting to Crabtree Falls as early as possible to beat the crowds.  When I left the house, I could see stars in the sky which was a far cry from 94% cloud coverage, but I wasn't worried.  I was taking the long route so that I could drive a good length of the Blue Ridge Parkway before getting to the falls.  That way, if the clouds weren't working out for waterfall photography, I could punt and do some landscape shots.

I turned South on the Parkway at about 6:15, which was cutting it very close for a sunrise.  The sky was not all that interesting, so I wasn't all that upset about missing out.  I could see lots of clouds below in the valley which makes for great pictures, but with a blank sky above, it wasn't worth pulling the camera out.  I just continued driving South toward Little Switzerland where I expected to spend most of my time...hoping that the clouds were thicker down that way.

Appalachian Serenity
As I was driving, I was enjoying looking out over the overlooks at the clouds below.  I was even getting a little excited about seeing some clouds forming in the sky above as well.  When I got to Milepost 323 (Bear Den), I saw the potential for a scenic shot for the first time since getting on the Parkway.  I pulled off the road real quick and got my camera out.  Not knowing how much time I had, I left the 70-200mm lens attached (as it is stored in the bag), and kept the lens free of any filters.  I started trying to pick out the sections that I liked the best.  There was one section with a very dense blanket of clouds over the mountains that really sparked my interest.  That was what I chose to focus on.  There wasn't anything in the way of a foreground element, so I had to use the distant trees for that element of the shot.  It was all about layers and textures.  The picture turned out alright, I guess, but it wasn't quite what I was after when I pulled off of the road.  There was so much going on here, I thought that there had to be a better way of capturing the scene.

Bear Den
Well, the only way I could realistically capture the beauty before me was to work out a panoramic composition.  I leveled the tripod, and flipped the camera on its side.  I started to map out where I wanted the picture to start and finish.  I set the exposure to work across the entire scene, and dialed in the focus for maximum depth of field.  I made a dry run across the scene to make sure that the camera was totally level, and then started the eight shot series that made the single panorama.  There were no filters involved so the exposure was pretty straightforward.  I had the sun to my back, but that actually worked out and gave a nice shadow at the bottom to help frame the whole shot.  The histogram showed that I captured all of the information in the individual shots, but it wasn't until I got home that I was able to see what I had in totality.

Once I got it into Lightroom, I started to find the details in the shadows and highlights.  The more I watched this picture unfold, the more I liked it.  All of a sudden, this one took on a life of its own.  I wasn't on the Parkway to capture this picture, I was here to work a waterfall.  Regardless, this was going to be the defining image from the day.  The clouds were wonderful, and the transition from shadow to light in the landscape was just so subtle.  There was just so much to like about this image that I barely wanted to look at any of the other pictures from the day.  But I reminded myself that I had driven all the way out here for a waterfall shot, and the clouds were building to the South.

I went ahead and packed up the camera and got rolling again.  I was only 10 miles or so from Crabtree Falls, so it didn't take long at all to get there.  When I arrived, I only saw one other vehicle in the parking lot...JACKPOT!!!  I hurried down the trail while the sun was still hidden by the mountain.  The clouds were not coming in like I had been hoping, and I didn't want to rely on them for my lighting.  I met the occupants of the car as I neared the falls, nearly a mile and a half from the parking lot.  They were on their way back to the car.  I should be alone at this point, so I was getting really excited.

One of the things that I wanted to do with this waterfall was to capture it in a way that I had not done yet.  The times that I had been out before, I had gone for the overall shot from different angles.  These shots were always very similar to the opening photo to this blog entry.  It is a nice view, and one that is easily recognized.  This time, I was wanting do concentrate on the tree at the base of the waterfall.  Honestly, I wasn't sure how long it would be there since it is in a rather exposed place.  I went ahead and swapped out my 16-35mm which I had fitted for the overall shot, and used my 70-200mm lens to really showcase the tree.  I used a Singh Ray Intensifying Polarizer to remove any surface glare and dialed in a composition that focused on the root system of the tree.  The waterfall was now placed in a supporting role to the tree with the soft cascades the backdrop to the tree.  I worked quite well, and was pretty much like I had envisioned it when I was planning the compositions I was going to work on.

Fallen Trees
Even though the isolation worked well, I didn't want to lose track of the overall impact of this waterfall.  With the super wide angle lens attached, I was able to get a few different compositions of the waterfall and some of the lesser cascades at the base.  Since the foreground is always so dark, I chose to reduce the amount of polarization that I normally use so that I would get a little bit of glare on the rocks.  It actually worked like a charm and helped to show off the textures of the rocks leading up to the main event.  While this waterfall really does lend itself to this vertical orientation, the horizontal format works almost as well as long as the lesser cascades are in action.  I was lucky that the water flow was enough to get that foreground interest.

A Rocky Perch
Having shot the entire waterfall as well as an isolation, I figured I could also put together a hybrid composition.  One that showcased the waterfall on a larger scale, while still focusing on the tree.  The sun was starting to become a part of my image construction and the tree was starting to get lit up.  This helped it stand out from the waterfall, and using my long lens once again, I opened up the frame a little bit to include a bit of greenery to the upper right which balanced the rock that the tree was sitting on.  Having the image opened up like this gave me the ability to include a good bit more of the waterfall to help tell the story.  This one is very similar to the isolation, but the story is different here, and I feel that they both stand on their own merit. 

Once I was done with the long lens compositions, I started to look for other options from the other side of the waterfall.  Well, as luck would have it, as I was getting a plan in mind, the sun decided to change my plans.  There were ever increasing hot spots on the waterfall as the sun was hitting in full force now.  I wasn't going to be able to do any more photography with this location as the sun was taking up more and more of the face of the waterfall.  I packed up the camera and started back up the trail.  Funny thing is, about the same place I met the other hikers, I ran into another one headed to the falls.  I couldn't have timed this better.  I was alone the entire time I was there, and the sun cooperated for a good amount of time.  Now the sun was a problem, and there were other hikers approaching.  Yep, it worked out very well!

Once I got back to the truck, I took a little break to cool off.  I was looking at the sky, and was not really liking what I was seeing.  The clouds were not filling in the way I was needing for more waterfall photos, and the sun was getting high enough that I was going to have a hard time getting a landscape composition that worked with the lighting.  I decided that I would start working my way back up the Parkway and slowly head home.  It was only about 10am at this time, and I still wanted to photograph Roaring Fork.  That wasn't going to happen unfortunately.  As I was driving North, I came across the Three Knobs Overlook and saw a few people looking off in the distance.  There were some nice clouds, and I thought I would give it a try.

The Rolling Blue Ridge
I had a hard time coming up with a composition that made sense here.  There was no foreground interest, and the lighting was getting a little harsh overall.  I didn't want to rely on the long lens as I had before because the haze of the day was starting to affect the clarity of the distant mountains.  In order to get something with a bit of visual impact I was going to have to focus in close to something.  I opted to use my 24-70mm lens for the first time today.  I also added a B+W Polarizer to add some contrast to the sky.  I searched around for a composition that had the depth that I wanted to show.  I ended up getting a little bit of the natural growth on the edge of the overlook, going into the trees in the midground.  The clouds settling in over the distant mountains became the background, and primary point of interest.  Having these layers gave me the depth that I was after, and make the image work.  It is not my favorite from the day, but it does tell the story of why I stopped at the overlook.

With this picture done, I loaded the truck up and continued heading North.  I even went ahead and dialed up home on the GPS so that I could try a different way home.  I ended up taking Hwy 221 South to get to I-40.  That worked out great because I found a couple places with some nice old cars just waiting to have photographed.  I was out of time, and the sun wasn't doing me any favors though, so I had to pass on this opportunity.  I did save the location in my phone for later...and I hope that later happens before the cars are moved.

The trip back was long, but uneventful.  When I got home, I downloaded the images, and found that I had shot 64 frames which really wasn't that much for the time invested.  There were three different panoramas in that which accounted for about 18 of those pictures.  It was a good day, but I was left wanting more, which is a very good thing.  that means that my creative energy is back, and that makes me very happy!

While I was editing the pictures, the one panorama that I found so appealing, really stuck with me.  I was looking at the textures and how the light and shadows were working together.  I started to think, maybe this would be a great study in black and white.  I took it over into Photoshop and did the conversion.  After I tweaked some of the tones, and contrast, I was really impressed with what I saw.  I shot a picture of the monitor and sent it to Toni who readily approved of the conversion.  Since she is my go to when it comes to monochrome photography, I took that as a sign that I had a winner on my hands.

Bear Den in Black and White

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