Stars, Fog, and Fall Foliage

Saturday, September 23, 2017

I'm not sure if I will be able to get to the mountains during peak leaf time this year.  I have mandatory obligations for work during that weekend, and the other weekends in October are starting to come into question.  That means that I have to take the opportunities as they come to get out and see the leaves.  This weekend was not looking overly promising with the cloud cover, but Saturday won out by a small fraction, and I saw that there was the added possibility of fog around the Boone area.

Since I had been to Graveyard Fields last weekend and found a plethora of changing trees, I thought that the time would be right to hit Rough Ridge and Grandfather Mountain.  I could easily work that into the schedule starting with the Boone section for some early morning, moody shots in the fog.  The sunrise potential for the weather was pretty bleak, so I wasn't really worried about capturing bright colors in the sky.  I did want to get out there in time for sunrise, just in case though.

I set out at about 4am destined for Rough Ridge, but was hoping to find something foggy to shoot prior to getting there.  I didn't really pay that much attention to the sky on the drive to the mountains because I knew that there would be few, if any clouds.  I did notice that there was not a lick of fog anywhere.  I checked on the first two overlooks I came to in order to see what was in the valley.  It appeared to be clear throughout.  I wasn't going to let myself be dissuaded by the weather, and pledged to myself that I would shoot the conditions as they presented themselves.

Two as One
As I made my way down the Parkway, I started to realize that the potential for a great sunrise was not all that great, and I didn't have much interest in the valley below.  I needed something prominent and isolated to shoot.  There are these twin trees near Blowing Rock that I have wanted to photograph for a while now.  The conditions were never quite right during the day to get what I wanted.  Since the actual sunrise wasn't going to be all that great and I would be doing better to get the pre-dawn sidelight, I decided to give the trees a chance.  I pulled over on the side of the road near a gate and got the camera built.

I had thought about this composition a time or two before so I already knew that I was going to be using my 16-35mm lens positioned right at the fence.  I didn't use any filters as I was perfectly happy with the ground registering as a black silhouette as the trees would be.  I wanted to get any color in the clouds that was possible beyond what the naked eye could see.  I was also hoping for some stars, which meant that my exposures would have to be pretty close to 30 seconds or less to keep them from streaking too much.

When I got the shot framed and started to set the exposure, I was way off on my shutter speed even though I was shooting at f/8.  I ended up boosting the ISO to 1000 in order to achieve a 40 second exposure which would suffice for my needs.  I fired the shutter and waited for the outcome.  After 40 seconds, the LCD lit up with an image that had the trees, stars, and even peach colored clouds streaking behind the trees.  I could see that there were some different tones in the sky that I was looking forward to playing with.

I stayed with this composition for a while hoping for a decent sunrise behind the trees.  That sunrise never came, and the increased lighting behind the trees progressively made the image more and more boring.  It was my third image of the morning that developed into my keeper from the set.

Low Clouds Passing
As I looked around, all of the clouds in the sky were well off to my left, and were not looking to enter my frame any time soon.  I decided to move over to the gate that I had parked near and see what I could do with that as a focal point.  I left the 16-35mm lens attached without any filters sine time was now of the essence.  I found a location to shoot from that captured a scene that made sense, and included the clouds.  I was even able to include the tree that I had started out photographing.  I was really needing some ND grad filters though since the sky was getting so bright.  In order to expose for the sky, the ground went completely black, and if I tried to get detail in the ground, I lost the color in the sky.

There wasn't going to be a good way to use a grad here, so I opted to shoot this one as an HDR image.  I bracketed four shots, a full stop apart from each other to give me 3 full stops of latitude in the final image.  I had no idea how this was going to turn out since there was no preview button for the HDR, I just knew that I had four individual frames that were never going to work on their own.

After I got home and started to process the images, I merged the four shots together and started to process it.  The end result was one that I really like!  There is a great tonal range throughout the image and it is clean with no sensor noise at all.  I'm really starting to appreciate the power of the HDR images.

Pasture at Dawn
Once I got the picture of my gate, I started to really want to get the distant mountains more in a composition.  There was also a nice red tree at the base of the grade in the pasture that I was standing beside.  I decided to swing the camera around and move in closer to the fence.  I still had my super wide lens on, and hat it at around 22mm for this shot.  The sky was much easier to control at this angle so I did not need any grad filters, and I was able to capture enough information with a single shot as opposed to needing HDR.  Again, there were no filters used in this image as well.  The sky was just that brilliant.

After I shot that scene, I moved over to where the clouds were set in the sky.  Unfortunately, I was unable to get the landscape beneath the clouds to make any sense.  After about 15 minutes of trying different compositions, I decided to pack up the camera and move on to Rough Ridge in hopes of getting some Fall color at the higher elevations.

Well, as I was driving along I started to see some fog in the air, which got me excited about Rough Ridge.  I still wasn't seeing much in the way of color, but I was up here, so I wanted to continue on and see what I could see.  By the time I got to Cone Manor, the fog was gone, and the sky was noticeably void of clouds.  My optimism was fading quickly and I was about to just turn home.

Then I came across Price Lake...

Muted Autumn
There was a light fog on the water, and more in the distance.  I could also see some of the colors starting to change.  I just about locked up the brakes on the 4Runner in order to get stopped in time.  I nosed right up to the waterfront and started to scope out possible compositions.  There was a ditch right next to the parking lot that was to become my workspace for the next 30 minutes or so.  While I was getting the camera built, there was another photographer coming back to her car.  She was talking about the beautiful sunrise that she had seen over the lake.  Normally I would have stopped and chatted, but I needed to get to work as the light was quickly changing.  She had already pointed out that I had missed a most excellent sunrise, and I wasn't going to miss the foggy conditions reminiscing about something I had missed.

I started out with my 24-70mm lens which I added a 3-Stop grad filter to in order to keep the sky under control.  I started out using the rocks as a foreground and photographing the distant shore and mountain range.  These pictures were fair, but they were lacking punch to the composition.  I tried all sorts of compositions to varying levels of satisfaction.  The sun was getting brighter and I was thinking that I would just pack it in.

Clouded Reflection
Then something really nice happened.  The breeze stopped, and left the water glass smooth.  Now, I was getting happy again.  I went back to composing around the rocks on the shore as a foreground interest.  The clouds in the sky reflected beautifully in the water, as did the trees on the distant shore.  I was cooking now, and having a great time reworking my compositions from before.  Because of the foreground interest, a portrait orientation worked very well for this largely horizontal scene.

Light Fog
I found that I could get right up to the water and down low to isolate the one lone rock in the foreground.  I've always found that to be a very effective compositional tool when dealing with perfect reflections.  Things were going great now that the water had calmed down.  But then the fog started to roll in ever so gradually.  With that fog came a slight breeze that pushed it across the lake.  The mirror was gone, and I knew it was time for something different.  I went back to the truck and stripped off the grad filter and swapped the lens for my 70-200mm, to which I added a polarizer.

I went back down to the water and started to look for compositions.  The rock right at the shoreline was still capturing my attention, and there was a nice reflection of a cloud near it.  The water was also still once again.  I wasn't sure what I was going to do with this, but I decided to shoot an abstract of the rock and the cloud.  I applied just enough polarization to make the composition interesting and shot a single frame.

Breaching the Surface
Honestly, I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out when I got finished with it.  I could see that there was a good deal of potential in it from the LCD preview though.  The polarizer was able to cut the surface glare in the bottom right half, while keeping the full reflection in the upper left.  The way the brightness works, unless you are aware of what you are looking at, there are only a few clues to give a sense of place with this image.  I think I achieved my goal of an abstract picture with this one.

I had my long lens on, and that gave me some powerful options to work with.  I started to look for the interest on the distant shore.  There were a few places, but nothing screamed out composition to me.  Then it hit me...this was going to make for a great panorama.  I set the camera up quickly to be perfectly level.  I flipped it on its side and worked out the proper exposure over the length of what I was going to capture.  I then shot a 10 frame panorama.

Lakefront View
There was so much to look at with this photograph.  I had bookend trees that framed the who picture.  I had the fog rolling in from the left, the trees on the distant shore showing off their fall colors in the warm morning light, and a distant mountain to the right.  It is so simple, yet has so much depth and texture present.  

Life Reflections
At this point, I decided to move to the shoreline to the right for some more pictures.  The wind had not intruded here yet and the water was still mirror smooth.  I found a trio of trees countered by a yellow and red tree to the right. The reflection pulled everything together and created a very abstract pattern.  It wasn't quite the bright fall foliage I was hoping for, but I was pretty happy with it in this setting.  It motivated me to find other compositions along the shoreline.

The Water's Edge
There were all sorts of little alcoves for me to choose from.  The fog was rolling in, which helped give a sense of depth which I enjoy.  It was just about finding the right compositions that had the proper balance within them.  I tried to focus on trees that were changing, or light colored bared trees that contrasted with the greens.  There really was no shortage of possible compositions here.

I found myself thinking about the photographer I had spoken with when i first got here.  She was packed up and gone by the time I got the camera turned on.  She had said that the good light was over, and that I had missed it.  I had now been here for about an hour and begged to differ with that.  There was a lot of great light here, and many moods to pick from.  I was very happy that I stopped when I did, and looking back on my sunrise shots from the pasture, I don't think I really missed anything, and might have gotten some better views along the way.

Jagged Tree
The fog was starting to get rather thick which was going to cause problems since I was shooting from a distance.  Thick fog works better when you can get up close to your subject to bypass the haze and isolate it.  I wasn't going to be able to do that here for much longer.  I decided to climb back up the bank and pack up the camera.  While I was walking to the truck though, I noticed a tree across the Parkway that was sticking out in a rather artful way.

Autumn's Dance
In a strange twist of fate, I had just found a tree that only had the top visible through the surrounding foliage.  I really like capturing the base of trees, but I couldn't see the base.  There was, however, a bunch of foliage directly beneath the section that caught my eye.  That provided the base of the picture and I used the yellowing leaves to the left as the counter element to the tree.  The shape of the tree almost looks like it is reacting to the leaves encroaching on its space.  Having the elements relate to each other in a woodland shot is a very good practice, and it keeps a level of visual tension in the photograph.

After I shot that tree, I decided it was time to get to Rough Ridge to see what the leaves were looking like there.  It wasn't that far down the road, and when I got there, I could see very little difference in the trees from what I had just seen.  With a good many cars in the parking area, and the quality of light diminishing, I decided to call it a day.  I turned North once again, and headed back to the highway for home.

I had no idea how many frames I had shot, and really didn't know if any of them would turn out.  I had tried things much more different than I was used to this time.  I worked out of my comfort zone for many of these pictures.  I was just hoping that I would have a handful that were worth keeping.  When I got home, I realized that I had shot 98 frames, and of those, I found 12 worth keeping.  I can't complain about that at all!

First Signs of Fall

Sunday, September 17, 2017

I hadn't planned on going to the mountains this weekend since I'm sure I will be going quite a bit over the next month.  However, when I started seeing posts on Facebook with some pretty good color, I started to take note.  It seemed that the leaves were changing at the upper altitudes already, and there were some pretty good pictures coming from Graveyard Fields near Brevard.  I had gotten caught up at home so I decided to take a drive on Sunday out to the Parkway.

I wasn't thinking that there would be much of a sunrise, but I did want to get up there early so I could beat the crowds on the trails.  My compromise was to get up at 3:30 and start the 3 hour trip that would take me to the mountains just at sunrise on the off chance that something might take place.  I actually arrived on the Parkway as first light was hitting, so that worked out great.  The trick was to find somewhere that I could potentially see some action.

Sleepy Town
I was pleased to see that there was a good bit of low cloud cover in the valley below.  It was going to be a race against the clock to find a vantage point though as there are not that many overlooks in this section of the Parkway.  As I was driving along, I found a nice clearing in a curve that showed some nice mountain ranges in the background.  There was a small shoulder just beyond the guard rail so I pulled off and grabbed the camera.  I knew that I was going to be shooting a long focal length for this scene since the interest was out beyond the foreground.  I left the 70-200mm lens attached, and added a ring for the ND Grads just in case the sky started to get blown out.

I set up my first shot that showed some of the near ridges fading off into the distance.  I shot some horizontal, and some vertical but never really found a composition that I liked.  As I was already situated in the vertical format, I decided to line things up for a quick panorama.  This was the first time I had shot one in the quickly changing light of sunrise, so I knew I would have to move quickly.  I found my composition, and did a quick dry run to make sure that the camera would stay on target through the arc.  It looked good, so I started a seven shot spread from left to right.  I've always enjoyed the low clouds in the mountains, and I was very excited to see how this would turn out.

With the sun creeping up over the mountains, I tried a few more exposures, but found that the lens flare was too intrusive into the frame since the sun was well above the horizon by the time it cleared the mountains.  That meant it was time to move on toward Graveyard Fields.

Mountain Islands
Well, the intention was to finish the road trip portion of my journey, but I got sidetracked along the way.  Just a few miles down the road I found a similar scene with the low clouds in the valley.  The difference was, the sun was full up at this point which made for an interesting set of issues when it came to exposing the image.  I left the long lens attached and started to frame my images.  I could tell that things were going to go white in the sky which I wasn't really wanting to happen.  My options were reduced to cutting the sky out completely, or shooting with the intention of making monochrome images.  I opted to reduce the sky, and go for an abstract rendering of the scene before me.  When I got home to edit the images, I was pleasantly surprised that with a subtle tweak of the color temperature of the scene, a warm tone appeared in the sky which suited the scene quite well. I actually ended up getting a couple of color images from this scene that I think work very well as foggy abstracts.

Set Adrift
The monochrome idea held very well though.  This one turned out just as I had envisioned it.  With the clouds, there was very little contrast in the scene so my job in the processing was to get a good tonal coverage throughout the scene without there being a true black or white point.  There was not a lot of clear detail, so I was going for textures more than anything.  There was a perfect little ridge in the foreground that provided the bulk of the "detail" in the image while the rest were just abstract shapes that carried the eye into the image.  There is a certain amount of movement in this picture from how the clouds are stretched onto the foreground.  I was really hoping that I could shoot a long exposure here and get the motion of the clouds captured.  Looking at the scene, there wasn't much motion, so doing a long exposure wasn't going to capture the feel I was after, and would just introduce more noise into the image.  As they taught me in school, I followed the "KISS" principle which is "Keep it Simple Stupid".

At Peace
As I was going back through my culled images, I actually started to work on this one once again.  The more I worked it, the more I was liking it.  There were some really great tones here, and I liked the composition.  There was more detail to it than the black and white image, so that suited a color rendition for this particular frame.  This made for the second color image from a scene that I shot as monochrome.  I can't say I was complaining at all with that.

One thing that did have me concerned was the lack of Fall color in the trees.  I knew that I was not quite in the elevation that I was wanting to be, but I was expecting a little more patchy conditions than what I was seeing.  Well, I was here to find color and that was what I was going to do.  I was only about 30 miles away from Graveyard Fields, and that was about 1500 feet further up in altitude.  I kept my fingers crossed that I would find more color than what I was seeing currently.  But hey, even if I didn't I was feeling pretty good about the 30 something images that I had sot already.

I didn't really see anything else along the way to Graveyard Fields that caught my eye.  There wasn't that much color, but there was nice patches of reds and yellows to be seen.  I figured that my grand landscape shots were probably done for the day.  It was going to be all about intimate woodland shots from here on out in order to get the color that I was after.  I got parked and was surprised that I was only the third vehicle in the lot.  I went ahead and grabbed the camera and started down the loop trail.

Autumn Pool
The sun was pretty bright, and there were not many clouds in the sky when I got started.  This would usually mean that I was not going to shoot woodland views, and definitely not a waterfall.  Within the first little bit of hiking I decided that I was going to throw both of those rules out the window.  I came across a small cascade in the stream that was bordered by some pretty nice fall color.  The pool at the base was reflecting the colors as well.  I wanted this shot, but it was going to be very difficult to get.

I found a section of rock that I could set up on between the two boardwalks.  I got the tripod positioned the way I needed it, which ended up being on a slope.  Mental note to self, be VERY careful not to bump the tripod once the camera was on it.  I built the camera with my 24-70mm lens so that I could get a good portion of the foreground in the shot.  I added an intensifying polarizer and started to frame the shot.  There was just too much exposure latitude for me to deal with unfortunately.  The sky, and the trees were just too bright to accurately capture the foreground which was largely in the shadows.  I thought about shooting an HDR capture of the scene, but was going to have a hard time keeping the clouds in the same place over several long exposures.  I decided to add my filter holder and use a 3-Stop soft edge filter.  That helped, but wasn't enough to keep my exposure values correct.  I added a 2-Stop hard edge and that did the trick.  I carefully positioned them independently to bring back the exposure in the sky and the trees.  That allowed me to properly expose the water below.  I could tell by the histogram that I was right on the money with this composition.

Prelude to Fall
After I was satisfied with my capture of the small waterfall, I kept on down the trail.  I left the camera built so that I could set up quickly in case I found something else.  I did find a few trees along the way that I liked, but was just unable to work a composition that I liked.  I ended up going off trail in the fields in search of trees to make woodland compositions with.  I tried a couple that I was not happy with because of the compositions available.  I then found a nice white trunked tree that stood out against the fall colors just perfectly.  I tried to get in a position to capture it but was completely unhappy with the composition.

I remember specifically thinking to myself "ok, stop f'ing around here and change your lens!"  I broke the camera down and swapped in the 70-200mm lens and added the same intensifying polarizer back on.  With the compression, I was able to pick out the tree just perfectly.  Yep, sometimes you just have to use different tools for the job.  With the reach of the long lens, I was able to really isolate the trunk and kept it completely surrounded by the warm Autumn colors.  With the narrow depth of field, that tree trunk was almost surrounded by an oil painting effect and I really liked much in fact, I decided to flip the camera and get in even closer.

Wrapped in Autumn
This was what I came all this way for.  I wanted the Fall colors, and this one lone tree helped me to bring it all together.  I was also very excited to show this tree to Toni who loves trees and abstract renderings.  I was pretty sure I had both represented in this picture.  It is hard to believe that peak is still several weeks away based on this picture.  That is the beauty of the long lens though.  I was able to compress the colors and avoid the predominantly green hues that were so prevalent throughout the field.

I was on a roll at this point, and was really getting into the colors and the woodland approach.  I started to go in the direction of any color that I could find in hopes that I would see a tree nearby that I could use to anchor it.  It was a fun little game of cat and mouse.  I went off trail several times, and got lost a couple times, but I was having a blast!  I decided to head down to the Upper Falls which was a spur trail off of the loop.  The further I got, the more green I was seeing.  It was too bright to shoot a waterfall for the sake of a waterfall, and it was looking like the colors were going be be sparse, so I turned back around before I reached the end of the trail.

The End of Summer
The side trip was not a waste though.  In fact, I was rather happy that I went that way.  I did find a small clearing with a couple of tall pine trees.  there was a bit of red splashed at the base, and the sky had some clouds in it.  It wasn't quite a grand landscape, but it was a pretty nice scene.  I went ahead and shot a single frame of it.  There wasn't that much to it, so there wasn't a need to work multiple compositions on it.  I wasn't even sure if I would keep the image.  Well, I liked how it turned out, so I did end up keeping it.  There is something to be said for those one and done scenes.

Woodland Red
While there wasn't much color to be had, there were some places where the reds were really popping.  I happened upon one of those locations and was greeted by another tree that I could use.  There were also two of the same tree just off to the side which made for a nice composition with the bright colors above and behind.  I went ahead and framed things up and shot a couple of frames with this scene.  I wasn't sure exactly how it was going to turn out though, but once I got home and started processing it, I went with the abstract approach to it.  There was already a narrow depth of field that forced the focus on the tree trunk.  The other end of the spectrum was to really punch up the colors and make it like an oil painting.  The final result is one that really pops and gives the eyes a lot to look at.  You know, I am really liking this woodland technique!

Exploding Colors
There comes a time when I've looked all around and have exhausted my options.  That doesn't mean it is time to pack up my gear and go home though.  That means to look up.  That was just what I did and found a tree that was towering above me resplendent in red leaves.  Going with the woodland theme, I picked out the main shape of the tree as it came out from another tree.  The trunk was going to be my anchor with a narrow depth of field.  A twist of the polarizer and the red popped against the sky.

Ahead of the Curve
I hated to waste all that great red at the top of the tree, so I widened the focal length and recomposed the image.  This time, I got a much larger portion of the tree with a little bit wider depth of field.  There was more blue sky behind it which worked well for balancing out the amount of red in the image.  Fall is such a wonderful time of year!

I continued to hike the rest of the trail and found that there was no more open space to work with.  I was thinking about going back on another one of the trails to find more color, but when I got to the parking lot I saw that it was standing room only.  It was time to leave and hopefully find some nice vistas to grab some grand landscapes with the clouds that were now all over the sky.  Unfortunately, the quality of light in the distance was lousy in the middle of the day.  Oh well, I had shot nearly 100 frames in the three and half hours I had been on the Parkway.  That is pretty good considering it was not really the weather that I prefer to shoot in.  Life was I just had to keep it in my lane on the way home.  I hate driving sleepy, but I was getting used to it on my mountain trips.

Waterfall Fun Before Work

Thursday, September 14, 2017

It seems that I have been spending a good amount of time driving to get to the locations that I have been shooting.  That has been the case with many trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway over the Summer, but I have also been doing a lot of things close to home.  This morning was one of those times that I only went about 30 miles away to Hanging Rock State Park before I went in to work.  I forgot how nice it was to go out with a camera on a weekday.  There are generally no crowds, and everything is just so much more low key.

Having woke up to get Sierra out the door for school, and not needing to be at work until 11am, I decided to take the several hours and use it to my advantage.  Looking at the weather, I was expecting patchy clouds for the most part with some scattered showers.  That actually made for a pretty good landscape forecast, but I wasn't going to be able to get to a good vantage point in the time that I had to work with.  I was hoping that the clouds would do me enough favors to make a quick morning of photographing a waterfall.

It has been quite a while since I have been to Hanging Rock, and even longer since I have been to the Lower Cascades.  I don't know why, but for some reason, I started thinking about this waterfall last night and wanted to go.  To put this in perspective, this was the first waterfall I ever photographed some 11 years ago.  Since that point, I have photographed it many times over.  It is a pretty waterfall, and one that is easy to get to.  Unfortunately, that means that many people have photographed it, and have done all of the obvious compositions.  My last time out, I did get lucky and find a downed tree that I could use as an interesting foreground.  

My goal for this Trek was to shoot something completely different than I had done before.  Sounds easy enough, but when you actually look at how things are laid out, that becomes a pretty tall order.  Fortunately though, when I arrived the lighting was pretty good overall.  The tree was gone, but there was another one which was knocked over by the rocky wall.  That actually became my first effort of the morning.

Floating Tree
I went ahead and fitted my 24-70mm lens and added an intensifying polarizer.  I tried to compose an image that captured not only the tree in the water, but the rocky wall and the greenery that was growing from it.  Since it was still pretty early in the morning it was pretty dark on this side of the pool.  So dark in fact, I was able to set a 25 second shutter speed.  This smoothed out the water quite nicely.  I was able to get some really good reflections from the wall and the tree.

As I was working this composition, I quickly realized that one of the things that really draws me to this wall is the size of it, and how it towers over pretty much everything.  I have yet to really capture that aspect of it, so I thought that this might be just the right time.  I mean, I wasn't photographing the waterfall, so the wall would become my focal point for the first time.  I flipped the camera on its end and used the same fallen tree as a visual anchor for the image.

Chiseled Wall
As I was fine tuning the composition, I started to see that there was an "S"
curve starting to form.  I moved my position ever so slightly and raised the camera up as far as it would go in order to emphasize the log as the lower section of the curve.  It then fed into the greenery that brought it back to the shadows of the wall.  That completed my visual design.  I kept the exposure where it was for the other composition giving me 25 seconds to smooth the water.  On my first exposure, I checked the LCD image review and found that everything was blurry.  It wasn't the wind because the rocks were blurry.  I hadn't bumped the tripod, so I had to investigate further.  What I found was the tripod leg had slipped ever so slightly during the exposure.  It wasn't enough to see, but it was enough to affect the sharpness of the image.  I'm so glad that I check the LCD after each shot because had I not caught that mistake, I would have missed this shot for sure.  

After I made a second long exposure for the rocky wall I started to look for other compositions.  I wasn't finding any, but that was fine as I was here to photograph the waterfall primarily anyway.  I started to look for a composition that I had not used before as was my goal for the day.  That proved to be rather difficult though since I have probably been here at least a dozen times, if not more.  I really wanted to get the rocky wall and the tree with the waterfall, but in order to do that, I was going to have to include the sky.  There was actually some interesting clouds in the sky, so I wasn't completely against the idea.  But I did know that there was a huge difference in exposure between the shadows of the wall and the bright white of the clouds.  I framed up the image anyway through the viewfinder.  I found a very nice composition at 24mm which captured everything that I wanted to.

Serenity Pool
When I switched on my live view to dial in the focus and exposure I saw a huge problem.  In order to expose for the sky, I was going to have to let the ground go dark.  If I got a reasonably decent (although dark) ground interest, the sky would go completely white.  With the design of the landscape (a scoop in the upper right corner), an ND Grad was going to be a poor choice.  I was unable to get a single exposure that captured enough information so I could pull detail out of the edges of the histogram.  My only option, short of abandoning the composition was to shoot this in HDR.

I've done a number of HDR images, but never one that already has a long exposure technique built in.  Oh well, it was digital and cost me nothing to give it a try.  I found three different exposures which covered the sky, the waterfall, and the shadow elements in the scene.  There were about seven stops total latitude covered with the three exposures.  When I got home after work, I blended them together in Lightroom and went to tweaking the tonal elements in the scene.  There was a moment early on in the processing that I knew I had captured what I was after.  I continued to work on the different areas until I had the exact image that I was looking at when I was moved to capture the picture.  I finally had an all new image of the Lower Cascades which included elements I have never been able to capture before now.  The tree in the water was just icing on the cake providing a nice foreground interest to the scene.  At this point, I would have been satisfied with the Trek and could have left.  But, I still had about an hour before I needed to leave for work.

Rocks and Roots
Since I was pretty happy with what I had found thus far, I decided to go to a "normal" composition just cause I was there.  I moved over to the other side of the waterfall and crossed over to the far side of the pool.  From here, I was able to capture the root system of the tree that was just to the side of the waterfall.  I decided to position myself in such a way that I got the rocky wall that I love so much, and the intricate root system.  The waterfall was almost a supporting player in this composition.  I like how this one turned out, but it is one that I've seen too many times and doesn't really hold that special quality that I was after on this Trek.  But, it did turn out pretty good if I do say so myself.

From Behind Cover
I still had my 24-70mm lens attached which has always been my go to lens for this waterfall.  I worked my way up the rocks until I was pretty close to the waterfall.  From this point, I had a good bit of the jagged rocks in the way of the waterfall.  This was not accidental in the least.  I was planning on getting a deeply shaded foreground with lots of texture giving way to the waterfall, which had a background of a different textured wall which was in the sunlight.  Textures and contrasts were the name of this game.  I carefully framed up the shot so that the waterfall made sense behind the shadowed wall.  I placed the greenery beside the waterfall in the upper left intersection giving a visual balance to the apex of the shadowed area.  This turned into a very interesting photograph by the time it was all said and done.

I milled around for a bit until I decided that I was pretty much done with this waterfall.  It was getting about time to think about heading back, and I was very satisfied with what I had shot so far.  After I got back to level ground, I started to break the camera down and swap back the 70-200mm lens that the camera is stored with.  Then I thought to myself..."Self, since you have the long lens on, why not shoot a couple of isolations with it?"  I made a good point, so I fitted a polarizer on the end of the barrel and started to hunt some intimate views of this waterfall.

Cradle the Cascades
What I found was that the part that really drew me in was the way the rocks appeared at the bottom of the waterfall.  I started to work out compositions that included that element.  What worked the best was a vertical shot that really showed the textures of the water, rocks, and the smooth pool in the foreground.  I played with different exposures and found that a wide depth of field and a slower shutter speed worked well for this even though I had previsualized it with a short shutter speed.  I was back at getting shots of this waterfall that I had not done before and I started to get excited all over again.  I went back over to my fallen tree and tried some other compositions with the longer lens.  Sadly, nothing even came close to the success I had at the wide end of the spectrum.

Just before I was ready to put things away, I realized that I had the opportunity to shoot a panorama here just in case the HDR attempt didn't pan out.  In order to keep the perspective from looking strange I like shooting panoramas with my 70-200mm lens on its side.  I found the place that I wanted to set up that included everything from the tree to the waterfall.  I set up the tripod to be perfectly level, and then worked on the focal length to capture everything that I wanted to.  After setting the focus point, I made a dry sweep of the scene to make sure that I had everything in the proper place.

I started shooting from left to right, moving the camera just a tad each time.  When it was all finished, I had shot seven frames in portrait orientation.  I knew from experience that would give me a good aspect ratio for a photograph, and plenty of data to make a huge print.  After I shot the panorama, I packed the camera up and started the short hike back to the car.  As I was walking up the stairs it started to rain.  Yep, I had picked the right time to leave, that is for sure.

I had shot 70 images over the course of about an hour and a half.  After going through the editing process, I decided to keep seven of them.  The amazing thing is one of the images represents seven frames all by itself, and there is another one that accounts for three of them.  I'm still doing quite well with my hit rate these days, but more importantly, I am having a blast with the camera.  I'm starting to create completely different images from areas I've been countess times before.  That is how I know I am progressing as a photographer.  I was so excited about these images that I came home from my evening meeting at work and started to process the pictures and get them online.

I'm not sure what is coming next, but Fall is knocking on our door.  I saw a few trees that were already starting to change at Hanging Rock.  This is a good sign that Fall will come early this year, and very possibly be quite vibrant!

Two Decades of Pontiacs

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Window to the Soul
This is getting to be an exciting time for a photographer.  We are a matter of weeks away from the explosion of color that is Autumn.  Much of the South and East of the country is dealing with horrible hurricane conditions, that do bring some extraordinary photographs along with the weather patterns.  It is hardly worth the loss of life and property though.  No matter how you look at it, the landscape is in the process of changing, and that is always a fun time to be a photographer.  Then there is the reality of NC weather.  With everything going on in the future, and around us, there has been nothing much in the way of great conditions to work landscape photographs this past weekend.  Boring blue skies are great for outdoor activities, but don't make good additions to photographs usually.  It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that I started to see a change in the sky, and that was just a solid blanket of light overcast.

The sky wasn't cooperating with me, but I was wanting to get out for a bit with the camera and do a little bit of photography.  Landscapes wasn't going to be it though.  The overcast skies was giving me some nice diffused light, and with the day coming to a close, it was giving a good enough quality of light to do something...but what was I going to shoot.  Well, there were a bunch of cars about 10 miles North of the house that I have tinkered with a time or two before, but never with the intention of getting isolations on them.  The lighting was good for that type of photography since it did not require a sky to be included, and really needed diffused light to keep shadows under control.  I figured "why not? might as well give it a quick go."

I loaded up the camera and set off on the massive road trip that Walnut Cove represents.  I wasn't sure what I was going to be able to get since most of the cars there were pretty much stripped, but I knew of a black and gold Trans Am that might be promising, as well as some Mustangs.  When I got there, I was less than excited.  The remaining bones of these cars didn't really offer much to photograph.  Those that did, were black and did not have the color and contrast to make good pictures.  The exceptions were a '50's Pontiac that I had shot as a light painting exercise back in the Spring.  The other was the black and gold Trans Am, but I wasn't sure what really caught my attention on this car.

I pulled out the camera and started to look at the cars.  Nothing was really capturing my attention like I would have wanted.  I kept looking and looking.  I finally asked myself what about Trans Am had brought me out here with a camera?  The iconic grill was my answer, and that became my photograph.  I picked out a composition that captured everything about the grill that I thought was important.

Even though this car was pretty much junk, the plastic bumper showed very little signs of the condition of the car.  The chipped paint, and dullness were the only clues.  I figured that was excusable because the contrast between the black and the gold was amazing, and there was even chips above the Pontiac emblem that looked like fire coming from the top.  That gave an appropriate amount of drama to the image, and it worked very well in the camera's LCD.

I was looking at how everything fit together and really liked the way I had the Pontiac nameplate in the grill to the right.  There was a nice balance of elements thanks to that.  However, I saw a different balance from this composition, one that was based on symmetry.  I pulled the camera back and started to work the other composition as I had previsualized it.

I'm not sure which one I prefer, but they are both easily associated with this iconic car from the Smokey and the Bandit movies, and that was what I was going for.  I was very fortunate that the front of this car retained these parts as without them, there would have been no other compositions that I could have done on this car.  With that realization, I decided to move on and see what I could do with the other cars.

I walked down the line of Mustangs and found that none of them had the necessary ingredients that I was looking for in a photograph.  Over on the other side of the parking lot were another bunch of cars, some of which were similar model Trans Ams, but they were white and rather bland.  They carried very little interest for me visibly.  It was down to the '50's Pontiac at the edge that I had done light painting with which still caught my eye.

The reason that I had photographed it at night and used a flashlight was to reduce the impact of the background which was rather cluttered.  This time, I went into it deciding to to shoot isolations on different elements of the car.  For that, I can ignore the background almost completely.  I started to set up the camera in areas where I saw visual interest.

Triple Star
Of course, I had to get the hood emblem on this shoebox car.  It was surrounded with lots of great rust and patina.  The car was originally painted in my favorite powder blue that looks so good with the rust.  I decided to use the emblem as the lower frame for the image and have the character line in the hood carry the viewer through the frame.  The shallow depth of field helps to keep the eyes in the frame and exploring around.

One of the aspects of this shot that I really like is that the actual disk is in such good condition showing all of the details of "Pontiac" and the three stars below.  The chrome wing in the middle is pitted and shows the age that matches with the metal of the car.  That simple detail in contrast helps to make sure that the disk is the focal point of the entire photograph.  Then it is all about looking at the textures and patterns.

Fading Command
I would not have done this car justice had I not captured the "Super Chief" emblems on the front fenders.  The one on the passenger side was the best of the two with the surrounding patina.  The rust from the top of the fender even provided a natural vignette that seemed to put the spotlight on the script.  The wheel well below provided much the same element to the picture.  The blue paint seemed to underscore the name and add a visual weight to it.  It is a funky composition, but one that I actually like!

Badge of Decay
The rear of the car also presented some of the same great patina as the front of the car, along with intact emblems.  Once again, I composed an image that showcased how the emblems all worked together, and how the natural weathering has happened around them.  The textures are just so good here, and I really like how the colors play so nicely together.  My only wish was that the letters stood out a little bit more, but they have enough impact to make you look into the picture to discover what they are, which also gives the overall story of what you are looking at.

Tail Fins
One of those design aspects that defines the '50's was the tail fins on the cars.  Some were subtle, some where huge.  The GM models in the mid '50's were the ones that really got it right.  I would be remiss if I omitted this element from the collection I was capturing.  Even without the lenses in place, the lines are clearly recognizable, and counter the emblems in the middle of the trunk quite nicely.

Hey, that rear quarter panel gave me an idea.  I could do a similar composition on the front of the car with the headlight.  My opening picture was the one that really captured this car.  It was up on blocks, and was in pretty sad shape, but there was still something special about the car.  It still looked like it was driving down the road with the windows down and the music playing.  I could almost put myself in the driver's seat.  They also say that the eyes are windows to the soul.  In this case, the headlights are the eyes, and in the composition, they mimic the shape of the steering wheel.  This links the car and driver, and hopefully puts the viewer in the driver's seat of this classic.

Bygone Times
Before I finished up with this car, I wanted to do one more composition with the front emblem.  The well preserved nature of the disk was still haunting my thoughts, and I knew that there was another composition there.  I got in closer, and flipped the camera.  I cut off the sides of the wings and focused on that amazing disk.  The body line above balanced out the composition and allowed me to get three distinct sections of patina in perfect balance with the emblem!  This one is one of my favorites from the day, and happened to be about the last exposure.

Speaking of exposures, with eight images here in the blog, you would think that I had shot 80 frames.  Typically speaking, I keep about 10% of what I shoot.  I was actually really surprised that I had only tripped the shutter a total of 18 times.  That is nearly 50% hit rate which is pretty darn good.  For only being out there for about 30 minutes, I had a pretty good collection to show from it.

Roaring Fork in the Fog

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Roaring Fork
A couple of weeks ago, I set out to photograph two waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Well, the weather turned out to be way too sunny and forced me to abandon the second waterfall of the day.  I got some great pictures at Crabtree Falls, but I was kind of sad that I didn't get the chance to work Roaring Fork Falls, and decided that the next time that the conditions were promising, I would head back that way.

The latter part of the week had seen some rains left over from Hurricane Harvey moving through the mountains of NC.  Saturday was looking like mostly cloudy until about lunch time when the clouds would break.  The increased water flow and the cloud cover made for excellent conditions.  With Toni's blessing, I set out early(ish) at about 5:30am.  I knew that the sunrise possibilities would be slim at best so I wasn't worried about getting up there before the sunrise.  It was nice to sleep in, but I needed to get there before the clouds broke, and before the crowds started to arrive.  I did sacrifice about 30 minutes of travel time to go the long way down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Boone just in case I came across any great landscape shots along the way.

The drive up was uneventful, but by the time I got to the Parkway, the clouds pretty much enveloped everything.  There was very little visibility, and I had to move at a snail's pace as I made my way to Little Switzerland.  Needless to say, I didn't pass any points of interest...well any that I could see.  I did notice that the sun came up because things went from black to gray outside of the truck.  There was absolutely no color or drama to the sunrise at all.  At least I pegged that right and wasn't regretting leaving a little later than normal.  Honestly, I was starting to wonder about the conditions for the waterfall.  If the clouds and fog stayed this thick, I would have a really hard time photographing Roaring Fork Falls with any success.

At about 8:45 I arrived at the parking area at the trail head.  There was already one car there, but I can deal with a couple of people if I need to.  The good news was the fog had cleared, leaving only a light mist in the air.  I grabbed the camera and tripod and started down the half mile trail which is an old DOT service road.  Along the way, I spotted the two explosives bunkers that were used to store the dynamite for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I had a fleeting idea to stop and try to photograph them, but quickly decided that I needed to get to the waterfall while the weather was passable, and before the people showed up.

Woodland Cascade
It didn't take but about ten minutes to get to the waterfall, and I was pleasantly surprised that the owner of the car was nowhere to be seen.  The conditions were perfect, and I was going to make the best of this good fortune.  I scrambled down to the base of the waterfall and got my camera built with the 24-70mm lens and a B+W Polarizer.  I didn't go to my normal position to photograph the lower part of the waterfall this time.  I set up a little to the right, between two boulders and had the tripod stretched between them.  This gave me a less head on vantage point, and one that I thought really suited the flow that I was seeing.

I worked several compositions from that area, and then moved up about 50 ft so that I could get the upper section.  I started that with the 24-70mm but found that I didn't quite have the reach from where I was needing to stand for safety.  I got a little creative in switching lenses on the side of a sloping rock, and before long I had my 70-200mm attached with my Singh Ray Intensifying Polarizer.  This gave me the range that I needed to not only shoot the entire length of the upper section, but also to pick out some isolations within it.

A Summer Ballad
Roaring Fork Falls is one of those waterfalls that actually looks better if you take it apart and focus on sections instead of trying to get the whole thing in one shot.  It can be done, and I've done that plenty, but the actual waterfall turns into a thin snake of water through a field of green.  It lacks the visual impact that I think that this waterfall deserves.  As an added bonus, you get a lot of bang for your buck with lots of potential compositions that are visually quite different.  I would rather shoot a waterfall like this than one that fits a standard mold of a photograph, and that is pretty much all you have to work with.

With the lighting that I was working with, I had a lot of different options to shoot.  All too often, there is a lot of shade on the sides which takes away the greenery that surrounds the waterfall.  Today, the clouds were so thick I was able avoid that problem.  In fact, it was almost too dark as my shutter speeds were reaching eight seconds in some cases with just a Polarizer attached.  For the first time, I almost had to boost the ISO on the camera just to keep the water from going completely milky, but I managed to avoid that by paying careful attention to the aperture.  The water was flowing slowly, so my 3-8 second exposures were perfect for the conditions.

Silken Cascades
This is one of those waterfalls that has so many different personalities, and it seems that each section can be shot as either a portrait or landscape.  In fact, the only tricky part is working around the terrain.  Everything was still very wet from the rains, and from the fog that moved through earlier.  Add to that this is a very popular waterfall, and you can imagine how slick things were.  It took a lot of time and energy to move around to the different areas that I was shooting from to keep from slipping.  While not the most hazardous conditions I've shot in, this one had some pucker moments as I moved around, especially toward the upper section.  I was perched on a tree root, and a loose rock while the tripod was stretched out on a 25 degree slope braced on a single notch on the surface.  Every manipulation of the camera had to be done carefully to avoid knocking it enough to dislodge it from the groove it was sitting in.  I had no problems, but it did make me nervous.  The pictures that I was getting made it entirely worth it though.

Simplistic Complexity
After only an hour at the waterfall, I decided that I had shot everything that I was wanting to with this waterfall.  I was still all alone and very happy, but I could see that the sun was starting to shine through the trees.  That was going to spell the end of my luck with exposure.  I left the camera built up as I was going to try for some woodland shots on the way back to the truck.  The fog was pretty much all gone, and the woods along the trail were not very orderly at all, and had too much visual distraction to make a good image.  There were the two bunkers though...

Woodland Bunker
The first one that I came to was the white one set in the trees.  The sun was kissing it ever so slightly, and I thought that the contrast against the leaves was pleasing.   I went ahead and started to compose the shot.  I left my 70-200mm lens attached along with the polarizer.  Even with the sun coming through, my shutter speed was still a couple of seconds in duration.  With the breeze making the branches move, that was not going to suffice.  I had no choice but to boost the ISO to 320 in order to get the shutter speed to about a half second.  Then it was a matter of waiting for the wind to die down a bit.  I only made a few exposures of this bunker, and then another five or so of the other before calling it quits for the location.  I still hadn't seen anyone, which was odd for a Saturday.

As I was arriving at the parking lot, there were three cars that came in right behind each other.  I was no longer alone, but that was OK as I was leaving anyway.  As I was putting the camera up, there were another three cars that came in.  Talk about perfect timing.  In a matter of five minutes, about 12 people showed, and they were all very energetic and loud.  Yeah, it was time to get scarce.

I started back to the Parkway, but first I stopped at an old Ford I have seen parked beside a building for a long time.  It was the right era, but the condition was a little too good for me.  The background was also a little cluttered, so I decided that it was better to let this one go once again.  One day, things will be right for me to photograph it, but for now, I wanted to get back to the Parkway to take advantage of the bits of blue sky I was seeing.

The Unknown
Blue skies?  Yeah, that didn't last long.  When I got back on the Parkway, the low clouds returned as did the fog.  There would be no scenics done today, but woodland shots were a definite possibility.  That was what I was hunting for...when I could see past the hood that is.  It seemed that every time I found something with promise the rain would start back up.  That didn't bother me because I knew that I had about 45 frames of great shots from the waterfall.  I was quite content with that, and was actually just taking the long way home in case I found something good to shoot.

That something good didn't show up until about a half hour or so of driving.  There was a pull off on the side that caught my eye, and I could see a couple of interesting shaped trees in the fog.  I decided to pull over and give it a closer look.  The mood was pretty much perfect so I decided to pull the camera out and give it a try.  I put the 24-70mm lens back on with the Singh Ray Polarizer to bring some extra umph to the greens.  I set the first shot up as a wide angle view that included the Blue Ridge Parkway going off into the fog.  It was an interesting composition, and not one that I would normally do...which made it worth doing.  I actually liked the end result as it had the mood that I wanted to capture.

Outstretched in the Fog
The tree that kept catching my attention was one that was shaped like a "Y".  It was one of the smallest trees, yet the shape made it stand out.  I decided to compose an image that put the spotlight on that one tree.  When I used the 24-70mm lens, the tree shrank into nothingness in the background so I moved up to the 70-200mm in order to compress the background a little bit.  I kept the polarizer attached to remove the glare from the leaves.  The composition was not the easiest to put together, but it was one that showed repeating lines with the "Y" tree breaking the mold.  The depth of the image came from shooting it on an angle to the tree line and using a medium sized tree as the foreground on the right edge of the frame.  The grass/natural area division created a leading line to the tree as well.  The fog really makes the image as it sets the mood for the whole scene, which was the point of the picture.

Clouds and Mist
When I got done with that section of woodland, I loaded everything back up and proceeded down the road to my composition, or US 421, whichever came first.  I was getting tired, and had already stayed longer than I was planning on.  The rain was picking up, and I was pretty sure that I was done for the day.  In fact, I was about three miles from the highway when I spotted a fence (my weakness) with a full tree standing out in the fog.  Yeah, this one was going to need to be photographed.  I got turned around and pulled back off of the road.  I pulled out the camera and left the 70-200mm lens on.  This time it was not so much for compositional concerns as it was I needed the deep hood to keep the rain off of the front element.  Also, since my polarizer is bigger than the lens diameter on my long lens, I wasn't able to use that for this set of pictures.  Sometimes, it is better to have a little glare than to have to deal with water spots on the glass.

Honestly though, I don't think I missed the polarizer at all.  The compositions came easy, and the fog seemed to be cooperating leaving the tree with enough detail to work and obscuring the background to keep it isolated in the frame.  The fence was just awesome with some nice kicker posts that I used as a strong visual anchor.  There was even a small (bonsai?) tree that I used to help balance out the scene.  I really couldn't have asked for any more than what I was getting.

Between the Trees
As it turned out, I even saw a nice composition off to the right side that included the Parkway.  I just had to move a little closer and flip the camera on its side.  I used one large tree as a frame on the right, while the Parkway snaked around another tree to the left.  The fence was used as a leading line to the tree.  The fog set the mood, and the wet grass was a perfect foreground for the shot.  The road was nearly the perfect "S" curve to bring the viewer through the image.

When it was all said and done, I had shot 80 frames over the course of like four hours in the mountains.  I had been in the rain and fog all day long and could not be happier.  For me, the bad weather makes for great pictures.  I would take this over blue skies any day.  It was another successful day in the mountains, and I'm really happy that I had the opportunity to go.