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.

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