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!

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