Fighting for position on Beacon Heights

Friday, September 29, 2017

Autumn Peak is scheduled for a week away along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  That should mean that the leaves are really starting to get in full swing by this point.  In the moderate elevations of the Parkway, I was expecting that the leaves were getting pretty close to peak as they typically change about a week ahead of the lower (primary) sections of the Parkway.  I was lucky enough to have accumulated enough hours at work that I could bug out a little early on Friday, which I did.  That gave me just enough time to get up to the mountains for about two hours worth of daylight before sunset.

My plan was to work around the area of Rough Ridge which is right at Grandfather Mountain and by my calculations should be quite colorful at this point.  I must admit, it was a different animal entirely going to the mountains in the daylight, and in traffic.  I was used to going hours before sunrise and knew the darkness around the highway like the back of my hand.  Driving the daytime did have its benefits.  I could see the clouds that had been hanging around all day which were going to be wonderful in my photographs.  Between the dramatic skies and the colors on the trees, I should be having a very successful trek ahead of me.

By the time I hit Wilkesboro, my mood changed a little bit though.  The clouds that I had been looking at all day long were starting to thin out and and it looked like by the time I got to the mountains they would all be gone.  The cloud forecast was calling for 70% coverage, but I was thinking that they missed the mark completely.  Oh well, I was nearly to the Blue Ridge Parkway and I wanted to continue if for no other reason than to see the leaves at Grandfather Mountain.

Bathed in Golden Light
When I arrived at the Parkway, the leaves were barely even showing a change.  This wasn't what I expected at all.  I knew that Rough Ridge was still up about 1000 feet or so, which gave me hope, but the closer I got the more my hopes dwindled.  By the time I got to Price Park and saw the same conditions I had a week ago, I wasn't holding out much hope for autumn colors.  The clouds had all but gone as well.  Was I looking at a wasted trip to the mountains?  I sure wasn't seeing much that I wanted to photograph.

When I got to Rough Ridge, there was no parking available in the parking lot, and there were even cars parked on the side of the Parkway.  Yeah, I could pull over to the side of the road, but the leaves weren't all that great at all.  Not good enough for me to fight the crowds anyway.  I thought that I would head down the road to see if the colors were better around the Viaduct because I knew of a couple of compositions that could be made from Rough Ridge that included that section of the mountain.

When I got there, I wasn't happy with the colors at all.  Things were just not looking Autumn enough.  The roadway was crowded, and it was just not going well at all.  I pulled into one of the first overlooks after the Viaduct to collect my thoughts.  It happened to be Beacon Heights which gave a view of Rough Ridge.  I looked at the mountain and could see some very patchy color from this side.  Since there was only about an hour or so until the golden hour, I decided to stop here and see what I could do.  I also knew that there were some hiking trails off of the overlook which I had never been on before.

I started out with working on the Rough Ridge area using the Parkway as some foreground interest.  The lighting was nothing really special, but at least there were some clouds in the frame.  I got about four frames here, but wasn't happy with any of them  Just too run of the mill for my tastes.  I packed the camera up and started down the hiking trails.

I passed several folks, one group had a wedding dress hanging on a tree.  Well, this should get interesting!  I was really hoping that I wasn't going to be getting involved in a wedding ceremony on the actual overlook.  The way my evening was going though...

Hints of Autumn
The hike was relatively short and fairly easy to accomplish.  I started out with the right fork in the trail and came out on a rocky bald.  There were already several people standing and sitting here.  There was a pretty good view, but the light was not right, and there were more people than I cared to deal with.  Since I still had a bit of time, I moved back onto the trail and took the other fork.  That took me to a different bald, but with a similar view, just more to the left.  There was more options of foregrounds here, and even more important I could see the Rough Ridge from this section.  There was a nice tree that I could use as a foreground interest as well.

I pulled out the camera once again and started to work some compositions.  The problem was that the distant mountain was under full sunlight, and the foreground that I was wanting to use was in the shadows.  I had to use ND Grads to keep the sky under control, and was still not able to get the exposure the way I really wanted it.  I had now shot about 25 frames and had yet to get something that I really thought would work out.  I was really starting to get discouraged.

To make matters worse, my silence was interrupted by the wedding party that finally joined me.  It wasn't a wedding, but a wedding photo shoot with the bride.  Well, now in the background I was listening to modeling instructions and a young boy who was very tired and whiny.  My zen was shaken and I wasn't liking anything that I was working with.  I intended to swap lenses, but my hands started to put away my camera.  Well, that might have been a subconscious sign, so I went with it and packed everything away.  There was now about 30 minutes before sunset, and not enough time to go anywhere else.  I decided to take my chances with the larger number of people on the other bald.

Shadowed Ridge
When I got there, there were more people.  They were sitting, standing, walking, and just generally....there.  The change of getting much in the way of a foreground was slim.  It was also in the shade, so it wouldn't really work all that great anyway.  Because of that I went ahead and fitted my 70-200mm lens, and left the front element bare with the exception of the lens hood to keep any sunlight leaks from causing any ghosting.  I started to pick out sections of the range in front of me to photograph.  There was a lot of interesting sections, but they were lacking in context for the most part.

Almost on a whim, I decided that I would try a panorama to capture the entire scene.  My main reason for this was the way the light was playing with the mountains.  On one side, I was seeing a warm glow from the setting sun, while the other side was in the shadows presenting a very cool color tone.  This was a striking balance between color pallets.  There was really no other way than a panorama to capture this.

I flipped the camera on its end, and racked it out to 70mm.  I leveled the tripod, and did a dry run to check that the camera would remain level through the sweep.  I picked my end points, and then found the focus length.  it was then time to confirm that the exposure would be right.  I dialed it in on the right side which was the brightest.  I checked the left, which was mostly in the dark.  That seemed like it would be correct.  I swept through the seven frames quickly sine the light was changing very fast with the setting sun.  When it was all over, the light had changed, and I was hoping that I had something that would work.  It wasn't until I started to edit the next day that I found out that not only did the sequence work, it also turned into my favorite image from the day!

Shortly after shooting the panorama, the crowds started to leave.  Unfortunately, it was not in time for me to compose shots that would include any type of foreground interest.  It was just too dark at this point.  I went ahead and packed the camera up and started my way back down the trail.  Right before hitting the parking lot I found an interesting tree trunk that I wanted to try an intimate portrait of.  The lighting was so dim at this point I had to bring out the flashlight in order to get a little color in the trunk.  This never really did pan out photographically though.

I was pretty sure that I was done for the evening at this point, so I finished the hike to the truck.  I could see that the sky was still kind of light above the Rough Ridge, and there were a couple of faint clouds above the mountain.  I decided that it would be worth trying that subject once again.  I pulled the camera back out and added the 24-70mm lens.  I used no filters since it was getting dark and the exposure was pretty much even across the scene.

Blue Autumn
What I was liking about this scene was that the colors were different than I normally see them.  You could see the fall colors on the side of the mountain, but they just looked different.  I set the camera up using the railing and the road as a leading line, and dialed in a five second exposure.  The longest part was waiting for the traffic to stop long enough to shoot the shot.  What you are seeing here was created just after a motorcycle road out of the distance, and a car had passed me by to the left.  There was the sound of another car coming from behind me that appeared just as the shot finished exposing.  The light became too dark to repeat the exposure the next time I had a clear patch of road.  I though about adding light trails, but I wasn't able to get the exposure that long without doing some changes to my setup that I didn't have time for.  Plus, I kind of liked the calm effect of the composition that I had created.

With the light pretty much gone, I packed everything up and started the two hour trip back home.  Obviously, I didn't get the pictures processed that night.  I wanted until the next evening to start the processing, which ran into Sunday morning.  Out of 80-some frames, I ended up only keeping four of them.  That is less than a 5% cut, but considering the difficulties I was having finding something that I liked, I can live with those four images.  It wasn't an earth shattering trek by any stretch, but I found a new place to play with, and I got to see another segment of this fall season.

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