A Day at South Mountains

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Waterfall Walk
The weather has really not worked with me for the past month or so.  Every weekend it has been raining, except for that one where the sun was blazing all day long.  I've kind of gotten used to the routine of hiking in the rain and leaving my gear opened up drying over night.  When I saw the forecast for this weekend, I was prepared for that same chain of events.  There was clouds and rain for the vast majority of the day on Saturday, and more of the same on Sunday.

I figured that this would be another opportunity to get some waterfalls done, and what better time to try and find some new ones.  I know there are some other cascades at South Mountains which I have not found yet.  I also wanted to try and photograph the main waterfall, High Shoals Falls.  It has been probably 10 years or more since the last time I have ventured up the stairs to shoot it.  Arguably though, it is not all that photogenic of a waterfall.  To make matters worse, the boardwalk really gets in the way despite giving you a very close view of the waterfall.

Soothe the Soul
My day started as any other photography day...Early.  I woke up with Toni at 4am and worked on getting on the road at 5 so I could be at the park when the gates opened.  The most current forecast called for some light showers at 8am and cloudy until sometime in the afternoon when the clouds would start to break up.  I wanted to give myself the most time under the clouds.  As I was heading down the road, I could tell that there were very little clouds in the sky.  I kind of expected that as there was only supposed to be intermittent cloud cover for the first part of the day.  The closer I got, the less clouds I was seeing though.

This was really starting to be an annoying pattern for this park.  It seems that every time I come out here expecting clouds, I get bright blue skies and difficult lighting.  I was starting to think that I was going to spend four hours on the road for less than ideal lighting once again.  I didn't have a plan B in mind, and knew that much of the park was in the shadows early in the morning.  At least I had that working in my favor.  I was looking around as I approached the park to see if there was something that I could get with the existing lighting.

I did see an old tractor by a shed that I had seen the last couple of times out, and had always wanted to photograph.  The lighting wasn't quite right, and I wasn't sure I could get it from the road.  I filed it away in my memory for later as I had done many times before.

Blue Sky Reflections
When I got to the park, the sky was blue overhead.  I could see some light clouds in the distance, but they were moving away.  I could see that the creek adjacent to the parking lot was in the full shadow of the mountain.  I hadn't really worked this area before since there were usually fishermen in the water.  This time, it was all empty so I decided to go and check it out.  I found a nice set of cascades next to an overlook, so I decided to maneuver my way down to the water.

Looking at things, I figured that doing isolations would be the best bet.  For that, I decided to use my 70-200mm lens with a Color Combo Polarizer attached.  I started working on compositions and found that my exposure time due to the lighting was between 13-30 seconds.  That was plenty for a nice abstract flow of the water.  The trick was picking areas of the cascades that made sense and had a cohesive flow to them.

One of the neat ones that came from this section is the picture directly above.  Since the sky was blue, the water was reflecting a nice blue hue just before dropping over the rocks. The rocks had some warm tones on them which balanced out the overall cool shade of the water.  It made for a very interesting composition with the color pallet.

Uneven Flow
There is just something about cascades that really hypnotizes me when I see them.  I could just look at the moving water for hours.  The patterns of the rocks is what makes it all so interesting.  This section of the creek really illustrated this quality for me.  The rocks were strewn about with total randomness, yet everything just fit together so well.  It is the wonder of nature, and I was so happy that I was able to photograph it.

Not wanting to spend all my time with this section of the creek, I decided to move on down the trail.  My ultimate goal was to get to High Shoals Falls and go beyond it to complete the loop trail.  I told myself that I wasn't going to bother with scenes that I had photographed before unless they were noticeably better than previous times I had visited.  That concept was put to the test at the fork in the creek.

When I got there, I could see that the water was moving rather nicely, and was possibly a little more voluminous than previous attempts.  However, there wasn't anything in the way of compositions that held a candle to my recent Autumn shots from this area.  I quickly decided to move on down the trail.

Taking a Bow
My second test came just a few steps down the trail when I arrived at my favorite yawning tree.  I looked and found that the water was looking better than my last time here.  The lighting was definitely better as well.  I decided to stop here and give it a few shots.  I opted to use my 24-70mm lens with the same Singh Ray filter on the end.  I got in position on one of the rocks that gave me the best view of the little waterfall as it plunged between the rocks.

I was missing the Autumn colors this time, but I was thinking that the overall image was a good bit stronger than what I had several months ago.  The anchor of the image was the waterfall, and the tree that I love so much worked the midground.  From this angle it really looked like the tree was taking an overly dramatic bow...so of course, that became the title of the piece.

Kinetic Energy
I still wanted more of the tree, and decided to flip the camera on its side to compose a portrait shot of the scene.  This allowed me to emphasize the tree a little bit more.  The only problem with the tree was that there were a couple of fallen branches that were poking over the rock that I had initially seen as a distraction for an up close shot of the tree.  However, upon looking at it once again, I decided that the tree looked like a skier getting ready to jump off of the rock, while the fallen branches looked like the skis.  I know, I read too much into a scene, but you have to admit...you can't help but see it too.  With the arms sticking straight up, the body leaning forward, and the skis about to clear the rock, there is a lot of implied energy here.  Add to it the motion of the water, and this image is full of motion.  It is one of my favorites from this location because of that.

From here, it wasn't too long before I got to my favorite section of secondary cascades.  The first one had a lot more flow to it than normal, but I wasn't sure I wanted to try shooting it just yet.  I moved to the other side where I have always had good luck.  Ironically, there was too much water on this side.  I just wasn't feeling very good about making good pictures with the current flow.  I opted instead, to go back to the other side, and climb over the railing.  Once on the ground, I was seeing some pretty good compositions from this section.  One of which is the opening image to this entry.  It is also the first time I have used the boardwalk in a composition.  Considering I always try to eliminate the man made aspects in my waterfall pictures, I actually really like this shot.

A Sacred Splash
With the waterfall being rather narrow and tall, I thought that I would do pretty well using my 16-35mm lens with the polarizer.  It worked out rather well, and allowed me to include foreground interest, as well as getting in close to the lowest cascade to emphasize it in the composition.  I forget how much fun the wide angle lens can be at times.  I enjoyed playing with it on this section that normally I would have used my middle lens on.

Moment in Time
I spent a pretty good amount of time here moving around an inch here, and an inch there.  It was all about how the different cascades lined up, and how they related to the other elements in the scene.  With the perspective of the super wide angle lens, I was constantly reminded that position is everything.  I had to be aware of every aspect of the composition, knowing that I was constructing every element as they related to one another.  No point and click here, that's for sure!

Eventually, I determined that I had everything that I wanted to get, and I packed the camera back up.  I gave the next section a second look, but I was positive that there was just too much water for the images I was wanting to make.  It was time to start climbing the stairs at this point.  Normally, I would just turn around since I am just not a fan of High Shoals Falls.  Today, I had promised myself another shot at it though.  I bit my lip and climbed the hundred and some steps to the overlook.

High Shoals Falls
As you can see, this is pretty much just a steep water slide.  There is not much in the way of details in the water.  If I were to have used a long shutter speed, it would have just been featureless white streaks down the rock.  That wasn't what I was going for at all.  Looking at the scene, I decided that my 24-70mm lens would be the best tool for the job, along with the Color Combo Polarizer.  There were several issues that I was going to need to address before being able to shoot though.

First, there was a nice overlook that got you right up to the waterfall.  This same overlook appears in so many pictures of the waterfall because you just about can't avoid it.  My solution was to set the tripod up on two legs, and swing the third over the railing for stability.  This was where having independent legs is a must for a landscape photographer.  With the ballhead positioned just inside of the railing, I was able to compose an image that didn't include the railing.

Second, since I was so close to the waterfall, I was getting a lot of spray which was going right on my front element.  There was no way to block it and still have a field of view.  My solution was to work very quickly and minimize the time in the spray.

Third, the wooden surface that I was set up on was less than solid.  When I moved, the camera would move.  That meant that when I was ready to release the shutter, I had to remain rock steady and even hold my breath as the timer went though the 2 second countdown and released the shutter for a fraction of a second.

With all of this, it is a wonder why I even tried to photograph this waterfall.  The images still aren't knocking on the door to my all time favorite waterfall images, but it was nice to shoot it again after so long avoiding it.  I did manage to get an intimate picture that is a little bit thought provoking...at least for me.  I had never noticed that one of the rocks near the bottom looked like head.  For what ever reason, today I saw it as just that.  The large branch was situated as if to help the person being overtaken by the water.  It could also be the object holding the person under the water.  Sadly, when I look at this picture, I see Toni dealing with her struggles with Bipolar Disorder.  The medications which are supposed to help seem to cause so many other issues, and I can see her desperation as the days go on.  I've always wanted to do a photography project to illustrate Bipolar Disorder.  I think that maybe this one could be part of that project.

Cascade Waves
Back to happy thoughts...

After about four times here, I finally decided to continue down (or rather, up) the trail.  There were more steps leading to the top of the waterfall.  I'm thinking about 200 more steps give or take.  I wasn't sure what was beyond High Shoals Falls, but I was sure I was going to find out today.  It actually didn't take too long to get to the top.  When I did, I found a couple of small cascades along the rocky surface.  They weren't much, but I was here, I might as well get the camera out.

I would have loved to have gotten down to the water level, but I saw plenty of signs saying not to cross the fence.  These signs were a little different than the others I've seen at waterfalls.  These actually had the General Statute number on them.  That make it a little more serious, and I opted to follow the direction of the signs and stay on my side of the fence.  Because of that, I was going to need the reach of my 70-200mm lens.

Spilling Over
I needed to get as close to the water as I could to get the angles I was after.  In order to do that, I did something very similar with the tripod as I had done at the waterfall a few minutes prior.  This allowed me to get much closer to the railing than I would have been able to otherwise.  I started to hunt compositions, and I fired off several frames as I attempted to capture what I saw.  It all came down to the angles, and incorporating the elements that found important in a way that made sense.

Liquid Fingers
Because of where I was having to shoot from, isolations turned out to be a great compositional solution.  I was able to pick out the bits of cascades that I found most interesting.  I also found out that the water was reflecting the colors of the rocks as well as the trees on the shore.  This gave some interesting color tones to the image.  Of course, it was the textures of the water that I was most interested in.

When I was satisfied that I had all I needed from this location, I continued down the trail.  I didn't know what else I was going to run into, but was hoping that there were more pictures to be had.  Well, there really weren't.  The clouds which had barely stayed in the sky were now pretty much gone.  The lighting was not great at this point, and I found myself concentrating on where I was stepping since I was hiking steadily down a steep hill at this point.  There would have been a few interesting things in the fog, but for the present conditions, it was just a nice hike with no reason to take the camera out.

I thought about going down another trail, but the sky wasn't really looking all that great, so I decided that I would go and see about maybe photographing that tractor I had seen on the way in.  I loaded everything up in the truck and started back out of the park.  The tractor wasn't far from the entrance, so I started looking once I got out of the park.  When I saw it, there was a guy working on a truck right beside of it.  Could it be that easy?  I pulled into the driveway and introduced myself to him.  I explained why I was there, and found that he was very willing to let me photograph the tractor.  Jackpot!

Just Tired
As it turns out, I picked a great day to be here.  After seeing it in front of the shed for some time now, I was being informed that there was a buyer coming to pick the tractor up later this afternoon.  With only hours to spare, I had gained permission to get up close and personal with the tractor.  I noticed that there was a good bit of clutter on the ground, but I thought that it helped to tell the story of "redneck living."   That was how the owner put it when he asked if I just liked photographing "redneck living."  I had to laugh, because in all honesty, I guess I do.  Regardless of how you label the scene though, it all worked together so well.  The siding on the shed matched the oxidized paint on the tractor, and both objects had a similar accent color of red.  The balance here was perfect, and quite frankly, it looked staged for the purpose of photography.

I was very lucky that for the time that I was working the tractor, the clouds had covered the sun just enough to give me that all important even lighting.  I can't express how lucky I was for this scene to work out when it did.  Had I passed it by once again, I would have never seen it again.  The conditions couldn't have been any better which made it an even sweeter victory.  And the icing on the cake...an old house being held up by a tree.

Delicate Balance
Off to the side of his property was an old house that was barely standing.  In fact, it was two trees that kept it from collapsing it looked like.  I had seen this house from the road, but never thought it worthy enough to stop and shoot.  Now that I was out with the camera, and had access to the field, I really had not reason not to photograph the old house.  I'll admit, it was not the easiest of compositions.  I couldn't get it from the front because the fallen covered porch ruined the flow of a composition.  The tree nearly blocking the window made it difficult to get from the side, and shooting from the rear corner was an odd composition.  It was my only choice though, and that was just what I did.  I shot one singe frame after attempting about a dozen compositions.  I figured if this wouldn't work, nothing was going to.

After this, I packed the camera up and thanked the property owner before heading back down the road.  I spent the next hour looking for other subjects.  I saw a few potential compositions, but the light was just too harsh at this point.  I will just have to come back on another day to try to get some more rural scenes in Connelly Springs, NC.

The day was actually rather successful with 100 frames saved in the camera.  Of those, I found 15 that were worth keeping.  I really have no complaints at all from the day.  The weather was good when I needed it to be, and I had great conditions with the waterfalls.  It was a great day, and it was sure nice to get out and go for a nice long hike.  I needed the recharge!

A Couple Falls at Hanging Rock

Saturday, February 10, 2018

So this is how my day played out.  Sierra was at my Mom's, Toni was at work, and I was at home alone for the day.  Times like this I enjoy taking advantage of by getting outside and doing a little bit of photography.  The problem....rain.  According to the weather forecast, there was going to be rain pretty much all weekend long.  I can shoot in the rain, but I try to avoid it because of all of the concerns with getting water on the lens, and having to dry my equipment out.  That kind of meant that I was going to be staying home and watching TV.  Boring!

When I woke up, I could see that it was foggy outside, and had been raining.  However, it didn't look to be raining currently which was a nice surprise.  I poked my head outside and found that there was a slight mist that was associated with the fog.  I could deal with that if I decided to go out.  I looked at the weather and saw that there was a brief period where the rain would likely stay away.  TV, or going out and enjoying nature.  Well...you know how that discussion went.

I decided that I would find some waterfalls to shoot.  Since I didn't have all day before the rain returned, and I didn't want to spend the entire day driving, I wanted to go somewhere close.  That pretty much meant Hanging Rock or Stone Mountain.  Stone Mountain only has one waterfall that I am particularly interested in, and I wasn't really feeling like working that one today.  Hanging Rock had several falls that I liked to photograph...five named falls with another two unnamed falls.  I would have much more to choose from if I went there.  That made the decision easy enough.

In about 45 minutes I was pulling in the parking lot under a heavy drizzle.  Nothing like an accurate weather report huh?  Well, I was here, I might as well get to hoofin' and see what I can capture.  I had decided that since there was a slight fog in the air, I really wanted to try window falls which has some really nice textures to play with.  I could also stray down another trail and get a few of Hidden Falls along the way.

By the time I got to Hidden Falls, the rain was a little more steady, but still bearable.  I didn't need to put the all weather cover on the camera, but I did need to use my hat to shield the front element from the drops.  I was using my 24-70mm lens with a B+W CPL on it which just didn't have the coverage needed from the lens hood.  I tried to get something different from my normal compositions at this waterfall, but kept finding myself repeating those standard shots.

I backed up a little bit and went wide with the lens.  That gave me the opportunity to include some of the greenery to the left which added a bunch of depth, and helped to accentuate the fog that was hanging over the waterfall.  I had done this composition before, but the water wasn't flowing as nicely, and the falls got lost in the overall composition.  This was working out much better today.

Weeping Rocks
Leaving my camera built as it was, I continued down the trail to Window Falls.  I was pleasantly surprised that the water was flowing much better than the last time I was here.  In fact, it was prominent enough that I was convinced that I could get a decent overall image of the waterfall which I was unable to get last time.  I had the right lens on to get the job done, I just needed to flip the camera on its side to shoot the scene vertical.  I ended up setting the tripod on top of a system of roots from a fallen tree as I stood on a muddy slope.  I didn't fall, and the composition was well worth the uncomfortable shooting position.

For many years, I would stop with this particular angle and turn around to make my return trip.  I have, however, found that there is a lot more that can be done with this waterfall from the other side.  I worked my way around to the other side of the falls, and started to look for compositions.  What I like from this side is that the rocks take on a completely different look.  There are more curves, and the composition becomes more dramatic overall.

A Subtle Sigh
There are clues which will tell you this is the same waterfall, but unless you are expecting it, it is not immediately recognizable.  That is what I like about this composition since this waterfall is photographed so many times every month.  In fact, that is the problem with all waterfalls.  They have all be shot so many times by so many photographers that all of the pictures start looking the same.  I try my best to get something a little different when I go to shoot waterfalls.

Careless Abandon
I have found that this waterfall has a few different isolations that work very well.  With the water flow today, I found that some of my isolations would actually work very well.  I got in close and cropped in tight to the areas that I wanted to capture.  The trick here was to get the textures in addition to the moving water.  I positioned myself so that the brighter parts of the rocks in the background lined up with the main shaft of water.  The idea was to create an optical illusion that the water was pouring from a hole above.  The cascades at the bottom become my foreground and visual anchor.  The composition is simple but effective in getting the viewer to look ever closer to determine exactly what they are looking at.

Heavenly Overlook
Since the rain was starting to get pretty heavy now, I decided to seek a little bit of shelter under the rocky wall where the waterfall originates.  While I was there, I started looking through the waterfall at the overlook just up the hill.  While I normally don't care much for photographing the man made parts of this scene, something just felt right about it.  I was imagining how it would look with the water blurred and just a hint of the overlook in the distance.

I went ahead and set up the shot.  There were a couple of really nice rocks that I was able to use as a foreground.  To close the upper portion of the frame, I included the steeply sloped wall that was providing me cover.  A nice long exposure blurred the water into several distinct shafts which became the focal point of the composition.  Just beyond those streams of silk is the overlook.  It is worth noting that the position of the camera is crucial here as I wanted to keep the stone columns visible and out of the way of the water.  The wooden boards were less important to me, and I wanted to keep the vertical elements going.

Ethereal Gathering
As I was wrapping up, I realized that the rain had let up once again.  I wanted to get one more shot before I left.  I moved out from the cover I was in, and started to inch my way across a large rock that I had been shooting beneath earlier.  With the elevation and perspective, I was able to get the top part of the waterfall in a way that I had no captured it before.  The angle provided enough separation between the streams of water that I could space them out across a vertical frame.  The curve of the rock seemed to embrace the water as if trying to gather the streams.  The first set of cascades below became the lower framing element of the image.

The composition of this shot made this image my favorite of the day.  It had the mood I was after, and the composition was complete with natural framing elements.  I had textures, muted colors, and depth.  Everything really came together well for this shot.  

As you look through these six photographs, keep in mind that there were only two different waterfalls that were shot.  Five of the six are of the same falls, but look nothing alike.  I always consider that a success when I can get multiple images with different personalities from the same subject.  Always look deeper at what is in front of your camera.

On Assignment in Ramseur, NC

Monday, February 5, 2018

Country Home
When it comes to photography, my normal process is find a scene that appeals to me and then shoot it.  I've done it that way for many years now, and have found getting lost is usually the best way to find myself.  There are other times I am more directed in what I am shooting which changes things up a bit.  Occasionally, I'll have a client request that I photograph a particular subject, or location.  This can be a little daunting for me because it is my style that has drawn them to ask that I photograph something that is special to them.  I no longer have the luxury of finding a subject that fits my style.  Instead, I am making my style fit a subject.

I had the opportunity to embark on one of these adventures for this trek.  A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a client to photograph the family home in Ramseur, NC.  The reason was one that I could absolutely understand.  This was a childhood home for my client, and there were so many memories tied up in the home.  Not only the home, but the tree off to the side of the house.  As she was telling me about the house, I could just picture the tree growing from a sapling into what Google Street View was showing as a huge, mighty tree.  I was intrigued at the project to say the least.

Family Tree
I had a couple of different rough directions to go with this project.  The tree was important to include, as was the home.  One of the biggest problems was that the house was currently painted yellow.  My client expressed a desire for it to be represented as white since that was the color that it was throughout he childhood.  Of course, I was not really thrilled about changing the colors as that was going to be digital manipulation which I wasn't really comfortable doing.  I discussed the possibility of doing it as a B&W image which would show the pale yellow as white, and also give it a timeless look.  That seemed to fit with her vision.

I wasn't under any real time constraint, which was a nice thing.  I had my choice of seasons, and weather conditions.  That should make it easy enough.  I agreed to the assignment and started to research the location.  I could tell by the satellite view that there were houses on either side of it, and there were more behind the property.  The trees around were huge, and I expected any fresh foliage to block a lot of the light and the view of the house.  That would be a problem in the Summer.  The house was situated with the front of the house facing North.  In order to get illumination on the side of the house with the tree, I was going to have to shoot in the morning with some diffused light.

With these constraints in place, I set out to find the perfect morning to shoot the house.  Too many clouds and the sky would be totally white after getting the detail in the tree and shadow areas of the house.  Too few clouds, and I would have a boring expanse of blue sky above the house.  I was feeling like Goldilocks to be honest.  I was torn between the current bare trees, or to wait until Spring to capture blooms on the trees.  I decided that I would go ahead and at least get some test shots in the Winter with the trees bare.

Sipping Sweet Tea
It seemed that my available mornings were all either rainy or totally sunny.  When I had a meeting on a Monday night, I decided that I did have time to go out and give it a try seeing that there was a 26% cloud cover.  I was wanting more, but for a test shoot, I was fine with it.  I left out before sunrise, and got to the house about 30 minutes after sunrise.  That was by design to give the sky a chance to get some blue to it, and to get a little altitude to the sun so that it would help highlight the house.

When I arrived, I was not really excited about how things were looking.  Google was accurate to a point, but things were very tight between the houses and there were a lot of trees that were going to become visual obstacles to overcome.  My normal eye would have moved right past this house, but I had been commissioned to shoot this subject, and I was going to make it happen.

I spent about 15 minutes sizing things up from across the road and then from inside of the property.  I wanted to shoot isolations because that would be the best way to eliminate the visual obstacles.  I couldn't do that because it would negate the whole purpose of being out here.  I needed capture photos that would tug at the heart strings of the family.  I needed to capture the essence of the house with that all important tree.  I really had just one option...go superwide.

I fitted my 16-35mm lens that is so awesome for landscape work and added a polarizer.  I knew that distortion was going to be a problem using this lens for architecture, so I had to pay very close attention to the pitch of the camera.  I started composing shots that simplified the scene that I was in.  I was trying to minimize the impact of the neighboring houses as well as the car in the car port.  Oh, did I mention that there was a large "For Sale" sign in the front yard just on the other side of the driveway.  I'll admit it, this house really tested my abilities.

I set everything up as black and white in my head.  I looked for strong contrasts and shapes.  As I was shooting the sun was really playing with my head.  What I was expecting to be a nice illuminating element, turned into a shadow maker.  There were thick trees to the Eastern side of the property that blocked the sun from providing any foreground illumination.  I was needing more clouds to soften the sun, but that would just increase the shadow effect on the foreground, and force the sky to overexpose.  I was here, so I was going to make the best of it.

In the photograph above, I actually decided to shoot into the sun....well, sort of.  I hid the sun behind the roof and shot a four shot HDR series to get all of the detail in the house.  I liked this because it was a completely unencumbered view of the house while still including a large part of the tree as a background.  I didn't know how it would turn out, but I tried it anyway.

When I got done, I had 23 frames of digital negatives to work through.  I pulled out three that I really liked from the batch and started to process them as monochrome images.  What I really thought would turn out decent left me feeling empty and a little disappointed.  I changed gears and processed them all as color images which I actually liked much better.

Remember that one of the requests was that I render the house as being white.  Well, as I was processing, I found that by dropping the saturation in the yellows, I was able to almost get an eggshell white appearance in the house.  Since I wasn't changing the color, I could live with the saturation adjustment.  There was still one image that I really wanted to do some more work with in black and white.

Country Home in B&W
I imported the file into Photoshop and started to do a more serious conversion.  As I massaged the image, I started to see something I had missed before.  The tones were actually coming together quite well.  I finished doing the conversion and decided that I did have one picture that met my requirements for a black and white image.  This made number four that I was happy with for the day.  Honestly, for the conditions I was shooting in, I'm quite pleased with how this turned out.

I might opt to go back in the Spring to try again with some buds on the tree, but I'm pretty happy with the outcome of this trek.  It was a test of my interpretation of a scene for sure.  I do enjoy the occasional challenge, and this really fit that classification.  The true test will be whether or not the client is happy with the images or not.

A late addition to the group is a monochrome conversion of the single tree.  I had to go about it in a slightly different way, and used the Lightroom tools to make it happen.  I'm actually quite happy with it, and think that it goes well with the other conversion that I shot.

Family Tree in B&W