Blue Ridge Parkway: The Virginia Side

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Foggy Pair
I actually wasn't planning on going anywhere this weekend, so when circumstances prompted me to plan a trip I was a little unprepared.  I started looking at the weather on Friday afternoon and began thinking about where I could go.  The cloud cover was supposed to be a pretty consistent 70% coverage through the day with warm temperatures and a slight breeze.  This held across the state from home to the mountains.  Looking at the sunrise forecast, there was a slight chance of seeing some color in the morning in portions of the state.  The trick was planning a place to go where I could take advantage of the weather.

I have been wanting to get some grand landscapes lately, but with the colors of Spring just starting in the mountains I wasn't exactly sure how that would work out.  I knew I didn't want to stick close to home because that would put me in the same places I have been so often through the winter.  I wanted to go to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and felt that with a chance for a good sunrise I should try Rough Ridge.  It has been some time since I have been there.  I started looking at timing and seeing when I was going to need to get up and get moving.  It then occurred to me that with the repairs to the Lynn Cove Viaduct that there might be some road closures in place.

Receding Trunks
I posted the question on one of the Blue Ridge Parkway groups I belong to on Facebook to see if anyone knew exactly where the road was shut down.  While I was waiting for a response, I started to look at alternatives.  The first thing that came to mind was the area of Doughton Park.  As quick as I thought about that, I decided against it since I always seem to end up there.  The idea of going to Groundhog Mountain in Virginia popped into my head and got some pretty good traction early on.  I double checked the weather to see if anything would be different.  The forecast was pretty much exactly the same with a slightly better sunrise forecast.  I was sold on Groundhog Mountain even though I got confirmation that Rough Ridge was still accessible.

As an added benefit, the trip to Groundhog Mountain was only a hour, whereas Rough Ridge was right around two hours.  I was going to be getting an extra hour of sleep which excited me more than I can explain.  However, when my alarm rang at 4am, I was no longer excited.  My first thought was to roll over and go back to sleep.  If I did that, I would be giving up on the possibility of some early morning color over Groundhog Mountain.  I begrudgingly checked my phone to see if the weather or sunrise forecast had changed.  Nothing was different.....Sigh.....

Crossing the Barrier
I got up and started to get ready.  I took comfort at least knowing that I could have already been on the road headed to Rough Ridge.  The extra hour was feeling a little better at this point.  This is part of what it is to be a landscape photographer.  You have to work really funky hours in order to get the shots that stand out from the crowd.  This is the part I don't like, but the results are usually worth the effort.

I was on the road by 5am headed North for a change.  The trip went quick, and when I arrived on the Parkway, I could see some really interesting clouds moving around in the sky.  They were actually moving very fast so I was excited to be able to do some long exposure shots of them streaking overhead.  The hope was they were going to be carrying lots of color with them as them moved.  I was getting very excited about the prospects of this trek.

Mini Me
When I arrived at Groundhog Mountain I was all alone in the park.  That is my favorite way to be when photographing a sunrise.  I love the quiet and the ability to listen to nature to see how it wants to be photographed.  I moved through the parking lot and started to scope out my shooting positions for the watch tower that was going to be my visual anchor.  I found a great spot to set up, but decided to look around to see if there was anything else that might be better, or would make for a good secondary location depending on what the sky did.

I got a couple of shooting positions determined and went back to the original one.  I had about 30 minutes before sunrise at this point and I needed to get set up so that I could do some long exposure shots as the color developed in the sky.

Speaking of color in the sky....

I'm sure that you have noticed that all of the images that I've posted so far are black and white.  You are correct.  Let me explain.

When I started setting up the camera, I noticed that there was a bit of fog moving in.  This could actually be kind of fun to work with if the sky lights up with some nice color.  I was looking forward to a bit of diffusion on the watchtower which I had at the end of a long cross hatched fence.  However, I was starting to see a bit of a problem developing.  The fog was getting thicker, and the sky was getting brighter.  There was no color at all.

Repetitive Pickets
I was rather upset thinking that I had woken up for absolutely nothing.  I either should have slept in, or gone somewhere else.  But then again...I do like working with fog, and the light was low enough that I could get some pretty cool shots of trees.  There were quite a few trees that were visually interesting around the parking lot.  I went ahead and fitted my 70-200mm lens.  This would allow me to pick out the trees without a lot of extra visual clutter.

I started to shoot different scenes in the area and found that the fog was getting thicker and thicker.  I was having to wait for a break in the fog before I could shoot most of the trees.  I would wait about 3 minutes before making a 10-25 second exposure.  As the light increased I decided to give the trees a break and start to work with the fences that surrounded the watch tower.  There were at least three different styles of fence that were used, but the one that really caught my eye was the one that looked like a row of jacks left behind.

Serrated Barricade
This fence was very interesting to look at, and possessed the repeating patterns that make for great photography.  I started to pick out compositions that struck me as unique.  I had made the decision many frames before that I was going to be shooting black and white shots this morning.  If I wasn't going to have any color in the sky, then I didn't want any color at all.  Everything that I shot was based on patterns, textures, contrasts, and light.  The fence added such a great element to the foggy morning and I was having a great time shooting it.

However, I was seeing some other possibilities that I had not considered earlier.  I could shoot the fence with the trees!  For this, I was going to need a slightly wider focal length to really make it work.  I swapped my 24-70mm lens and got in a bit closer to the fence.  I was able to rack the lens out to a moderately wide angle which really allowed me to make the fence stand out in the composition, as well as include the trees around the fence.

I was really getting in the groove of this, and was enjoying shooting monochrome.  For the most part it is the same as shooting color, but I find that I have to be a little bit more selective at the compositions that I choose.  Without color, all I am left to work with is light, shapes, and textures.  The grass, trees, and sharp lines of the fence were filling the bill for black and white photography.  The fog helped to eliminate the background and make everything stand out so much better.

I tried to get the watch tower, but the composition was just too mundane without some interest in the sky.  I decided fairly quickly to let that subject go and concentrate on what was working for me.  I found that with just slight changes in position, the composition would change significantly allowing me to shoot an almost infinite variety of images.

Keyhole Trunk
As much fun as I was having, the fog was starting to roll in once again with a vengeance.  I decided that it was probably best if I moved on from here and tried a different location.  I was hoping that if I changed altitude that I could get out of the fog.  With the sun well up at this point (nearing 8am), the sky was becoming too bright to work with.  That was ok, I was pretty sure that I had everything that I intended to get from Groundhog Mountain...except for a colorful sunrise that is.

When I got back to the truck, I decided to continue North on the Parkway to see what else I could see.  I did notice that the fog would vary wildly depending on the elevation I was at.  The lower I got, the clearer things became.  Since I had ridden this section on a bicycle several times, I knew that the Mabry Mill was a good bit lower in elevation and might provide some good compositions.  That was now my destination barring something jumping out at me while headed that way.

Silent Echo
When I arrived at the Mabry Mill I was thrilled on two counts.  First of all, I could see the mill clear as a bell, and the lighting was really good.  The second surprise was that there was nobody in the parking lot.  That meant that I wasn't going to have to worry with lots of folks walking around and getting in my shots.  I hated to get excited about the Mabry Mill since I had told myself a while ago that I wasn't going to photograph this any more.  But I was excited.

So, why did I decide not to shoot this mill again?  In a word (well sentence), it is the most photographed subject on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Everyone and their brother has shot this mill with everything from a Polaroid camera to a large format rig.  Honestly, there isn't much that I can do that hasn't been done before.  But, I was alone, and the conditions were great.  I went ahead and got the camera built with my 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer attached.  I started out by doing the standard compositions from the opposite shore.  I was focusing on reflections to start with, but had intentions of moving on to other things soon enough.

Mill Wheel
I worked my way along the path to the back side of the mill.  I took a little detour to the water wheel though.  I noted the sign that warned to not cross the fence to stay out of the way of other photographers, and for you own safety.  I looked around and saw no other photographers, and since the wheel wasn't in motion I decided to cross the fence.  I wanted to get some intimate shots of the wheel.  The water soaked wood was so richly colored, and there were streams of water leaking from the top of the wheel that I wanted to try to capture.

As I was setting the shot up, I knew that I was going to be doing some long exposures since the area I was shoot was well in the shadows, and the wood was dark to begin with.  The long exposures started to cause problems with light sneaking past the lens hood.  I ended up having to use my hat to provide shade for the lens in order to keep the contrast good throughout the entire image.  It took some doing to resolve a composition that I felt worked and captured the spirit of the wheel.  I ended up with several strong diagonals, framing elements that were parallel to the side and bottom, along with an arch for visual tension.  Blending together with the textures I knew I had something special with this one.

Into the Woods
Feeling pretty satisfied with my composition of the water wheel, I continued on the path to see what else was in store for me.  This is the benefit of being here all along.  I can take my time and set up shots that I really like without having to maneuver around people.  I even took the time to photograph the trail itself.  There was one of the buildings which had some interesting aging on the wood that I wanted to shoot, but I wasn't able to get a good composition of the building.  The trail was interesting going into the woods, but needed something else to anchor it.  I figured that the two elements might help each other out so I started working on a composition.  I found that using a portion of the building satisfied my want to capture the textures, and by using about half of that building, I now had a great visual anchor for the trail that I wanted to photograph.

I was on a roll at this point.  It might be time to reconsider my no Mabry Mill rule when it comes to photography.  I was actually having more fun shooting this than ever before.  Granted, I think it was because I was all alone and able to really connect with what I was photographing.  Speaking of connecting, as I was working my way around the historic sections I started to really notice the trees.  More specifically the bark and textures of the trees.

Converging Textures
Wooded Locks
There were a couple of great trees by one of the old buildings set up well behind the mill.  I forgot about everything else and started shooting some intimate captures of the trunks.  I went back to my original mindset from Groundhog Mountain and started to shoot black and white images.  I looked for how the textures interacted and where the compositional flow was.  In all of the times that I have been here, I've never paid attention to the trees like this before.  I don't know what grabbed my attention, but I'm glad my eyes found these trees.

Of course while I was working on the trees I was starting to hear voices coming near me.  There were now two families walking the trails.  Still better than how this usually goes so I couldn't complain.  They also were just stopping to check things out as nothing was open.  They were gone almost as quick as they had appeared.  I was solo once again, and was still feeling creative.

Since I was still feeling motivated here, I decided to swap out my lens for the 70-200mm so I could get some different compositions.  I went back to the water wheel and got in a different position right on the edge of the bank.  I had seen the drive gear before but had been unable to get a decent composition including it.  I figured that the best answer was to make a composition around the gear and see how that would go.  I used the reach of the long lens to isolate the drive gear as the teeth meshed with the wheel.  The whole thing started to take on an abstract quality with the shapes and lines.  I thought about doing this as a monochrome image, but decided that I really liked the warm tones of the wood much better in color.

Mabry Wheel
Speaking of the wheel, I wanted to try an isolation of the wheel from the opposite bank now that I had the long lens on the camera.  At 200mm, I was able to make an entire composition out of the wheel. I loved the bonus textures of the stone wall with the grasses laying over the side.  You might be interested to know, that ledge was where I had been standing for the shot of the gear drive.  I was feeling pretty good having full access to the mill today.  I was able to go just about everywhere I wanted to go.  In the process, I was making images that I had not even considered before.

Venerable Mill
While I was on the opposite shore, I figured I would go for another standard shot of the mill with the long lens.  I was able to crop in tight to the mill this way and really focus on the textures of the wood and stonework.  Despite the fact that countless photographs have been shot of this old mill, it is still quite beautiful.  I may not be doing much different than has been done before, but I can say that the images that I was capturing were better than images that I had shot before.  Improvement is always a good thing for a photographer.

I tried some other compositions around the area and across the Parkway, but the rest of them didn't really feel all that great to me.  That was usually the sign that it was time to move on.  I had shot all the goody here I was going to find.  My creativity was now bored with Mabry Mill.  After about an hour and a half, I would expect nothing different.  I loaded the truck back up and continued on my Northern march through Virginia.

After leaving the mill I noticed that I was starting to see a bit of blue in the sky.  This was exciting as I was really wanting to shoot some grand landscapes.  The problem with this section of the Parkway though, there are very few overlooks.  The ones that I passed were all on the Eastern side of the mountain and provided too much contrast under the rising sun.  The good light was to the West, but there were no overlooks facing that direction.  I also noted that the Virginia section has a lot more residential areas on the mountains compared with the North Carolina side.  The areas that I could shoot had houses and farms and such which didn't go with the look I was after.

After a good bit of driving, I found one of my beloved Parkway Fences with a couple of bare trees at the ridge of the field.  I could make use of this without a doubt.  I pulled off to the side of the road and grabbed the camera.  I opted to use my 24-70mm lens with the Color Combo Polarizer attached to bring out the color in the sky.  I had a hard time working a composition that would make sense with this.  I had cows to contend with to the left (just outside of the frame), which were too far away to make a meaningful addition to the composition.  I had the road to the right which restricted too much in that direction as well.

A Beautiful Day
I worked my way up and down the fence, and moved side to side, as well as changing the elevation of the camera.  I eventually found a few compositions that would work to tell the story I was trying to share.  After all of that was over, I was walking back to the truck and saw yet another tree that was looking pretty good under the cloudy sky.  I set the camera up once again and found that this shot happened much easier that the previous composition.  With that, I was done here and ready to continue onward.

Bus Stop
A few more miles up the road I saw a nice little farm off to the side that showed some promise.  As I was thinking about turning around, I saw this interesting house which had an old school bus as an entryway.  It was painted red white and blue so it really caught my eye.  Now I was thinking about two different locations to shoot as I passed a large Forsythia bush in front of a red barn.  Now I had three locations that I wanted to shoot.  I got turned around and pulled off the road.  I wasn't sure what was occupied and what wasn't so I decided to play it safe and used my 70-200mm lens for the extra reach it provided.

I started out with the little red barn behind the Forsythia.  It was interesting to look at, but sadly the photographs did not do it justice.  I shot a handful here, and even some just of the bush.  When I got home, I didn't like a single one of them.  I went ahead and walked down to the next sight, the bus attached to the home.  I shot a couple from the street, but I wasn't all that pleased with them since there was a power pole behind the house and power lines that ran along the top of it.  I continued on to the little farm with high hopes of getting something there.

Well, I was foiled by power lines and power poles once again.  There was also a barbed wire fence in front of the split rail fence which kind of ruined the look for me.  I tried several compositions but none of them really worked.  In the end I trashed all of those as well.  On the way back, however, I went in closer to the school bus and started shooting some different close in compositions.  Oddly enough, out of the three locations, I had the least hope for the bus.  That was the subject that actually worked out thanks to being able to get in close.

Tobacco Barn
It was getting very close to the middle of the day at this point and I decided that it was time to start heading home.  The clouds were leaving me and the light was getting a little harsh for my tastes.  I keyed in home to the GPS and started that way.  Of course, based on where I was, the route took me a completely different way home by way of Route 8.  I actually saw quite a bit of great subject matter along the way, but the lighting was not good enough to bother asking the property owners if I could go and photograph them.  I did add these to my wish list for later treks though.

Shortly after I got into Stokes County I found a nice little tobacco barn sitting up on a ridge under some really great clouds.  It was worth a shot or two so I turned around and pulled off to the side of the road.  Again, not wanting to bother the owner, I opted to use my 70-200mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Filter attached.  I was able to get a variety of compositions with this lens at the distance I was next to the road.  In the end, I found that the closer shot was the better one, and it really highlighted the barn quilt on the side as well as the banner hung from the awning.  The warm colors of the barn contrasted nicely with the blue sky above.

The tobacco barn turned into my last photographs of the day.  The clouds cleared and the sun became much too harsh to continue.  I did see quite a few subjects that I wanted to come back to with different conditions so stay tuned for those.

When it was all said and done, I had shot nearly 180 frames.  That was the most I have shot in a single day in a long time.  I was able to find 20 of them that I really liked and wanted to share.  Now comes the hard part where I find places to put a few of them in the gallery.

Shore Styers Mill Park

Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Shacktown Falls

I'll go ahead and say that this morning didn't really go as planned.  The subject that I was most excited to photograph didn't pan out at all.  Since I was going in to work late, I decided to take the time and try to shoot a sunrise.  When it comes to the edge of light photography near home, I have to be a little cautious since there are very few places that offer nice visual anchors, have no street lights, and don't have the horizon blocked too much.  With a potentially good sunrise being forecasted, I thought that I would try my luck with an idea that I've had for a while.  There is a nice little barn just off of Union Cross Rd which I've shot several times in the daylight.  It is situated where the background is to the East.  The sun has just recently moved to the position of the sky that would be directly in the background.  The timing was perfect for this shot.

I got up a little earlier than normal so that I could be at the barn in plenty of time to get set up for the sunrise.  As I pulled onto the road where I was going to park, the sky behind the barn was starting to light up and it looked like I was going to have a decent sunrise.  My happiness was quickly dashed as I realized that there was a 53' semi trailer backed up to the main opening of the barn.  That successfully screwed up my entire shot.  I paused for a moment to take the scene it.  It was workable...without the trailer that is.  I decided to abandon this location for the day and try again later.

I spent the next 30 minutes driving around aimlessly looking for something to put under the sky.  I wasn't able to find anything before it was too late.  The sunrise was colorful, but not overly dramatic.  That helped to ease the disappointment in the morning's failure.  The sun was now right at the horizon and I had to decide what to do next.

My original plan to go go to Shore Styers Mill Park and try to work the waterfall there.  This had been kind of the "B" plan as my hopes were all tied up with the barn that I was going to shoot.  I have been to this waterfall a handful of times and have found it pretty, but difficult to shoot.  There is a lot of graffiti around the shore lines and it is kind of difficult to get into position to shoot it.  I was almost going to give up on that location before I even got there.  However, when I started trying to decide where to go next, I didn't have any real options, and the clouds were looking great for waterfall photography.

Yadkin's Jewel
The trip out to the falls didn't take long at all since it was right off of the highway.  I was pleased to see that there were no other cars in the parking area.  As I pulled in things didn't quite seem right though.  I could see the waterfall much better from the parking area than I had been able to see before.  It also appeared that there had been some trails actually cut into the landscape to get to the falls where before it had been more of a scramble to get down to the base of the falls.  The observation deck was long since gone, but there was no remnants left behind like I had remembered from my last trip here.  In short, it looked like Yadkin County Parks and Rec had really done a lot of improvements here.  When I looked at the nearly perfect water flow over the rocks, I was immediately at peace with my decision to come here and was quickly forgetting the early morning barn fail.

I have to admit, the trail down to the falls was nice with steps and everything.  Once I got down to the creek, I noticed that a lot of the brush had been cleared away along the shore.  There was a lot less graffiti in the area, but I could still see "AMANDA" sprayed on the opposing shore.  This has been here since my first time ten years ago or so.  Regardless, I was seeing so many opportunities, and I had a clear path to get up to the falls without having to fight my way there.  I got my camera out and left the 70-200mm lens attached since I knew I would be shooting isolations as well as possibly a panorama.  I added the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and I was off!

A Step Ahead
I started to shoot some basic compositions and realized that they all lacked inspiration.  There was one section of the waterfall that really caught my eye, so I started to shoot some isolations with that small section.  As I was framing up the shot, I started to think about doing a sweep of the main portion of the waterfall as a panorama.  I leveled the tripod and did a mock sweep to check the composition and exposure before shooting an eight shot series.  As I reviewed the images, I realized that the rising sun had started to change the lighting causing parts of the waterfall to burn out.  I reset the camera and lowered the exposure a bit by stopping down the lens.  This gave me more depth of field so I was fine with that.

The second panorama series turned out to be nine shots total, and it appeared to have turned out wonderful.  When I got it home and stitched the images together, my suspicions were right.  This was a great image, and by far my favorite from this waterfall.  It was partially due to the clearing that had been done in the park, so I'm very appreciative for their efforts with that.

With the success of my panorama (or my hope at success at the time), I was really motivated to create some great images at this waterfall.  I grabbed the camera and started to move closer to the waterfall.  There is a very shallow section on the left edge that allows you to climb onto the rocks to get some unique views.  Even though I was up close and personal on this waterfall, I opted to keep my long lens attached.  That allowed me to really get some great isolations, and my bag was back on the sandy shore some 50 feet away.  I didn't regret not having the bag as everything that I wanted to capture I was able to do with the 70-200mm.

What a Rush
One of my favorite compositions came from this vantage point within the waterfall.  I shot across the entire thing to get the far edge which had some great rocky features to it.  The direction of the water combined with the alternating diagonal element from the rocks made for a very dynamic image.  As a nice little surprise, I got a bit colorful water at the base which framed the bottom of the image so well.  This waterfall has always been about isolations for me, and this one here is one of my all time favorites for capturing the pure power of the water here.

By this time I had shot pretty much each section several different ways from each location.  I was feeling like I had everything that I needed from this waterfall and was feeling very good about how the morning had unfolded.  I had been here about an hour at this point, and for a single subject under perfect lighting, that was plenty of time to work out what I was wanting to get.  It was time to call it a day and head on to the next location.

South Deep Creek
Well, you know me....there is always time for one more image.  As I was starting to put the camera up, I noticed the small cascades downstream from the waterfall.  I started looking for compositions that I could do to isolate those little cascades.  I made my way down stream a little bit but couldn't really find anything that I thought would make for a dramatic image.  However, I was starting to see a bit of connection between the cascades and the main waterfall.  Thanks to the recent clearing, I was able to get in a good position to capture the cascades as a foreground element.  I chose to capture the more voluminous section of the waterfall as the background.  The reflections in the creek made for a great midground as well.

I shot a few different compositions, but in the end it was this simplistic one that held the most visual impact.  It was one of the last few of the 56 images that I shot for the day.  I was done at this point, and ready for the next adventure.  I went ahead and packed up the camera.

Once I got back to the truck, my intention was to go and hunt for rural scenery since I was in Yadkin County.  I started to drive around and noted that the light was still very good, and there was even some good detail in the sky.  However, I was having to start looking at the time so that I didn't get caught too far away from work when it was time to go in.  Now that I was seeing a time crunch, my creativity was starting to wane, and after such a successful session with the waterfall, I was actually a little creatively exhausted.  With all of those factors working against me, I decided to go on home to be with Toni for a bit before work and to maybe get the images processed.  

I actually had about 2.5 hours to work with when I got home, and I made use of every bit of that to get these images ready for print.  I am so glad that I went out this morning after seeing how the images turned out.  After my last trek in the rain, I was feeling a little down about my photography, so this was the perfect time to have a successful session.  These images are much more what I expect from myself, and they speak much clearer than the woodland intimates from a couple of days ago.

April Showers Are Still Just Rain

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Filling the Void
The weather for my two days off has been rather bipolar.  Saturday, it was raining pretty much all day long and the temperature was dropping steadily through the day.  Sunday, Nothing but clear blue skies for as far as the eye could see.  Neither situation is what I would call ideal for photography, but I knew that if I was going to get anything in this weekend, I was going to have to brave the rain to make it happen.  Clouds are always better than a featureless blue sky for me.  The question was where to go?

The forecast for Saturday morning was calling for very low clouds, so I was actually hoping for some foggy effects, so I was thinking about woodland photography for the most part.  Since the rain would probably prevent me from doing too much, I decided to stay close to home so that I could get in and get out quickly.  The idea was to leave early in the morning before the heavy rain started and be back home before Sierra woke up.  Well, that didn't work out well because when Toni left for work and woke me up, the rain was already here and I didn't feel like fighting the steady rain that early in the morning so I went back to sleep.

Sierra and I ended up going to a movie since doing anything outside was really out of the question at that point.  However, on the way back, the rain was slacking off to a steady drizzle.  I could deal with that in the woods, so I asked if she would like to go on a hike with me.  She agreed, and I got my gear at home and headed out to the Piedmont Environmental Center located in Jamestown, NC.  I've been here a handful of times as a photographer but have never really gotten anything that I particularly liked.  I've tried to shoot various landscapes, but it is just so cluttered with undergrowth that photography is rather difficult.

Tiptoe in the Woods
The plan was to go out and to shoot black and white images with a woodland theme.  This was something that I had not tried out there before, and thought that it might have a chance of getting a few images.  Well, when we started to hike, I could see that isolating trees was going to be quite difficult.  The lighting was great, but without any fog, there was just too much clutter to deal with in order to capture the shot.  I narrowed my focus a bit more and decided to shoot some isolations.  That was another technique that I had not tried here before.

We made our first stop along the lake where there were some bits of driftwood floating around the shore.  I grabbed my camera and fitted the 70-200mm lens with no filters so I could have the benefit of the lens hood to keep the front element dry.  If I found a need for the polarizer, I would add it later on for a particular shot.  As it turned out, I really didn't need the filter because the glare from the rain soaked surfaces actually worked out for what I was going for.

As I was working on my first subject, Sierra made mention that there was a nice hollow branch floating to my right.  I had seen it, and I thought it looked cool as well, but hadn't really considered how to photograph it yet.  When I decided that my first subject wasn't really going to work out the way I had envisioned it, I moved over to her idea.  I tried a couple of things that didn't really work.  As a last resort, I thought about really getting in close on the parts that I found interesting and making that the composition.  This actually worked and had a nice texture element to it as well as being slightly abstract.  This actually turned into my favorite image from the day, and the decision was to leave it as a color composition.

The Delicate Touch
As we hiked around, it was the trees that grabbed my attention.  They all had really interesting bits on them which were super saturated thanks to the rain.  These were the elements that I started to work with using the same long lens.  I was always looking for that woodland shot, but nothing at all jumped out for me.  I was also on a schedule since we were supposed to meet Toni for dinner in a couple of hours.

For the most part we enjoyed walking through the woods as I took some of the same trails that I did as a child years ago...many, many years ago.  It was kind of nice to share that with Sierra, but she is a teenager, so for the most part I just wanted to toss her in the lake.  Now, I'm not that mean, I did give her my jacket as she refused to dress for the weather conditions as I suggested.  With that, I thought my karma score was evened up.

Fleeting Idea
I had come out here looking for striking monochrome images, but that just didn't happen the way I was hoping.  I did get a few black and white shots that were much better than the original color captures.  Had I been shooting with color in mind, I would have passed these images by.  Since I was looking for textures though, I was drawn to some very subtle characteristics in the wood.

Of course, it seemed like every cool tree I came upon, there were initials carved in the wood.  All I could do was shake my head.  When I was hiking these trails as a kid I wasn't allowed to carve in the live trees.  I could only put my initials in the benches and on the wooden bridges.  It is a right of passage I guess, but it is something that I am not wild about as an adult.

The Fiber of Life
Shooting these tree isolations did end up with a funny experience though.  Right at the end of the hike, I found a nice tree that had fallen.  I wanted to capture this section (right above) as a tight isolation.  I was still shooting with my long lens, and the only composition that looked right was shot at 200mm.  The problem I was facing was a minimum focusing distance.  I kept fine tuning the composition so that it was in focus.  I ultimately found myself with the tripod almost fully extended.  On the last stretch, I realized that I could no longer really see the LCD even standing near six feet tall.  I had to shield the glare on the screen so that I could get the focus right using live view.  I could just barely see the composition, but was pretty sure that I had it right.  It was an awkward shot, but it didn't look right at the 70mm end where I could have gotten closer with my 24-70mm lens attached.  I needed the compact quality of the 200mm.

After about two hours of hiking, we needed to get back to the car and head off to meet Toni for dinner.  Of course she asked how it went.  I wasn't sure if anything had turned out, and I wasn't that excited for the day.  In fact, I decided to wait until Sunday to actually process the images.  They were better than I thought, but not as good as I had hoped.  I will just chalk this trek up to another example why this location is so hard to shoot.  It was nice to get out and go hiking with Sierra, and she made it home in one piece.  She didn't even get tossed in the lake.  She is a 13 year old, so I can't make any promises about the next 6 or so so years.

Behind the Camera: Me Through Photography

Behind the Camera:
Me Through Photography

Welcome to Behind the Camera, which is a new feature here.  In this feature, I am going to try and answer some of the questions that come up about my photography.  The vast majority of my posts here are just about my treks and where I end up.  I talk about some of the individual pictures, but don't necessarily delve into what makes me, as a photographer, tick.  My goal here is to, more or less, do a meet and greet and share a little bit about me.  I hope that this feature is enjoyed, as I would like to continue with it in the future as well.

About a week ago, I posted a question on social media asking if anyone had a question that they wanted to ask about my photography.  In all honesty, I was expecting a comment or two, but nothing like what I got.  There were a lot of great suggestions as to what to write about, but I picked a few that seemed to go together to get this series started.  The questions were: "What started my passion?" "How do I reveal myself through my photography?" and "What triggers my inspirations?"  I felt that these really got to the core of why I am the photographer that I am.  I will come back to the other questions later on in this series, but for now, lets jump in with these.

So, what started my passion with photography?  If I were to go way back, I can remember going hiking with my Dad in several different parks around the Piedmont of NC.  He would bring along his Konica 35mm SLR camera occasionally, and take some pictures of the landscape, as well as me...when I wasn't looking that is.  That camera fascinated me, mainly because he didn't let me touch it.  I think I held it once, and it was quite heavy compared to the point and shoot cameras that I was more accustomed to.  He explained about how a polarizing filter worked, although I only understood him to say it made the sky blue.  He talked about getting a telephoto lens for the camera more than once.  I liked gadgets, so photography intrigued me as a kid.

Add to that the hikes that we would go on.  I enjoyed going out in the woods, even though I was in terrible shape as a kid.  Really, it wasn't sweat that was running down my face as we climbed the hills, it was tears.  I did learn to appreciate the natural world around me, even though I was wanting to be sitting on the couch watching TV.  One of the things that I remember the most was that we would anthropomorphize the trees.  He would show me how they each had a personality.  It was based off of The Lord of the Ring Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, but it applied to my reality at the time.  It did give me a deeper appreciation for those trees and the landscape though.

As I got older, I went out into the woods less and less.  I started to get more interested in cars than anything else (typical behavior for a teen).  I started taking pictures of whatever vehicle I owned at the time with those small point and shoot cameras.  Sometimes I would get a good picture, most of the time they would be pretty terrible.  I didn't care how they looked since they were all pictures of my pride and joy.  It was all par for the course with film and point and shoot cameras.  The pictures were never meant to anything more than snapshots.  Then the digital age and the Internet happened.  I started wanting to post pictures of my truck at the time, but didn't want to wait for a roll of film to be developed, and then scanned before uploading.

My first digital camera was a Sony FD-200 that my Mom got for me (the FD stood for Floppy Disk, which dates this upgrade of mine).  It was the answer to my woes, and allowed me to photograph my truck and have it posted on the Internet in the same day.  A side benefit to digital photography was that I could actually see the image right after I captured it which allowed me to make changes while I was still there.  Now, I was able to learn how this photography thing worked.

Morning Stretch
I started reading books and practicing.  I mean digital photography is absolutely free to learn on because the bad images can be thrown away.  The more I read about photography, the more I decided that the landscape was what I was really drawn to.  I learned a lot of about the design of a photograph, and how it applied to the natural world.  Essentially, I learned that a photographer can bring order to the chaos of the world that surrounds us.  Being slightly OCD (as my wife laughs at that statement), that really appealed to me.

What started as a hobby quickly turned into something else though.  My day job is being a police officer, which can be quite stressful at times.  I found that through landscape photography, I was able to concentrate on the beauty that surrounded me rather than always paying attention to the less than pretty aspects of the world.  It was my way of maintaining balance in my life.  It allowed me to be in touch with my emotions and give them an outlet since it is largely beneficial for an officer to compartmentalize their emotions under most circumstances.  I now had a way to deal with the left over feelings that I would collect through a work week, and had a way to release them in a constructive way.

The roll that photography has played in my life has changed from year to year.  These days it helps to combat my low grade PTSD which I picked up after an incident in 2009.  It allows me to get out by myself and be alone with nature.  I'm able to process my thoughts, and really seek the answers to the questions that I come up with during the days prior to my trek.  There is something very cathartic about connecting with nature on a very deep level and then recording that moment in time.  It is almost like giving an emotion a physical existence where it can remain without staying in my own head.

Photography has been a lifesaver for me, even though I have taken two substantial breaks from it due to severe frustration.  My passion for the art of photography has evolved through the years and actually reflects a lot of who I am deep inside.  Something that I've found is you can almost read my current state of mind by looking into my photography.  Yes, I said looking "into", not looking "at".

When it started, photography was just a hobby, these days it is more of a gateway into my soul, and a window for me to see myself.  That brings us to the second question which is "how I reveal myself through my photography?"

As I mentioned, if you look closely at my photography you are more than likely able to get a feel for my mood at the time I shot the image.  I've been noticing over the years that as I look back over my pictures from previous treks, I'm taken right back to where I was, emotionally, at the time.  It only stands to reason that the photographer brings a good bit of themselves to the photograph that they capture.  I am drawn to certain subjects depending on my mood, and I enjoy shooting in certain conditions more depending on my current mindset.  The time driving and hiking to the locations also gives me introspection time so that I'm really in tune with what is going on in my head.

I'll go ahead and stretch out on this nifty couch for a little while, while you sit over in your easy chair taking notes about what I'm talking about.  I'm a complex kind of guy, so it might take more than an hour appointment to peel back these layers.

In all seriousness, art, no matter what kind, comes from the soul of the artist.  It is an expression of the inner self. Photographers are no different.  When I am looking for a scene, different things appeal to me at different times.  Since I am largely an introvert (there my wife goes laughing at me again for minimizing this quality), I find that many of my images are almost moody in their appearance.  I've tried to break that mold a time or two, but it never really comes off as convincing.  Deep tones, and saturated images are my hallmark, and they come naturally for me.  It is not that I am depressed, but rather I do a lot of internal contemplation.  My thoughts are rarely well lit in my head.  I don't have fleeting thoughts that are easily understood as if fully lit by the sun.  I like to really explore my thoughts thoroughly, as I try to do with my photography.

Shadowed Ridge
When it comes to talking about how my images reveal who I am, this one is probably the best example to discuss.  When you look at it, it really looks like a pretty simple image taken at sunset.  However, it actually describes who I am very well, and I'm thinking that some of the feelings in this will appeal to others who share some of the same thoughts.

First of all, I shot this one day after work, which meant that I was driving the two hours to the Blue Ridge Parkway after spending a day at work.  I was going to be away from my family for the entire day and evening to go on this trek.  I was looking forward to the trip and what pictures I might get, but at the same time was feeling like I was abandoning them at home.  The light and the shadows show that inner struggle and dichotomy for the whole trip to the mountains.  

If you continue looking at the light and dark, you can see that the warm light is only representing about a third of the image, while the shadowed portions extend the other two thirds.  This is where I'm sure that many will have this shared experience so that this image will speak to them.  We all try to put our best foot forward in life and present the best "me" that we can.  That is the part that is in the light for all to see, but it is only a small portion of who we really are inside.  That is where our own self doubts and insecurities are located.  This is the part that we hide from others, and we deal with internally.  Yes, this is what makes up the most of us, but it is not what is seen by others.

While I was shooting this image, I was among a large group of folks that were there enjoying the same scene that I was.  I was the only one there with a large camera bag and "professional" equipment though.  I was moving around setting up shots with my long lens mounted to a tripod.  Seriously, I looked the part of a professional photographer and that was what everyone saw (In reality, nobody was paying me any mind).  In my head I was trying to get a composition that worked that didn't include all of the people that were scattered across the foreground I was wanting to use.  I was getting frustrated because the scene that I had come up here to get wasn't panning out, and I had missed out on family time at home.  I was worried that it was all for nought and I would come home with nothing to show for my extra time away (about 6 hours, on top of the 9 hours I was at work).  I was feeling pretty much like I had failed them and myself.  I was internally existing in the shadows of this image, while everyone was seeing the bright side of me as the confident photographer.

The vast majority of my images reveal different parts of who I am, and I can pick each and every one of them apart.  The way I see it, by capturing emotions, rather than just an image, I have the chance to connect with a much broader audience because those emotions can be shared experiences, and will prompt somebody to be drawn to an image even if they can't identify why.  It is also a really great opportunity for me to look back on different phases of my life and see where I was emotionally at the time.  My photography is basically a tracker of my mental health in a way.

So how do I find the images that I shoot?  What inspires me to pull the camera out?  That is usually a twofold process.  The first deals with previsualization and represents the planning stage.  I'll usually pick something that I want to shoot which I am familiar with and have been waiting for the proper conditions to develop to photograph.  As I see what conditions are setting up in the extended forecast, I will start to work out which location will work best for those conditions.  I will consider the locations and compositions for days before I actually arrive at the scene.  The resulting images are usually well composed and executed, but fall under "normal" photography for me.  After that comes the fun part.  This is where I start to connect with the area I'm in and start to feel inspired to create other images.  I look for images outside of what I planned for.  These are the ones that are usually more inspired, and I am more satisfied with overall.  This is where my inner being really comes out.

There are benefits to these planned images.  I have a chance to wait for conditions to be right, and I've had the opportunity to think about the composition that I want to use.  On the other hand, when I get there, I find that I'm forcing an image based on a vision I had at a different time, with a different mindset.  I'm shooting inside of the box.  When I am hunting images that I have no preconceived notion of, I find myself drawn to those images that really reflect how I'm feeling that day.  Those are much more satisfying for me, and occasionally, the only reason I go out in the mornings.  If I don't have a previsualized location in mind, but have the desire to go shoot, I'll just pick an area and start driving around, or hiking as the case may be.  This is my chance to shoot outside of the box.

Sunshine Beneath the Clouds
So what do I look for when hunting images?  It can be rather complex so we'll look at a couple of examples.  In this image, you can tell that it was a dreary day.  I was actually in a really good mood, so much of the wonderful rural scenery didn't appeal to me, and I didn't bother to photograph much of it.  It just seemed too dark for my current mood.  However, in the middle of this cloudy, rainy day, I found this bright yellow bug on the side of the road.  My happy mood connected with the bright colors here and I decided that I wanted to shoot this scene.

While the car was nice, it was really the color, and the happy vibes that I get from looking at a VW Bug that made me want to shoot it.  The darkness around it (it was actually raining at the time) really made the yellow pop, and my happiness flowed through the picture.  I'll even go a step further.  I was really hopeful at this point for a good image and shot the car from the rear which I don't typically do.  The result of this composition is the car looking off into the distance which adds to the hope shown in the image.  Had I been feeling a different way, I would have shot this scene much differently, and might have actually stored it for a later time as I do with a lot of scenes that I come across at the wrong time.  Of course, all of this is on a very subconscious level while I'm out exploring.  It is more of an emotional connection to a scene than anything cerebral.

Breaching the Surface
There are also times when I am not feeling all that happy, but the conditions I am in are bright and cheery.  That was the situation for this shot.  I was not having a good morning despite being on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The clouds had broken up, and I wasn't really wanting bright images.  I was looking for more moody captures which is admittedly difficult in these conditions.  While at Price Lake, I looked down and saw the reflections in the water with a rock poking through the surface.  The blue sky was toned down, and I liked the abstract nature of the scene.  It fit with my introspective mood for the day.  I framed it up and applied just enough polarization to darken just a portion of the water at the rock before releasing the shutter.  There is a lot said by this image, at least to me.  It totally fit with how I was feeling that day and I can remember my thoughts at the time.  Today, I'm in a different place mentally, and I doubt very seriously that I would have even seen this scene unfolding.  I would have been too concentrated on the overall landscape to have looked at this section of 3-4 square feet.

Commanding Presence
Speaking of an overall landscape, I've mentioned that part of the fun of photography is bringing order to the chaos that surrounds us.  That feeds into my OCD tendencies (There goes Toni again snickering at my minimizing of this).  There are many times that my head is so full of thoughts and clutter that the only thing that really appeals to me in the landscape is something that can take center stage.  The example here was shot on an anniversary trip a few months ago.  There had been issues with our cabin that lead us to get a different cabin.  The weather was terrible with fog and rain.  I was sorting out things that we wanted to do while in the mountains, and I was finding it hard to concentrate on photography at all.  The drive was nice, but I just couldn't get in tune with anything that I was seeing.  Nothing was tripping my creative trigger.

That changed as I passed by this large tree that stood out in the fog.  It would have caught my eye on any day, but I connected with it because it stood apart from the noise in the background.  Despite the rain, I wanted to shoot it because it really spoke to me and helped level me.  Thanks to an umbrella that Toni had, I was able to get the shot in the middle of a pretty good rain.  It turned out to be the best image from the time we spent in the mountains.  There were lots of other opportunities, but nothing really connected with me on the right level.  This one tree inspired my creative side because it spoke to my emotional side.  That is where my best images come from, and that makes total sense to me.

My passion for photography started at an early age and progressed through a lot of unrelated paths before culminating in a hobby that turned into so much more.  I've found that the art of creating pictures is therapeutic for me and has allowed me to self medicate my PTSD.  It does open up my emotions which can make them raw at times, but those emotions do come out in the images that are captured.  My best images are a direct result when the physical world connects with my inner spiritual world.  Once those two forces meet, there is a force that develops which allows me to capture the scene as my heart and soul wants.

Thank you for letting me share this part of my life with you.  I hope that it allows you to understand my photography better as well as the guy shooting the pictures.  Let me know what you think of this feature and I'll come back at another time to answer some more of the questions that have been posed.