Clouds (finally) at Stone Mountain

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Casualty of Spring
For the last several weeks, I have been looking for some clouds that will work for some grand landscapes.  I've been having a rough time with those as they have been too thick, too absent, or too low to really work for this purpose.  I've been waiting for them to be "juuuusssst right" as Goldilocks would say.  Well, I finally got my opportunity to capture those clouds, but it wasn't a normal trek by any stretch.  The forecast for the day was showing clouds with the possibility for storms.  The day started out pretty sunny, but that was fine as I had some things that needed to be done anyway.  When I was getting home around lunch time, the clouds were starting to form up and looked pretty promising.

I started to formulate a plan to take advantage of the clouds should they continue to form like this.  I needed to wait a few hours since the sun was still very high in the sky and providing some harsh light, too harsh to really work with for what I was wanting to do.  I was needing somewhere close that I could go where I could do some grand landscapes.  I thought about Hanging Rock, but I was very limited there.  The next obvious choice was Stone Mountain.  I've always had good luck here, and the past 6 or so times I've been here I have been down in the lower sections focusing on waterfalls and streams.

At about 3pm, I decided to make a go of the trip and see what I would come up with.  I arrived at the park shortly after 4 which was giving me about 5 hours to work with before the park was closed.  I knew I wanted to head out to Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock where I had a pretty good understanding of the potential compositions.  The hike was about a mile and a half, and pretty much uphill the whole way.  I made it in just under 30 minutes.  My shirt was soaked from sweat.  It was about 80 degrees, but the heat index was 90. When I got up to Wolf Rock, I found the clouds I was wanting, and the sun was still behaving despite being fairly bright.  I started to look for compositions and found the angles that I wanted for the clouds.  The problem was, I had no foreground.

Well, that was an easy fix once I found a branch that had broken off of a dead tree up the hill.  I grabbed it and positioned it just so, in the foreground of my composition.  That made the difference, and it helped to accentuate the different hues of the exposed rock I was shooting from.  The exposure didn't look too difficult, so I didn't use any filters on my 16-35mm lens.  I did get the lens right above ground level to really capture the dramatic quality of the dead branch.

Gnarled Direction
The old branch worked out so well that I grabbed it and moved it to another location where I was seeing some interesting clouds forming above.  I left the wide angle lens attached and kept the camera low to the ground for this shot as well.  The clouds were quite dramatic in the sky and were just what I had been looking for over the last few weeks.  I was wishing I was on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but that was just too far to travel for an evening shoot.  Sometimes I have to settle for locations, and this time it was working out pretty well.

Some hikers joined me shortly after I got started which didn't really surprise me considering the amount of cars that were in the parking lot.  What did surprise me was that when I arrived at Wolf Rock, I had to the place to myself.  It was short lived, but I could deal with two hikers better than a crowd of people.  I just moved over to another section for a bit to see what else I could find to shoot.

Stone on the Mountain
I was still actively looking for foreground interest to place under the clouds.  I had left my branch, and was looking for something a little different.  I found a smooth stone that was sitting on the rocky surface.  It was slightly eroded from the runoff, and looked quite interesting to me.  I went ahead and got the camera positioned once again.  The slope of the mountain I was on provided a great deal of diagonal quality to the composition which provided a lot of visual tension to the image.  The clouds above completed the look I was after.  The little stream that ran past the stone made a nice lower frame for the image as well.

I started to look around for other things that I could use as a foreground interest.  Typically, I would look for trees, but I wasn't really wanting to do the same things with this set of images.  I wanted more emphasis on the sky, and didn't really want a lot intruding into the clouds.  What I found next was pretty nice, and was only possible from the recent rains that we have had.  I found a puddle, but not just any puddle.  This one had moss growing on the side of it.  How cool is that?

Into the Looking Glass
The little bit of moss really linked the foreground with the rolling hills resplendent in their spring hues.  I again set the camera up without any filters, using my 16-35mm lens.  I started working on compositions.  The clouds dictated the directions that I shot in, but I also wanted to make sure that I got some of the mountain detail in the midground as well.  I found that the vertical compositions tended to be a little more dramatic, while the horizontal ones leaned more to the calm end of the spectrum.

Gathering Moss
After an hour or so shooting on Wolf Rock, I realized that I had not only been shooting exclusively with my 16-35mm lens, I was using it racked out to 16mm probably 90% of the time.  In fact, the pictures that I have posted so far (exception of the pano) were all at 16mm.  This was surprising since for many years, I would avoid much wider than 35mm because I was afraid that the mountains in the background would be diminished.  They were less impressive at the wide angle, but I was really liking the drama of the foreground that I was able to include, not to mention the expanse of sky that I captured.  I'm liking my newfound techniques using wider angles than I have previously.  It is opening up a lot of possibilities for me.  I was thinking about using my 14mm while I was here, but the way the sun was, I was worried that I would get a lot of ghosting on the lens, and would possibly end up including the sun which would blow part of the sky out.  I decided that I would save that for another situation.

It was time to move on anyway, I wanted to check out Cedar Rock to see how the clouds looked on that side.  I also couldn't remember how long the hike was to get there.  Turns out, it was only 5 minutes down the trail, so that was no big deal at all.  I made my way to the top and moved around to see Stone Mountain.  I worked my way in close and stood on a very steep part of the slope.  I knew that if I dropped anything, like a lens cap, it would be gone forever as I couldn't even move quickly for fear of losing balance and tumbling myself.

Drama Above
As I was looking at the situation unfolding in front of me, I decided that now would be a good time for the Rokinon 14mm lens.  I had a great sky that I wanted to include, some great leading lines in the foreground, and I was close enough to Stone Mountain so that it wouldn't just shrink into oblivion.  I set the camera up and started to compose the picture.  The lines were looking fantastic, and the clouds were appearing to capture the mood I was after.  I shot the image as a color piece, but after looking at it on the computer, I thought that the true rendition should be monochrome to take full advantage of the lines and clouds.  I massaged the tones and their relationships until it looked as I had envisioned it.  There was gobs of texture to be had in this piece, and it really turned out pretty good.  It was much better than the color version, so I ditched the color completely and kept only the monochrome.

Distant Bald
That wasn't to say that I had no interest in a color image of Stone Mountain.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  After I got done with my 14mm lens, I decided to fit the 24-70mm lens, again with no filters.  I started to compose images that paid more attention to the bald, but found that I was still on the wide end of things with this one being a 24mm shot.  The clouds were really starting to come in, which made for some dramatic skies, but it also brought with it some rain.  There was a pretty good drizzle happening as I shot the next round of pictures.

I could hear thunder in the distance, and was starting to wonder if I was going to get caught out in the rain since I had about a half hour hike ahead of me to get back to the car.  I decided to risk it and stick around shooting pictures.  I had a poncho, and other wet weather gear for the camera.  I did decide to get off of the slope I was on just in case a downpour happened.  I knew that this surface would be very slick when wet and I wanted no part of that at all.  I moved back to the other side of the trail and found a nice clump of greenery.

Clouded Vista
I found an angle where I could make use of this bit of vegetation while still including the sky which was looking fantastic now.  There was a bank of clouds that looked just like snow covered mountains in the distance.  The hints of blue in the sky were wonderful, and I got down low and started to make compositions to capture it all.  I tried both vertical and horizontal compositions and as I had found earlier, they both ended up with a distinctly different feel.  Even though I was using my 24-70mm lens, I was still at the 24mm end of the zoom for these as well.  I probably should have swapped in my 16-35mm lens, but I was still using a good bit of the range of this lens.  It just so happened that the images I liked the best were from the wide side.

As the sky faded a bit in that direction, I moved back over to the Stone Mountain section and started to work other compositions.  Nothing was working, but the sky was looking pretty good on that side now.  I wanted to do a panorama of Stone Mountain, so I quickly swapped over to my 70-200mm lens which is a great one for panoramas.  I got into position, and defined my boundaries.  I then set the focus of the lens.  From there, I dialed in an exposure that would capture all of the information from the entire sweep.  I then shot a seven frame series from left to right.  I didn't know how it would turn out, but the histogram said that I had all of the information that I needed for the final image.  I left it at that, and did not reshoot the panorama.  I think it turned out pretty good though, as it is my opening image for this entry.

There might be a little confusion about the title to this one, so I will clear it up.  I called this Casualty of Spring because one of the elements that my eyes are drawn to is the fallen tree in the midground.  It is orange, and you can tell that it recently died since it still has leaves on it.  The trunk is shattered and completely charred.  It was hit by lightning, undoubtedly from one of our recent storms.  With the stormy sky above, I thought that would be a fitting name for the image.

At this point, the light was fading, but instead of going to another location for another 30-45 minutes, I decided to move on down the trail to get to the car.  I was wanting to get home, and if I played my cards right, I would make it home before everyone started to go to sleep.

In the course of my 3 hours, covering two sections of the trail, I had shot 117 frames.  The culling process was difficult because I really liked each and every one of the images.  However, I had to cut images that were similar to others, and that meant that about 10 that I wanted to keep were thrown in the bin as they were similar, but not quite as good as another one.  My one black and white image started life out in the bin as a third round cut, but when I came back evaluating black and white images, it made a comeback.  In all, I came away with 10 images that I am reasonably happy with.  It was a quick trek, but a pretty good one.  I hiked a bit over three miles and had a really good time out in nature.

If You Don't Like the Weather...

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Talking About Spring
As the saying in the North Carolina Mountains goes, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes."  Having spent quite a bit of time in the NC Mountains over the course of my life I can say that there is a good deal of truth to that statement.  Today's trip tested my understanding of the weather patterns though.

The day started like most others, I got up with Toni at around 4am so that I could get an early start for what was supposed to be a pretty good day in the mountains.  The weather was calling for some morning showers which would be replaced by partly cloudy skies for the majority of the day.  The clouds were showing to be low, but there was only 40-70% coverage so I was thinking that there would be a great deal of drama in the sky as the current front moved out.  The plan for the day was to start out at Hawksbill Mountain doing a little bit of hiking before getting some great grand landscape shots of the Linville Gorge.  If the sky held out after that, I was going to move over to Wiseman's View to get the other side of the gorge.  In the event that it was too cloudy, I was going to shoot some waterfalls and possibly try a new one in that section of the Parkway.

Pink Crown
The weather was staying pretty consistent from Friday night through to Saturday morning.  The chance of a good sunrise was slim to none, so I wasn't worried about getting into position for a sunrise first thing in the morning.  Actually, that was pretty nice since I am usually racing to get set up before first light.  I had a nice easy morning and a relaxing drive to the mountains. I ran into some light rain, but I was expecting that and was expecting those showers to move out of the area around 8am.

Springtime Duel
As I started the ascent up Hwy 183, I ran into a different problem.  It seemed that the clouds were lower than I expected and I was actually driving through them.  Visibility was not great, and the rain continued.  The closer I got to Hawksbill, the less I wanted to make the hike to the summit for what I was sure going to be a wall of clouds.  I pulled over at the Brown Mountain overlook and checked the weather.  The forecast still showed the bad weather moving out, but it was now looking like 9am.  I figured that I would just come back to Hawksbill when the weather started to improve.  In the meantime, I started looking for a plan B, since I wasn't ready to commit to hiking to waterfalls just yet.

I ended up near the road to Wiseman's View and passed by the quaint little cabin that I had photographed not too long ago.  It was looking really good today with everything in full bloom at this point.  The rain had stopped, and the low clouds were gone for the moment so i pulled over.  I grabbed my camera with a 24-70mm lens along with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.  I started working the little cabin up close and from the road.  I was having better luck with compositions because the rocking chair was no longer in the front yard, and what had been bare bushes were now full of color and excitement.  It was a much easier time this go 'round for sure.  I even got in close and shot some of the blooms.  Why? You ask.....Because Spring, that's why!

In the Pink
My enjoyment ceased fairly quickly though as I started to feel the distinct splats of rain drops on my hat.  It was time to call it a day for this location.  I had gotten everything that I wanted to get so I didn't argue too much.  By this point, I was starting to tell myself that if I just wanted five minutes that the weather would change.  I could do that....I continued on my way looking for other subjects that would work out with the conditions.  I went ahead and hopped on the Parkway to see how things were looking up there.  I went South since I knew that just a few miles North the road was closed for repairs.

Dewy Slope
At some point traveling down the Parkway I came upon a ridge to the right of the road that had a handful of trees growing.  They each looked pretty interesting in the fog of the morning so I pulled off the road and grabbed the camera.  This time, I used the 70-200mm lens and went to work on compositions for the trees.  The fog makes it very easy to photograph trees since the background is usually obscured for the most part.  There was a fine mist in the air, but for the most part the rain was holding off....for about five minutes.  Yep, you guess it.  After I had been shooting for about five minutes the rain came back with a vengeance.  I was forced back to the cover of the hatch on my 4Runner.  I waited about 10 minutes to see if the weather would change, but apparently the weather never got the memo.  I went ahead and packed up my gear and hopped in the truck.

You guessed it, the minute I cranked the truck up and hit the wipers, that was it for the rain.  Oh well, I had a few images of the trees in the fog and that was enough.  I continued South looking for mile marker 322 where English Falls is supposed to live.  There is supposed to be a little parking area near that mile marker which I was looking for.  It would seem that the parking area isn't well marked or even really established because I drove right on past it, and saw the marker for 323.  Oh well, it was now raining again anyway.  I just kept on driving down the road.

Royal Veil
I continued past Crabtree Falls which I thought about shooting, but the hike would probably take longer than I wanted to invest in things since I was hoping for a break in the weather.  It was looking like great waterfall weather though.  I opted to continue on to Roaring Fork Falls which has a short and very easy hike to get to.  I could hustle on this one if the weather decided to get better.  It didn't take too long to get to the falls, and in that time, the rain would start, and stop almost as if to taunt me.  When I arrived at the parking area for the falls I was thrilled to be the only one there.  I grabbed my gear and went on the half mile hike to the falls.

Awash in Cotton
The entrance to the falls off of the trail was really obscured by the trees and I almost missed it.  Fortunately, I saw the caution sign at the stream and found my way through the low hanging tree to actually get to the waterfall.  I could hear the force of the water and was looking forward to seeing how Roaring Fork was looking with all of the rain that we have been having recently.  I had seen the water very swollen downstream on the way to the falls and had very high hopes for the main event.

I wasn't disappointed with the condition of the falls.  There was a lot of force here, and fortunately, I was still able to rock hop to get into my normal positions to photograph it.  The difference was, I had to be very careful about where I placed the camera.  The water was moving with such a force that in most sections there would be too much vibration for a sharp long exposure image.  I couldn't brace the tripod against anything since there was a large log which was wedged at my position and was visibly moving.  That movement would have translated through the tripod for sure.

Spiritual Glow
I will typically shoot this waterfall with my 24-70mm lens, but that is because it usually doesn't have the size to really show that well at the top.  This time, I was pretty sure that the water volume would support the wider angle, so I loaded up my 16-35mm lens with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and hopped out to the artist's rock in the middle of the water.  I started to set up shots from here and found that the base of the waterfall was a great foreground with how the water was broadcasting from the final drop.  I did the typical horizontal and vertical layouts here before moving to isolations of the falls.

For the isolations, I swapped over to the 70-200mm lens to really pick things out.  I had a lot of fun with the isolations, but the water was flowing very quickly which removed a lot of the subtle details of the route.  I was able to pick out a few down at the base as well as one up at the top.

Speaking of the one at the top, if you look at the image above, you can see what I was starting to see happening.  Yep, the rains had stopped, and the clouds have moved on.  That warm glow at the top is the sun shining through the trees.  Looking up to confirm, I could tell that the clouds were now thinning and leaving the area.  This was the weather change that I had been looking for!!!  It took more than five minutes, but it was worth the wait.  I could now get back on the mountain and get those grand landscapes I was looking for.

I maneuvered back to a safe area to break the camera down.  As I was doing that, a hiker came down the path.  My timing was excellent because historically, if there is somebody else here, I will have to deal with them being in my shot just about every time.  I was glad that I was done here, and I was actually pretty happy with what I had gotten here as well.  On my hike back to the truck, I was hustling since I knew I could make it back in less than 10 minutes.  In that time, I passed another eight people that made me very happy that I had been there when I was.  Not to mention that the sun was too bright now for any good photography of the falls.

I didn't waste any time looking for altitude once I got in the truck.  I could see bits and pieces of the sky from down in the valley and was really happy with what I saw happening.  There were low gray clouds, high cumulus clouds, and lots of movement in the sky.  This was exactly what I was looking for!  I was excited right up until the five minute mark hit.  That corresponded with me arriving at the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Yep, here comes the clouds again.  In a period of about 30 minutes I had come full circle.  I was again driving in the rain along America's Favorite Drive.  Oh yeah, the fog was back too.  My hopes for a grand landscape were dashed yet again.

I figured that this was going to be the tempo of the day, and I might as well embrace it.  I decided to go to Crabtree Falls and shoot that one, although honestly, I wasn't all that excited about doing that waterfall.  There are only a few compositions that I like there, and I've shot it many times over.  The water flow doesn't make that big of a difference there either, except for my ability to get into position to get a foreground that includes the water flow.

When I got to the falls, I went to park and saw that the parking lot was about half full.  That was a very bad omen because this is one of those waterfalls where people can really get in the way quickly.  With my frustration over the weather still pretty active, I didn't want to add in that further frustration so I opted to continue going back up the Parkway.

I went ahead and dialed in the destination to English Falls just to see where the parking area was.  GPS took me right to it, or at least a little area off to the side of the Parkway.  I could see a trail leading from that parking area, but it didn't go anywhere.  It was drizzling and very foggy, but having seen pictures of this waterfall, I really wanted to try it in these conditions.  I pulled up Kevin Adam's description of the falls and the hike to it.  It sounded a little dicey, but I was willing to try it since I had never been here, and there were no others around.

I followed his description of the trail and found the access point which lead me down a really steep section that was rather slippery with the rains.  I continued to read and saw that there were cliffs and the need for ropes (which I had read were left there by other hikers).  Seeing how much difficulty I was having with the "easy" section of this hike, I decided that I had better wait until I knew more about the hike, or had somebody with me that was familiar with it.  The last thing I wanted to do was get lost in the woods, or slip and get hurt.  I was up there alone, and nobody knew where I was.  The only clue was my 4Runner sitting on the side of the road at MP 322.  Another time English Falls....another time.

The Water Calls
The hike back up the trail to the truck was not the easiest of things, but I made it with no problems.  The earth was very soft with the rains, and it just wasn't worth it to me to continue down to the bottom.  I got back up on the Parkway and did a little walking to see if there was anything that I could do with the foggy conditions.  There wasn't anything that jumped out at me, so I decided to go to Linville Falls and do a little shooting there with the increased water flow.

My goal was not to photograph the upper cascades or even the main drop because too much water, while impressive, looses that aesthetic quality that I love about waterfalls.  What I was wanting was a chance to photograph Dugger's Creek Falls under some different conditions.  When I arrived, the parking lot was about half full, and I could see a lot of families milling about at the visitor's center and on the bridge going to the upper falls.  There were nothing but empty spots on the side where Dugger's Falls was, and that was a good indication that I might get lucky and have it to myself.

Dugger's Creek
The hike out to Dugger's is a simple one that basically counts as a nature walk.  When I got to the bridge, I noticed two things.  First, I noticed that the water was flowing at a rate I have never witnessed before.  The dainty little waterfall was now a full on waterfall with the associated loud roar as it dropped.  Second, the trees were blocking much of the view of the waterfall from the bridge (which was getting more and more bouncy it seemed).  With this flow, I was actually really wanting to shoot from the bridge and get that perspective.  There was no way to do that with the trees the way they were.  I wonder if they ever come through and trim them back?

I hiked down to the base below the bridge and found that the water about knee level on me.  The only way I would be able to get into my normal position was to strip my feet and wade out there.  I didn't have anything to put on my feet to protect them, so I opted to skip it.  That was partly because I didn't see a real clear shot to the falls here either because of some of the vegetation.  Also, much of the character of the falls was lost because of the high flow.  Looking downstream, the water flow was showing some promise though.

I went quickly back out to the parking lot and followed the exit around the corner to where the creek runs under the road.  I know that you can access this section fairly easy from the road and I had forgotten to look as I came in to the parking area earlier.  Yeah, this would work out nicely.  I actually set things up on the top of the concrete culvert.  I used my 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and started to pick out compositions.  As with the Roaring Fork Falls, I chose to make my foreground interest the final bit of drama as the water spilled over the rocks.  The patters of the water over the rocks was just glorious here, the best I had ever seen.  I shot a few different compositions here, including some isolations.  In the end, I thought that the overall mountain creek shots were the strongest.  I think that it works as both a landscape and a portrait shot, which is nice.

At this point, I figured that I might as well go and see what the upper cascades looked like since I was here.  Wait a minute, has it been five minutes already?  The sun was peeking out again.  It looked as though the sky was going to clear.  I knew it would be temporary, but I was excited.  Looking at the people coming into the parking area in droves, I decided that I would avoid the crowds and look for that grand landscape once again.

Flat Top Rock
I got back out to the Parkway and started to check out the fences in the area.  You know I love some fences!  None really looked ready to have their pictures taken so I continued on down the road.  I could see hints that the sky was looking good, but I was not finding anything I could put under it.  I knew I was getting to the end of the road...quite literally since all traffic was detoured just North of Beacon Heights.  As a last ditch effort, I pulled over into the Flat Top Rock parking area and found that there were only two other cars there.  I had done this hike once before and knew it was simple.  I grabbed my gear and started my way up the mountain.  I could see movement in the sky, and differences in the clouds.

My hopes were high for the first time.  When I got to the top. I could see definition in the clouds, but more were rolling in.  I started to look around to find something that I could put in the foreground.  There was less to work with up here than I recalled, but the last time I came it was in the early Spring and there were more bare trees around.  I finally settled on an area where I could see off in the distance for a good way.  There was a little bit of character to the clouds, but they were getting darker and denser by the moment.

At this point, I figured "why not?" and put the Rokinon 14mm lens on the camera and positioned myself in a way that captured the rocky surface of the bald that I was on as well as the mountains off to the distance.  It was not the image that I was hoping for, but it did have a lot of depth, and some visual trickery thanks to even lighting that made it look like the rocks at my feet just trailed off to the distant mountains without actually going through a valley at the base of Flat Top Rock.  The clouds were ominous to say the least, and there was a strip of bright light at the horizon which helped to bring the attention to the distant mountains.  It was a slightly different image from me, but one that I think has enough merit to be included here.

I kept the Rokinon attached and went back to the trail where there were some really cool trees.  The wide angle of the lens made for a perfectly cool composition, but the sky in the background was just too featureless and white to really work for what I was wanting.  It is a great concept and it works well with the wide angle.  I'll be back to try that shot again some time.  As I continued to look around, I realized that it was starting to rain once again.  It was getting harder and heavier too.  I took that as my cure to get back to the truck.  I loaded everything back up in the bag and started the return journey.

By the time I got to the truck, it was starting to pour.  I tossed everything in the back and hopped in the driver's seat.  I got back on the Parkway going North just to see if the road was still closed.  Yep, fenced off and everything.  There was a detour that took me to Hwy 221, which was going to take me to Blowing Rock.  I noticed as I made the turn that there was a lot of debris which had been brought into the roadway by the flood waters recently.  The rain was really picking up now and the clouds were back hanging over the road like a fog.  Visibility was poor, but good enough to see that Hwy 221 was closed not far from where I entered it.  So let me get this straight...the detour was closed?  Yep, that was the size of it.  The rain was getting harder and harder.  It was after noon, so I took that as my cue to head home.  I was needing gas anyway.  My day was done.

As I got to the base of the mountain the rain stopped and the sky cleared.  The clouds looked awesome, but they were still low.  I've fallen for that trick already, and I was about at Bingo Fuel.  I wasn't able to get back into the picture game with the gas that I had available.  I was tired, wet, and completely unsure if anything that I had shot was going to turn out.  I had thrown in the lens cloth.

But wait...there's more!

Chevy Sedan
There I was driving down the road listening to something on the radio completely disengaged from photography and I happened to look over one of the side roads visible from US 421 on the edge of Yadkin County.  I saw the distinct round rear end of a '40's era car.  It was parked at the edge of a parking lot.  OK, this was interesting.  I made the next exit and picked up the side road at the next intersection and went to looking for it.  I found it in a very large commercial area with a big parking lot.  It was placed for sale at the road.  I started to look around.  There was a Toyota for sale to its left that I had no interest in, there were buildings behind it, and RV's and dump trucks in front of the buildings.  The sky however was awesome!  The patina on the car was nice, but I'm not a big fan of white cars for this kind of photography.  The patina on the back was pretty nice though, and the car had character.  It was worth giving it a shot to see what I could do with it.  I parked the truck and hopped out.

Holy crap!  It was hot here!  After being used to the mountains all day, I wasn't expecting the sun to be so hot, but it was.  Oh well, I was here and needed to get to work.  I pulled out the camera and opted for the 24-70mm lens which is a great automotive lens for the flexibility that it offered.  I also knew I was going to need to get tighter than 50mm to omit the clutter in the background of the car.  I wanted enough angle of view to capture the sky and clouds though.  With the white car, I needed the blue sky to tone it down, and the white clouds would make for excellent complimenting elements.  To make sure that I had good contrast in the sky, I fitted my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to the lens as well.

Four Star Chevy
There wasn't much that I could do isolations on with this car.  The white paint really hampers my creativity for these kind of shots.  I did find a few nice lines on the front of the car that I could work with.  My only isolation that I felt like keeping was this abstract one with the hood emblem.  By going off to the side, I was able get this angle up high which made the chrome grill a complementing element to the emblem which was much higher than the grill.  More importantly though, my shadow was not in the picture at this angle.  I liked how the patina framed the image to the left along with the rust on the bumper to the lower corner which helped make the grill stand out.  It was an odd image and I wasn't quite sure how I would like it, but the more I look, the more I really like what I shot here.

Time Passes
Since I was starting to have a lot of fun with this car, I opted to go a little crazy with it.  I had been thinking 50mm or tighter to avoid the clutter around the car, but I also realized that by going wider, I could minimize the size of the background to where it was no longer intruding on the car.  I swapped out to my 16-35mm lens and shed the polarizer.  One thing I have learned with wide angle lenses, they don't like polarizers when shooting a blue sky.  The sky polarizes differently depending on the angle you are shooting, and with a 90+ degree angle of coverage, you will get some strange effects in the sky if you aren't careful.

I found a few compositions that I thought worked, and one that I really liked in a portrait orientation.  The clouds had all but left the scene and the sky was rather boring above the car.  I looked up to see if more clouds were on the way.  I could see movement indicating that there would be a few more coming overhead shortly, and they were moving at a visible pace.  Hmmmm, that could be a nice addition to the image.  Moving clouds over this car with a dynamic perspective.  I needed to do a long exposure on this one.

I grabbed the Lee Filter Holder and my Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND Filter and mounted it to the end of my 16-35mm lens.  This reduced the light a full 10 stops, and by stopping the lens down to f/22, I was able to get an exposure of 20 seconds.  It wasn't much, but it was going to have to do.  Short of adding my other circular ND filter which would then force me to go to a tighter focal length due to vignetting, I had no other choice.  I waited for the clouds to come over and shot a series of four long exposure images.  This is the one where the clouds were precisely in the position that I was wanting.  The LCD showed that I was in pretty good shape with movement, but just to be sure, I pulled the filter off and set the exposure to compensate and fired off a normal shot that froze the clouds.  That way, if the long exposure didn't work, I would have one to fall back on since I really liked the composition.

On a Break
After that series, I was feeling pretty good, and had been looking around.  There was an old '40's Ford pickup parked against the building that I was finding pretty interesting.  With the wide angle lens still attached, I decided to go and have some fun with this old truck.  My goal was to get in front of it (hence having the wide angle lens) and shooting it with the clouds to the rear.  As I approached it though, I found that the scene that was unfolding was kind of interesting with the truck parked next to a bush with the water stains on the pavement  pointing towards that bush.  The truck was also pointing it would seem.  I set the camera up at the back corner of the truck and found that the side of the building with all of the doors really looked odd, and I was having to include the roof and sky above.  This was just too complicated, so I moved in a little and tightened up the shot.  I purposely cut off the back of the truck and made the wheel and fender the dominant foreground.  Using the truck in the fashion really provided a nice balance of elements in the scene and kept it simple.

Not having a polarizer attached wasn't a problem either since the truck had no glass, and there wasn't too much glare on the paint either.  That mint green was a very cool shade and worked nicely with the color tones that were present.  I was looking forward to seeing how it would look against the blue sky above.  I moved to the front of the truck and tried to find the right angle.  No matter when I put the camera, I wasn't able to get a suitable perspective on the front of the truck.  Everything looked like I was trying to do a fisheye shot of the front of this curvy truck, and that was just too much.  I abandoned my attempts at getting the front of the truck.  Had it been moved back even five feet things would have been different though.  It was OK, I was really feeling good about the Chevy I had just shot, and it was actually getting late in the day.  I was already looking at getting home a little after 5 at this point, which is a full 12 hours after I had left.

It had been a really fully day, and one where I had seen monsoon rains, fog, clouds, sun, and clear blue skies.  The patterns developed with the routine of a Magic 8 Ball.  I still wasn't sure about what I had captured.  I was hoping that they turned out well, but I was really worried about it.  I hadn't gotten what I went out to get, but found so many things that I wasn't really considering photographing.  It was a day of go where the wind blew and shoot what presented itself.

Chevy Sedan in B&W
When I finally got around to starting to process the images it was after 7pm.  I had already decided that I was going to be happy with six images out of the day's pictures. I believe I had shot a total of 136 frames during the day, and that would be about five percent.  I moved through and tossed out more than half of the images in the first pass.  I finally whittled them down to about 25 images that I would start to process and work with.  I tossed out another nine of those images because there were elements that I didn't like in them.  The remaining 16 were pretty good, but one of them deserved another run through the processing engine.  That simple Chevy under the clouds was screaming for a monochrome conversion which I did.  I loved how it turned out, and with a few tonal tweaks, I felt became its very own image.  Both the color and the black and white stood on their own and I really liked how they both turned out.  This has now become image number 17 for the day.

I can't express how happy I am that I have so many keepers from the day.  I spent the entire time thinking that I was shooting junk except for just a few images that I was kind of excited about.  It was a real surprise to get home to find that so many of them came out so well.  The bad ones weren't even really that bad.  Slight composition shifts make the world of difference though, and there were a bunch where the shifts I made didn't work as well as I had hoped.

At midnight, I found myself writing here and falling asleep at the keyboard.  It was time to call it a night.  I always try to get the blog entry done on the day that I shoot the pictures, but it wasn't happening.  I mean seriously, who wants to read an entry that looks like this.

  • So, with the clouds coming back, I startendnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn tso s set he camera upa     apllllffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff
So, here we are on the following morning and I realize that I still had about two hours of writing to complete the entry.  There was no way I would have been able to pull that off.  So, thank you for your patience, and I hope that you enjoy reading about my day trying to stay ahead of the weather and failing miserably.  But at least I managed to take what I had available and make the best out of it.

A Morning at Doughton Park

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Doughton Dawn
It would seem that the Blue Ridge Parkway is the destination of choice these days.  I guess that is true, at least for the past month or so.  I decided to head back up to the mountains today and hit Doughton Park which was one of my goals last week.  I was looking forward to testing out a new lens that I had recently purchased, and the weather was looking decent for the mountains.  The forecast showed between 40-75% cloud cover, and quite a bit cooler than the 90 degrees that it was going to be at home.  I was excited about the opportunity to capture more clouds over the rolling hills, and felt that situation would be the perfect chance to try out the new Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 which give a good bit better field of view than the 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens that I have been using for wide angle work.

Looking at the forecasted sunrise, the potential was pretty good up around Sparta, so I decided to head off to Doughton to take advantage of the colors.  As a side benefit, I could make it to the park in an hour and a half which was nice considering that sunrise was about 6:15.  I was needing to be in place roughly thirty minutes before that time in order to get the color that I was wanting.  I left the house at 3:45, and woke up somewhere around Traphill and realized that I was on schedule for making sunrise.

Gold on the Horizon
Once I got on the Parkway, I started to look at the sky.  I was a little surprised to see no clouds at all in the sky.  When I got to the Air Bellows Overlook, I peeked around the mountain where the sun would be coming up to see if there was anything there I could make use of.  There were no clouds at all, and the city lights were just too bright to be of any use.  I just decided to continue on to Doughton where I knew that there were many things that I could use in compositions that were not quite as dependent on clouds.  When I got the park, I could see that the sky was completely empty, but I went ahead and grabbed the camera and started over on the side with the most visual interest available.

I got to the top of the meadow as the sky was starting to get the first signs of light and the sliver of a moon was dropping towards the horizon.  I figured that I would check out my favorite tree for some composition choices, but found that I didn't really like anything that I was seeing there.  I started to mill about looking for more composition possibilities around the top of the meadow.  I found a nice bald spot which was positioned in such a way that it complimented the tree line which framed one of the distant mountains.  I went ahead and got things set up.

I was really trying to avoid using my 24-70mm lens, but this was a scene that really needed it to keep the scaling right.  I went ahead and built the camera with that lens and added the Lee Filter Holder with a 3-Stop Singh-Ray ND Grad filter.  I composed the first shot and set the exposure at 30 seconds because it was still rather dark.  With that long exposure, the sky showed up as this brilliant color which was just barely visible in the dark sky.  The camera doesn't necessarily lie, but it will sure show you things that your own eyes can't see.  An interesting side note, my first composition was shot right at 50mm which is the reason that I don't like using this lens currently  It seems that I gravitate to that normal focal length, which I really don't want to do any more.  The more creative pictures are done outside of the normal range of vision.

Off Sides
I continued to work the scene as the sun came up.  The problem was, as the light got brighter, the color faded and I could tell that the sunrise was going to be rather bland.  It seems that I just can't win for losing when it comes to sunrises these days.  This was the closest to a nice one that I have seen, but it wasn't anything like what I was hoping for.  However, I started to look around to see what my other options were.  I still had the lone tree at the top of the hill which I wanted to shoot.  From where I was standing, it was rather boring sitting there against the medium blue sky.  However, I could see a minimalist composition developing.  The colors were not what I wanted, but I could see it as an overexposed monochrome image.  I put the filter away, and swapped over to my 70-200mm lens.

I got a little bit closer to the tree and framed up a shot.  Since I was looking for a minimalist composition, I didn't try to fill the frame completely.  In fact, I shot it horizontal to give a good bit of negative space on the sides.  I also was envisioning a heavy vignette on the sides to really add a bit of drama to the image.  The image flashed on the LCD and looked really bad as a color image, but the histogram showed me that I had a good exposure for the conversion that I had planned.

Pastel Dancer
As I was turning my attention the mountains in the distance, I took my attention away from the tree for about 20 minutes or so.  I shot a handful of compositions of the rolling hills in the morning haze, but there was nothing that really stood out to me.  So, after I had moved all around looking for that one composition that organized the mountains, I turned back around.  The tree that I had shot against a featureless sky now had some nice puffy clouds above it.  They were even picking up some of the color of the rising sun.

I moved back into position for that and trained my long lens back in the direction of the tree.  This time, I was wanting to get the sky in the composition as well.  The exposure latitude was not very wide since everything was evenly lit from the sun coming up over my right shoulder.  I was having no problem getting great exposures of this scene which left me plenty of time to play with compositions.

Pastel Smudge
As I worked on different compositions, the clouds moved away from the tree, and the sun was getting brighter and brighter as it climbed over the horizon.  There was still plenty of time to work different compositions though.  I was starting to have fun with this tree.  I was only wishing that there were more clouds in the sky.  At least this portion of the day was showing a little less than 20% coverage, so I wasn't overly worried, but I was hoping that the clouds would start to roll in so I could get to work on some grand landscapes.

Morning Hues
Risking blowing other opportunities, I decided to abandon the tree and start to look for other compositions as the sun was coming up.  Again, I turned around and looked towards the West.  This is always a fun view as the sun gets a little bit of altitude.  The clouds were faint on the other side, but you could see a bit of alpenglow developing in the sky.  It was enough to justify setting up to capture it.  I kept the long lens on and didn't need any filters for this at all.  Everything was so evenly lit thanks to the clouds obscuring the sun now.  I could tell that the sun wasn't going to illuminate the rocks like it has done in the past though.  I've shot better images here, but this one had a nice serene feel to it with the muted colors in the sky matched with the low fog in the valleys.

Lofty Clouds
With the passage of time, the sky and the clouds changed.  I still wasn't getting the warm light on the rock outcropping, but I was getting a bank of clouds moving over the distant landscape.  These were the same clouds that had been over the tree.  Hey, when you don't have many clouds to work with, you keep working the same clouds over and over.  They were still picking up the warm colors of the low sun, now to my rear.  The alpenglow was fading which left some nice soft and warm tones in the sky.  The warmth of the sky balanced nicely with the cool Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

The sun was still climbing and I was quickly loosing the warm tones of morning.  I went ahead and started walking the trail back to the parking lot to see if there was something else I could shoot.  There was a really nice fallen tree about mid way back that I've shot a time or two before and thought that I might be able to get something there this morning.  When I arrived, I had decent light on the tree, but nothing of any interest in the sky above it.  There were some interesting textures though, and that was what I started to work with.

Knotted Bark
I decided to straight for the abstract shot and found an interesting section to work with.  The lighting was good and I could pick out lots of interesting textures with it as well.  Since there wasn't much in the way of color here, I made the decision to shoot this one as a monochrome image from the beginning.  I wasn't sure how it would turn out, but I only felt like a single exposure was all that was needed here.  I moved on to other sections and tried similar shots with an abstract feel.  None of the other ones turned out though.  It was all pretty much a time killer as I was waiting to see if the clouds started rolling in like I was expecting according to the forecast.

Spring Cradle
I was running out of abstracts to shoot on the fallen tree, so I started to look in the meadow for bits of the tree that had broken off over the years that it has been here.  I found several with some interesting shapes that I shot.  I was able to keep the long lens attached and pick these broken bits of branch out with relative ease.  The lighting was perfect on the wood, and the grass was a rich green that really told the story of the season.

I don't know why this old tree is so fascinating to me.  It has been here since my first visit to Doughton in either 2005 or 2006.  Of course over the years, it has gotten smaller as decay has caused it to break apart.  It is right alongside the trail, and I would almost bet that the trail had to be cut around the tree.  Regardless of the current size of the tree, it is still a very interesting sight to see.  I've shot it in several different ways, but I've never shot it into the sun before.  Well, that was about to change.

Fallen Drama
What I was seeing was looking rather interesting.  There was a cloud bank that was moving its way across the sky and was currently blocking the sun.  While this killed the nice warm light that I had, it also provided a chance to shoot this old tree with a direction that suited the orientation of the wood.  I quickly swapped out to my 16-35mm lens and added the Lee Filter Holder along with two different 3-Stop Singh-Ray ND Grads.  The six total stops of light control that I achieved allowed me to control the exposure in the sky and still get plenty of detail in the tree.  The thick clouds did their part in keeping the primary highlight at bay, and for that I was very thankful.

Hollow Morning
I made my way around the tree picking out compositions quickly as I wasn't sure how long the clouds would last.  The wide angle lens allowed me to get a number of dramatic compositions.  I would have loved to have used my new Rokinon lens, but there is no attachment for filters thanks to the built-in lens hood.  Also, that lens is fully manual and I didn't want to try and learn that lens in a time crunch situation.  I did stay at 16mm for the majority of these shots which proved to me that I was going to have fun with the 14mm when I did get a chance to use it.

Three Fingers Up
As the clouds finally broke away, I had to abandon shooting in the direction of the sun.  I moved to a side position that took advantage of the same clouds as they moved off to the South.  Looking at the exposure, I going to still have an issue with the sky being overexposed.  I could continue to use the ND Grads, or I could play around with HDR images.  I opted for the latter and stripped the filters from the front of the lens and set things up for a four shot (1-stop interval) series to capture all of the tonal range of the scene.  It just took a few seconds to capture the series, and I could tell that I had all of the data that I needed to merge an HDR file.

At this point, I went ahead and pulled out the Rokinon and started to experiment with it.  Now, for those who aren't familiar with this lens, it is a fully manual lens where you have to manually set the aperture on the lens itself.  The focus is also manual which I am more than used to.  I wasn't sure how this would work with my live preview so I turned that on and found that I was still able to get a histogram.  I set the exposure, and focus and released the shutter.  

Completely overexposed.

I checked the exposure once again and saw that it looked right on the live preview.  I went to the viewfinder and found that it was showing massively overexposed.  I dialed in a shutter speed that gave me a proper exposure based on the meter and fired it again.  This one turned out to be exposed  properly.  I can only deduce that I will only be able to use live preview for focusing, and will have to set the exposure through the viewfinder.  Not a terrible trade off for a lens that cost around $250.  The few test images that I shot turned out to not be all that great and ultimately got trashed.  However, I knew that the lens worked at this point, and I knew how I needed to operate it.

Spring Gate
I decided to pack everything up and head back down to the truck.  However, when I got there and saw that the sky was bare in all directions I wasn't worried about getting on the road just yet because nothing was going to look good enough to justify stopping anyway.  Instead, I opted to go for a walk down the mile long driveway to the Parkway.  I knew that there were several places along the driveway that make for interesting pictures.  One such scene was a gated fence under a blooming tree.  The hints of Spring colors on the branches gave just the right amount of visual interest to the scene and that prompted me to stop and pull the camera out.

I loaded up the 70-200mm lens with a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer and went to work making a composition.  One of the harder aspects here was the fact that the wind was really picking up.  At least it was a gusty wind and not really a constant one.  This allowed me the opportunity to wait the wind out and hopefully get the leaves still.  I worked this area for about 30 minutes and even shot a panorama while I was here.

Doughton Park
There is just something special about this park.  Every time I come here I always find all sorts of things to photograph, even if the conditions are less than ideal.  Of course, I think that the main reason that this park is special is because Toni and I went on a date here years ago and we kissed in the clouds while eating lunch.  I just can't come to this park and not think about that day.  It will always hold a special place in my mind and heart for that reason.

Carolina Blue
One of the things that I usually hold hard and fast to is not shooting grand landscapes with a featureless sky.  There is just something about a plain blue sky.  They are pretty to look at, but rarely make for interesting photographs.  I had been shooting a good many plain skies already this morning, so why not continue.  When I got to the main entrance to the park, I found one of my favorite scenes ready to be photographed.  The sky was relatively featureless though, but the trees looked good, and the interesting rocks outcroppings that shielded the trees were looking good.  I figured I would give it a try.

Since the exposure looked pretty straightforward, I didn't expect to need any filters.  The rocks look really good with an extreme wide angle, so I figured that I might as well try the Rokinon one more time.  I went ahead and put it on and got into position really close to the rocks.  I was about 10 feet from the edge of it before I started to compose the image.  I was surprised at how well the 14mm focal length captured this scene.  I didn't note too much distortion either which was a nice feature of this prime lens.  The sky was boring, but the sun was hitting the leaves and making them glow which kind of gave the sky enough visual interest to get by.  I set my focus and dialed in the aperture I wanted for the depth of field.  Switching back over to the the viewfinder, I set the exposure and waited for the wind to die down.  When it did, I fired off the shot.  Nailed it!  the exposure was right, and the trees appeared to be tack sharp.  I went ahead and did a few other compositions as well, but in the end it was this first shot that paid off.

I will say this about the Rokinon lens.  After having been spoiled by nothing but Canon "L" glass for years, I was a little skeptical about this Korean lens.  It has received nothing but great reviews for both build quality and sharpness.  The only fault that has been noted with this lens is the consistency across the individual lenses.  For $250, it was worth the gamble on getting a good example.  Considering that the Canon 14mm lens goes for over $2,000, and isn't as sharp as the Rokinon was something that I wanted to check out on my own.  After processing the handful of Rokinon images, I can say that I think that my example is a good one.  The sharpness is there in all areas of the image.  It is on par with the "L" glass, and might be just a bit sharper than the wider end of the 16-35mm lens.  Distortion is much better controlled as well.  It is a little more fussy to deal with being a completely manual lens, but I really can't gripe about that since I didn't come close to missing $1500 worth of aperture control.  I can definitely recommend this lens for the landscape photographer.

Fast Lady
I made the mile walk back to the truck since the sun was getting just too high up in the sky to make for any interesting landscapes.  I set out for a brief jaunt on the Parkway to see if I could find any clouds.  There were officially no clouds to be had at this point in the day.  I diverted off of the Parkway and found myself around the area of Raccoon Hollar and Phillips Gap.  I found a couple of interesting things, but the lighting was far from good and I had to pass them by.  I was figuring that the day was done and I started to head home by way of Wilkesboro.

As I was listening to the tunes in the truck, I happened to see an old '56 Caddi sitting in front of an empty building.  It had a good bit of rust on it, and looked very interesting.  The backdrop wasn't my favorite, but it didn't require any sky to be in the picture so I figured I might be able to work with it. I got turned around and pulled into the parking lot.  As I was getting the camera out I quickly realized that it was hot....I mean oven hot compared to the nice temperatures I had been dealing with.

I checked out the car and decided that I would pull out my 24-70mm lens since that is my favorite for automotive photography.  I can distort the car just enough with this lens, and I can also shoot intimate captures with it as well.  I got down to business picking out compositions.  I shot at multiple heights as well as getting lots of different angles.  I wish I could say that the lighting was good, but it was actually pretty bad.  I used my Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to remove as much glare as I could and get the best contrast on the black car.

Sail Light
I'm not a huge fan of shooting back cars as they are usually a little boring.  I much prefer the light blues of the era and have lots of fun playing with the rust.  This car wasn't too bad though.  Most of the chrome was still in place and sine it was a Cadillac there was a lot of flare to work with.  Tail lights are some of my favorite things to shoot, as are headlights.  This particular car had no headlights, but the tail lights were in place and really looked cool.  I had a lot of fun pulling details out for intimate portraits with this car.

Place Holder
I guess you could say that the emblems were here as well.  I can't say they were complete though.  As you can see, the crest for the brand was missing, but you can't miss the framework for it.  The nice gold color of the trim actually goes really well with the black paint, and the splash of rust helps to make this image pop.  Over the years I have really turned into a patina nut.  I love the textures of the rust, and when you add the shiny bits on top of it, you are hard pressed to make a bad image.  In this situation, the harsh lighting actually worked out and gave me some very interesting shadows, and added another layer of interest to the patina.

Cosmic Corrosion
Speaking of patina and chrome, I found some very interesting features on the rear quarter panels of the car.  I'm not sure the purpose other than to add a bit of bling, but there were some cool chrome disks inserted into the lower quarter panels.  On the passenger side, there were two large areas of rust right above the disks.  Oh yeah...I can do something with that for sure.  There is so much visual interest here, and unless you are familiar with this car, I doubt you will know what you are looking at.  I love the abstract qualities that come with rust photography.  As long as it isn't on my own vehicles, I will always love the looks of rust.  The textures and the colors are nothing short of amazing to me.

Luxury Sled

I was dripping sweat at this point, although it might have been the fact that I was trying to outrun myself.  Every time I shot a picture that involved chrome, I had to run away from the image so that my reflection didn't show in the car. The camera was small enough that it didn't have a problem disappearing in the reflections.  Me however....I had to to do shuttle runs with ever press of the shutter.  I'm sure that folks passing by on the highway were wondering what this crazy dude was doing next to this car.  Funny as it looked, it did work and only a few images was I visible in.

I kept trying to figure out how to get the Cadillac emblem in a shot that made sense.  It finally hit me, and I was happy that it didn't involve a straight on shot.  I happened to notice that if you viewed it from the middle of the bumper, you could see the reflection in the bullet on the driver's side.  I got the camera low and close.  I positioned it so that I could see the reflection in the bullet which was used as the visual frame on the right side.  The chrome surround provided the rest of the framework.  I had my Caddi emblem as well as a token bit of rust and patina.  The grill was also well lit and exposed nicely.

When I started to constantly drip sweat it was time to pack it up and get back in the air conditioning.  I had shot about 165 frames since sunrise this morning.  I had gone through two batteries.  I was tired, and needed to get home to see what I had.  To be honest, I wasn't all that optimistic about what I had captured throughout the day.  I was expecting about a half dozen good images, but doubted that there would be any more than that.  When it was all said and done, I was absolutely floored that there were 23 images I deemed keepers out of the bunch.  It was a fun day in the mountains, and despite the less than ideal sky, I was really happy with what I had come home with.