Graveyard Fields, In Search of Autumn

Friday, September 28, 2018

Clouds Over Pisgah
I'll admit it, I have Fall Fever really bad right now which is odd considering that it is still very warm outside, and I'm still mowing every week.  That being said, typically by this time each year I have already started seeing color in the higher elevations in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In fact, it was around Sept 17th, last year when I went to Graveyard Fields and found all sorts of color.  I've been keeping track online to see how the color is coming this year and it seems to be a good bit later due to the warm temperatures.  Based on what I was seeing though, I decided that it was time to make a journey out to Graveyard Fields and see for myself how things were coming along.

With my work schedule this week, I ended up having to take Friday off (Darn!) since I was working on Saturday.  Looking at the weather, there was a pretty good chance of clouds throughout the morning and showers later in the day.  With some good rains recently, I figured that this would be a great time to see the Fall colors and to shoot some of the waterfalls at Graveyard Fields.  I have yet to try the lower falls because when I have been there, the sun has been too bright to attempt waterfall photography.  The forecast was showing some promise this time though.

As an added benefit, the sunrise forecaster was calling for a good probability of some color in the sky as well.  This was going to make for a really good trip if I could get a sunrise, and waterfalls in the same day, along with some bright colored leaves.  I knew that it wasn't going to be anywhere near peak, but if I could just get a few trees here and there, I would be very happy with the first Autumn trek of the year.

As is typical, I had to wake up pretty early to catch a sunrise.  Oddly enough, the sun was rising after 7am at this point in the year and that makes it much more tolerable than the middle of Summer when the sun wakes up before 6am.  However, Graveyard Fields is just a tick over three hours from home.  Doing the math...carry the one...that meant that I was waking up at 3:30 and on the road by 4.  I hate early mornings!

My plan was to get on the Parkway in time to find a place to set up for the sunrise, which shouldn't be a problem considering I was looking at arriving around 6:15 or so.  The trip out there was interesting.  I left in the rain, and had clouds and fog most of the way to the lower section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I wasn't sure how sunrise would look, but I was sure going to be in good shape for waterfalls.  In fact, I even brought along directions to get to Estatoe Falls which is on my short list of waterfalls to visit.  I figured that after shooting at Graveyard Fields, I could jump down the road to Estatoe and save the three hour drive I would have to make another day to shoot it.

When I arrived on the Parkway, the fog was heavy and most of the overlooks were socked in.  Not being very familiar with this section of the Parkway, I started hunting something that looked promising.  The only problem was I couldn't see anything at all in the distance to know what to shoot.  The sun was coming up too, and I was running out of time to find something.  I started to drive by a long driveway that was marked "Mt Pisgah Parking" and thought about turning to see if that was an overlook.  I remember thinking to myself, if I turn here, I won't have time to find anything else.  If I stay straight, I don't know what I will find ahead.  Essentially, it was a chance either way and I opted to make the turn and climb the short driveway.

Passion in the Air
What I found at the top of the driveway was the Buck Springs Gap Overlook.  It was positioned perfectly to see the sun, and there were some of the most awesome clouds down below.  I pulled in and just parked the truck right on the edge, not wanting to be concerned with whether or not I was in a parking space.  I got out and grabbed the camera.  I set the tripod up and fitted my 70-200mm lens to the camera.  I made a single exposure and found that I wasn't able to get the reach that I really wanted at this stage of the game so I added my 2X teleconverter to extend the reach.  I was now able to shoot at 400mm which was just perfect to capture the clouds and the color in the sky.  I was right in the nick of time to capture this as the colors were unfolding quickly in front of me.

As the sky started to erupt in color, I removed the teleconverter and went back to my standard 70-200mm lens.  I started looking at composition options and found that this was going to be a great prospect for a panorama.  I flipped the camera on its side and got the tripod perfectly level.  I did a dry sweep to check the exposure and set the focus.  I then shot a 6 frame series across the horizon which I later stitched together for the opening image to this entry.

I worked with other compositions and found some pretty good images over the course of about 30 minutes.  In the end, I decided that I would pick the two best examples since they were largely of the same subject.  These are the two that I liked best from the sunrise at Mt Pisgah.

After that series was done, I looked around to see what else was available.  The sky was really nice, but I wasn't able to find any more workable compositions that excited me.  I packed up my gear which actually took a minute.  In my haste, I was throwing bits and pieces into the bag and not worrying about where they were landing.  That meant that I had to move everything around to get it all back to where it was supposed to be.  I considered shooting a short video here, but decided that the photography was more important than any video work.  I still had a chance of getting some really cool skies if I found another vantage point to shoot from.

I loaded the truck back up and started back out on the Parkway towards Graveyard Fields once again.  I ended up passing Funnel Top and saw some really interesting clouds around the mountains.  It was most definitely worth pulling over and setting the camera up again.  This time, I was pretty sure that the 70-200mm would be the right one, and it turned out to be just that.  With the conditions present, I still wasn't using any filters as the exposures were still very good.  I started doing my isolation thing with the mountains in the clouds.  This is always a lot of fun to do and it starts to take on an abstract quality really quick.  My intention at this point was to shoot in black and white, but when I got home I realized that the color in the sky was pretty nice and worth leaving in.

After Dawn
The clouds were really thick down in the valleys and the sun was still being diffused by the clouds to the East.  This gave me very soft light and that was just what I wanted.  I loved being able to render the textures in the mountains, and even the hint of green.  These would have been absolutely gorgeous if the leaves were at peak with the colors in the sky complementing the Autumn colors, but alas, that was not the case.  I'm not complaining because regardless of the colors present, these were a lot of fun to compose and shoot.

Reaching for the Day
As I was shooting, I realized that there were a few clouds that seemed to be arching into the sky.  When I started looking, I realized that their shape was mimicking the mountains beneath them.  This was a good enough reason to capture that scene.  I had no problem isolating this phenomenon with the 70-200mm lens.  The background mountains even lived up to the name of "Blue Ridge" in this light.  Again, the color here was too good to pass up so I opted not to convert either of these images to black and white.  I stuck around here about 20 minutes or so before I realized that I had shot all that I cared to from this location.  The clouds were not changing significantly, so there were really no other compositions developing.  I loaded up and hit the road once again, still bound for the Autumn colors of Graveyard Field.

Clouded Looking Glass
Not far down the road I passed by a well known landmark of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Looking Glass Rock.  At first I wasn't going to shoot it, but when I saw how the clouds were looking around it I reconsidered.  Once again I pulled out the 70-200mm lens and left any filters off of it.  I worked on a few different compositions here before I found the one that I liked.  There are repeating patterns of waves from the foreground into the background.  The big interruption is the large bank of clouds with Looking Glass peeking out above it.  The subtle hues in the sky rounded the image out, and I really liked how this one panned out overall.  While I shot about 10 frames here, I only decided to keep this one.  the others were just variations on the theme and really didn't stand on their own compared to this one.

It was now time to move on down the road for my ultimate destination.  I was looking forward to seeing the Fall colors at Graveyard Fields.  However, when I arrived, my hopes were dashed.  I could see the lower falls, or second falls from the Parkway and they were shrouded in green.  They were also fully lit by the sun which had found its way into a large expanse of empty sky.  The entire landscape mirrored what I was seeing at the falls with nothing but green present.  I was disappointed to say the least because I was really hoping to see something similar to what I had seen last year, over a week earlier.

Oh well, I was here and had driven a long way for this specific spot.  I grabbed my gear and started off into the trails.  As I was hiking through I could see where some of the trees I had expected to be in full color were now bare.  It appeared as though those same trees had changed and then shed their leaves quickly.  This would explain why I had been seeing pictures on Facebook showing some fair color in the area.  I was too late for that, and too early for the majority of the leaves.

Cascades on Cascades
I decided to skip the leaves this time and focus on the waterfalls.  Yes, I know they were fully in the sunlight and that is a bad thing.  My hope was by the time I got into position that the sun would be hidden behind the clouds.  I was happy to find that the first little cascade by the boardwalk was in shadow.  I had shot this last year with some color on the trees, but this year everything was totally green.  I decided to give it a shot and I fitted my 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer before looking for a composition.  I found a few workable compositions, but the lack of color left them rather flat and lifeless.  The lighting was also not the best with some highlights in the background from the sun.  After about a half dozen shots I decided that this wasn't going to work for me.  I packed the camera back up and continued on to the lower falls.

Having never been here before, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect as far as terrain.  I knew what pictures were possible, but not exactly what was needed to get those pictures.  After I made it down the steps, I came face to face with a rock garden like I have never seen before.  The boulders were stacked up too high to get a good composition from where I was at.  My only option was to find a way to rock hop to a location somewhere on the top of that pile.  Fortunately I did have my waterfall boots on so some shallow wading was possible.  The problem was the water was deeper than the boots were tall.  I did manage to find my way around and over the boulders.  My final location was interesting to say the least.  I was standing on a rock, and there were three other rocks where I was able to place my tripod legs.  I had very little wiggle room, and the camera was pretty much where it was with no movement possible.

As you can see, I made use of what I had to the fullest.  I started out with my 16-35mm lens along with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, but quickly realized that that was just too much for this waterfall.  I didn't like the compositions that I was getting and it was including too much of the foreground for my tastes.  I swapped it out with my 24-70mm lens with the polarizer and found that focal length to work much better.  My problem was the sun was still bright and causing my problems.  The problems weren't my usual ones though with highlights and deep shadows.  This waterfall is situated perfectly for a sunny shot as there are no shadows to contend with and everything is evenly lit.  My problem was I was having a really hard time getting a slow shutter speed with just the polarizer.

Second Falls
I knew I was going to need to add an ND filter to reduce the light and I have one for just this purpose.  However, I was recalling my recent shot with Elk River Falls where I used the 10-Stop ND to get a three minute exposure.  I figured that with the bright light here, I might actually be onto something with that kind of light reduction.  I went ahead and added the lee Filter Holder to the edge of the polarizer and slid in the Singh-Ray Mor Slo 10-Stop ND filter.  The lighting was much brighter than at Elk River Falls, so I knew I wasn't going to get a three minute exposure, and really didn't want that.  Actually, I was aiming for 30 seconds, and was able to get just that with this filter combination.

I shot several different compositions and exposures for this waterfall.  I did everything from 1/5 of a second up to 30 seconds.  I was actually surprised to find that I liked the results of the 30 second exposure best by far.  The water flow was quick, but it was cascading beautifully so that it maintained detail throughout the falls.  In the end, I decided that I liked a horizontal as well as vertical composition of this waterfall.  I did shoot some isolations, but none of them really stood out to me, and I ended up trashing them.

After this I was feeling pretty good about the day, but the clouds were clearing and it was not looking like Estatoe was going to be a possibility.  Instead of giving that one a try, I decided to pack up and head home.  I was getting sleepy anyway having been up for a very long time already.  The sky was gorgeous all the way home, but the lighting was not quite good enough for photography.  I think I made the right decision in calling it quits.  I will get to Estatoe Falls eventually, but I do want it to be on a very cloudy day as I have in mind what I want to capture and sunlight really won't play a part in it.


  1. Greg, Thanks so much for your blog post! I have time reserved on my calendar to go to Graveyard Fields next Thursday / Friday (Oct 3/4). This report was very helpful!

    1. I'm glad I could help out. Hopefully, there will be some cold mornings between now and then so you will see some color. It's usually rockin' by this point. Just too warm this year.