Hesitancy has prevailed during these many months of Covid-19, and it prevented me from traveling last spring to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway during one of my favorite seasons. But I finally relented this fall, and a few weeks ago headed to the mountains with several face masks, rubber gloves and hand sanitizer, vowing to stay away from other people, and generally just keep to myself when doing anything. No casual conversations with other photographers, no hanging around McDonald’s for meals; simply staying as safe as I could. There was a constant unsettled feeling every time I stepped out of the confines of the car, even to the point of holding my breath as maskless motorcyclists roared by, even though I had a mask on! I suppose I may have been a bit over cautious, but my thoughts are it is easier to avoid contracting the disease than trying to recover from it, especially since I am among those at higher risk. So this short, three-day trip was different from any other trip, long or short, that I have ever taken in that the freedom to fully enjoy this wonderful season was stripped from the experience. Worry seemed to outweigh wonder.
After setting up camp, the first stop was Graveyard Fields just to scout out the afternoon light since I had never been there at that time of day. There were some breaks in the low clouds that occasionally drifted across the valley through the trees with just a bit of sunlight, so things looked interesting. But the parking lot was completely full, and it took several passes to get lucky and find an empty space.
The 70-300mm lens was used to isolate small sections of the valley that seemed to have a nice arrangement of both bare and colorful trees, along with a few fir trees sprinkled in, and just waited for differing amounts of fog and sunlight. Depending on where and how thick the fog was as it drifted through, made for completely different images. The most important element was there was no fog between the camera and bank of fog in the distance, creating a cleaner view. Various compositions were tried, but the one above seemed to resonate more and stayed with it for quite a while, clicking off several frames as the fog rolled in and out. Sometimes it rolled through along the top of the frame, other times more toward the middle; but the best frames seemed to have a bit of soft, directional sunlight peaking through the fog, highlighting the treetops.
After it seemed no more fog would roll through Graveyard Fields (MP417), I leisurely continued south another 34-miles, occasionally stopping to either scout a possibility for sunset, or to shoot a vignette against a rock face in shade; something I’m always keeping an eye out for. The eventual destination was an interesting rock wall at Waterrock Knob (MP451) that I had shot many years ago, and found that the young tree from that time had succumbed to the harsh environment at the high altitude, and was covered in something similar to Spanish Moss. But the design of it still held my interest. Things never stay the same, and over time, the same subject can result in a wildly different photo. I have always been drawn to this type of image, a solitary subject within the elements of an abstract natural design. It is probably due to the early influences of Eliot Porter on what things I seek to put in front of the lens apart from the grand, scenic views.
Then it was back north to Cowee Mountains Overlook (MP431), probably one of the most popular destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway for sunset views, with layer upon layer of mountain ridge lines fading out to the horizon. It did not show much promise with basically a single cloud, but it did end up providing some good atmospherics as the sunset developed, and on towards dusk. Shooting required several differing exposures for each composition because of the wide dynamic range of a bright sunset sky and backlit mountains. Each composition seemed it could be widened or narrowed to produce another decent composition, and the images taken that evening included ten different focal lengths ranging from 70mm, through 85, 90, 100, 130, 135, 150, 185, 240 and 300mm! All the ridge lines can be grouped in so many differing combinations along the horizon, and each seems better than the one before.
But when the light in the sky was completely finished, I turned my attention to the beautiful autumn palette of the varied trees and bushes just below the overlook that was difficult to see when the sun was glaring directly toward you. I remember using some pretty long exposures in the desert when it seemed it was almost dark, and the colors of the canyon walls were recorded as nothing less than astounding. Since there was barely a breeze, I thought to try the same technique here, and although difficult to see through the viewfinder in the gathering darkness, a small, moss covered tree stood out among all the other bushes there. I pushed the ISO to 400, rather than the usual ISO 100 to make sure the exposure wasn’t too long with a small enough aperture to maintain sharpness throughout the frame as much as possible (4-seconds @ f/16). And just as in the desert years ago, the colors were intensely recorded, the result looking much better on the back screen than through the almost completely dark viewfinder.
As other people packed up drifted away, I boiled some water for a hot freeze-dried camp meal, and by the time dinner was finished, it was almost completely dark. Stepping out of the car with my eyes adjusted, I could actually see the Milky Way! There was always the hope that I could, and brought along a portable, battery powered LED light panel to illuminate something of interest in the foreground of a shot, and found a nearby fir tree and some grasses to try it on, lighting them from both the left and right sides of the camera position. It was turned on for just a few seconds during the 25-second exposures, acting more like a strobe, with quite a few poorly lit frames until finally figuring out the correct amount of time to ptoperly light up the foreground. The camera was able to pick up the glow from what I believe was far away Cherokee, NC, as well as the Milky Way. Two of these were combined in separate layers in Photoshop using layer masks to add the missing illumination of the other frame.
I tried another tree after the first, but a very moist cloud quickly rolled in blocking the Milky Way, and leaving a thick layer of moisture on my gear. I took that as a sign that I should call it a day and began the drive back to the campground through intermittant fog, with one additional stop along the way. I had scouted a singular standing snag at another overlook nearer the campground, and hoped to use it in another Milky Way shot. But, the day’s shooting was truly over because the view did not line up with the stars to do so.
So all in all, a good afternoon of shooting that first day, which is generally somewhat more difficult, as my vision adjusts to seeing photographically. Normally, while at home, a scene may stand out for future photographic possibilities when conditions are right, but it is not the constant visual search for subjects as I drive along unfamiliar roads. So many images have come about after having been seen while driving, and turning back.
A friend of mine has the luxury of scouring for subjects as the passenger in the car, without the responsibility of keeping the car on the road. For her, she simply shouts, “STOP!!” Could that be the real reason behind the development of cars that drive themselves?