Behind the Image: Autumn Color on Grandfather Mountain

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and last only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

Autumn Color at Sunset on Grandfather Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, 18-35G @ 18mm, Gitzo tripod, Polarizer & 3-stop Graduated ND, f13, ISO 200, 1/6 sec)

Autumn Color at Sunset on Grandfather Mountain, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, 18-35G @ 18mm, Gitzo tripod, Polarizer & 3-stop Graduated ND, f13, ISO 200, 1/6 sec)

I was buried in images from my trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors here in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possible decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain-  opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain. I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. I'm pretty happy with it. Now, only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain are brown and nearly bare. Soon the landscape will be virtually colorless until spring.

 "Nature always wears the colors of the spirit."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson