In Search of Color and Light

Beginning in late Autumn, after all the leaves have fallen, opportunities for colorful nature photos nearly dry up. Trees become grey skeletons and the forest floor is blanketed in drab brown. This is how it will look for about six months. The winter snows will provide a little visual interest and simplify the cluttered brown landscape, but without it, I struggle to find subjects and scenes to photograph until spring. I'll be shooting a lot of black and white for the next few months. Another challenge of late has been the thick smoke from wildfires in Lake Lure. Even though the fires that have been raging there for weeks now are a hundred miles from my home, the smoke has been carried north, making it difficult to breath outdoors (especially at high altitudes). I hope the fires are put out soon so that the residents (both human and animal) of the Great Smokies can continue living their lives with fresh air and clean lungs.

Golden Sunset at Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Golden Sunset at Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

In this dry and brown season of wildfires and sparse photographic opportunities, I have to seize any chance to make a decent nature image. The smoke let up on the same evening that the "super moon" was forecast to be at its most magnificent. I decided to to head out to Price Lake for sunset, knowing that I could shoot the sun setting behind Grandfather Mountain from the eastern bank and then head over to the western shore for moon rise. I arrived at the lake just before the sky lit up with vibrant golden hues above the mountain. I hiked through the thick-rhododendron lined trail and set up on a rocky bank where I had a great view of Grandfather's profile. The sun was setting directly behind the tallest peak. Perfect. There was a bit of wind and waves, but the reflection of the sunset and colors on the lake was very clear. I took a couple exposures while the light was golden. Then, some clouds formed over the mountain, and as the sun receded bellow the peak, the color shifted to pinkish hues. In just a few minutes the scene had changed feeling dramatically. It was like a completely different sunset as yellow, orange, and navy were replaced by pink and purple. I managed a few more shots at the very edge of the lake (with one tripod leg in the water) before the sky faded to grey. I needed more interest in the foreground, so I got as low as I could at the edge of the lake without hopping into the frigid water to include a bush that had a few leaves left on it. The bush provides the graphic element that I think the photo needs. To achieve maximum depth of field I shot at f/22. I used a wide angle lens on my full frame camera. No filters were needed for this sunset shoot.

Pink Sunset at Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Pink Sunset at Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

I packed up and made it out of the woods and back to my car just before it became too dark to see. I then drove over to the other side of the lake to find a dozen photographers already set up on the bank to shoot the moon. I was surprised to see so many photographers there waiting for the moon, but none had been on the other side of the lake for sunset. How was I the only person, out of all these photographers, that decided to shoot the awesome sunset that evening at Price Lake? I thought to myself, "this moon must be a pretty big deal!" I squeezed into a spot between some fellow shooters and made the obligatory small talk. I didn't get the impression that many of them had come together. Maybe they came up from Lake Lure to escape the smoke... I'd never seen this many photographers on the lake at once before, so I assumed that I was in for a treat when the moon came over the hill. I pointed my 70-200mm (on a tripod of course) in the direction that the moon was supposed to rise. Then I waited. And waited.

It got colder...and windier. Then someone yelled (I kid you not - they actually yelled), "here it comes!" The click and clack of camera shutters began firing immediately even before the moon actually rose over the trees. It sounded like a firing squad. I thought, "are we trying to blow holes in it?" "Is this some race to find out who can get the shot quickest?" I heard some moans and groans as a few of them realized their exposure settings were way off or that they had not actually focused on the moon. Then, things calmed down a bit. They seemed to realize that they needed to stop and think a minute to calculate exposure for such a tricky scene. I thought about not even making a picture at all. The moon was beautiful and full and orange, but not as spectacular as the media made it seem it was going to be (the sunset before it was better). At the equivalent of 300mm (using a DX crop sensor camera and 70-200mm) the "super moon" was still a small speck in my viewfinder. I then decided to make a few short video clips of what I felt was the most interesting feature of the moon rise; the moon's rippling reflection on the lake surface. After taking a few minutes to do that, I walked up the bank and into the parking lot. Then, I noticed something that finally looked promising. There were a few leaves left on a huge maple tree at the lake edge. To pull the shot off the way I would have liked required about 600mm to fill the frame, but the 300mm equivalent would just have to do. I placed the leaves in front of the out of focus moon to silhouette them. It's very simple and has a zen quality to it. The resulting image, cropped to a one -to-one ratio, almost looks more like graphic art than photography. I like it. After making that exposure and a few more video clips of the same scene, I was pretty satisfied. If nothing else, I have a few good exposures of a great sunset over a lake and mountains.

"Super Moon" and Maple Leaves, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

"Super Moon" and Maple Leaves, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

None of the other photographers seemed to notice that they could put something interesting in front of the moon (like I did with the maple leaves). They were all content with standing in one spot on the bank trying to make the same picture as everyone else. Because no one else had anything longer than a 70-200mm either, I doubt they got the shot they wanted. The sky was completely black except for the bright moon, which was much farther away than expected. Most of the dozen had fancier and newer equipment than I do. That kind of thing always surprises me. People spend a ton of money on gear and don't bother moving it around. Some folks seem to think that wherever they first plant their tripod is the magic spot, and it can't be moved. I also noticed this a couple months ago when I was shooting the sunrise on the Blue Ridge Parkway with those two other guys (who had brand new Canon 1D X cameras and top of the line "L" glass). They planted their tripods and stayed there...never moved! They never walked around to find a better perspective or more interesting way to frame the subject. Tripods have adjustable legs for a reason! You don't have to shoot at eye-level all the time! Also, what are the chances that you're just going to happen to walk up to the absolute perfect spot from which to shoot a scene? I'd say almost none. If you ever see me out shooting, notice I rarely ever stay in one spot for too long and very rarely do I set up my tripod at eye-level. It's just not typically where the best images come from in my experience. Use your legs; walk around and really work a scene. You'll be surprised how much that little tip can improve your photography.