My Morning in the Mountains

There are some things I love to photograph. But because I can get pretty busy my work it sometimes keeps me from going out to photograph the things I love to shoot. For example, I love shooting long exposure shots late at night and early in the morning. I also love to shoot sunrises and sunsets, especially in really cool scenic locations. I’m a pretty lucky person because where I live in Northern Virginia offers me some incredible opportunities to see and photograph everything from the capital city to some incredible National Parks.

After long months of working exclusively on client projects I found myself caught up and I had a little time for myself. I thought very seriously about taking a break from my camera and laptop computer. And then I remembered something my friend, Gene, recently told me. He said that I needed to start getting away from all of the flash shots and spending so much time in Photoshop. He said that I needed to go out with a camera and get back to basics. In other words, get back to what brought me into the world of photography in the first place.

This blog entry will talk about how I took Gene’s advice and I did something I haven’t done in a very long time.

Fall arrived in northern Virginia and the leaves were already very colorful. The colors of fall don’t last long so I decided to get out to see if I could capture some of the beauty that exists right in my back yard. That idea of shooting some fall colors quickly turned into a bigger plan that involved the Shenandoah National Park and the scenic overlooks from up in the mountains. I began planning and researching an early morning shoot to see if I could capture a sunrise and then stick around to shoot some fall colors.

Making a Plan

I love the National Parks and I’m lucky to live so close to one in Northern Virginia. The Shenandoah National Park is located in a huge mountain range and it features a road called Skyline Drive that takes you from one end of the park to the other. I’ve been to the Shenandoah National Park plenty of times and I love it so much that I bought an annual pass. All along the road there are scenic overlooks that offer some incredible views. I began planning a trip to photograph fall colors in the park by going back and looking at shots I’ve captured during a previous visit. Here’s a look at one of the scenic overlooks that I captured earlier this year:

And here’s a look at the view from this scenic overlook:

From the above shots you can see that it was mid-summer so everything was super green. I instantly knew when I looked at my older pictures that the Shenandoah would provide some awesome fall colors. My only concern was that because of the cooler temperatures at the higher altitude the leaves would already have fallen off. But that slight concern wasn’t enough to deter me from going. My plan was starting to come together.

I went online and figured out when civil twilight began and the exact time that the sun would rise. My favorite source for sunrise and sunset times is the U.S. Navel Observatory website. I can remember when I used to have to buy a newspaper to figure out sunrise and sunset times. The information we can easily find on the internet today is just incredible.

I now had some location ideas and I knew that civil twilight would start around 7:00am with a sunrise time of 7:30am. Because I would be up in the mountains I added a half an hour to the front of those times to be safe. I decided to arrive as close to 5:30am as I could (to gave me some extra time for traffic and for setting up) so I calculated my drive time to the park and how long it would take to drive to one of the east facing overlooks. It was looking like my alarm would be going off at 4:00am.

Arriving at the Park

When my 4:00am alarm went off I was up and ready to go. For some reason I’m able to function very well on almost no sleep and in very high stress situations. This strange ability served me well when I was a service technician (on 24-hour emergency call to some very important control room video installations) back in Michigan. I quickly packed up my car and programmed my GPS and hit the road for the Shenandoah as fast as possible.

The trip took me about 45 minutes (even though GPS said it was a 30 minute trip). The reason for this is because I live out in the country and there’s a lot of dark winding roads (and there’s always lot of deer out wandering at night). As a side note – I’m glad I was driving away from Washington DC because even at that early hour I could see a whole lot of traffic heading into the nations capital.

Once I arrived at the park entrance I began the long drive up into the mountains. I was still driving at a reduced speed because of all the animals out wandering across the roads of the park. I passed lots of west facing overlooks as I climbed up to the higher elevations but I knew that looking west wasn’t going to give me the view of the sunrise I was looking for. When I finally found an east facing overlook I stopped, stepped out of my car and I took in the view from over 2,500 ft. elevation. It was absolutely breathtaking. And it was incredibly quiet.

The higher elevation gave me an unbelievable view of the valley below. Even though I arrived before the start of civil twilight (according to the US Navel Observatory website) I could clearly see plenty of color from the sun that wouldn’t rise for over an hour.

What I liked the most was how I could see so much of the valley below (because of the city lights) and how it transitioned through the colors of civil twilight and above all of that there was nothing but dark blue sky filled with stars. I quickly set up my tripod, mounted my camera and I began experimenting with different exposure times to see if I could capture some of the beauty that surrounded me.

After a few experiments I found that I was capturing usable light on my foreground with shutter speed settings around 4-5 minutes long. The only problem I was having with such long shutter speeds was the stars changing their position in my frame as the Earth rotated. My stars were leaving trails and I’m just not used to having to photograph stars (with my in-the-city long exposure shots). I tried a bunch of different settings and I learned as much as I could in my first hour of shooting.

Shooting Sunrise

Off in the distance I could see the sun was getting closer to cresting the horizon. This meant that I had to stop playing with my long exposure shots of the stars and begin setting up to capture the sunrise. Since I had been at that same location for over an hour I decided to get back in my car and try to find a different east facing lookout. When I arrived at the next lookout I broke out my tripod and got ready to capture the rising of the sun and the valley below. Here’s what it looked like as the sun began to rise:

My wide angle lens (28mm) doesn’t really tell the story of how big and red the sun looked as it came up. I was loving the incredibly vibrant colors close to the horizon and how above that I could still see a dark blue sky. It was still too dark up in the mountain to see any fall colors but that would change soon enough.

Fall Colors

With the sun fully in the sky it was definitely golden hour. I captured a number of shots that included the sun as well as some shots without the sun. My favorites happend to be the ones with the sun in it like this shot:

With so much dynamic range (from the brightness of the sun to the darkness of the shadows below the nearby trees) I captured bracketed sets. Capturing bracketed sets of images (-2EV, 0EV, +2EV) gave me the flexibility to see if I preferred an over-exposed look, a properly exposed look, an under-exposed look. And if I didn’t like any of the single shots I could always merge different exposure shots together with layer blending or HDR toning. The above image is a merged HDR that I tone-mapped in Lightroom 4 and finished in Photoshop.

After capturing some sunrise shots I turned my camera to the colors that surrounded me. Here’s a couple of shots of the mountain side I took before golden hour ended:

Wrapping Up

It didn’t take long before the colored light of golden hour began fading so I decided to pack up and head home. I had about an hour drive ahead of me and I was eager to begin offloading my memory cards to see what I captured.

It was about this time that I started to see cars on Skyline Drive. I felt fortunate to have had so much time by myself and I knew that I captured some unique shots from people who didn’t start as early as I did.

So I left the park and I immediately started thinking about what I saw and how I could do things differently if I came back. It didn’t take me long to decide that I’d be returning the next morning (but even earlier). I knew that with a few changes I could capture even better shots of the stars I saw when I first arrived. In the end I was happy that my good friend, Gene, gave me the advice he did. Getting out and just shooting for myself was exactly what I needed.

Be sure to check back for my next blog entry when I’ll write about my return to the Shenandoah Mountains.


3 thoughts on “My Morning in the Mountains

  1. Wow, Monico, you got some really beautiful shots in this series. And, as always, I enjoyed the narrative that went along with them describing the trip, the shoot, and the processing.

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