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Anatomy Of An Image

I wish I could sit here and tell you that the majority of my work is the product of well-thought-out planning, superior knowledge and cunning skill.

But oh no.

It's more akin to what musician Bill Bruford once said about his forays into electronic percussion:

"I'm here to tell you it's one constant amateurish shambles from start to finish."

To be sure, I know all "the spots," the locations near home with all the elements that make great landscape images possible. I take mental notes, I see where light plays off ridges and how sun angles affect what I want to do. I pay attention to weather patterns, temperatures, sunrise and sunset times, as well as keeping an ever present eye on the sky - I'm part meteorologist, part photographer most days. I have a good enough cursory knowledge of the cameras I use, which are both professional models (albeit much older ones). I have good enough technique to pull off the shots I want in most situations.

Oh, but there's so much I don't know, haven't mastered, or have yet to learn. And it's there that I typically run into the unholy "desperation/inspiration/perspiration" trinity - I'll be out and about, outside my comfort zone and outside of my local knowledge, desperate to get something useful, finding myself inspired once I stumble onto something; then sweating out the details of pulling the shot off.

And I'm really good at stumbling, by the way - highly skilled, even - but I digress.....

I'd been suffering a severe case of cabin fever after Maggie Valley got pounded with more than a foot of snow over the weekend. I spent a small part of Friday trying to hike and shoot in the heavy snow, a brief but fruitless venture. I sure wasn't going to dig my poor Honda Civic out from under the endless deluge and try to drive - as my boss at work told me that morning, "Do not attempt!" Saturday was slightly better - I managed to dig out and explore close to home, but the roads were still awful, and since the tires on the Civic were more like racing slicks than snow tires.....I didn't push my luck.

(Note to self: get new tires. Just sayin.')

After a make-up workday Sunday, Monday finally provided the opportunity to escape and try to salvage something. Again I set my sights on Grandfather Mountain (as I had a week earlier - see my blog "Chasing Winter") in hopes of getting a snowy shot of the familiar landmark, and maybe sneak in the upper portion of Linville Falls as well, as the road there was passable. I knew I was not going to be able to access Linville Gorge proper with the snow pack on those winding access roads, as I still might be stuck on the mountain had I attempted that drive with the Civic. Another "do not attempt!" scenario.

(Note to self: scrap the tires, sell the Civic. Buy a 4x4. As long as it's a Honda.)

The sun was out when I arrived mid-afternoon, melting a good portion of the snow on Grandfather, so that was out. The nearby Blue Ridge Parkway was out of the sunlight and still covered in snow, so I continued north on US Highway 221, which closely parallels the Parkway, albeit at a slightly lower elevation - but also with virtually no overlooks or pullovers, at least pullovers that were snow-free.

Highway 221 made another junction with the Parkway some ten miles up the road from Grandfather Mountain near Blowing Rock; this time I could access a snow-free spot to park so I could hike a little on the barricaded Parkway, not really knowing what I'd find, since I'd never really explored this area - more of that "lack of local knowledge/desperation" thing.

Being around 3:30, with only two hours of daylight left, and not having taken a single image after driving 110 miles from home, desperation was indeed the order of the moment. I noticed a sign leading to Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, a place I'd heard of but never seen, so I strapped on my camera bag and began the short hike to the park. Something had to be photo-worthy there, right?

About a mile up from the barricade, I came upon the park, a huge 3,500 acre tract that is intersected by the Parkway and features carriage trails for horseback riding and hiking, plus Flat Top Manor, the sprawling 13,000 square foot mansion owned by Moses H Cone and is the centerpiece of the property.

If the snow hadn't melted around the mansion, perhaps I'd have given that a shot or two, but as such I never paid it much attention. Instead, I walked the grounds, the snow still ankle-deep in places, trying to find that magic photo-worthy moment. I stood atop an overpass on the Parkway, using a wide angle lens to capture the snow-covered open field and big sky:

Nice, but not really something worthy of the portfolio. Just a nice snapshot.

I decided to have a look at the tunnel beneath the overpass, and that's when things got interesting, especially the ornate stone design of the tunnel itself.

So how was I going to approach this, now that I had something of interest beyond my standard wide-angle vista?

I tried a shot of the tunnel from the outside, emphasizing the snowy slopes surrounding it and its lovely stone design:

Meh. Had the sky been more interesting this might have worked. So I walked inside the tunnel. And it was there that things finally took shape. I tried a wide angle shot from inside:

Too much tunnel, not enough landscape. Lots of wasted space on either side, which could be cropped out, but the snow pack in front takes up tons of space as well. It needed to be more balanced, so I decided to do a crop of this image in camera, and this is how it looked, a JPEG straight out of my Nikon D2X:

A-ha! Now we're on to something. Better balanced, more depth, and more of an emphsasis on the landscape, with the tunnel framing everything nicely. Keep in mind I did this crop as I was walking away from the scene. It didn't occur to me until I nearly got back to my car that I needed to go back and get a better shot of this, zoomed in. I could have lived with this crop from the larger image, but the image size would have made getting larger prints from it impossible. It was barely a 5 megapixel image after all my cropping.

I sometimes joke that God's nickname for me is "Hey Dummy," because admittedly, I can be a little.......dense on occasion. And it was as I nearly got back to my car that I realized it was one of those "Hey Dummy" scenarios:

"Hey Dummy, aren't you going to go back and get a better version of this shot?!?!?"

I did go back of course, making a toe hold in the thick snow to step on the left side of the hill of the tunnel entrance, then lying sideways on the snowy hill to better fit the trees into the image, using the tunnel outline to frame everything. I changed cameras too - because my old D2X, as good as it is, has a smaller image sensor and is limited in what it can do in certain scenarios. I pulled out my Nikon D700 instead, which has a larger, full frame sensor and is more versatile in low light and situations where I need maximum depth of field. Because where I lay was the best spot - really, the only spot - in which to frame everything effectively, I knew that with my focal distance, even "stopped down" to a smaller aperture, the tunnel outline would not be completely sharp and in focus. By now, my vision for the shot only emphasized the tunnel as a frame for the rest of the scene, so I could live with the tunnel not being totally sharp. Trying to use a tripod here was impractical, as I was lying on my side, trying to fit the distant landscape into the "frame" of the tunnel, so the shots were handheld. Having the D700's low light capability also gave me a faster shutter speed to eliminate blur, and to compensate for my very shaky hands.

I snapped a couple of images with the D700, made my way back home, developed them on Adobe Camera RAW, adjusting highlights, shadows, clarity, color, contrast, luminance, and vibrance; then to Photoshop for light sharpening to help the outline of the tunnel; then finally to Lightroom, where I chose the best image and decided to "burn" the edges around the tunnel, darkening them so that they would not distract the viewer away from the lovely landscape it was framing. And the final product:

Voila! Desperation paid off this time, with a nicely composed, balanced image with nice depth and interesting elements. It took a lot of trial and error to get there, but I got there. I am learning as I go, and getting better with each shot; to where perhaps soon these things will occur to me more naturally rather than the sometimes haphazard way I go about them.

But then again, flying by the seat of my pants (which seems to be the way I go about life in general) seems to be more fun. Oh, when I fail, I do so spectacularly; but when I do stumble on to the right thing, the rewards are far greater.

Really though, more often than not, I've found that God leads me to the places where images like this are possible, despite myself - but only when I yield, when I trust, and when I acknowledge that my frantic style of going about things is never too much for Him to handle. His soveriegn nature is greater than my humanness. He somehow always works it out. I may not end up where I want to go, but I always end up being where I need to be.

(Note to self: keep trusting Him.)

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