Off The Grid

Rocks and lichen, Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia - Canon 5D Mark III

Kathy & I spent the Easter weekend in Shenandoah National Park, meeting up with our good friends Bill and Cathy from Ohio.  We stayed at Skyland – which they now call “Skyland Resort,” presumably to appeal to the upscale Washingtonians – that is actually an historic mountain lodge operated for the National Park Service by Aramark.  The rooms are rather rustic, but the restaurant is decent and reasonably priced.  It’s a beautiful location for a weekend or a week, as it is one of only two lodges in the park, and the only one open this time of year.  Big Meadows Lodge is our favorite, but it doesn’t open for the season until May.  There are miles of hiking trails accessible from right at Skyland or within an easy drive.

Kathy & I have stayed at either Skyland or Big Meadows numerous times over the years, and I traveled there with my family when I was a kid.  I have numerous fond memories of the place from all of our visits there.  One of the things we have always liked the most is that once you are in the park you have always been pretty much removed from civilization.  At the lodges there are no room phones, most of the rooms don’t have televisions and until recently the cell phone coverage was non-existent.  Both lodges have managed to add wireless internet in the main buildings, but there is no coverage in the rooms and cabins.  For many this is a huge inconvenience, and I saw a number of people schlepping their iPads and laptops to the dining room at meal time, but it was exactly what I hoped for.  Kathy refers to this as being “off the grid.”  I call it the way to take a vacation!

Spring color along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia - Canon 5D Mark III

I made sure that my iPad had plenty of reading material on it – not a problem since I have managed to accumulate quite a backlog – and spent the entire 5 days in “Airplane Mode.”  I did have my phone with me, so I was able to get my e-mail when I wanted it, but since most of the places we went either didn’t have cellphone coverage or were places I wouldn’t want to be talking on the phone anyway, I just left the phone off until we got back to the room.  I left the laptop at home, figuring that I had plenty of memory cards and knowing that I wouldn’t be taking the time to work on any photos.  I spent some time reading some technical papers on some of the new features of my camera, as well as looking through the manual for things I might have missed.  Interesting stuff, right?  Scoff if you will, but there is sometimes some good information to be found in the manual!

View of Skyland Resort from Stony Man Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia - 5D Mark III

This wasn’t a photography weekend per se, as it was arranged as a way to meet up with our friends, Shenandoah being about equidistant for both of us.  But being a guy with a new camera there was a fair amount of photography to be done.  I didn’t get up early or stay out until sunset, and for the most part the skies were crystal clear blue and it was very windy, so it was not ideal for the kind of shooting I usually do, but I did manage to put a few shots on the new gear.

When I got the new camera, my first shooting opportunities involved conditions that allowed me to try out the stratospheric ISO capabilities, so for this trip it was nice to slow down into a “normal” ISO range of 100 or 400.  I used the tripod for a few shots but mostly carried the camera and a single lens while we hiked, shooting random nature shots along the trail.  I also carried the X10 for a few shorter hikes, since it is ideal for those times when I don’t want to carry a bunch of gear but want to have a camera with me.

Gnarly tree, Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia - 5D Mark III

Most of all, the weekend provided me some time to get familiar with some of the basic functions of the camera.  It’s got a new (to me) focusing system and a few new controls to get used to.  It’s actually pretty intuitive, since I am familiar with the Canon menu layout from my previous cameras.  I got used to it pretty quickly and now feel like I am almost to the point where I can use it as intuitively as my older cameras.  While the new 5D has some interesting new features, I tended to stick to the basics, preferring to learn how to use it in “regular camera mode.”  There will eventually be plenty of time for playing around with the in-camera HDR, multiple exposures and picture styles, but for starters I just want to be sure I know how to take pictures with it!

Early spring along the Rapidan Fire Road in the Big Meadows area of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia - Fuji X10

Now that I am back to “reality” I have been working on trying to get up to speed on processing the files in Lightroom 4.  I’m finding that a lighter touch is required in the new process version in general, and while the files from the 5D are very nice, I am trying to figure out how to get the new process version set up to produce files that look the way I want them to look and that I am happy with.  All of my old presets are essentially obsolete, and simply duplicating the settings from the old version end up way too contrasty, oversaturated and – interestingly – too dark.  I’ve been playing around with a custom Tone Curve that, when combined with some other settings, tends to get the files back to where I want them.  I don’t think it’s a matter of the camera underexposing the files as much as it is just that the standard settings are somehow darkening the files, especially in the mid-tones.  I haven’t had a lot of time to search the usual message boards, so I don’t know if this is just me or if it is a common issue.  It’s probably me.

Anyway, I’m back in gear for a few weeks, getting ready for the next big adventure.  By then I expect to have my workflow up to speed with all of the “bugs” worked out of my processing.  I’m teaching a Lightroom class on May 5, so I definitely need to be up to speed on Lightroom 4 by then.  I think a little more work will just about get me there.

Wood grain in a fallen log on Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia - Canon 5D Mark III

3 thoughts on “Off The Grid”

  1. Welcome back! I just mentioned you in my blog post, yesterday – Unplugging – How much? 🙂 Good to hear that you had a great time.

  2. Tom, except for that second photo it still looks much like winter up there — perhaps a little spring green in the third one as well. I assume you’re shooting in RAW — could there may be some difference in the RAW files that may be throwing off the levels in your preset? Also LR 4.0.1 is out in Beta with many fixes. You may see some difference after it’s officially released. I hope they increase the speed a little.

    Your trip sounded like a good time to me — even being off the grid. 🙂

    1. Hi Earl, thanks. The photo with all the green was taken at a lower elevation and well south of Shenandoah National Park, along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The elevation at SNP was quite a bit higher (Hawksbill is 4050 feet, Stony Man is 4011 feet) and it was surprising how far behind spring was there.

      I am shooting RAW and using LR 4.0.1RC which was required to process the RAW files from the camera. My PV 2010 presets are essentially obsolete in the new version, so I’ve been working without them to determine what kind of settings I need for the new process version. I have a “test” preset I’ve been working with and I did use one of the LR “canned” presets as a starting point, so when I get a chance I need to dig into it to see if I missed something, like a point curve or something I overlooked. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to work with it over the weekend – and take some more photos – and see what I can work out.

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