We had an interesting experience this past weekend that has gotten me to thinking. Usually when we head to a location I have a general idea of the places I am going to go, and I come up with some ideas of the types of things we are going to try to shoot based on what my notes or my research tell me about a place, with lots of flexibility built in for serendipity and opportunity. Certain locations lend themselves to specific subjects, such as colors reflected in pools of water along a river or stream, agricultural vistas, layers of mountain ridges, etc. There’s often a dilemma about sunrise or sunset, because often the good locations for sunrise and sunset are mutually exclusive of places that might have other characteristics, such as waterfalls and places with easy access to water, etc.
Such was the case this past weekend. Pounding Mill Overlook is unsurpassed for a sunrise location near Brevard, and Cowee Mountains Overlook is the absolute tops for sunset this time of the year. Pounding Mill is a 30-minute drive from Brevard, not bad, but it is also 30-minutes or more back down to the good spots for water. That section of the Parkway has a high potential for dramatic atmospherics under certain conditions. This past Saturday was a typically excellent Pounding Mill morning, with clouds and fog in the valley and a clear sky above, enough wind to move the clouds around the ridges, over some of the lower ones and just generally keeping things interesting. Sun comes up, shoot the contours and textures, wait to see what happens, clouds roll in and that’s it. Socked in. Now what? Stay and see what happens? Head down to the valley and see if the fog is thin enough to get some dreamy color but not so thick that you can’t see? Drive up and down the Parkway looking for that perfect scene? Tough choice.
I was with a group, which is not usually the case, but it was only four cars and individuals that I have come to know as flexible and easy going, instead of the manic-panic-gotta-drive-until-I-find-the-perfect-place-even-if-it-means-racing-around-like-a-maniac-until-dark-and-never-getting-any-pictures types. These are probably the same people who drive 10 minutes out of their way to avoid a 5 minute traffic jam (topic for another essay – people who are always in a hurry but never get anywhere and still are always late). Oops, digression! We decided that our best bet would be to head to either a lower elevation or a higher elevation, knowing that lower would maybe get us soft, diffused light but that higher would maybe get us dramatic clouds in the valleys. A just-right elevation would maybe get us the best of both, with clouds rolling in and out, creating a soft light then revealing a dramatic valley.
As happens way too often on the Parkway, we headed south and in the first mile passed a number of beautiful scenes that were nowhere close to an overlook and had no possible safe parking for a group of 4 cars. We passed from lovely views of the valley to shafts of sunlight blasting through the fog. We ended up stopping at Cherry Cove Overlook, which was socked in at the time, to discuss our options. While we were standing around talking about what to do next, the clouds rolled out to reveal a stunning view of the valley below. Once in a while the fog would be the perfect thickness for beams and sunbursts. A few minutes later the clouds rolled out again. Hmm, interesting. Finally someone (it might have been me) pulled out a camera, which of course caused the clouds to roll back in, creating a soft fog that muted the contrast and made for a dreamy fall scene. More cameras come out, one of our group spotted a chipmunk and started stalking it. I spotted a place where the sunbeams blasted through pinholes in the trees and created some amazing starbursts. A couple of us headed up a trail to see if we could find a better view and ended up with some nice isolation scenics. We ended up there for over three hours! All from a place we “just stopped” to regroup.
The lesson for me is one that I continue to learn and that bears repeating and reinforcement. The best way to see is with a camera in hand, contemplating a scene, the light, the conditions. While it’s possible to stumble across a scene while driving down the road, it’s a lot easier to see when you stop and take the time to look. Otherwise you’re just trophy-hunting. That works fine for a lot of people and I’ll admit to doing my share. But for me, the best way to approach a scene creatively is to stop, let it speak to you and listen to what it has to say. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for me landscape photography is about engaging with a scene, seeing what’s there and responding to it. I’m ultimately a lot happier working with what is in front of me that worrying about where else I might be and what else I might be missing. I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t be everywhere, I’m always missing something, that I don’t always make the best guess. I’m ok with that. And I think I am a lot better off for it. I certainly seem to come away from those days happier with me, and am in most cases happier with my results.
The photo is a shot of Looking Glass Rock and was taken pre-sunrise from Pounding Mill Overlook.