New Experiences At Grayson Highlands State Park

As I mentioned in my last post, I was fortunate enough to spend a week at my families cabin in the mountains of Virginia. Grayson Highlands State Park is less than 20 minuets away from the cabin, so you best believe that I visited it! My Dad's family actually used to own a portion of the land that became the park. You can still find a family graveyard in it's boundaries.

Over the week I was there I made multiple trips to the state park. On each trip I made sure to push my boundaries, and try some new things photographically. Despite my reservations I found that I really enjoyed everything I attempted, and now I have a few new skills!

Misty Morning

The first visit I made to Grayson Highlands was with my Dad. He is going on a big trip this fall, and I was helping him practice photography in preparation. I was unsure about teaching, but once we got started I stopped thinking and just enjoyed it.

We drove to the park early in the morning in hopes of catching the sun low over the mountains. As we drove higher up though, we found ourselves deep in a thick fog. It may not have been what we expected, but it was still stunningly beautiful. The fog added a heavy mood to the forest and gave us a lot to play with. 

As we experimented with different compositions and settings, I found myself re-affirming my skills as I put everything into words. Talking about why I was creating each image really helped me, as did explaining how I would make a photo of certain scenes he pointed out. I made some of my favorite photographs on that misty morning. I wasn't done with the park though, that's for sure.

A Stones Throw From the Appalachian Trail

Later in the week I came back with a trail map, and a plan. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park; thinking about how much I enjoyed hiking it in the Smokies, I wanted to take advantage of being so close and take on another section. 

My hike consisted of following the Rhododendron Trail to the Appalachian, following that along Wilburn Ridge, and then taking a spur back to the parking lot. It wasn't a long hike, but it was so cool! The temperature was perfect, the view was beautiful, and the rock formations where impressive. I don't think I could have asked for a better hike.

As I made my way back to the car I encountered some of Grayson Highlands local residents: a pack of wild ponies. I had seen them briefly the previous time I came to the park, but it was cool photographing them outside of the car.

Leaving the ponies behind, I set off towards my final trip of the day, the Twin Pinnacles trail. The path starts behind the park visitor center, and makes its way to two rocky out cropings called pinnacles: but I'll get into that trip later. As I prepared to leave the park for the final time, I bought a National Geographic topographic map of the area. Next time I  come to Virginia I'm going to plan a longer hike along the Appalachian Trail to the peak of Mount Rogers.

A New Film Experience

A few months back I made a big order of film, and among the stock that I ordered was some Fuji Provia 100f, which is a slide film. Unlike regular film which creates a negative of the image, slide film produces a positive color image. I've been nervous to use it because 1) I've heard you have to be super precise or the film looks funky, and  2) it's expensive! Expensive to buy, and to get it developed. Grayson Highlands is a stunning park though, so I decided to shoot a roll.

Because I knew the exposure had to be exact to turn out right, I hedged my bets and bracketed my exposures. It limited the number of unique shots I was able to take, but I got at least one exposure right for each image.

I enjoy shooting with film as it is, because it forces you to slow down and to be more considerate with your exposures. The precision needed when using slide film took this to the extreme, as I found myself being much more intentional with every scene, setting, and exposure than ever before. The final results were worth it too; the film has a very interesting look. 

A good exposure is sharp, has nice cool tones, contrast, and beautiful details. A bad exposure on the other hand... Well, I can see why you need to be precise. It was tough to expose properly for both the landscape and clouds, which is why I have a set of graduated filters. These filters are tinted on one half and help nock down the brightness of the sky allowing a perfect exposure in one go.

All in all I'm super glad that I gave the Provia a shot, and I look forward to using it again when the right opportunity presents itself.

Adding the Human Element

There was one other thing that I attempted while on that hike: including myself in some of my photographs. I'm not talking about a selfie, but instead I mean using myself as another element in the photograph. Including a person in your photograph adds scale to the image, and gives viewers a way to connect with the image. Not to mention people are great focal points.

It's kind of hard to do this type of photograph well. You need to find a setting that will work well with a person in it (i.e. where a person will improve the photo), it takes quite a bit of set up prior to taking the photo, and it may take several attempts to get the posing right. 

I haven't done this much in the past because I didn't have the right tool to do it, and I have to admit I felt kind of goofy posing for the photographs. Recently though, I got an intervalometer which allows you to automatically take a series of photos at a set interval. An intervalometer makes photographing myself much easier, so I decided to try this technique again.

For the first go, I wanted a photo of me hiking along the Appalachian Trail. To begin with, set up for the image involved finding a good angle of the scenery and taking a couple test shots. I ended up climbing a boulder to get the right angle for the shot I envisioned. Once I had a good scene established, I pulled out my tripod and arranging the shot, set the intervalometer's timer, and hit go. Then came the fun part of walking back and forth a handful of times in hopes that one of the photos catches me at the right moment!

The second take on the final trail I took. I hiked out to the first of the rocky overlooks, called Little Pinnacle. Set up for the shot was more or less the same, only this time I tried standing still, overlooking the mountains beyond. I ended up working on the image for about 45 minutes! It didn't feel like that much time had passed, but it goes to show how hard it can be to do this right.

I definitely got some silly shots, but ultimately I'm happy with the results. Because I took the time to learn this new skill, I've been able to use it since on some product shoots I've done.

Pushing Your Creativity

I could have stuck with what I knew while at Grayson Highlands State Park, and I still would have got some good images, but I wouldn't have grown any as an artist. Experimenting with new techniques, and styles allows us to push our boundaries, and truly improve our abilities as photographers.

When the opportunity to try something new presents itself, it's generally good advice to give it a chance. You may not like it, but you won't know until you move past your doubts and just go for it. At minimum you'll have knowledge and a new skill. And who knows, you may just find a new favorite style of shooting.