General Thoughts
Clearing Storm — Jordan Lake, NC 8-21-16_HDR

Clearing Storm — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

“Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity”…Seneca


When it comes to landscape photography, preparation can be as important as technical know-how. Although preparation may increase your chances for being at the right place at the right time, there is no guaranteed success while you also have to remain flexible, adapting to differing conditions and continue to have an open mind for the unexpected opportunities that fall in front of you. Preparation can also simply mean familiarity with a particular location.

The other day that came into play when I was able to photograph the scene above. It was well after dinner with a mild thunderstorm rolling through when I saw some sunlight hitting a neighbor’s house. Well, that usually means there’s a rainbow somewhere out there and sure enough, when I went out to look, it was just forming with a very faint second one as well! I grabbed my gear and ran out the door knowing my chances of capturing something were slim since only twenty minutes remained until sunset, and even then, only if the rainbow remained visible since it would certainly disappear when the light was gone. But being familiar with nearby Jordan Lake, I knew I could get to a bridge with good views both east and west in about 12 minutes to have the best chance at success. When I arrived, there were plenty of folks parked along the bridge as it must have been a beautiful sight. I took a handheld quick burst of bracketed exposures but I was a bit too late, the rainbow in the east barely visible as seen below.

Missed Rainbow Jordan Lake SUNSET 8-21-16-1_HDR

Missed Rainbow — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Note— The image above was processed in HDR (High Dynamic Range) software and a few minor adjustments in Lightroom. However, I do realize that there is some haloing above the trees, but it was not corrected to illustrate that not all processing ends up clean, unless you work on it to make it so. But that was not done here because of the poor quality of the image itself.

As I got the tripod out and set up my split neutral density filter in hopes of a good sunset, I noticed part of the rainbow reappearing and a few low clouds were beginning to catch the very last rays of light! I knew this wouldn’t last long because the sun was already on the horizon, so I quickly set up just to grab a few more bracketed shots, not even caring much about the proper composition. I just wanted to get it on the memory card (film) and worry about compositional aesthetics later. As it turned out, the upper right corner had two power lines going diagonally across, but they were eliminated easily in Photoshop after running the brackets through some HDR software. Some tweaking in Lightroom (I actually reduced the saturation of the sky!), and it was done.

Clearing Storm at Sunset — Jordan Lake, NC

Clearing Storm at Sunset — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Back over to the west side of the bridge showed why the sunset was so red. I’m pretty sure I recall reading in Galen Rowell’s book Mountain Light, that during every sunset or sunrise, the earth’s atmosphere elIminates most of the longer blue wavelengths of the light spectrum, allowing mostly the shorter red wavelengths getting through. This is intensified when there is only a thin opening in the cloudcover along the horizon.

Sometimes, all the research and preparation possible plays an important role in success. But very often, it’s the familiarity of going to a location more than once that influences your success, because rarely do you capture the best shot on the first attempt. In a post a few months ago, I described the almost exact same scenario played out when I did capture a double rainbow at the same location. And having had that experience certainly helped in getting this one. Click Here to go to that post. But the double rainbow that day did not have the dramatic clouds as it did this day.

When preparing for a one-time shoot or a photographic trip, preparations can begin weeks, or even months in advance. Since my photographic day usually begins with a sunrise, research begins by determining when the sun will rise. Using the app LunaSolCal gives me all the info I need for any future or past date at almost any location on earth including the compass heading of where on the horizon it will occur. It also provides information on daily moonrise/moonset times, compass headings as well as the moon phase. If shooting along the coast, TideDataFree is helpful in knowing the ocean’s high or low tides, and in some locations this may be vitally important for your safety. Both TideData and the LunaSolCal and a compass app are all on my phone for easy access out in the field. Incidentally, sunrise/set is not the same time everywhere; there is almost 1/2-hour difference from North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the east to the western mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway, even though they’re in the same time zone. A visit to The Photographer’s Ephemeris on the web lets you see how the direction of the sunrise/set and moonrise/set will play out on a map in relation to your chosen destination or subject (lake, mountain, building, statue, etc). Then on to Google to search for “photographs of…” for a bit of pre-visualization and recognizability. Sometimes, these photos will contain links to local professional photographer web sites that provide clues to locations and about where the sun is during a particular time of year. And Google maps can give you directions and driving times to get you there in plenty of time. If there are any hikes involved to get to a particular location, that needs to be researched as well. is a good resource and I’m sure there  are many others depending on location.

After you’ve determined where and when you need to be, it’s always a good idea to get to your destination well before you want to begin shooting. This helps to slow down a bit (instead of a last minute rush) and spend some time to find interesting foreground elements or other features you might incorporate into your images, so when the light begins and is changing fast, you know immediately what’s available and where to set up next after your initial composition. Ideally, scouting a sunrise location the day before is a great idea if you have the time. Prior to arrival, I’m already thinking about what lens is needed on the camera, the need for a polarizer or the addition of a split neutral density filter. Once at the location for sunrise, in the pre-dawn light I find a spot, set up and wait. But I utilize any time before the “show” begins continually walking around to see if there is a spot that’s a bit better. Is the surf moving in a better direction over here? is there a better rock formation there? if I move a bit right or left, is there some kind of S-curve in the features leading off into the distance I can use? Where will I put the horizon? If the sky is the star of the show, meaning there are clouds with the potential to catch some color, then the horizon will probably be low. But, if there are no clouds, it’s probably going to be high in the frame or eliminated completely if possible.

But generally speaking, beginning with first light and continuing until the sun rises and the brilliant colors begin to fade, it’s all about the broad landscape. After the light changes from those beautiful first colors to a warm light, I search for some smaller, more intimate scenes. Maybe an area where the light rakes across an interesting element, or where there’s a combination of warm light and cool blue shadows. Maybe a spot completely in shade for more even light such as a waterfall or cascading stream. As the sun rises a bit more, broad scenes may be in play again as the light gets into more of the recesses that were previously in shade giving a more three-dimensional look to the scene while side-lighting at that time can help immensely. Backlighting can work as well, especially if looking down upon receding ridge lines or using some backlit leaves against an opposite valley wall that’s in shade in this instance, creating a wide range of light from bright to almost black. For backlit leaves, reducing your exposure at least one-stop from the meter reading helps keep the background dark. Trying the opposite of a foreground in shade and the opposite valley in sunlight can work as well.

If you’re on a photo trip, the middle part of the day can be spent doing additional research, scouting more locations for sunset or tomorrow’s sunrise, or visiting historical sites or places of architectural interest. Resting can be a good thing as well. Getting a short nap can recharge the batteries for the coming end of the day sunset shoot and possible Milky Way or nighttime cityscapes afterward. But somewhere during your day, the inconvenience of setting aside time for eating and sleeping does become necessary.

Or maybe not!


General Thoughts

Memorial Auditorium — Downtown Raleigh, NC © jj raia

Generally speaking, when you see something you want to photograph, it is more prudent to get the shot right then and there rather than putting it off for another day. But sometimes it is just beyond your control. A few weeks ago, I drove into Raleigh early on a Sunday morning to photograph the Memorial Auditorium as the sun rose, striking the columns with the first rays of dawn. (Click here to go to Urban Landscape)

Raleigh Memorial Auditorium - Raleigh, NC- Green

Memorial Auditorium — Downtown Raleigh, NC © jj raia

But when I arrived, the beautiful building was illuminated in a kind of purple light that was simply striking! My excitement at this unexpected bonus was short-lived because as I was getting my gear together for the shot, the lights went out! The opportunity was lost. Although deflated at the time, I vowed to try again, and this past Sunday I repeated my effort, this time leaving home much earlier, arriving while the sky was still completely dark. I was fortunate that the air was completely still as it was the first time, leaving the water in the reflecting pool mirrorlike, but the high humidity immediately condensed on the cold (a/c in the car) lens necessitating wiping it off with a chamois cloth. Although I managed to “get the shot” by exposing about 2/3-stop below the light meter reading with a 2-stop split neutral density filter to balance the reflected light in the pool with the actual building above, I was not completely satisfied with the image because there wasn’t any interest in the dark sky…that something extra to strive for in the image. Luck was with me as 6am passed and the lights remained on where two weeks ago, they went off at that time. They must have been on a light sensor rather than a simple timer and the sky began to lighten revealing some very light clouds. I managed to get off two bracketed sequences before the lights did go off, that revealed some blue in the sky and the long shutter speed blurred the movement of the clouds a bit. I ran the exposures through some HDR software, through Photoshop for clean up and a little more work in Lightroom to get more detail in the obelisk and its reflection in the water. Now, if only I could get a beautiful sunset sky behind the facade with the fountain on (if that is what the long rectangle in the water is) and the building illuminated!! However, there would be no reflection but it would be fun to make the attempt.

PORTER CHAOS - Fall 2015-192

Ordered Chaos — Blue Ridge Parkway, NC © jj raia

The image above was more a revisit “look” than a physical return to the location. I saw these trees last autumn along the side of the road on the Blue Ridge Parkway and found them compelling enough to pull over and record them. The main draw was the reflected light on them. Although they were completely in shade, they were lit by the morning sun bouncing off the opposite hillside behind me. But viewing the image on the computer screen later simply failed to garner any of the initial excitement felt that morning, and I moved onto other images from that trip that did. Recently, I came across it again and decided to make an attempt at recreating the glow they exhibited that morning, and after quite a few attempts, including cropping and eliminating some small elements that, to my eye were distracting, managed to reveal that glow and the saturation from the downpours overnight; the trunks actually appear as wet as they were.

Sometimes perseverance pays off, both in the determination to return to a location again to get a “better” shot, or making many attempts in the digital darkroom to get the “look” you were originally seeking after several failures. It is simply the manifestation of the drive to make the work the best it can be and yet, never be completely satisfied.



General Thoughts
Faith — Linden Elimentary School, NC - Green-2

Faith — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was kind enough to bring me to a special place even though she had photographed it several times before. It is that kind of generosity, to give the gift of something you know to others, that inspires us to reciprocate and in doing so, creates a continuing process that makes us all better for it.

The place in question was an abandoned elementary school in a rural area a little over an hour away. The time spent traveling turned out to be a lot of fun as well, which in itself, made the trip worthwhile. As an added bonus, the school was rich in stories and memories of my own school years to discover and record; but it takes time as you wander through the halls and classrooms, for those things to seep into your consciousness and find their way into your viewfinder. The most immediate response I had was the word “Faith” brushed on a wall by the main entrance. It was the dual nature of the word itself, as a name or something you have in a philosophical context, that intrigued me. Was it painted as a kind of territorial marker that “I” was here, or more in line with “have faith”? And if “have faith”, in what? There are several interpretations for a viewer which creates an image that asks more questions than offering any answers. It was simply there, left for us to decide in what way it was meant and how to interpret it. The word provoked quite a bit of thought.

FINAL_Stairway_Linden Elementary-73-3

Stairwell — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia

Most often though, it was more about the light. A stairwell offered so many tonalities as the light poured in from a beautiful round-topped window, echoed off the pealing and crumbling walls, and traveled up and down the stairs. Because of the great range of light values, I shot quite a spread of bracketed exposures for use later in some HDR software. But even the software was unable to properly render the area of the railing in front of the window. In that area, each spindle was quite a bit thinner and soft instead of being sharply edged. Also, the window itself had extensive chromatic aberrations. The solution finally lay in manually blending a few of the different exposures, diligently eliminating the chromatic aberrations on an almost pixel by pixel level, and only after these chores were completed did the normal processing begin and adjustments to the light throughout the frame were made.

Stage Door — Linden Elementary, NC  © jj raia

Stage Door — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia.

Light played an important role in most of the images taken that day, but in trying to make each one a bit more compelling, attempts were always made, sometimes with success and other times without, to incorporate some additional elements for added interest. For the stage door, it was the ominous writing on it and the faded “Joe” to the left. The far away entry door was opened to add another layer of depth, a kind of open ended distance and another destination to explore rather than the abrupt end of the far wall.

Main Hallway_Linden Elementary-80_HDR-2

Main Hallway — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia

The inclusion of doorways or openings, even if only a sliver, adds to the possibilities of where the viewer can wander and wonder what lies beyond the immediate view. The view down the main hallway offered ample opportunities for us to explore each and every doorway and discover the treasures that lay inside. Initially, not much attention was paid to all of the pink cards scattered on the floor, but later after reading a few, it turned out that each had a different recipe on them!

Sunlit Chair_Linden Elementary-10_HDR-3

Ladies Auxiliary — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia

Often times, it is the simple inclusion of surroundings in a darkened area that add to the main theme of the image as in the Ladies Auxiliary. The eye is usually attracted to the brightest area, in this case the sunlight streaming into the room onto the chair, but then it wanders around to the bulletin board to discover what it has to reveal just as the pink cards in the main hallway near the school’s entrance.

Linden Elementary - Ghost

Ghost — Linden Elementary, NC © jj raia

There are also opportunities to create images that are the direct result of your own imagination, things that could be possible but are not there in reality, especially in these abandoned places. The image above is a crude example of what is possible and could transfer to a house as well. Your imagination can become an integral part of the time spent in these abandoned places both in trying to discern the uses for particular items discovered and how they got to their final resting place, as well as creating images with your own added signature.

Even though I have not been to many of these abandoned places, it appears that the most interesting aspect of photographing them is finding that direct connection to the spirit of the place; something that actually speaks to you in a personal way. For me, in a previous “abandoned” post in which a house was included, it was a flowered funeral stand in the shape of a cross, and of course here, it was Faith.