I posted a few days ago about travelling in North Carolina. I’ve been home now for a day and have had a chance to sort through my digital images. I’m still waiting for the film I shot (not many rolls) to come through the mail, but for the time being I’m working with purely digital images..
This trip was a lot like the Chicago Trip last October (see Oedipus in Chicago). My wife had a business conference in Asheville, and I tagged along. We extended her trip to allow for a few days of vacation, but for three days at the start of the week I was more or less on my own, exploring the area and looking for photographic opportunities.
I’m not a great traveler and am not skilled at getting into a new area quickly and effectively. Most of my photography is built upon a deep familiarity of the area I’m shooting. I also travel heavy when I shoot locally, taking virtually all my gear with me.
Flying into North Carolina was a whole ‘nother experience. I was confined to bringing only the gear I could carry on an airplane. After much deliberation I wound up purchasing a Lowepro Mini Trekker, and packed it full – bringing one 35mm film body, one Digital SLR, three zooms covering 20 through 200 mm, a 1.4x teleconverter, 50mm f 1.7, 200mm f4 macro, and the X Drive II, batteries, filters, step up rings, GPS, memory cards, and other bits and bobs.
Ultimately, it was a light kit at ~20 lbs. I never used the 200mm macro, 1.4x teleconverter, or the external flash, and scarcely used the 70-200mm f2.8 zoom. So I brought a I fair amount of gear that proved to be unnecessary. The only thing I really regretted leaving behind was a full sized tripod. I brought a small minipod that rises up to about 2 feet, and while it worked well in some situations, a full sized tripod would have been much better.
I really pondered the film vs digital issue for this trip. I knew I would want to photograph landscapes, and I remain convinced that high quality 35mm film will out perform a 6 megapixel DSLR when it comes to landscapes. Better yet would be medium format – but the logistics of transportation really ruled that out.
From what I read, flying with film is questionable. It will be x-rayed, and I worried about fogging. So, I decided to mail the film to the hotel in advance, and ultimately came to think of this trip as a ‘farewell to 35mm film’ tour – I would deliberately try to use up all that 35mm slide film cluttering my freezer.
As Robert Burns put it – "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley".
Arriving at the hotel on Saturday I found – no film. That meant that at best,, the film would arrive Monday afternoon.
That night we went through downtown Asheville, which is a hopping town, ate good food, wandered all over, and used the GPS to find the car and drive back down to Hendersonville where we were staying. I missed film at this juncture of the trip, since I would have loved to use Tri-X and a wide angle to shoot while walking around. As it was, I was able use the *ist-D at ISO 3200 to get and interesting shot of a church – hey, perhaps my first successful ghost photo (look out, Ted Serios, here I come...)
The next day we drove around in the rental car, and learned that roads in mountainous areas are not laid out on a logical grid (or even semi-logical wheel and spoke) setup – but rather followed the lay of the land.
We stopped at a parking area at the Pisgah National Forest, but as we were preparing to start hiking along the small creek there a local gentleman came up and told us that we really shouldn’t be there. He had worked on the movie “Last of the Mohicans” and told us we needed to find the waterfalls shot in that film. He hadn’t been to the area for a while, but told us in general terms how to get there. It was the Dupont Forest, named after the Dupont factory that was built in the heart of it. He told us the plant made X-Ray film and was built there fore the purity of the water in the local springs. But some German company bought them out a while back.
We followed his directions, and found well marked roads leading back to the Dupont forest. There was an Agfa Plant along the way, and ultimately we stopped at the Hooker Falls / Triple Falls parking area.
This proved to be my photographic focus for much of this trip. The area reminded me a lot of Michigan’s western upper peninsula (though the mountains in North Carolina dwarf the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan,) On Sunday Pam and I visited the falls, and I took some digital snap shots, nothing more.
After that we found the Blue Ridge Parkway, and spent much of the day driving along it. I like driving and it was a fun drive running along the twists and curves. Again, I took several digital snap shots along the way.
One of the great challenges of photography is that no matter what subject you are shooting, you usually wind up shooting something you’ve seen in other photographs. And usually you have seen the cliché’ and hackneyed shots, simply as a matter of sheer probability.
When I come to a new subject, or a new locale, my first impulse is to recreate the shots I’ve seen of it before. And so with the water falls and also running along the Blue Ridge Parkway, my first reaction was to mimic the shots I’d seen of the same subjects. Work on layering of the mountains in the mist, work on catching the waterfalls in soft light, with long exposures resulting in smooth, silky water.
I think it's only natural to want to recreate the images you’ve seen before, and it’s a step in the creative process. The trap is that once you get that shot that is as good as the others you’ve seen, there is a temptation to stop and rest. You have achieved a goal and feel like your work is over – but in reality your work has just begun. Now that you have duplicated the shots already taken, what new thing can you contribute to interpreting the subject?
Come Monday morning I returned to the Hooker Falls parking area, and re-shot the Hooker Falls in the misty morning light. Without film I shot entirely digitally, feeling limited only by the lack of a true wide angle lens (my 20mm lens equates to a 30mm on the digital SLR.)
After a few hours at the falls I went to the North Carolina Arboretum, hoping to shoot some insect macros. I had a pleasant but unproductive walk though the trails there, and called it day.
Arriving at the hotel I learned that the film still had not arrived. I’m reluctant to buy more 35mm film, but decided that I really wanted to shoot the falls with a classic, true silver, B&W. After dinner I dragged my wife from store to store, till at last we found an Ekarts drug store that had one roll (24 exposure) of Plus-X and a few rolls of Tri-X. Great! I bought the Plus-X and three rolls of Tri-X – all the while ruing the absence of my film shipment, chock full of Efke R100, my last roll of Agfapan APX 25, and lots of Adox 400 and color slide emulsions.
That night I also decided to clean the sensor on the *ist-D, and in a move that defies logic, I disabled noise reduction on the camera in the process.
The next day I again headed out to the Dupont forest. I made a bee line to the triple falls – though the mile long hike up the mountain, even on a gentle trail, took a while.
It was a brilliant clear day, and by the time I got to the top of the falls the sun was full on them. I shot most of the roll of Plus-X, hoping to control the contrast through development and scanning. We’ll see how that works out.
After that I ran up to the covered bridge at the top of the falls, and found it to be unremarkable. Then I headed back down to the middle and lower falls, shooting the last of the Plus-X and also a roll of Tri-X. Here the sun was not yet hard on the water, so I have high hopes for the outcome.
By the time I got back down to the parking lot, the trails were full of people, the streams were full of swimmers, and cruel brutal sun was beaming down.
I was hopeful that the B&W film shot would come out with a sense of classic simplicity that I want for this subject (and as of this writing I remain hopeful – since the film has not yet returned to be developed.) But I also felt a sense of frustration. Here it was – noon on my third day in the area and the best I had managed to achieve was to duplicate the shots of ump-teen other photographers who had wandered through here before.
The night before I had watched Apocolyse Now on the hotel cable channels. The lyric from the Doors song during the into - ‘break on through to the other side’ - kept echoing through my mind.
Thinking of the images from “Last of the Mohicans” sitting by the waterfalls, I was lost in the romance of the pristine natural setting. Looking at the brutal late morning sunlight, I realized that one option was open – infrared. So I set up the *ist-D for digital infared and started shooting.
After what I thought was a productive morning, now early afternoon, I called it day for shooting. Back in the hotel room in Hedersonville, the phone range at around 3:30 pm.
The desk clerk was his usual professional self: “Mr Cassino, the film has arrived.” He said it like Mission Control announces the safe landing of a space shuttle. I picked the box and realized how absurd I had been in my planning to shoot up my film on this trip – here was a hefty box filled with dozens of rolls of film. What was I thinking? Oh well, I began to doubt that I would shoot any of it at all.
My feelings only got worse when I looked at the digital infrared shots and realized that I had disable noise reduction. With this feature enabled the camera takes a long exposure, and then retakes the exposure with the shutter down. It compares the two, and subtracts from the original exposure any hot pixels or other noise that is on the second exposure. Since shooting with the IR filter results in very long exposures – 2 to 8 seconds at f 16 in full sun, at ISO 1600 – this is an important tool to getting a clean shot. While the original images are probably salvagable with post exposure noise reduction software, I was kicking myself for turning the noise reduction feature off.
So now I felt doubly conflicted - I wanted to properly re-shoot the digital IR shots, but I really wanted to shoot the waterfalls with film.
So on Wednesday I headed out and tried to tackle both objectives. I again went to the Dupont Forest, this time shooting Hooker falls on my last roll of Agfa APX 25, and then some of the rapids upstream on Efke RB100. As the morning progressed and the sun grew more brilliant and direct, I switched over to digital IR and attempted to reproduce the shots I had taken before, as well as shooting new settings.
Pam’s session ended at midday that day, so after the morning shoot we went out again along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here again I shot digital infrared. Because of the long exposure times, I needed to use either the mini tripod, or rest the camera on a fence post or sign post while shooting.
On Thursday we did tourist fun things, and then on Friday devoted the day to driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We picked a good time – it was hot and hazy in the morning, but Thunderstorms rolled in in the afternoon.
We watched the storms roll in from a mountain top overlook, eating the picnic lunch we brought in the car, as it shook in the wind and rain lashed the windows. After an hour of intense storm activity, the weather cleared, and we drove along and watched the mists and clouds rolled in and out of the valleys below.