Travel Journals

Behind the Image: Autumn on Grandfather Mountain

BEHIND THE IMAGE:
Autumn on Grandfather Mountain,
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

As we near the first official days of the fall season, it seems that winter may have come early here in Alberta. It’s already below freezing and snowing out! In the spirit of Autumn, I thought I’d share an experience from 2 years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and lasts only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

I was buried in images from my October 2016 trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the steep and craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possibly decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain- opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain.

I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two-second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. Only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain became brown and nearly bare. Soon after, the landscape was virtually colorless for 6 months until spring.

“I stand for what I stand on.” - Edward Abbey

Behind the Image: Hungarian Parliament at Night

BEHIND THE IMAGE: HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT AT NIGHT

I don't remember how many trips my wife, Alison, and I made to the famous Fisherman's Bastion. It was a long walk from Pest across the Chain Bridge and up winding streets. The temperature was around 90 degrees each day. Living in Canada, I'm not accustomed to that type of heat and humidity anymore (thank goodness our apartment had AC). I was determined to get a particular shot. I had photographed the Hungarian Parliament several times from several different locations over the course of the week, but I had been unable to capture the Parliament from Fisherman's Bastion in an effective way.

On the final evening of our trip I was determined to get something good out of the Fisherman's Bastion experience. It's a popular spot for tourists- one of the major sights in Budapest. I wasn't that impressed. It looks like an awkward sandcastle. There's a architecturally underwhelming Marriott and Starbucks next to it. No matter what time of day we visited the area, morning or night, it was packed with tourists. Serious landscape photography was very difficult. If I return to Budapest, I'm going during a shoulder season for sure. 

a trick up my sleeve

The best thing about Fisherman's Bastion is the panoramic views of Pest, the Danube, and the Parliament building. I wanted a particular image. I wanted the columns and arched windows of Fisherman's Bastion in the foreground, framing the dramatic Parliament all lit up at twilight. In the early evening I set up my tripod and waited. I used a Nikon 24-120mm f4 VR lens. The Parliament is pretty far across the Danube from Fisherman's Bastion.  In order to fill the frame with the Hungarian Parliament (and make it look much closer and larger), I had to employ a simple trick that most photographers visiting Fisherman's Bastion don't use. Instead of using a wide angle and getting close to the columns like most do, I set up about 20-25 feet back and zoomed in with my lens. A wide-angle makes distant objects smaller and farther away, but a telephoto focal length compresses the elements within the frame. In this case, the Hungarian Parliament looks much closer to Fisherman's Bastion than it actually is. That's the only trick to this composition. There is no stacking. This is one frame. 

Hungarian Parliament at night from Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary (Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120 f4 VR, tripod, 120mm, f14, 3 sec, ISO 250).

Hungarian Parliament at night from Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary (Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120 f4 VR, tripod, 120mm, f14, 3 sec, ISO 250).

A little help

The big challenge wasn't getting the right composition, or even the light. Once the sun set and the city lights came on, all I had to do was click the shutter. Simple right? Wrong. There were dozens of selfie-hungry tourists blocking my shot. People were crowding the very window I was trying to shoot through. I waited for the crowd to open up, but it thickened. I realize that I have no more reason to be there than they do. It's an awesome view. I already knew getting the shot in the late evening would be a stretch (should have showed up at 4AM...shame on me). Nonetheless I was getting discouraged and was about to call it a day when a friendly face in a Red Socks hat popped up out of the crowd. 

"You guys American?" He said. Small talk ensued. His name is Cam Woodsum, a nomad travel-blogger. He'd been in Budapest for a few weeks. He said he had a score to settle between himself and Budapest and wanted to help me out. He asked if I'd like him to do some crowd control and clear the way long enough for me to take my shot. I thought he was at least half joking, so I said yes. With the help of Alison, Cam parted the sea of selfie-zombies just long enough for me to get my image. I'm very grateful to Cam for his help. This is easily my favorite shot from our Budapest experience. 

 

Prague Vs. Prague Part II

Part II: June, 2018

The train from Munich was spacious and comfortable. My wife and I had the whole compartment within our passenger car to ourselves...until we crossed the Czech border that is, where the perfectly groomed farms and country side of Bavaria gave way to abandoned buildings and yards of rusting soviet-era vehicles. In Pilsen (where the best beer on earth is made), the train stopped and everyone had to get off, walk over the tracks and through bushes to an non-air conditioned bus for a 40 minute ride to another train station (it was 90 degrees out). It was unexpected. The next train was crowded, also non-air conditioned, and smelled of B.O. Welcome to the Czech Republic. We arrived in Prague in a couple hours. Just outside of the train station I saw a homeless person poopin' in the bushes off the crowded main walkway. Welcome to Prague! So, my first impression was that the city was going to be much the same as it was 12 years before. Once we arrived in Old Town, I was proven wrong. 

Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic

Our AirBnb in the Jewish Quarter of Old Town was super-modern and very comfortable, but cost a lot more than the apartment I'd stayed in during my first trip. That wasn't an issue. I'm not a burrito slinging punk-rocker on a shoestring budget anymore. We enjoyed breakfasts and late-evening beers on our balcony. We spent mornings and evenings wandering the streets and photographing the cityscape. It was another great experience in Prague, but a bit different this time.

The first thing that struck me this time around were the crowds. Prague is popular now, the new Paris, packed with selfie-stickers, walking tours, and long lines for sites and museums. Old Town Square, once filled with sausage stands and craft peddlers, was packed to the gills with tourists. The food and hand-made local goods stalls were diminished and had been pushed into a small corner of the square. The highly-touristy "authentic Czech" restaurants were still there, but this time there were lines for them. Price gauging was blatantly obvious. Prague is still a relatively cheap place to visit, and the same beer (and better food) in Old Town Square can be purchased a few blocks away for a fraction of the price. Granted we were visiting at the beginning of the height of tourist season for Europe, but I never expected so many other visitors even at the extremes of the day.

View of the crowds and restaurant lines in Old Town Square from the Old Town Hall Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View of the crowds and restaurant lines in Old Town Square from the Old Town Hall Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View of crowds on the Charles Bridge from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

View of crowds on the Charles Bridge from the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, Czech Republic

The Charles Bridge was an introvert's nightmare as there was barely anywhere to stand. Even at 4AM it was still bustling with (mostly drunk British) visitors. Weaving through the crowd as a couple was difficult. A leisurely stroll to enjoy the views and statues was nearly impossible due to tour groups and professional wedding photo shoots. Also, serious artists who once sold paintings along the bridge had been replaced by people selling Chinese-made Prague souvenirs (like overpriced keychains and other useless trinkets). I got really fed-up with hearing street musicians playing Coldplay covers on their squeezeboxes, instead of regional music that fit the atmosphere. It was a stark contrast to my experience years before. Things change.

The second big difference this time around was how relatively clean the city was. Buildings had fresh paint and many had been restored to their former glory. This is actually a good thing, but took away from the humble and charming Bohemian feel the city had before. Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Mala Strana were as clean and colorful as Stockholm. The street that I stayed on in 2006 was unrecognizable. My wife and I went out looking for the hostel where I stayed in for cheap over decade ago. Before it was dirty, seemingly every other business was an absinthe bar, and many buildings were in disrepair. We never found the building because I simply couldn't recognize it. That neighborhood, just a few blocks off Old Town Square, is now the upscale shopping district. Prada and Rolex among other high fashion retailers now line the streets along with trendy bars, Starbucks, and hipster restaurants. It was actually difficult to find an authentic and affordable Czech meal. Sausage stands were nowhere to be found! 

This shows that Prague is looking up economically, mostly because of the recent surge in tourism. That's great for the small country and citizens. However, I was a bit disappointed that the entire atmosphere had changed. It didn't feel like the same Prague. It was "Prague-Land" now - a bit diluted and heavily influenced by Western culture.

The third difference was that every Czech person we interacted with spoke English very well. Czech is a bit difficult to learn, so I struggled with communicating on my first trip, especially in restaurants. This time there was no issue speaking English. Every restaurant had an English menu. Prague has a young population and English and American influence from music, the internet, and TV have obviously made an impact over the last 12 years.

An authentically meaty Czech meal with duck, ham, sausage, bread dumplings, cabbage, and beer....can you say "meat sweats?" Prague, Czech Republic

An authentically meaty Czech meal with duck, ham, sausage, bread dumplings, cabbage, and beer....can you say "meat sweats?" Prague, Czech Republic

I imagine this to be the case with all places. If you return to a location in decade-long increments change is to be expected - I've changed much as well. My wife, Alison, enjoyed our time in Prague, but she had a different experience than I did years earlier. I was happy to have made loads of images this time around. Prague is still well worth the visit. It is a very beautiful place and people have now caught on to that fact. I would recommend shoulder seasons and probably spending time in smaller Czech towns for a more laid-back experience, however. 

To see more of my images from Prague, visit www.jonreaves.com/europe/ 
Read Part I of this series, here.

 

Prague Vs. Prague Part I

Part I: March, 2006

In 2006 I boarded a plane for the first time. I had never been out of the United States. I had barely been outside of my home state. I was an antsy 20-year-old with no money working at a burrito restaurant and trying to pay my way through community college on $8 an hour. This was after my mildly successful rock band split up. My girlfriend of the time had already done the backpacking through Europe thing and was ready to head back. I scraped up every penny I could over a few months and was willing to go anywhere. She picked Prague. I didn't know much about it, and didn't really care where I was going. I just wanted to go somewhere and see something different.

After a convoluted route on three different flights, we made it to Prague. We had no cell-phones. The internet wasn't easily accessible, nor all that reliable at the time. We had a slightly out-of-date travel map, and my experienced travel partner, who was in charge of logistics, forgot to look up the address for our hostel. We wandered around Old Town, dragging roller bags loudly behind us on the cobblestone streets (my bag was actually sent to the wrong country and had to be shipped to me in Prague the next day). We asked several locals for the location of the hostel, but no one we asked spoke English. Eventually, cranky and tired from 3 flights and a long bus ride, we found the hostel. The lady at the desk, maybe a few years older than us, didn't speak any English. 

Prague's famous Astronomical Clock, March, 2006

Prague's famous Astronomical Clock, March, 2006

It was early March, cold and snowy. I was used to experiencing allergy attacks and sunburns by that time in Southeastern North Carolina; but in Prague, I was chilly in a peacoat and hat. Despite the weather and the frustrations upon arrival, I quickly fell in love with the atmosphere. I had never seen such dramatic and ancient architecture. I had never been any place where the evidence of thousands of years of history stood right in front of me in present day. The cityscape was dramatic. The streets and buildings were dirty. There were a fare amount of homeless, street peddlers, sausage stands, and restaurants with creaky floors, heavy-wooden tables, and fresh beer for cheap. Wide-eyed, I walked the narrow streets under towering gothic architecture in awe of the bohemian beauty. 

I wasn't a serious photographer yet. I had a 4-megapixel Kodak point-and-shoot camera and had barely ever taken a picture of anything before that trip. I shot everything...the towers, Old Town Square, every statue on the Charles Bridge, the Castle, and every endlessly winding cobblestone street I walked down. I primarily ate cheap sausages and hot-dogs from stands and drank legendary, yet equally cheap, Czech beer.

My first black and white image. I think this was made in the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, March, 2006

My first black and white image. I think this was made in the Old Town Bridge Tower, Prague, March, 2006

Our hostel was $200 USD for 5 nights, but it was wasn't really a hostel at all. Despite the run-down appearance of the building's exterior, that spacious studio apartment with a full kitchen and modern bathroom (which we had all to ourselves) on the top floor with a view of Old Town is still one of the nicest places I've ever stayed in Europe. So, $200 wasn't bad at all! 

Tourism was low at that time. Prague wasn't quite the popular destination it is now. There were no Pinterest or Instagram influencers or travel vanity to drive millennials in. It was a bit grungy. Absinthe bars and youth hostels were the most prevalent businesses filling dirty and under-kept buildings in Old Town. Traditional Czech restaurants were easy to find. The Charles Bridge was lined with poor peddlers and artists desperately trying to sell their works (some to the point of crying and screaming at you to look at their paintings). Street vendors in Old Town Square sold hand-made wooden crafts, Kafka books, and t-shirts with X-rated graphics. There was a Bohemian charm. I had a great time; I was sad to leave and knew I'd return one day.

CONTINUE READING: Prague Vs. Prague Part II