A Road, a Path, a Leading Line…and Backlighting!

I remember a rather gloomy day in March earlier this year. I was visiting my friend Kristy in Richmond for her birthday weekend. She had been talking about visiting the Meems Bottom Bridge in Mt. Jackson, VA, and in spite of the gloom she still wanted to do that. I was amenable. It was her birthday, after all, and the trip involved going up into the mountains. Sunny or overcast, I love the mountains, and you don’t have to do much to convince me to go. I had also recently bought a variable neutral density filter (this one) for one of my lenses. I had never used a neutral density filter before, much less a variable one, and I was keen to try it out and see if I could achieve some of the effects I’d seen and heard about. I figured that even if I didn’t get “good” pictures, I would get good practice and start figuring out how to use it to best effect.

Just before leaving Norfolk for Richmond, I had seen that the theme for my local photo group’s monthly contest was backlighting. I had done some quick reading up on how to achieve good results with backlighting, so that was in the back of my mind, as well. I had also been hearing about the covered bridges of Virginia for some time from Kristy, and this was the first opportunity I had had to see one for myself. So, as the mountains rose around me on the 2+ hour drive to Mt. Jackson, I tried to have no expectations, yet harbored great hope for a wonderful day with my friend, a decent shot, and some good self-education.

When we arrived, it was one of those white sky days with flat light. Everything looked rather dull, including the bridge. We checked out the bridge from all angles, but I felt very little in the way of inspiration. But I got down close to the water to try to get some workable shots anyway. I played around with the filter in the cold spitting rain. Between the wind and the spit, I didn’t have a lot of patience, but I tried a variety of settings and compositions. Poor Kristy acted as my assistant, running between the river’s edge where I was precariously set up and the car to retrieve various items that I somehow couldn’t realize I needed all at once (happy birthday). The photos themselves sucked because the light sucked and by that time my attitude sucked, too. They say that light is everything in photography, but I’d say attitude and inspiration are probably much more important.

By the time I decided to pack it in, it was late afternoon. If it had been a nice day, there would be no way I would leave at that moment, right when the light would be starting to warm up and move into its golden hour. As it was, I was more than happy to contemplate the warmth of the car. And then I thought about the backlight. I asked Kristy to go with me into the bridge, and took a number of backlit portraits of her. I experimented with different settings, using the tripod and not using it. Most were awful, some were good. I was starting to understand the delicate line between a terrible backlit photo that obscured everything else in the shot and backlighting as the most interesting, artistic kind of lighting.

Meems Bottom Bridge - Mt. Jackson, VA

As we turned back to head for the car, I saw the mingling of the bleak, flat light of earlier and the yellow-not-quite-golden light of pre-sunset. Beyond the opening of the bridge was the tree-lined road. On the drive up, I had just been trying to explain how I loved a road, a path, a leading line. I told Kristy to go warm up in the car (if you look closely, you can see the car in the image), and set up my tripod and camera once again. I took a number of shots, changing the settings and composition slightly each time and each time getting more pleased and excited. I was pretty sure the last one was the “money shot,” as they say, but I took down my tripod and camera knowing that often the shots that seem great in the viewfinder are not what we think they are once we get them up on a computer and can see them better.

But in this case, when I got it up on the computer, it was still my opinion that the very last shot of the day was the shot of the day. Later, I would select it as one of the photos I submitted for the 2014 Virginia Vistas photo contest, and even later than that it would win an honorable mention in that contest. And even later than that – today, as a matter of fact – the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran it in their newspaper!

The contest and the honorable mention have been satisfying in myriad ways. It is the first non-local contest I have ever entered, and I won an honorable mention! But most interesting to me is that I almost didn’t enter it because I thought it was one of those quirky photos that only I and three other people on the planet would like. Apparently, those three other people sat in judgment of the Virginia Vistas Photo Contest. How lucky was that?

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