Virginia Road Trip: Buzzard Rock and Thoroughfare Gap

Memorial Day weekend is great time to be in Washington DC—if you are a fan of motorcycles, parades, and ceremonies.  We decided to go the other direction on Sunday, heading west toward Front Royal and the George Washington National Forest.

We had heard about an “easy hike” near Front Royal, called “Buzzard Rock” that features a nice overlook of the Shenandoah Valley.  Not nearly as well-known as more popular hikes such as Old Rag, White Oak Canyon, or Dark Hollow Falls we guessed that it would not be very crowded.

Virginia 02

 Looking North from First Outlook

We arrived at the trailhead at 10:00 AM—later than advisable if you want to beat the crowds, but there were still a couple spots left in the small parking lot.  It’s a 4-mile roundtrip, with a gradual elevation gain of about 650 feet along a fairly well-marked trail.  It’s a pleasant walk up to the first overlook where one is rewarded with some nice scenery of the Valley below.  There is also a good view of a fish hatchery along Passage Creek (Image below).

Virginia 03

Fish Hatchery as seen from First Outlook

While the views at the top were nice, I would not place this trail on my top 10 list for Virginia hikes within a 2-hour drive of Washington.   But that’s OK, because the more interesting portion of the day was still ahead.

Our mission was to find the secret route to Chapman’s Mill, a massive historic stone structure that is in full view (about 100 yards away) of thousands of cars on Interstate 66.  My previous solo attempts had ended in failure, but now that I had the assistance of a skilled navigatrix and her wonder dog Smokey, I felt confident that success was finally within my grasp.

 Virginia 04The Ruins of Chapman’s Mill, (walls now stabilized and braced)

To give you a small sense of the challenge, Chapman’s Mill is located on Beverly Mill Road and once you drive past the mill on I-66 heading east, you must drive 8 more miles and then backtrack the same distance on State Road 55 to get there.

Virginia 05Partially collapsed Interior Wall (much work remains)

Chapman’s Mill was originally built in 1742 and, at 7 ½ stories, is thought to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States.  The mill is located in Thoroughfare Gap, a narrow passage in the Bull Run Mountains.  The Gap was used by migrating buffalo and traveling American Indians long before Europeans arrived in the area.

Virginia 07

Detail of Wall, Showing Stacked Stone Technique

The gap quickly became a major route to the rich farmland of the Shenandoah Valley, was a strategic route in the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War and its importance as a trade route was enhanced with the arrival of a rail line (still operating today) in 1852.Virginia 06

Interior View, showing Rusting Cogwheel (about 6-foot diameter)

The mill was a major food storage and distribution center for the Confederate forces until mid-1862 and was burned by the Confederates when they departed the area.  Rebuilt after the war, it continued to operate as a mill, passing through several owners until it ceased operations in 1946.

Virginia 09

Interior View Showing a Stabilizing Cross Beam

Abandoned for years, it escaped demolition in the 1960s from the planned route for I-66 through the efforts of local citizens and preservation groups.  In 1998, it was torched by an arsonist. The devastation was so extensive that the building seemed doomed to extinction.  But shortly thereafter, a non-profit group obtained the property and launched a restoration campaign.  Phases 1 and 2 (Stabilizing the walls, conducting archaeological research on the site) are completed and fudraising is underway to continue the restoration.

 Virginia 08Smokey, the Wonder Dog, Contemplates the Scene


The mill is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays.  Click here for more information.

Virginia Bluebell Bonanza

Every year in mid-April, a few wooded areas in northern Virginia (as well as Maryland) are briefly transformed with dazzling carpets of blue.  It seems only certain places, usually bordering a stream or the Potomac River itself, have the perfect conditions for a magical wildflower, the Virginia bluebell.

Madeira 10

Virginia bluebells & other wildflowers along Potomac River side channel, 2009

The plant has a fleeting existence above ground.  They appear when only a few weeks of warm weather remain before the life giving sunlight is blocked out by the emerging leaves of the overhead tree canopy.  On the Virginia side of the Potomac, large tracts can be found in public places such as Riverbend Park along the Potomac River and Bull Run Regional Park along Cub Run.

Another location, which requires permission to enter, is the Madeira School, located in McLean, Virginia along the Potomac River.  One morning last week, when the blooms were at their peak, I tagged along with fellow photographer and blogger Stacy Fischer who did have permission for a photo shoot at Madeira.  Please check out her report by clicking here.

Here are a few iumages from that morning.  Some technical notes are included at the bottom keyed to the numbers in parentheses.

Madeira 02 (1888_89 PAN Crop) - Copy

View from a bluff above the Potomac as it exits Mather Gorge (1)

Madeira 06 (1835_36 PAN) - Copy

The trail leading to Black Pond (2)

Madeira 09 (1822_23 Auto Align) - Copy

Bluebells, with Black Pond in background (3)

Madeira 08 (1749_51 PAN) - Copy

Black Pond, spring fed and almost completely encircled by a bedrock terrace (4)

Madeira 05 (1773 ) - Copy

Outlet stream from Black Pond (5)

Madeira 04 (1742_43 Aligned) - Copy

Moss covered log and bluebells

*Some technical notes:

Image 1: Telephoto image cropped for equivalent of 250mm view;

Image 2: Two images combined with Photomerge in Photoshop

Image 3: Two wide angle(36 mm) images; one focused on flowers, second on pond & rocks, then supermimposed on each other in Photoshop. Masking technique used to reveal only portions in focus.

Image 4: Three images combined with Photomerge in Photoshop.

Image 5: Single image, but difficult lighting required 6 Curves Adjustment layers and two Gradient layers in Photoshop.

Image 6: Two telephoto (200 mm) images; one focused on log, second on bluebells, then supermimposed on each other in Photoshop. Masking technique used to reveal only portions in focus.  Should have taken two more images because log on right side and moss on left side are not sharp.  There is very little depth of field with telephoto images of close objects, even at F/16.

Thanks again to Stacy for inviting me along.  I’ve been an avid fan of her Visual Venturing Blog since I discovered it early last year and her AfterBefore Friday Forum series has been great fun.

ABFriday Forum–Week 46

It’s Friday already, and that means it’s time for ABFriday Forum, which is rocketing toward its one-year anniversary, a mere six weeks away.  But while the chattering class debates whether we will actually make it to that glorious milestone, we choose to focus on the present and deliver some new examples of the many ways to transform what the camera gives us into our own creative visions.

Earth Day was also this week, and in recognition of the day, I’ve been spending my photography time in several local parks where Mother Nature is the prime attraction.  And in Virginia, this week is when the Virginia bluebells put on their show.  I haven’t had a chance to process them yet, so I selected an image taken on Earth Day last Year.  The location is Riverbend Park, a small park along the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia.  It is one of the best places to go for local photographers on the hunt for the bluebells.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 46 Bluebells BeforeBefore Image

(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 62 mm. Exposure: 1/100th sec. at f/16, ISO 200.)

The original “Before” Image is shown above, straight out of the camera with no processing at all.  It was an overcast day, which provided an excellent soft lighting.   But there was a slight touch of afternoon sunlight striking the rock in the river and the trees on the opposite shore which added a nice glow.  My intent was to restore the scene as I saw it on that day and fortunately only a light touch with the post-processing toolset was necessary.

As usual, the first step was to make basic exposure adjustments in Adobe Camera RAW.  After setting the White and Black Points, it was necessary to cut back on the highlights a fair amount and open up the shadows for better detail.  Clarity and Vibrance were increased to the level I usually choose.  The image at this stage is shown below and the specific settings are listed immediately afterwards.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 46 Bluebells Before 02

After the ACR Adjustments

ACR Settings: Highlights: decrease to -40; Shadows: increase to +25; Whites: increaseto +48; Blacks: decrease to -13; Clarity and Vibrance: Both increased to +30.

The image was then opened in Photoshop cropped to provide better framing for the bluebells in the foreground. The bluebells are the principal subject so I wanted to brighten them just a bit.  This was done by selecting the foreground with the Polygon Selection Tool and then opening an Adjustment Layer–>Curves. The bluebells were given just a slight bump.  The image at this stage is shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 46 Bluebells Before 03

 After the Curves Adjustment to Lighten Bluebells

Next, I wanted to add some warmth to get that glow of the afternoon sun. Rather than the tedious process of carefully selecting everything that should be included, I used the Polygon Lasso to select the large rock in the River, opened an Adjustment Layer for Hue/Saturation (Blend Mode=Normal) and moved the Saturation to +53.  Then it was just a matter of using the Paint Brush (opacity = 50%) to add the Hue/Saturation to the trees on far shoreline.  Basically, the Paint Brush action has the effect of reducing the effect of the mask but not entirely. The rock has the full effect and the trees about 50% of the effect.  If this abbreviated explanation isn’t clear, just say so in the comments and I’ll go into greater detail.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 46 Bluebells Before 04After the Hue/Saturation Adjustment

The final step was to tone down the brightness of the sky just a bit. This was done by creating a new Layer and using the Gradient Tool (Blend Mode=Soft Light) to mimic the effect of a graduated neutral density filter.  The advantage to doing this in Photoshop is that one is able to mask out the effects of the graduated filter where they are not wanted—in this case the large tree on the right side of the frame.  All that is required is to create a Mask on the adjustment layer and use the Paint Brush to block out the effects of the Gradient Layer on the tree trunk.  The final results are shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 46 Bluebells After 02

Final Image

Questions? Comments?   But first, everyone who hasn’t already done so, should go directly to Stacy Fischer’s ABFriday Forum and check out all the other examples of post processing creativity. All you have to do is CLICK HERE.

ABFriday Forum–Week 45

It’s Friday, and time for all post-processing aficionados to gather around the campfire at Stacy Fischer’s Visual Venturing Emporium to swap stories about their creative wizardry. My submission to the ritual is a simple tale, an homage to Mother Nature’s renewal of life cycle, also known as spring, here in Virginia.  All of the other stories are centrally located for your convenience at Stacy’s site, and the link to them is located at the end of this post.

The cherry blossoms are fading here, but the dogwood, redbud, and Virginia bluebells are emerging. And soon we will see the English bluebells, at least where they have been planted.  Looking back to last year, the English bluebells were at their peak on May 8th as I found when looking for a timely example for this week’s ABFriday Forum.  As I recall, a bit of stealth was required to sneak into the backyard of a nearby house, and there was time for only a few exposures.   The image chosen was opened in Adobe Camera RAW and the original version is shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Backyard Week 45 Before

Original Unprocessed Image

(Technical data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f2.8 lens extended to 200mm; Exposure: 1/4 sec. @f/16, ISO 100)

After setting the White and Black points, some additional tweaking was necessary. Highlights were reduced (-70), Shadows opened up (+23), and I pushed harder than the usual +30 on both Clarity and Vibrance (+43 on both).  The result is shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 45 Backyard Before 02

After RAW Processing

From here, it seemed only two changes were needed.  First, a slight increase in overall contrast,which was accomplished with the Adjustment Layer Curves option, selecting the preset “Linear Contrast” and the blend mode stayed at “Normal”.  The result, shown below,slightly darkens the green foliage at the top and the rocks near the waterfall.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 45 Backyard Before 03

After Overall Curves Adjustment

But the foreground is still way too bright.  So, using the polygon lasso tool, the lower half of the image was selected and a second  Adjustment Layer Curves was used.  The image below shows the area in red that was was masked from the effect of the adjustment.  The setting on the adjustment layer is indicated with the blue (teal) arrow.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 45 Backyard Before 04Curves Adjustment on Foreground

This seemed to be sufficient and the final result is shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 45 BAckyard After

Final Result

Please take a look at the submissions by other participants at Stacy’s Visual Venturing Blog by clicking here.

Keep shooting….

After-Before Friday Week 38

First of all, some news to share:  two of my images were accepted as finalists in the 2015 Fine Art Photography Competition at the Herndon ArtSpace Gallery in Herndon, Virginia.  I’m told over 100 photographers submitted entries and 37 images were selected.  The awards will be announced tomorrow night at the Opening Reception, but I am just pleased to have made the cut. The two that were selected are shown below.  Details on the exhibit can be found at

Kent Cannon Beach 2

Haystack Rock at Sunset


 Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

Now, back to the regular weekly Friday feature sponsored by Stacy Fischer of Visual Venturing, a forum open to anyone with an interest in exchanging ideas and experiences about post-processing, sometimes called the “digital darkroom.” The submissions are often surprising, and always interesting.  For those who would like to participate, check Stacy’s site for the guidelines here.

As most people living in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions of the United States already know, the past several weeks have brought us more than our fair share of winter weather.  A week ago, the Washington, DC area set a new record low temperature, so what better time to see if  Great Falls of the Potomac might be frozen solid.   Short answer: No, not really close.  But I took a few shots anyway.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 38 Before After Dual“After” Image                                           “Before” Image

The “Before” image above is the unprocessed RAW image from the camera.  I made a few corrections in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) as follows:  Whites increased to +44, Blacks decreased to -3 (to set the white and black points), Clarity increased to +28 and Vibrance increased to +25.  The changes were quite minor and hard to detect in the small sizes shown here (image below):

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 38 Before 02

Image with ACR Corrections

The image was then opened in Photoshop CC and it seemed that a Black and White version might be the best way to go. I used a Black and White Adjustment Layer (Blend mode=Normal) and selected the High Contrast Red Filter preset (which imitates the effect of shooting B&W with a red filter).  This was followed with a Curves Adjustment layer (Blend Mode=luminosity) and using the Linear Contrast preset (which adds just a slight increase in contrast).  As a final step, I made a fairly substantial crop to highlight a specific section of the falls.  The final result is shown below.

Robin Kent ABFriday Week 38 After

Final Cropped Image

Please check out the other submissions to this week’s ABFriday Forum here.  And don’t forget the OnePhoto Focus next week in its usual schedule on the first Friday of each month.  Everyone gets to try their hand on an image submitted by one photographer.

Next Post–Back to Antarctica

P.S.  In response to LensAdiction’s suggestion, the image below with a different crop is submitted for discussion.


Robin Kent ABFriday Week 38 After Feedback 02


Great Falls of the Potomac

Great Falls Snow

Late Afternoon, Great Falls of the Potomac

(Technical: Nikon D800E on tripod with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 24 mm; Exposure 1/160th sec. @ f/16, ISO 400)

As some readers know, I will be leaving in a few weeks for my first trip to Antarctica and I have been obsessing about my preparations for the journey. I even wrote about it in a guest post on Leanne Cole ‘s blog last month. (it can be found here.)

The Washington area was treated to a nice little snow storm yesterday and some pretty cold temperatures (for us) today so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to practice with my new gear in real-life conditions.  (The temperature was 20 degrees and the wind chill was about 5 degrees with the nice stiff breeze)

The image above shows the Great Falls of the Potomac River, a truly wild river scene that is only about 15 miles from Washington, DC and only 3 miles from my home.  For those not familiar with this location, it was photographed from Overlook 3 in Great Falls Park which is managed by the National Park Service. The waterfalls in the center have a drop of about 20-25 feet. The left bank is the state of Virginia and the right side is the state of Maryland.

The practice session was worthwhile.  I was able to test the cold weather effectiveness of some clothing, as well as finding some better ways to manipulate the camera gear in these conditions.  The advice I had received from a number of readers of the blog post mentioned above  proved to be very helpful.  As always, I’d be most interested in any comments from readers who have been to Antarctica or have experience in shooting in cold weather.

Full Moon?

Moonrise D-09-02-09-0133

Moonrise, Lincoln Memorial

Every so often, the full moon will rise perfectly aligned with an architectural icon, rewarding photographers who happen to be in the right place at the right time.  Such an opportunity may occur on November 6th here in Washington, DC but only if the weather forecast is wrong.  The prediction calls for an 80% chance of rain, which means that an opportunity for an image like the one above is slim.

The above image was taken on February 9, 2009 and while conditions were not perfect, we still had a chance for a nice image. (Technical data: Nikon D200 on tripod with 18-300 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens extended to 112 mm; exposure: 2.5 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 200)  On that night, the time of the moonrise was 42 minutes after sunset, which is usually a little later than perfect. Tomorrow night, the moonrise is scheduled for only 6 minutes after sunset, which is a little earlier than perfect.  In addition, the location of the moon will be slightly to the left (north) so one would need to be a little farther south to get the same proximity with the Lincoln Memorial.

About five years ago, it was difficult to calculate the right time and place to catch the moon as it broke the horizon line.  You needed to know how to use a compass, something that was invented 800 years ago. But the appearance of “apps” such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris have made this quite easy. So check your weather forecast, and if the prospects are favorable in your area, get out there with your tripod and get the shot.

Silver Line Opens—Scouting Report

Before a photographer starts to capture images, he/she must know how to get to the intended location of the shoot.  In the Washington, DC area this can be an interesting challenge.  There are all kinds of transportation options, and they are constantly changing.

Yesterday brought a huge change with the Grand Opening of the Washington Metro’s new Silver Line. I stayed home on Day #1 while the VIPs, media, and first-day riders had their fun.  But today it would be just regular folks riding the rails and I decided it was a good time to start exploring.

Kent Silver Line Blog 01

Welcome Signs Everywhere

The first thing riders need to know is that not all of the five stops on this section have dedicated parking facilities, so we started at the Reston station which for the time being is the end of the line.  (In a few years, the line will extend to Dulles Airport.)  There are several free and paid-for apps for smart phones and tablets available to help with route planning, but I haven’t tested any yet.  The Washington Metro’s website has a Trip Planner that is somewhat clunky but can help with basic routing scenarios.  We decided to be typical riders and just show up.

The Reston Station has a large underground parking garage that also houses the bus arrival and departure zones, plus a secure bicycle storage area that is quite large and features a repair facility.

Kent Silver Line Blog 02

One of the Fairfax Connector buses in the Departure Zone

The elevator from the parking garage deposits you on a plaza that is surrounded by construction projects for apartments, stores, restaurants and who knows what else, so this could be a lively place in the near future.

Kent Silver Line Blog 03

Signs Guide the Rookies (like us)

The architecture of the Silver Line stations is quite different from other above ground Metro stations; I’ll leave it to architecture critics to assess their aesthetic merit.

Kent Silver Line Blog 04

The Walkway in Foreground Leading to the Station

The pedestrian walkway is open and airy, with mesh screens covering the openings allowing the sound of the traffic below to serenade you during the short walk to the station.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the days when we have wind and rain.  But today at least it seemed much more pleasant than walking through a tunnel.

Kent Silver Line Blog 05

The Walkway

Inside the station, the many skylights contributed to the feeling of openness.  Metro personnel were out if full and friendly force to help anyone with questions. Signs were everywhere providing useful information. Riders lined up to get their fare cards replenished and moved through the turnstiles to the train platform.

Kent Silver Line Blog 07

More Help for the Newbies (everyone)

 We hopped on, found a seat, and settled in for the ride.  The Silver Line passes through the Tysons Corner/McLean, Virginia area (4 stops), then joins the same route as the Orange line, passing through Falls Church, Arlington, and into the District of Columbia and then out to Maryland where it terminates at Largo.  On this day, the most popular of those 4 new stations was the Tysons Corner Center where shoppers were taking advantage of this new option for getting to this sprawling complex of stores, restaurants, and movie theaters.

In about 15 minutes, we arrived at the last of the new stations—McLean—and got off to wait for a train going back to our starting point.  It was nearly deserted, but that likely will change tomorrow when the workweek starts.  There are a number of large office buildings nearby whose workers are prime candidates for the new service.

Kent Silver Line Blog 10

A Good Number of Bikers were Testing the System

Kent Silver Line Blog 09

Our Return Train Arrives


Kent Silver Line Blog 11

Flying Over the Infamous Beltway

The ride back was equally smooth and the Reston Station was still crowded with passengers checking out the new line. Our costs for this excursion were a paltry $1.75 each because we never left the McLean Station. For all the fare card machine knew, we never boarded a train.  And parking, usually $4.85  was free on this day. So it was just the minimum fare.

It should be interesting to see how all this plays out.  If you are thinking about trying the Silver Line, the complicated part will be getting to the station. Numerous bus routes have been set up to serve these stations, and figuring out the ideal route will take a little research.  If you plan on parking at the Reston station, I’d recommend a trial run because the entrance and  interior design of the parking area is not, shall we say, fool-proof.


4th of July Waterworks!

One of the less well known benefits of living in the Washington, DC area is that it has some of the best whitewater action in the world. For those who are skeptical, here is a link to an article in today’s Washington Post. And the most difficult stretch of that action is the Great Falls of the Potomac which happens to be about 3 miles from my home. I’ve been following the action for seven years now and it is always exciting. It’s pretty cool to go to an Olympic level competition, get a prime viewing spot, and not pay a dime. So that’s where I was yesterday, photographing the boaters as they practiced for a competition that was held today. Here are a few shots from the practice session.

Kayak Kent Blog 01
The water level was perfect for the center line which is perfectly located for viewing from two of the overlooks in Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side and pretty good viewing from the overlook from the Park on the Maryland side. It is also a dangerous route over the falls. A competitor was killed last year when she made an error during a practice run causing the event to be canceled. It should be noted, however, that this was an extremely rare incident; these participants are all highly skilled and numerous rescue capabilities are in position for these events. The image above was taken from the water level not normally accessible to non-boaters. I was about 100 meters from the falls. (Technical data (Nikon D800E handheld with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; Exposure was 1/200th sec. @ f/8, ISO 400)

Kayak Kent Blog 02
This is a tight crop from the same image, so it shows the value of having an extremely sharp lens. The competition is a timed course so each competitor has to negotiate a series of cascades, finishing with this 20-foot (plus) drop and then making a sprint a short distance to a finish line (out of sight to the left). There are two runs and the boater in each class with the lowest cumulative time is the winner.

Kayak Kent Blog 03
This was taken from Overlook 2 in Great Falls National Park (Virginia side). It is about the same distance from the drop as the location down at water level. I went back this morning for the actual competition and used an old Nikon 80-400mm zoom lens. It’s been a while since I have used it, since that extra three pounds is no fun to carry in one’s back-pack. But it seemed this would be a good comparison test on sharpness. Because of its weight, I used a tripod. And as it turned out, the images taken with the 70-200 model at maximum extension are sharper than those of the 80-400 at its maximum length. This despite the fact that the images from the 70-200 have to be enlarged twice as much to match the size of objects in images from the bigger lens.
But I digress. This is a post about kayaks and the Great Falls of the Potomac. So let’s wrap it up with two images taken two years ago during another practice day.

Kayak Kent Blog 04
As noted above, the water level of the Potomac River dictates where the race will be run. The difference can be quite small. For example, the center line (first three images) is used when the water measures between 3.3-3.8 feet at a specified measuring location. That is a range of about 6 inches. There are three other routes, depending on the level measured on race day. This image was taken from Overlook 1 on the Virginia side of the park. It is an amazingly exciting viewpoint because spectators are less than 100 feet from the boater when she/he goes over. Unfortunately, there is very little room there and for a photographer with a tripod, there is literally only one optimal spot. And the Spout cannot be seen at all from any of the other overlooks. But I got lucky and saw a few boaters practicing when the water levels called for this route. Same camera-lens combination as above, exposure was 1/1,000th sec. @ f/5. This is a fairly tight crop, mainly because there was a lot of uninteresting foreground in the frame.

Kayak Kent Blog 05
But there were two other boaters practicing together and the image above is a full frame shot with the lens extended only to 100mm. It’s hard to see here, but when this image is printed large you can see the big smile on the face of the paddler waiting for his friend to complete the drop.