coltbradley

Since the beginning of January, I’ve left the house at 5:50 am to drive south into Charlotte to get to work. The commute is a killer (on a positive note, I’ve been burning through audiobooks). Traffic on I-77 South, even at that hour, is congested and reaches almost a stand-still in certain areas. The result of this is that I spend a lot of time looking at the Charlotte skyline in the early morning in a variety of conditions.

The Charlotte skyline is a lot of things. First, it’s self-contained. It doesn’t sprawl like other cities, and it’s small enough to be mentally managed and navigated easily. Second, it has a lot of color. The Duke Energy Center lights up a variety of colors depending on the day, and the other buildings compliment it nicely. Finally, Charlotte’s skyline isn’t as well-known as other cities. All of these things make it perfect material for photography.

After seeing the city from multiple angles, I knew I wanted to shoot from the east looking back at the city. I knew I’d want a cloudy morning since I liked the way the lights on the buildings reflected against low cloud cover. And I wanted to shoot over or near a road since I wanted to convey how busy the city felt during the morning rush hour. The problem was, I had no idea where I could get this shot. Time for some location scouting.

The Charlotte skyline is a lot of things. First, it’s self-contained. It doesn’t sprawl like other cities, and it’s small enough to be mentally managed and navigated easily. Second, it has a lot of color. The Duke Energy Center lights up a variety of colors depending on the day, and the other buildings compliment it nicely. Finally, Charlotte’s skyline isn’t as well-known as other cities. All of these things make it perfect material for photography.

After seeing the city from multiple angles, I knew I wanted to shoot from east looking back at the city. I knew I’d want a cloudy morning, since I liked the way the lights on the buildings reflected against low cloud cover. And I wanted to shoot over or near a road, since I wanted to convey how busy the city felt in the morning rush hour. The problem was, I had no idea where I could get this shot. Time for some location scouting.

Scounting Locations

To get the shot I wanted, I needed to be above ground level. Parking garages are perfect for this vantage point. Oftentimes you can drive your car right up to the top, and they are scattered across cities, so you can choose the view you want. I did find one that was the perfect view of the city, but unfortunately, I didn’t think it would convey the busyness I experienced every morning on my commute.

After looking at a few other possible locations, I found the Central Avenue Bridge. This bridge is located right above the freeway, so would allow me to capture all the morning traffic. After trying out a few different angles, I found out the shots that I would take.

Take One

Since I like to get to school early every morning, I decided to take my shots on a Saturday morning. I left the house at 5:45 am like normal and arrived at the location around 6:20 am to near perfect conditions. The sky was cloudy, the lights were colorful, and there was just enough traffic to make my light trails idea work.

Here’s the problem: Just a few minutes after I arrived it started to get light. By the time I parked my car, got out my gear, and walked to the location, the sky was noticeably brighter. Even with my 3-Stop Graduated ND, I couldn’t get the scene dark enough.

On top of this, when I set up my 70-200mm on 

the tripod I made a silly mistake: I forgot to turn off the lens’s Image Stabilization. For those of you who don’t know, Image Stabilization will help a handheld shooter get a steady shot even at low shutter speeds. However, when using a tripod on a shaky bridge like I was, the Image Stabilization will try to correct for phantom camera shake, resulting in a blurry image. When I got back home, I found that my images were 1. Too light and 2. Blurry. The only one that was usable, I shot on my 35mm (which doesn’t have image stabilization) and cropped to the focal length I wanted. Overall, not a successful outing.  

Take Two

Ah well, I had learned my lesson and was ready to try again. This time, I decided to shoot before school one day. This would force me to be early enough, but I hoped I wouldn’t be so rushed that I would make other mistakes.

Conditions were perfect, even better than the previous day. There was also a lot more traffic, which would only help me show how electric and alive the city felt before a workday. I had 30 minutes, so I snapped a few pictures in each of the angles I had chosen before. The sky and city were very bright compared to the foreground, so I used the Grad ND again to even out the scene a little more. After shooting, I went to work without a chance to look at my images.

When I had a chance to look at the images, I loved how they turned out. The mood was exactly what I wanted, foreboding and electric at the same time. They were sharp (I remembered to turn off Image Stabilization this time). And it felt really good to put this much effort into three photos and have them turn out. Let me know what you think!

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