As I mentioned in my "pilot" blog entry, photography has been a grand adventure and personal growth catalyst over the last ten years, and continues to be so. By following my blog entries you are blessing me beyond words as I get to share a huge part of my heart and life journey with you all. What I'm learning or have learned in the past I am attempting to pass on, so that maybe the experience can benefit more than just myself. Early each week you should expect a special "on-location" post featuring either a new place I am working with, one I am featuring from work in the past, or possibly a special shoot I was privileged to take on. Later each week you can expect posts about "approach" to photography and life lessons learned from it, as well as entries on technique/composition/gear etc. (more of a "how-to"). Thanks so much for moving forward with me!
ON LOCATION: Tremont Area, Great Smokey Mountain National Park
A true gem tucked away just a tad off the beaten path, the Tremont area offers a wide wide range of forest, cascade and waterfall picture opportunities. With peak colors just around the corner (if not in these upper elevations this very week), now is the time to take off and re-discover one of America's most beloved national parks.
As you enter the park from Townsend, TN (Hwy 73), take a right onto possibly the most heavily trafficked road in all of the park as the highway ends at the park's first intersection. Laurel Creek Road winds up and up all the way into Cades Cove, widely known as the "go-to" spot for visiting the Smokies and thus a sometimes bumper-to bumper drive depending on day of week or time of year. Cades Cove is a busy location for good reason: with beautiful views of the mountains over pleasant fields, terrific trails, a solid campground and the uncanny knack for providing wildlife (often black bear) right outside your vehicle's window.
But for those looking for a little seclusion, a bit of photographic challenge, and the experience of one of the best kept secrets in all of the park - simply take Tremont Road, which will be on your left no more than 1/4 mile after turning onto Laurel Creek Road. (If you are coming from the Sugarlands Visitor Center on Little River Gorge Road, Little River Gorge Rd becomes Laurel Creek Rd as soon as you pass the intersection of Hwy 73/Townsend entrance/exit of park.)
Picture opp's are limitless as the Middle Prong of Little River flows beside (and crosses under) the road all the way until both end, where Thunderhead Prong and Lynn Camp Prong meet together, around 6-7 miles up. About halfway you'll discover The Great Smokey Mountain Institute at Tremont, which is definitely worth checking out for their variety of nature programs and a wonderful rustic camp area. Whatever you end up doing on your trip up here, make sure you come back to this center and take the hike to Spruce Flats Falls. It is absolutely beautiful and only about a mile hike. It's tucked away nicely and just feels like something out of a dream if you reach it in the morning when the sun is barely touching the top. (It'll also be easier to photograph if you reach it early enough that there isn't direct sunlight... though an overcast day would help out with this should you get there later.)
From the Institute, the road turns to gravel for the remainder of the way, insuring your company will be even fewer and adding a few extra points to your "adventurer street-cred." The most photogenic scenes along the road begin to appear at this point, as more moss appears covering the rocks and larger cascades present interesting compositions. At the very top, where the two smaller branches merge, you can continue on hiking trails along either branch for even more secluded cascade and forest scenes. (The trail system here eventually leads all the way into NC and even accesses the Appalachian Trail, make sure and prepare yourself via trail map if you are planning to hike a good distance from this parking lot.)
I have been reaching this area early in the morning on a couple of recent Saturdays, attempting to catch early-fall color in contrast with the cooler shades of moss and water. Fall is obviously an optimum time for color in your photos, but it seems that catching scenes of surviving green foliage mixed with bright hues of turning leaves provides the most variety. The tricky thing is in living about an hour south and a lower elevation, I can't quite gauge exactly when the leaves of the Smokies will have turned enough based on the trees in town. Furthermore, in these heavily forested areas, it's not the tops of the trees I'm concerned with, but rather the yield of leaves laying among the rocks and the underside of the beautiful canopy overhead. If the tops have turned, but the bottoms haven't , there might not the amount of color I am looking for in my scene. All this to say - it was hit or miss on my part in heading up there (but worth it no matter the turn out)!
I haven't quite ended up with the color I was looking for, but I feel pretty great about the shots I was able to get anyway. I am pretty confident that these scenes will pop even more with some fall color in the frame - hopefully I have it timed right when I attempt again this week!
If you are interested in getting some good cascade pictures, get here early (at first light). Make sure and bring a sturdy tripod, and if you have a shutter remote, you'll want to use it too. There are many pull-overs you may want to park at for just a minute, jump out of your car and survey the stream. If you feel you can get a better look up the road, move on and try another.
Don't try and get to much in your picture. Or at least start with everything you think you want and then narrow down and isolate individual or small sets of the cascades so that you can more specifically define your subject. If you can find a safe enough place for yourself and your tripod toward the middle of the stream looking upstream, you may find your best vantage point for a wider shot. Especially if you have a wide angle lens (a wide focal length and portrait orientation can create the right perspective to "lead" your viewer up the stream in your picture).
For the signature silky look along with sharp detail in everything else... you'll have to have your tripod and you'll have to use manual settings. Maybe this can be your first experiment with it if you've never before! Set your aperature to maximum depth of field (f/22-29 range) and your shutter speed to 1 or 2 sec. If you're exposure meter is unbalanced still, try and set your ISO ("film" speed) accordingly. Set your camera to "remote" mode and try a couple frames. Use your review screen to make sure there is sharpness everywhere except for the water, and that you are pleased with the effect of the water's motion. If all is good, try the shutter at a couple of slightly faster speeds and a couple of slower speeds (with other settings balanced accordingly) to get a feel for the different appearance the water can take on. If any loss of detail in your shot due to camera movement, make sure your tripod is secured and all extensions are locked properly. Then consider utilizing your camera's "mirror-up" setting (see your manual for details). With my camera's "remote mirror-up" setting I was able to click once to raise it's mirror, give it a second to settle any mechanical vibrations and click once more for the shutter.
If you did not make it early enough in the day and you have brighter light (even if overcast), you will probably not be able to use a slow enough shutter for this effect, UNLESS you have a neutral density filter on your lens! These are handy little things that kind of act like sunglasses for your camera... they let much less light pass through, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed later in the day without overexposing. I still think it's much better to shoot in the morning - especially if it's a clear day... no sense in messing with potentially unwanted shadows or unpleasant glares if you can help it, and the experience of being at a place like this early in the morning is totally worth it!
As I mentioned, make sure you take time to check out Spruce Flats Falls. It is a much less trafficked trail than many other waterfall hikes in the Smokies. Not difficult, and pretty cleanly maintained. If you are able to get there early enough you can use the above technique to get some unreal pictures. Just make sure you pay attention to your foreground. You'll need to get a good angle to frame it right, as it is kind of narrowly tucked back above another cascade... trying to get all of this could lead to some distracting elements in your composition if you don't take a couple opportunities to re-frame.