Springtime in the Smoky Mountains

Springtime on the Middle Prong River

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I just returned home from my annual spring trip to the Smoky Mountains. Over the course of eight days, I led a photo workshop and spent the rest of my time shooting in the park. The weather this spring was not nearly as dramatic as years past. Over the course of the entire trip, I did not even experience a single morning with smoke in the mountain hollows and valleys. That was very disappointing, but the dogwoods and streams were amazing this year, so I focused almost all of my time and attention on shooting the streams in the park. This almost myopic approach produced far less variety of images as in years past, but the good news was that I came away from the trip with a few stream images I am very happy with.

The image above is a classic scene found on the Middle Prong of the Little River in the Tremont section of the park. A crystal clear day provided exactly what I was looking for to get my shot by using the rich warm directional light at sunset. This turned  what would have been a flat image under overcast skies or in deep shade into one that has a fresh breath of depth and rich colors. I still love shooting under the soft light of overcast and wet conditions, but am finding that early and late light often provides a more interesting pallet of color and contrast to these steam and waterfall images.

Emerald Cascades

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This was a shot a few years in the making. I first photographed this small woodland stream about four years ago. The water levels and forest conditions were never right for the image that I had pre-visualized in my mind. But after a night of heavy rain in the park, this rather small brook came to life with a rush of fresh water turning the trickling cascades into proper waterfalls.  I spent the better part of two hours with my workshop group exploring several sections of the falls until I finally landed on this particular composition. Getting in the water, precariously standing on wet and slippery rocks, I maneuvered my camera within less than a foot from the cascades. using my Nikon 14-24mm, I was able to compose an image that puts the viewer right into the shot. It almost feels like your going to get splashed in the face with cold mountain water while viewing this image.  I was also quite fond of the single tree arcing over to the right creating visual tension in the background. That was definitely an important part of the overall success of the composition IMO.

Sparks Lane

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A trip to the Smoky Mountains would not be complete without at least one morning in Cade’s Cove. This year was once again rather disappointing with the uncommonly warm days and warm nights not producing any fog in the valleys. The Dogwoods however, where amazing, and I couldn’t pass up a chance to shoot Sparks Lane surrounded by the soft fleshy blooms. Myself and workshop group spent the entire morning working this lane. For this shot, I backed far up the lane away from the scene in order to use my telephoto lens to compress the perspective and exaggerate the depth of the road running in between the tree line. The mountains in the background shifted to blue during the exposure and added the perfect color combination playing off of the warm spring foliage.

Dogwood Dance

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Continuing my quest to photograph the streams and forests in mixed light, I made this image in the middle of the afternoon under variable clouds. Often times photographers will pass up these conditions, but I wanted to create an image that was different from the rest.  This image presented several technical problems. First, I needed to be patient and wait for just the right light. This was only the case when the sun was partially blocked by a passing cloud. In direct sunlight the shadows and highlights were out of control. As the sun hit the edge of a passing cloud, it softened the light just enough to maintain the directional light in the forest without killing the highlights and shadows. The second problem was the cascades in the immediate foreground. Being out in the open of the canopy they were receiving much more light. To combat this problem, I used my Singh Ray 3 Stop ND Grad (hard Edge) upside down placing the dark portion of the filter over the stream. This allowed my to hold the highlights in the image in a single exposure.  And finally, the third problem was my shutter speed. Even with a Circular Polarizer and the lowest ISO available,  I was still only able to get a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second rendering the water too harsh. Using a technique that I have employed for streaking clouds in the past, I set my Nikon to a multiple exposure of 5 images (in camera multiple exposure). This allowed me to progressively stack up the motion of the water over 5 separate frame giving the water a softer appearance, but still maintaining a great amount of clarity in the water. In order for this to work, I needed the breeze to settle down so there was no motion in the delicate Dogwood Blooms between each shot. All in all, I waited patiently for well over an hour before all the conditions  came together. I hope it was worth it. I’ll let you be the judge of that!

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