Tag Archives: Great Smoky Mountains

To Be Like a Leaf

Fall colors along a trail in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina

One of my favorite things is to sit by a mountain stream, especially in the fall, and watch the leaves falling from the trees overhead then being swept downstream by the current.  Some leaves travel straight down the middle of the steam, tossed gently by the movement of the water.  Many more leaves get caught up in the pools and eddies on the side of the streams, staying there until the current changes then moves them along to the next obstacle.  Occasionally the leaves are swept over rocks and sometimes even swamped by a cascade.  The courses of these leaves are a metaphor for our own lives and represent how little control we have over whether we stick to the center of the stream or get caught up along the sides.  Mostly, I think they reflect how pointless it is to stress and obsess over things that we can’t do anything about and remind us to go with the flow.  One of the many reasons I love to spend time in nature.

Fall colors along a trail in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina
Fall colors along a trail in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina
Fall colors along a trail in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina
Juneywhank Falls in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City, North Carolina

Nothing IS Something

Roy Taylor Forest overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Out of Focus

Kathy & I spent a nice quiet weekend in the Waynesville, NC area last week. It was sort of a birthday celebration but was primarily an excuse to escape the Charlotte heat and get away to the quiet and cool of the mountains. We ate at a few of our favorite restaurants and explored a bit of the area, but mostly we “chilled.”

Remains of a former CCC camp along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Remains of a former CCC camp along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

We had a nice hike in the Smokies along a quiet mountain stream, had a picnic lunch and spent some time at a few overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, but nothing especially noteworthy.

Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

At one point while sitting at a picnic table having lunch, one of us remarked at the number of people who come roaring into the parking area, race to the bathroom and barely have time for the car to cool down before they fire it up and race on to the next destination. Once in a while someone would “picnic,” which basically involved carrying their fast food container and half emptied “Big Gulp” over to a table, gobbling down some unrecognizable carbohydrate, then do the same hop back into the car and roar off thing.

Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Along the Kephart Prong Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Turks Cap Lillies along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Rabb Knob overlook
Turks Cap Lillies along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Rabb Knob overlook

We see the same thing happen at an overlook on the Parkway. We’ll be sitting in the car enjoying the quiet and the view, and car after car will drive in, stop without even putting the car in Park, stick an arm or a camera/phone out the window then drive off. Drive-by sightseeing!

Purple bee balm along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Rabb Knob overlook
Purple bee balm along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Rabb Knob overlook
Yellow Coneflowers at Roy Taylor Forest overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Yellow Coneflowers at Roy Taylor Forest overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway

One of us mentioned that – if they ever even took the time to notice anyone was there – these people would think we were crazy for just sitting around doing “nothing.” But what they fail to realize that “nothing” is actually “something,” but that too many people don’t bother to think about the benefits of just sitting and enjoying the view!

Taking Comfort in the Familiar, and July 2013 Wallpaper

Sunset from Morton Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Sunset from Morton Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

I guess it’s human nature that we find comfort in returning to things and places we have been before and know well.  Even when we have moved on to so-called “bigger and better things” we never completely get away from our past.  Whether that is good or bad is to be determined, and is up to each of us to decide.

While it’s where I started my “serious” photographic endeavors, I find myself doing very little classic  “Nature Photography” these days.  Not that there is anything wrong with it, as there are few things I enjoy more than standing at an overlook in the pre-dawn cold or the late evening dusk waiting for that Magic Moment.  But there’s just so much more to do than that.  As much as I love it, in many ways, as a photographer I’ve moved on.

I need to be a little cautious here, because I have a lot of good friends for whom nature photography is exactly what they want to do, and they spend all of their spare time, effort and money doing it.  So I’m not trying to make myself out as better than anyone, or suggest that I am more of an artiste than someone else, just because I like taking photographs of peeling paint and shadows.  It’s just that after a few hundred sunrises and sunsets, eventually they all sort of started looking the same to me.  While I still do my share of sunrises and sunsets, flowers and bugs, there’s only so much time, and I want to see what else there is!

So with all that said, this month’s calendar is one of those cliché photographs from an iconic location.  Morton Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of just a handful of places you can shoot sunset standing next to your car.  Plus, it often has just the right combination of good light and interesting sky that it often produces interesting results.  The downside, however, is that there is really only one view.  You seldom need anything but a 24-70 lens, which is what I used for this photo.  You can go wide or long within those limits, but for the most part that’s about what you have to work with.  The rest is up to the fate of the weather conditions.  Makes it a little hard to be contemplative or creative, it’s mostly a matter of luck.

This was taken with my long-obsolete Canon 20D and the now-ancient 24-70 lens.  Re-processed in Lightroom 4 to take advantage of some new technology.  Still not a bad photograph, I’d say.  And I’ll have that lens with me for a while!

Anatomy of a Photograph – “Early Snow and Fall Color, Smokies”

Final Processed File using Lightroom 3 and Process Version 2010. Canon 5D with Canon 100-400 at 200mm 1/13 sec @ f22 ISO 200

A number of my non-photographer friends have asked me on numerous occasions why their photographs don’t look like my photographs.  And of course the sentiment I hear most often is that “I must have a really great camera.”  And I tell them, “of course I do, but I could make the photographs I make with just about any camera.  It all has to do with how I take the photograph, and knowing what to do with it after I take it.”

Many people incorrectly attribute this answer to mean that I am “Photoshopping” my photos, but when they do, their impression is that that means something sinister or unethical.  I try to explain that a lot of what I do is no different than what might have been done with film in a darkroom.  I just don’t have to do it with chemicals, I do it with a computer.

This article is written primarily for me to be able to point my friends to something that explains, better than I could possibly do in the lunchroom at work or at dinner in a nice restaurant, what I mean when I say that I “develop” or “process” my photos in Lightroom.  And hopefully some of my photographer friends will find this interesting and perhaps even informative.

This photograph was taken in October 2011 on one of those rare times when the fall color was just about at peak, and an early morning snowstorm came through with just about perfect timing.  An hour before this photo was taken I was sitting in my car in the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome, being buffeted by gale force winds when a snow plow driver stopped to tell me that I had better get started down because he was planning to lock the gate.  I wisely retreated to a lower elevation and found this scene.

The scene in front of me was overall pretty dark and lacking in contrast, because even though the sun was lighting up the clouds the light was pretty diffused and the sun was not shining through all that brightly.  I knew from experience that my camera would try to overexpose to bring the values closer to an average exposure.  But I also knew that the snow and clouds were on the brighter end of the scale and would cause my camera to want to under underexpose the snow and clouds.  I figured (correctly) that the two would just about balance each other out and made no adjustments to what the meter was reading.  I confirmed the exposure with the histogram after the shot.

At the time I was pretty certain that I had captured some good photographs of a pretty amazing scene, but I also knew that a great deal of post-processing would be required to obtain a final image that looked like what I “saw” while I was standing at that overlook.  When I got home and imported the files into the computer, the first thing I saw was this flat looking gray mess that some people might be tempted to toss.  But I had a plan and went to work.

Unprocessed RAW file as imported to Lightroom

The first thing I did was to adjust the white balance to warm the scene up a little.  My camera does a very good job with finding the “right” white balance, but I knew I was going to need to add some warmth to get the look I was after.  About 500 points was plenty to get what I wanted.  Next, I knew I needed to add a lot of contrast, since the snow and clouds made for a very low-contrast scene.  I ended up adding a lot of black – about 70 points (this is Process Version 2010 in Lightroom – the new adjustment tools had not been invented yet!).  Some adjustments to the mid-tones and highlights and I was starting to get somewhere!

After some basic adjustments to white balance, tone and contrast.

My next step was to add some additional color contrast by using Split-toning to cool the shadows while keeping warmth in the highlights.  This is pretty subtle but gives the scene a bit more vibrance.

After extensive use of the Adjustment Brush for localized dodging & burning, contrast and saturation

After a bunch of time spent cloning dust spots – the photo was shot at f22 – I was ready to move on to some fine tuning.  I made extensive use of the Adjustment Brush to selectively darken and lighten specific areas of the photo, added some contrast and saturation to areas that needed it, and generally “shaped” the image to direct the viewer’s eye through the scene.  A little vignetting to keep the viewer inside the frame, some tweaks to the capture sharpening and noise reduction and it’s done.  Or done for now, as I haven’t yet tried to make a print of this photo.  Doing that will undoubtedly require another round or two of adjustments once I see what it looks like on paper.  I’d also like to experiment with this image using Process Version 2012 in Lightroom 4, but when I click the button to convert it the photo turns to crap again.  So we’ll have to save that and printing for a future episode!

After some additional fine tuning and sharpening, and adding a subtle vignette.
After some additional fine tuning and sharpening, and adding a subtle vignette.

October 2012 Wallpaper

Morning light and fall color with an early snow fall from the Deep Creek Valley Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Last fall we were treated to a relatively rare (for me, at least!) mix of fall color and snow.  We had driven up to Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies for sunrise, only to be chased back down by gale-force winds and blowing snow.  The morning light a few hundred feet below proved to be a good consolation.

October is definitely my favorite time of the year here in North Carolina.  We have a number of interesting adventures planned, including a long-overdue visit to Florida (not for fall color) so stay tuned for updates on our travels.  Whether you manage to see snow or not, I sincerely hope that your October is a wonderful one!

Happy Now?

Fall color and early snowfall from the Deep Creek Valley Overlook on US 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In my last post I ruminated on the fact that the weather over the past few weeks had been “too perfect” and as a result I was having trouble getting motivated creatively. Well, as if on cue, like someone was telling me to be careful what I wished for, this past weekend…We Got Weather.

We often have a tough time deciding whether to get up early and hope for a good sunrise or just head someplace we want to shoot in nice light. That decision can be especially difficult in the fall because often the places for good color and the places for sunrise are mutually exclusive. We were in Cherokee, planning to shoot color in the lower elevations of the Smokies, especially in the Deep Creek area which is one of our favorite places. It’s generally quiet and out of the way this time of year since the water is too cold for the tubers and the outfitters have closed for the season.

Fall color and early snowfall from the Deep Creek Valley Overlook on US 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The weather on Friday was rainy, and the forecast for Saturday called for clearing in the morning, followed by partly cloudy in the late morning and rest of the weekend. Hearing a perfect recipe for a possible “clearing winter storm” scenario we headed to Clingman’s Dome hoping for a good sunrise. On our way up 441 we could actually see stars in places, but at about the Kephart Prong parking area we started to see snowflakes. By the time we got to the Deep Creek Valley overlook it was snowing hard. Luftee Overlook was snowing and socked in, so we headed on up the road to the “Dome.”

Clingman’s Dome Road was getting snow covered in a hurry, but it wasn’t accumulating too much at that point, but the higher we got the more snow we saw. At the parking area the thermometer in the car said that it was 26 degrees. The wind was howling, snow was blowing across the pavement and visibility was about 20 feet. We pulled along the curb figuring that we might as well wait and see what happened, even though I don’t think I could have opened my car door with the wind. As we sat there several other cars pulled in, but most of them just kept going, heading back down the mountain. There were a few cars parked, but most of them looked like they had been there overnight.

Fall color and early snowfall from the Deep Creek Valley Overlook on US 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

About 7:30 a snowplow came into the lot. I figured he was checking out the road and would be back around in a minute or two. After about 5 minutes the plow pulled up next to my car, the driver got out and came over to our car and said “I’m heading down to close the road.” I said, “OK.” He evidently wasn’t satisfied with my answer so he said, “If you leave now I’ll make sure you get down OK.” I said, “OK.” He evidently wasn’t sure I got it so then he asked , “So are you coming?” To which I replied, “YEAH!” No stupid tourists in THIS car!

We drove down to Newfound Gap to use the restroom and could barely walk in some places because it was so slippery. But the roads were generally OK so we drove down to Luftee Overlook, hoping it would be a little more sheltered there, which it was. The weather never really cleared though, so we headed a little lower until we finally got to some overlooks where we could see. And what a sight! It was still really windy, but the snow on the mountainsides along with the fall color was amazing! I hope I made a few photographs that do it justice, but for a guy who doesn’t get to see much snow any more this was a lot of fun.

The rest of the weekend was back to more sun and blue sky, but you won’t hear me complaining!

Early snowfall on Clingman's Dome from US 441 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park