Smoky Mountains Photography
Smoky Mountains Photo Strategies
The picturesque Smoky Mountains is truly a nature photographers dreamland. With abundant precipitation and mild winters, the diversity of photo subjects found here far exceeds most places. I spent the month of April and early May with Roger Trentham who has lived and photographed in the Smoky Mountain National Park all his life. Nobody could ask for a better guide to these wonderful mountains.
Mid-April is when the hills green with lush colonies of wildflowers and the fresh green leaves unfurl on the trees. The weather is highly variable with frequent cloudy days and showers that fill the numerous creeks, make the waterfalls even more spectacular, and often produce low clouds that produce fabulous landscapes when shooting down from high elevations that make pleasing images.
The variety of wildflowers is amazing. They photograph best with a long macro lens such as my Canon 180mm macro for three reasons. Long macros offer three advantages over the shorter 50mm and 100mm macros. The long macros have a smaller angle of view to reduce background clutter, they provide more working distance, and they have a tripod collar making it easier to use them on a tripod to switch between horizontal and vertical compositions.
While it is true long macros in the 180mm to 200mm range cost and weigh more than the shorter 50mm and 100mm macros, their usefulness is far greater. But, if price and weight are barriers to you, then the 100mm macro is a worthwhile second choice.
Since wildflowers are numerous, look them over to find the most pristine blossoms to photograph. Hopefully, the blossom will be in a suitable position that is easy to compose, and the background isn’t distracting. When flowers are still due to little or no wind, focus stacking the blossom only using f/5.6 or f/8 helps to keep the background more out of focus and therefore less distracting. I often use a plamp (gently) to hold the flower still.
The Smokies is a land of fabulous rock-filled streams with rocks covered in moss that are incredibly photogenic. Plus, there are plenty of waterfalls to enjoy, especially if you can hike a few miles round-trip. My favorite lens for streams and waterfalls tend to be wide-angles. The two lenses I use most include the Canon 16-35mm and the 24-70mm. Both are f/2.8 lenses at the maximum aperture and both take 82mm polarizing filters. I always use a polarizer on my lens when photographing water to both subdue glare off wet objects and to soften the flowing water more because the polarizer lets you use longer shutter times.
Since river shots tend to have lots of depth to them, focus stacking is a highly effective way to make sharp images. Normally, I set the composition and the exposure, and then focus on the closest object where I want sharp focus by using a magnified live view image. Once I have focused on the nearest foreground, I shoot an image of my hand to mark the beginning of the stack, and then shoot the first image. Then I manually turn the focus ring a small amount to focus on a spot a little further away and shoot another image. I keep doing this process until I finally focus at infinity or the furthest spot where sharp focus is desired and shoot that image. Then I photograph my hand again to mark the end of the stack. Another way to do this with simple scenes where it is obvious to focus the lens is to use autofocus using the live view image and touching the screen to make the lens change focus, and then fire the camera. Since my camera (5D Mark IV) has a touch shutter, I set the mode to two-second self-timer, and then just touch the LCD to fire the camera, 2-seconds later, of course.
While we see bear, deer, and elk during the spring, the photo opportunities aren’t great as these animals are shedding their winter coats, so they don’t look that great. Autumn is the time for the best wildlife opportunities in the Smokies.
Sunrise and Sunsets
For both you don’t want dense cloud cover or no clouds at all. When the forecast calls for about 30-50% cloud cover, then that is a good time to go for sunrise or sunset as the possibility of red light illuminating the clouds is much greater then. There are no guarantees, but your chances are better. Clingman’s Dome is a fine place for sunrise. Keep in mind the dome is at high altitude and the breeze is usually present, so dress for winterlike conditions. It is usually chilly to downright cold up there at sunrise.
I never use autoexposure when photographing in the Smokies. Instead, I always use full manual exposure. That means I select the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Obviously, I select the two that are most critical to me, and then adjust the third one until the first blinkies appear in the image. For example, to blur water when making a river scene shot, I might use ISO 100, f/8, and whatever shutter speed produces the first blinkies in the whitest water. If there are a lot of darks in the scene, then I often set another 1/3-stop more light once I see the first blinkies to get more exposure in the dark portions and reduce noise in those areas. Since river scenes have a lot of depth, I select f/8 because I will stack my way through the scene to sharply focus all parts.
I seldom stop my lens down much beyond f/8 to obtain overall sharpness. Focus stacking using f/8 nearly always works so much better, so I prefer stacking and combining the stack with Helicon Focus software.
I do use a lot of flash to add light to dark areas in the scene, and in close-up photography. For wildflowers, I prefer to use flash to sidelight or backlight the subject. However, I am using battery-powered LEDs in close-up photography and in the landscape. LED use is somewhat new to me, but the potential is enormous, and I will be using LEDs more frequently going forward.
Working the Camera
I prefer to compose by looking through the viewfinder, rather than at a live view display on the LCD. It is easier for me and quicker to use the viewfinder, but I do realize most workshop participants prefer to use live view. There is no right or wrong way here. Do whatever works best for you. I do fire my camera while in live view for a few reasons. First, the mirror is already up in live view so mirror vibration at the time of exposure is eliminated. Second, the shutter curtains are already open too, so shutter shock is also eliminated. Third, my camera is set to the Touch Shutter option. By merely touching the LCD, the camera fires. And to avoid any vibration caused by touching the LCD, I set my camera to 2-second self-timer. So, I gently touch the LCD, and 2-seconds later the camera shoots the image. This works well!!!!!
Gerlach’s Camera Gear Selection
Canon 5D Mark IV camera
Gitzo tripod with Kirk BH-3 ballhead
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm lenses
Polarizers that fit each of these lenses
Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite with the ST-E3-RT master controller
Gitzo tripod with Kirk BH-1 ballhead