Milky Way over Clingmans Dome

Last week during a trip to the smokies with a few friends, we had the opportunity to photograph the milky way.  The weather was clear, there was very little moon, and it didn't even rise until after the milky way was to set anyway.  The weather was cooperating, so we just needed a place to shoot it.

After consulting my PhotoPills app and considering a few other places, we decided to try our luck at Clingmans Dome.  There isn't much as far as interesting foreground elements go in the parking lot there, so we decided to make the walk up to the observation tower and use that as a foreground element.  That walk, by the way, is not very fat friendly.  It is only about a half mile, but has an elevation gain of 331 feet.  That probably doesn't sound too bad reading it, but after a 1/4 of the way your thighs will let you know how bad it actually is.  We also did this at 3:00 AM.

We shot a few images at the base of the observation tower then one of my friends and I decided to walk up to the top of the tower to get above the trees and see how the compositions would look.  I'm sure glad we did.  Although the images from the base of the tower were great, what you could see from the top was incredible!  

You could not fit the milky way into the frame, even at 15mm, so this is a 6 shot panoramic image.  This was taken just minutes before the galactic center was to disappear behind the horizon. This was the first image I processed from my trip once I returned home.  I knew it looked pretty good on the camera's LCD, but I was just hoping it lined up and stitched together OK.  Lightroom Classic had no issues stitching the images.  I made sure to overlap each image by about 25% or so.  I'm pretty happy with the way this one turned out.

Equipment list: Nikon D850, Tamron SP 15-30 F/2.8 Di VC USD, Sirui Tripod and K-40 Ballhead

EXIF Info: Manual exposure, 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 17mm

 

Bear Cub In The Grass

No trip to The Great Smoky Mountains is complete without at least one loop around Cades Cove.  Cades Cove can get pretty crowded, and quickly.  The earlier you can get there the better off you are.  The reason it gets so crowded is it is a very popular spot for viewing wildlife.  In the Spring and Summer it is especially popular for viewing black bears.

The Cades Cove Loop Road has a gate at the entrance that does not get opened until sunrise.  The strategy of getting there early means you want to get there 30-45 minutes before sunrise to get your spot in line.  During this time of waiting on the gate to open you get to see a lot of "interesting" characters.  At least the people watching passes the time.  

On one of our visits to Cades Cove we had the pleasure of seeing several bears.  I believe we counted about 15 in one day.  That's probably no record, but that's 15 more black bears than I would've seen at home, for sure.  So, I'm glad we went.  We saw what looked to be a lot of moms with cubs.  These bears looked a little worse for the wear.  I'm no bear expert, but I'm assuming that being in the den without food and feeding young ones was the cause of this.  The big bears that we saw alone, which I assume to have been males, looked much better than the moms with cubs.

We saw several cubs on our visit.  Most of them not much taller than the grass they were feeding in.  This made getting clear shots of them pretty tough unless they stood up.  After a lot of waiting for a clear shot I decided to try and get a shot of one of the little guys "peeking" through the grass.  After a lot of waiting, and several attempts, I was able to get a shot I was happy with.

You can see what I mean when I say they weren't much taller than the grass.  It was very difficult to get good clear shots of them, so I waited...and waited...and waited until I could clearly see both eyes through the grass.

Equipment list: Nikon D500, Tamron SP 150-600 F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2, Sirui Tripod and K-40 Ballhead

EXIF Info: Aperture-priority, 1/800 sec, f/6.3, ISO 3200, Compensation: +1/3, 400mm

Roaring Fork

The Roaring Fork Motor Trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of my favorite destinations in the park.  I love photographing water, so that automatically gives it an advantage.  The mossy greens on the rocks in the springtime are absolutely fabulous, too.  I also love that the water, in most places, isn't more than knee deep, so it's easy to get in the water and create more pleasing compositions than from the stream side.

The weather was bright overcast on the day I visited Roaring Fork.  That allowed me to shoot in that area for several hours...and I did indeed.  It's such a great area of the park, especially if you enjoy the water, and it isn't anywhere near as crowded as some of the other areas.

I used a 24mm lens here with a circular polarizer.  I never shoot water without a good polarizer.  It makes a huge difference in your images.  In this scene, it doesn't only kill a lot of the reflections off of the rocks and water, it also helps to make the greens a little more saturated.

Equipment list: Nikon D850, Tamron SP 24-70 F/2.8 Di VC USD, Sirui Circular Polarizer, Sirui Tripod and K-40 Ballhead

EXIF Info: Aperture-priority, 4 sec, f/16, ISO 64, Compensation: +1/3, 24mm

Center Composition

Composition seems to be the component in photography that allot of people struggle with.  You are told you must stick to the basic rules of composition.  Then, sometimes, you are told that it's OK to break those rules.  So, follow the rules...break the rules...it all makes sense now, right?

I generally base most of my compositions off the "rule of thirds".  The rule of thirds, if you aren't aware of it, is a composition rule that divides your image into thirds both horizontally and vertically so you have nine parts, or squares, like a tic tac toe board.  The idea is to place your main point of focus at one of the intersecting points of the squares.  This is supposed to make your image better balanced and give a more natural viewing experience.  Like I mentioned, this is the rule I base almost all of my compositions off of.  It's what I am always thinking about when I compose a shot through the viewfinder.

There are times, however, that I want my subject in the center of the frame.  You will hear many give advice against putting your subject in the dead center of the frame.  However, when I do it, I am still thinking about the rule of thirds.

Aperture-priority, 1/250 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1000, Compensation: +2/3, 600 mm

This elk, for example, is in the center of the frame.  As I was composing this shot, I was thinking about the rule of thirds, like always, and wanted to position his eyes on the "upper" third line.  Although the eyes aren't at one of the intersecting points, they are placed along the line of thirds.  In my opinion, this still works.  Being an outdoor/nature photographer, I use this type of composition most often when photographing wildlife.  In a scene like this one, where the critter is looking straight into the lens, I think it works well.  It gives you a sense of making direct eye contact with the critter.  Personally, I don't think you would get that instant sense if this scene were composed with the elk's eyes at one of the intersecting points.

Composition rules...follow them, bend them, break them.  Do whatever it takes to make the image a pleasurable experience for the viewer.  

This elk was photographed in Cataloochie Valley in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

This image was made using my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600 G2 Lens mounted on my Sirui Tripod with PH-20 Gimbal Head.  Camera settings can be viewed by hovering over the image.

Smoky Mountain Black Bears

One of the most popular areas in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove.  In the spring the black bears are easily found there.  One afternoon while in Cades Cove we ran across this mother and cub.  They were in the wooded area for a long time then came out into this field and eventually worked their way over to more woods on the other side of the field.  They were very fun to watch and photograph from a safe distance. They seemed to like performing for all the photographers that were watching. 

You can see here they have just came into the field.  The bear cub could care less about anything except eating and playing.  In fact, when they were crossing the field the cub got a little behind mom, then quickly ran to catch up doing a double front flip to stop.  

This image was made using my Sony a6300, LA-EA3 Lens Adapter and Tmaron 150-600mm Lens.  Everything was resting atop my Sirui tripod and PH-20 Gimbal Head, which made it very easy to follow these guys with my camera and long lens. 

Aperture Priority, F/6.3, ISO 6400, 1/1250th second, 280mm

You Shot That With A What?

One of the days we were in the smokies my teaching partner, David Akoubian, was going to be using his NIkon system for the day, so I decided to borrow his Canon 5D III for the day.

That's right using a Canon.  If you have followed me for any amount of time you know I used to shoot Canon before I switched to the Sony MIrrorless system.  So, I'm no stranger to the system.  I decided to give it a whirl on some of the macro images of the pink lady slippers.

The conditions were great for shooting macro shots of these flowers on this day.  It had rained the evening before and everything was still wet causing the colors to look more saturated.  It was also still very overcast, so there was no harsh light falling on any areas, which made for great light.

This is another one of those macro instances where I wanted to totally isolate the subject from the background so I shot wide open at F/2.8.

I shot this using the Canon 5D Mk III and Tamron 90mm Maccro Lens.  I always use a tripod when shooting macro and this time was no exception.  I had my Sirui W-2004 and G-20 Ballhead combo and it worked great, like always.

Aperture Priority Mode, F/2.8, ISO 100, 1/50th second, 0 Exposure Compensation

Smoky Mountain Sun Rays

While in the Smoky Mountains for our workshop we decided to go up to Clingman's Dome for sunset.  The idea was that the full moon was rising 15 minutes before sunset, so we were going to photograph both the moon rising and quickly adjust for sunset.  The weather had a different idea.  We stuck with our plans, though and waited it out at Clingman's Dome.  It's a good thing we did, too.  About thirty minutes before time for sunset, there was a small break in some clouds near the horizon that allowed these amazing sun rays to display.  They lasted for about 15 minutes or so.  There was no real sunset, but seeing these rays light up the mountain tops was a pretty decent trade off.

I shot this with my Sony A7RII, LA-EA3 Lens Adapter and Tamron 70-200mm Lens all resting on my Sirui W-2204 Tripod and G-20 Ballhead.  The 70-200 is my favorite lens for Clingman's Dome.  I use it to compress the scene and get that nice layering effect in the mountains.  

No real trick to processing this image, but I will tell you using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom CC helps enhance the rays a bit.

Aperture Priority, 1/60th second, F/11, ISO 100, Exposure Compensation -2

 

Tremont

The Tremont area of The Great Smoky Mountains is one of my favorite areas to visit.  I love shooting the water and rivers of the smokies and Tremont is a fantastic place to do just that.  The river snakes along side the road offering many opportunities for lovely cascades and mini waterfalls. 

We visited this area just after a rain, which is a fantastic time to do this type of photography.  Notice how the rocks are wet from the rain.  Everything being wet offers much more contrast than under normal, dry conditions.  Be sure to pack in your circular polarizer though.  Wet also means reflective, so you'll need that polarizer to cut through the reflection and glare.

I like to get down very low on a scene like this, which means putting my camera and myself in some unusual positions.  This is where a few things come in very handy.  First, my Sirui tripod...I can always get it in the spot I want no matter where that spot is.  Secondly, the tilt screen on my camera...sometimes because my camera is in a position that doesn't allow me to look through the viewfinder, the tilt screen comes in super handy.

Image made with Sony A7R II, LA-EA3 Lens Adapter, Tamron 24-70mm Lens, Marumi Circular Polarizer, Sirui W-2004 Tripod and Sirui G-20 Ballhead.

 

 

Meigs Falls

One of the mornings during the workshop in the Smokies, we had a rainy, cloudy very dark morning.  Naturally we took to photographing water.

This waterfall is right by the road going from Cades Cove back down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  It is very hard to miss, however, as it is tucked back into a little "pocket".  It is also very hard to photograph unless you have a dreary day like we had.   

ISO 100, 135mm, F/16 @ 25 seconds

ISO 100, 135mm, F/16 @ 25 seconds

I made this image with my Sony A7R, LA-EA4 Lens Adapter and Tamron 70-200mm F/2.8 SP Di USD Lens.  All mounted atop my Vanguard Abeo Plus 323CT Tripod.  I also used my Hoya Circular Polarizer to cut reflections.

Pink Lady Slippers

No, those aren't what I wear with my housecoat before bed.

They are wildflowers.  And dang fine ones, too!  Oh, and hard to find, too.  That was until we found this spot during our workshop in the Smokies.

We were walking down this trail where my teaching partner, David Akoubian, had remembered seeing some of these Pink Lady Slippers years ago.  Well, we ended up finding a small group and spent some time photographing them.  As we walked further down the trail we found an elderly couple taking a rest on a log and they told us that just down this other trial there were "bunches of them".  

We walked down the other trail to the point where we thought the guy was just nuts, then we started to see small groups of them, then more of them, then large groups of them.  It was us that was nuts it turns out!

The first image on the left was taken on the day we initially found the flowers.  The lighting was not good and we were trying to use everything we had as a diffuser and background.  I had to push the processing on that one a bit to get an image I liked.  

The image on the right was taken a few days later.  The light was great on this day!  We had rain that morning and it was still very overcast when we arrived.  So the light was better and we got the bonus raindrops, too.

Settings for the left image: ISO 1600, 90mm, F/16 @ 1/10th second

Settings for the right image: ISO 800, 90mm, F/4.0 @ 1/125th second

Both images were taken with my Sony A7R, Metabones Adapter and Tamron 90mm Macro Lens.  This setup was of course on a tripod...my Vanguard Abeo Plus 323CT.