Travelogue: Great Smoky Mountains National Park In Autumn

Last week I took a camping trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to photograph the fall foliage. The colors were late this year, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t spectacular! I had a fantastic time exploring the region with my camera. Speaking of which, this was my first significant photo outing with the new Nikon Z7. I’ll be posting a review of the Z7 in the near future, but suffice it to say, I was highly pleased with the experience.

[Click on any image to see a larger version in my galleries]

Day 1

My first day in the park was mostly spent exploring the surrounding streams and rivers in the region. Thanks to good amounts of rain, all the water in the park had a strong flow during my trip which made for great photos. I also made the hike up to Grotto Falls on this day, which thanks to the rain was gushing impressively. Grotto Falls is unique in that you can walk behind the waterfall, though unfortunately I wasn’t able to explore this spot photographically due to crowds. I was lucky to get the one shot I did without anyone in it.

After shooting the streams I ran up to a spot near Gatlinburg for sunset, which turned out to be beautiful! Right before the sun went down, the light hit the edges of the mountains below which made for a great intimate shot using my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G. Thanks to the massive sensor of the Z7, I was able to shoot in DX mode which effectively gave me the reach of about 135mm while still having a very large image. The colors in this area where very vibrant on this day, and there were surprisingly few people around. I have to admit, sometimes I look shooting in solitude!

Day 2

The evening between my first and second days in the park was chaotic to say the least. Strong storms blew through the area, downing trees and limbs all throughout the region. I ended up sleeping in my car that night as it was both very loud from all the wind and rain, and I was concerned about having something fall on me. Not the most comfortable night’s sleep, but it did the job!

In the morning I got up and went for an early hike to Laurel Falls. The hike to the waterfall is a bit over a mile, but the entire path is paved which makes the going much easier. Along with the waterfall, there was beautiful scenery throughout the hike, which I took my time to enjoy on the way back down. The third image below was made using a panning exposure with a slightly slower shutter speed which blurs the colors and gives a very pleasant effect for those who like abstract/artistic images.

Thanks to the strong winds and rain the night before, many of the leaves had fallen off the trees and into the water of the rivers and streams around the park, so I also took some time to explore this scenery during my second day. I tried a number of long exposure shots which makes for an interesting effect in the water. Most photographs of water benefit from a polarizing filter (I use a Lee Landscape Polarizer) but this scene especially does as it allows for the color of the leaves in the water to really pop, which helps emphasize their movement in an image like this.

The day ended with a bear sighting in the woods and some nice shooting along the winding roads throughout the park. While I enjoyed the bear sighting, it was a bit annoying because many of the visitors decided to simply stop their cars in the middle of the road as opposed to pulling off at an approved area. This naturally caused traffic to back up for a good 15-20 minutes. I ended up pulling off at one of the appropriate spots and cooking my dinner out of the back of my car. A can of soup, a container of propane, and an MSR pocket rocket make life a bit easier in this way.

Day 3

The start to day 3 was probably the most eventful part of the trip, though in an unfortunate way. I’ll get to that in moment, but first I should say the sunrise was spectacular! I got up at around 4:30am and headed up to Clingmans Dome, which offers a spectacular view over the surrounding mountains. With some high level clouds and plenty of space for the sun to the east, the sky lit up just before sunrise and continued to display nice colors even after the sun had risen. Along with the view of the fog in the valleys below, it made me surprised how relatively few people were up there at the start of the day.

Unfortunately, while there were few people, I still managed to make one of them upset. Without getting too far into it, I ended up accidentally getting in the way of someone who was taking pictures. I should have asked when I moved to the spot that I did, but I honestly did not realize I was in their way until they said something. But by the time they said something, they had already made up their mind that I was selfish and didn’t care about others. I wish they had stayed because I would have happily gotten out of their way and moved elsewhere (the sun was not even up yet), but they ended up walking away and leaving, voicing their disapproval as they left.

I don’t harbor any bad feelings towards them – quite the opposite, in fact – I feel badly for getting in their way! I only wish they had given me the chance to make it right. It was an honest mistake, which as a human, I am prone to making.

At any rate, the rest of the day was less eventful. I went back to Cades Cove where I was camping and took a bike ride around the loop. I had already hike a good number of miles over the last couple of days, so my legs were pretty worn out after the ride! I’m glad I did it though – it was nice to be able to get around the traffic more freely than I could have done by car.

Day 4

Since the Smoky Mountains are about 8 hours from my home, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore on my last day, but I did get to do a little shooting along one of the rivers near my campsite before heading home, and I used the opportunity to test out the Z7’s square format setting. Of course, you can always shoot at the normal size of the sensor and crop to square after the fact, but there’s something enjoyable to me about the limitation of shooting in square format in certain situations. It makes you think differently about the scene and how you compose your shot, and helps increase your photographic discipline, which is always a good thing.

I had a really great time exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it’s definitely something I’ll consider doing again in the future. Having spent so much time photographing in New Hampshire, I have to admit I’m a bit of an autumn snob because of the colors are so vibrant and beautiful there. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about shooting in the Smoky Mountains in comparison. But you can color me impressed – while the scenery is certainly different than what you find in New England, it is nevertheless beautiful and provides plenty of photographic opportunities.

Thanks for reading and checking out my photos! You can see a few extra photos over at my galleries here.

Until next time, stay safe, and happy shooting!

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    Japan’s Hidden Gems: Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter

    Many travelers to Japan take trips to popular destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto, and not without reason – these areas boast some of the most beautiful and easily accessed locations in the country. Some feel that popular places are not worth visiting and photographing since they’ve already been photographed repeatedly, but I would not agree with that sentiment. Popular locations become popular for a reason, and every photographer is going to offer a unique take on the location during their visit, if for not other reason than differing conditions. At the same time, Japan boasts a number of spectacular hidden gems that relatively few visitors will experience. While these may be off the beaten path a bit, they are just as much worth the visit if the itinerary allows for it.

    Colors of Dusk In The Kurashiki Bikan Historical District

    One such place is the Kurashiki Bikan Historic Quarter in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. What the area lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty and history. Hundreds of years ago, the Bikan Quarter was an area used for storage of important commodities such as rice. In fact, these storage buildings were so central to the area that the city’s name – Kurashiki – contains the word for them in Japanese (kura). The canal which exists there today was originally built to allow for the easy passage of supplies.

    Shops in the Bikan Quarter

    Today many of these old storehouses are maintained in the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, though they now contain shops, restaurants, or museums rather than commodities. The canal, which once was important for transport, is now maintained as a way to take a short tour through the area on an old style boat. Both sides of the canal are lined with weeping willows and other beautiful plants, which make a boat ride down it all the more pleasant.

    The Kurashiki Bikan Canal

    Bikan Salaryman

    One of my favorite parts of this historical quarter is that all the power lines have been put underground or otherwise hidden from view, so that the area maintains the feel of old Japan. Buildings are often very close to one another in Japan by necessity, so there are typically power lines zigzagging in all directions wherever you go, but the good folks who maintain this area wanted to give it a greater ambiance by avoiding this visual distraction. Along with the old style lanterns around the canal, a visit to the Bikan District is like taking a trip back in time.

    Cycling Through The Old Town

    Some of Japan’s hidden gems can be difficult to access if you don’t have a vehicle or read Japanese, but that is thankfully not the case with the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. Okayama Station is situated along the main shinkansen (bullet train) line connected to Tokyo, and it is only a short train ride from there to Kurashiki Station. From this station, it’s a fairly brief and straightforward stroll to the district.

    Evening In The Kurashiki Bikan District

    If you’re planning a visit to Japan and want to get off the beaten path a bit, I highly recommend paying a visit to the Bikan District. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn some of Japan’s history and experience the past at the same time. And you’ll probably pick up some great souvenirs along the way!

    Bikan District Bridge View

    Travel Tip: stay around until dusk and blue hour. Although the crowds are typically light anyway, they thin out almost entirely at this time of day. As the lights and lanterns come on for the evening, the atmosphere in the district becomes all the more stunning.

    Want to explore Japan for yourself? Join one of my photography adventures next year with Japan Travel! More details: 
    http://lestaylorphoto.com/japan-photography-adventures

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      Highlights From The Great North Woods Fall Photography Workshop

      This year, I held my first fall workshop in the Great North Woods at the beautiful Tall Timber Lodge in Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Tall Timber is a lovely rustic lodge with various properties surrounding Back Lake. The lodge boasts superb amenities and the area’s most delicious restaurant, and is surrounded by the stunning fall foliage of the Great North Woods in autumn, making it the perfect place to host this kind of workshop.

      Below are a few of my images from the 2018 workshop. The group had a great time and got to some great color throughout the weekend. I’m already looking forward to next year’s workshop!

      Dixville Creek In Autumn

      North Woods Fall Color

      Dixville Autumn Brook

      Fall At The Baby Flume
      Vibrant Autumn Color In Dixville Notch

      Sunset Over First Connecticut Lake

      Beaver Brook Falls Upper

      2019 Great North Woods Fall Photography Workshops

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        Nubble Lighthouse Magic Hour || Lightroom Only

        Occasionally I like to showcase the power of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom by processing one of my images using only Lightroom. Seeing as I haven’t done such a post in a while, I thought it was about time to do another! This image comes from the Nubble Light (aka Cape Neddick Lighthouse) in York, Maine. I wasn’t intending to visit this location on this particular day – I happened to have a meeting not far away though, and figured I’d stop by for sunset. I wasn’t expecting a great sunset, but it turned out to be quite lovely!

        In terms of processing, as I said, this was processed totally in Lightroom. I used a number of basic edits along with targeted adjustments such as graduated filters, radial filters, and brush adjustments to help get the look I wanted. Speaking of filters, I also used a couple of physical filters in the field – the Lee Landscape Polarizer and a Lee 0.9 Graduated ND filter – which helped me get the shot right in camera. The better the image looks in-camera, the easier it is to process it in Lightroom! Lightroom, like any program, can only work with what you give it. But if you feed it something good and know how to use it, Lightroom can produce amazing results without all the advanced tools of Photoshop CC. I think this image is a good example of just that!

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          The Art Of Winter Imagery

          In a previous post, I discussed some of the equipment you need in order to pursue photography during the winter. That’s important, but freezing temperatures aren’t the only thing you’ll battle as a photographer during this season. Winter also brings unique challenges to creating artistic images that inspire the viewer. In this post, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned over the years that has helped me create stunning images of this spectacular season.

          Fresh Is Key

          One of the last things you want to do when it is cold and snowy outside is to get out of your warm bed while it is still dark, go out into the cold, and drive on slick roads. However, this is one of things you will have to do to create the images you envision. Snowy scenes are at their best when everything in the scene is covered – once the snow begins to melt or slide off branches and roofs, an element of the ambiance is lost. In order to find the most magical winter scenery, early morning starts are frequently required. Thankfully, the sun comes up later during the winter, so it’s not as early as it might be at other times of the year, but conditions make it feel tougher in my experience. However, once you see the light of a new day begin to hit the freshly fallen snow, you will know that it was worth it.

          The light of morning illuminates frosted trees in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

          Snowglow

          Speaking of light, winter offers a unique chance to see light and color transform the world around you. Fresh, sparkling snow seems to sparkle like diamonds, and the colors of the sky are soaked into the snowy landscape. For that reason, when you’re planning a sunrise or sunset shoot, look for locations that will have plenty of undisturbed snow. Take advantage of the colorful glow of the sky being baked into your surroundings. It’s an opportunity that’s difficult to find the rest of the year.

          Ice Is Nice

          In colder regions, lakes and ponds will freeze over during the winter. This provides photographers with the opportunity to photograph icy textures in a natural surrounding. The challenge is finding open ice – once the ice is covered in a blanket of snow, it is difficult to distinguish a lake from a field, so it can become far less interesting very quickly. If you can’t find a spot on the lake that is clear of snow, wait for a fresh warm rain to clear some of the snow away. Then, look for big cracks that form leading lines, or even bubbles under the ice if it’s clear enough. Let the ice tell its story though – don’t just use it as a backdrop. Give it its rightful weight in the composition, focusing especially on texture. Another option if you can’t see the actual ice is to look for snow drifts, which create interesting formations and make for a compelling foreground.

          The sky burns over a frozen lake during winter

          Motion In The Stillness

          Along with lakes freezing in winter, it’s common for waterfalls and streams to freeze over as well. This can provide an interesting viewpoint, but personally, I like to shoot when things aren’t completely frozen. The best time to shoot for me: when there’s ice around the edges, but still plenty of motion and life. It gives the viewer a sense of both the waterfall and the wintry conditions that surround it.

          Go The Extra Mile

          Trudging through thick snow is no easy task. Especially when you’re the one breaking trail after a snow with a heavy pack of gear on your back, the journey can easily wear on you – even more so when that trip takes you up a mountain. But the rewards photographically speaking can make it worth the while. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be so difficult for you physically. For example, many ski resorts have lifts you can pay to use, even if you’re not interested in skiing. Sometimes, the view from the top can be as spectacular as any climb would offer. On the downside, you won’t have the story and personal grit behind it, and you’ll be more likely to run into others with similar images. Either way, going to the extra mile to get to places your average photographer won’t travel to can produce wonderful results in winter. Just make sure you are prepared for the conditions you will encounter.

          Hakkoda mountains covered in snow in Aomori Prefecture, Japan.

          No Winter? No Worries!

          Of course, not everyone lives in a climate with an appreciable winter. For much of my life, I’ve lived in places where plants simply die during the winter, and snow is a rare event. If you find yourself in a place like this, there are still a few options. I’m of the opinion that there is always beauty around if you look for it. It may be an open field with a couple of trees, or dead leaves piled up in the forest, but look for what winter means in your area, and try to capture that in your imagery. Another option is to go to places where conditions don’t matter that much. When I lived in the Tokyo area, I would often travel into the city during the winter. Even though there wasn’t snow, the air was clear and could create beautiful skies, especially when seen from tall buildings. I’m also a native Floridian, and the beach is one of those timeless landscapes that you can shoot no matter the weather. No matter where you are, there’s something to be seen and photographed all year around.

          As someone who loves landscape photography, I always enjoy the unique scenes that winter provides. These are a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me create artistic images of the season. I hope it will help inspire you to get out in it with your camera, and create something of your own. Stay warm, stay safe, and happy shooting!

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