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Autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains

November 8, 2018

I have just returned from my semi annual pilgrimage to the Smokies.  I never tire of photographing these magical mountains, with their blue layers and cascading streams and beautiful light.  Autumn is my favorite time to visit, and I go always hoping to experience fall color at its peak.  I was there a few years ago to watch the leaves get better and more colorful everyday until on the peak day, they almost seemed to pulsate!  I somehow managed to get lucky yet again, and was there this year to watch the color develop and finally peak last Thursday.


I was fortunate to have perfect weather on this trip.  Does that mean it was sunny and warm?  Nope!  As a photographer, especially when you are heading out to photograph streams and colorful leaves, you hope for overcast and even drizzly weather.  When the sky is quite cloudy, the light is soft and even and you don't have  any glaring hot spots on the water.  A drizzly rain will coat the rocks and make them appear dark and rich.  Of course, you have to be prepared for that kind of weather, and wet rocks are slippery!  But it's worth it when you get to make magic with your camera.


Here are some of my favorite images from my 2 week trip to GSMNP.  I will offer thoughts on each of the images, such as how I shot it or what I was trying to accomplish with the composition.  I hope that helps you next time you go out in search of the perfect autumn photograph!



 This image is from a bridge on Tremont Road, about half way down the road.  I was drawn to the scene by the beautiful gold reflections in the still section of the water.  I used a polarizing filter, turning it just enough to knock down the glare on the water but still allowing the reflections to show up.  Remember, you don't have to polarize a scene completely!



 I am always drawn to water flowing over a large flat rock.   I spotted this scene from the car and knew I had to photograph it!  Because the sky was very overcast and there was no wind, I was able to use a slow shutter speed to get just the right amount of blur in the water.  Often, there is a tendency to blur the water until it has no texture at all, what I call marshmallow fluff.  I like to show the little fingers as the water falls over the edge of the rock because I think it adds interest and shows motion better than just creamy water.



The craggy tree by the side of the stream drew me to photograph this scene.  It acts as a frame in the composition and balances the image.  I especially like the colorful leaves tucked into a little nook at the base of the tree!  Look for special little treats like this when seeking out your photograph, they help tell the story of the scene.


 Don't forget to look for the less obvious shot when you are exploring an area like the Smokies.  I was drawn to this image of the woods because of the foggy background and the way the bright yellow layered tree stood out against the tree trunks.  Is this a "wall hanger?"  Perhaps not--but it helps to tell the story of the Smokies in the autumn, so for me it's a worthwhile image.




And finally, don't forget to look for abstract images while you are out shooting.  The late afternoon light was reflecting the colors of autumn in this stream, and picking out snippets of this with a 70-200 lens was crazy fun!  I experimented with different shutter speeds, and was actually surprised that I preferred a faster ss of about 1/4 second.  Longer ss blurred the water so much that the color wasn't as prominent.


Lastly, when composing images at any time of year, think about the subject of your image.  What is the subject and what are the "supporting actors" that drew you to photograph the scene.  Once you figure that out, concentrate on how to best feature those aspects of the scene with your composition.  When I identify the subject and secondary characters to myself, I find that the composition is so much easier!


Thank you Smoky Mountains yet again for a break from the everyday, for a 2 week long feast of visual treats.  I can still hear the water tumbling over the rocks and the breeze rustling the drying leaves.  Ahhh, until next time...

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