Last year I found myself in the Smoky Mountains for the month of September due to a confluences of circumstances.  As a photographer, this is not my ideal time to photograph this park.  Streams and waterfalls are usually dry from long hot summers and beautiful fall color is normally a month away.  Additionally, my trip was met with record high temperatures and terribly light conditions every day.  Let’s just call it a photographer’s nightmare.

I was determined to produce a few decent images despite the circumstances.  So, on a very cloudy day, I headed out with the realization that I needed to carefully choose my subjects due to the grey skies.  By carefully, I am referring to photographing intimate and macro landscapes instead of grand scenic shots.  Since mountain streams and waterfalls are great cloudy day subjects,  I figured this would not be a problem.  Wrong!

Driving through the park for a couple hours yielded no great photographic subjects that excited me.  The mountain streams and waterfalls were mostly dry from the long hot summer and unappealing.  As I drove by a popular roadside stop that I had photographed many times, I reluctantly decided to stop.  I knew this spot would have water and green vegetation but had never found the scene interesting.  Having nothing better to do, I decided to challenge myself to work the scene until I came away from an image I liked.  

Typical Tourist Shot:

The above image was made standing  by a small pull out with a 28-70mm lens.  I have seen hundreds of similar images from this spot and knew this could not be my final image.  It was time to get busy and create a unique image.  First I took a closer shot of just the waterfall section of this stream and moved as far right as I could without going over the edge.  

Closer View of the Waterfall:

I liked this image better than the first but knew there was something better in this scene. 

Vertical Image of the Scene:

I will always remember the words of my first photography instructor when I was in Yellowstone who told me to never leave a scene until I had photographed  it both as a vertical and horizontal image and used every lens I owned.  This sage advice resulted in my using a wide angle lens on an unlikely scene of lotus flowers that won a national photo contest.  

Zooming to 400mm:

Finally, I was getting to an image that I liked.  A few more adjustment and I should be done.

Final Image:

Water flows over rocks in Laurel Creek by Townsend, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I now have an image that is pleasing and different that other photos from this location.  Even though this is a very photographed pull out, I have not see one image on the internet like the above photo.  To produce this image I zoomed out to 400mm and deliberately unexposed the image by 2/3 of a stop.  I underexposed this image knowing that it would darken the rocks and let the leaves and water pop out a bit more.  I also wanted to create a little more of a mysterious scene to this waterfall by darkening it a bit.

 As I discussed in my “About” page, I strongly believe photographers should create images and not just take a picture of a subject. Besides, it is way more fun.  Now go back to the very first image in this post and look for all the many different compositions that initial image contains.  Looking back, I realize how many opportunities I have overlooked in my travels by failing to slow down and work the scene in front of me.

Maria’s Tips for “Working a Scene”

  • Slow down, clear your thoughts, and immerse yourself in the subject.
  • Move your feet- change locations frequently
  • Use as many lens as possible
  • Take both vertical and horizontal images
  • Shoot high and low if possible
  • Over and underexposure if appropriate
  • Isolate different portions of the images.
  • Change focus points and take a few shots that deliberately blur portions of a scene for effect

In closing, don’t be afraid of creating some bad images.  The more you push the boundaries of exposure, composition and focus with your camera, the more likely you will be to produce a few bad images in the process.  Lastly, it is not possible to deliberately create images without understanding how to fully work your camera, including the dreaded “Manual Mode”.

In closing, here is my challenge to viewers:

 Create the most unique image possible from a highly photographed location close to your home using all my above tips.   Notice I said create and not photograph!



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