A Big Day at Big Creek

April 18, 2014

Big Creek Trail
It seems that most of my treks here recently have been kind of spur of the moment affairs.  That has really worked out pretty well for me I must admit.  However, I am always looking for specific conditions where I can go to a place that I already have in mind what I am looking for.  That was the case today, and in fact, this is my first real large scale trek in quite a few years.  The location is Big Creek which is located just inside of the the NC state line in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I have been here twice before under different weather conditions and have found that every time, I have come away with some really great pictures.

I have been considering a return trip for a couple of weeks now, but wanted to make sure that I had some good cloud cover before I made the nearly four hour ride out to the park.  For the most part, my off days have been mostly sunny here lately and that just wasn't going to work out for doing work around water which almost demands a lower contrast light source.  For the last few days at work I had been keeping an eye on the weather in the area of the park and saw that there was a good bit of cloud cover forecasted for the day with some spotty sun thrown in for good measure.  As Thursday rolled around, the weather was still looking good, and I decided I would head out to Big Creek and take advantage of some of the recent rains which should have the water levels up.

Knowing that Toni was off from work, and Sierra was out of school for the day, I asked if they would want to join me.  Both of them jumped at the chance as we rarely get to go on these treks together.  I don't think they knew what they were in for though when they agreed.  I started getting things planned and decided to make the most of the day, we would be leaving around 5am, which was fine for me, and even Sierra went to bed early in preparation for that.  The hiccup in the plan was Toni was finishing up on the night shift at work, and didn't get home till about 2:30am.  Doing the math, that meant she got a nap at best before getting ready to head out.

Breaking Through
As planned we all started getting moving around 4am and working on getting ourselves out the door and on the road headed West.  We were all sleepy and would have much rather stayed in bed, but this was going to be an adventure.  I was looking forward to seeing Big Creek again since it is one of the few places I've photographed before that has a very distinct cyan coloring to the water.  I find it mesmerizing and love to see how it appears in photographs since it looks different every time.  Toni, nor Sierra had ever seen it up close and personal before, and I was excited to show it to them.

We made great time considering the time of day we were traveling, and arrived around 8:30 or so.  The weather was really good with a nice cloud cover overhead.  The sporadic sun that I was actually looking forward to was no longer in the forecast, but that was OK.  I would much rather it be like this than full on bright sun bearing down on me.  When we arrived, Toni pointed out a fence that she thought looked very photo worthy.  It just so happened to be a fence that I have attempted to photograph a time or two before and was happy to give it another go today.

Mossy Blanket
As it turned out, the combination of new green grass, old dormant moss, and a nice cloudy day gave me a pretty good recipe for a picture.  I managed to get this one which was much better than any of my former attempts.  As you can see, there is a lot of really nice visual interest with the moss coverings, and the old wood underneath.

We hit the trail and started up to the water.  Of course, I was impatient to get to the first shooting location of the day, but Toni wanted to check out all the flowers along the way.  I agree, they were quite pretty, but not quite what I was after.  She wanted me to get a photograph or two of them, but I wasn't able to concentrate on them until the return hike when I finally let myself think about a composition.  We finally found a patch that we both agreed would make a decent photo.

The Purple Path
We finally got to an area where I could dip off of the trail and get down to the creek and get my feet wet...both literally and figuratively.  I spent about an hour working this first segment and finding different compositions that attempted to create order out of chaos with the landscape before me.

A Rapid Drop
I have actually improved my equipment when it comes to photographing water for this current evolution in my photography.  Before, I would use ND filters of different strengths, and would stack them as needed.  Advances have been made in the past years that has resulted in my use of a Vario-ND filter which provides a continuum of light reduction from 2-Stop to 8-Stops.  This gives me the ability to fine to the light entering the camera like never before.  I can pretty much determine what I want my shutter speed to be along with my aperture for depth of field, and then dial in the amount of ND I need to make those choices result in a proper exposure.  Its actually pretty cool after doing it the old way for so long.

A Smooth Embrace
I was really having fun with the long exposures which were as much as 30 seconds in some situations.  With the old system, I would normally be stuck with 3.2" being my slowest shutter speed available with the existing light.  Not the case any more, and that gives me so many more creative choices.  We progressed along the trail, taking detours off the path where clearings developed allowing access to the creek.  There was just so much great eye candy to work with, I was in a constant state of overload.

On the Ledge
I found myself drawn to interesting rock formations which were surrounded by the rushing water of Big Creek.  Getting a good compositions was sometimes quite challenging because for the most part, the best compositions were found in the water.  In many cases, the water was too deep or too fast moving to be able to use those places.  Other times, I was able to stand in the shallow water with the tripod set up in the rushing water as stable as I could make it.  There were some exciting moments as I got into position on several occasions, but I managed to stay dry the whole time.

Islands in the Stream
Loveseat for a View
About half way through the day, I started to notice something interesting.  I was switching my lenses around much more than I normally would.  In fact, I used each lens at least twice throughout the day.  I used my 70-200mm to pick out detail shots like "Gushing" above, which by the way Toni helped me name.  I used my 16-35mm wide angle to capture some broad landscape type shots with strong foreground interest as in "Islands in the Stream" which happens to be one of my favorite shots from the day.  Of course, I also used my favorite walk around lens, the 24-70mm to capture many of the compositions where flexibility was key based on the locations I had to choose from.  I got very proficient in swapping the lenses since this was the most practice I have ever had in the field.

The Rocky Way
Midnight Hole
While most of Big Creek is made up of rapids, there are two named waterfalls along the path.  The first one that you come to is Midnight Hole which can be seen above.  The other one, is less photogenic and is called Mouse Creek Falls.  We did not make it out to that one today, and I didn't really consider that a loss at all.  I've photographed it before, and wasn't all that happy with it.  Midnight Hole is much better, even though it is a small waterfall.  I've found that the best composition for this is finding a way of incorporating the tree seen above that has this marvelous root system which give it a lot of visual interest!

The Mossy Shore
Worry Stones
After hiking only about 2 miles in, we decided to call it a day.  We had been in the park now for about five hours and it was about to be time to eat...plus we still had a long drive to get home.  I feel pretty sure that I will be back to this park again with some different weather conditions to try some different compositions.  I also have several other waterfalls I am planning on visiting in the near future as well.  There are just so many in NC in driving distance from home.  They are a lot of fun to photograph, and shooting the rapids can be just as rewarding for a photographer.

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