Summer at Big Creek

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Cascades of Summer
It would seem that I have been very much focused on old iron here lately, with the exception of a week at the beach.  I have been away from the mountains for far too long.  I had the opportunity to spend the day in the mountains today and looking at the weather, my best option was going to be waterfalls.  I have a lot of options when it come to waterfalls, but since we have had a lack of rain lately I wanted to go where I stood the best chance of getting some good flow.  That meant going to Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains since it was usually unaffected by water tables.  I actually had a little bit of luck the night before and there were some pretty strong storms that moved through that would more than likely boost the water levels a little bit.

Since it was full on Summertime, I knew that I was going to have to get there early to get a parking spot with all the hikers and swimmers that would be there when it warmed up.  This posed a slight problem since the park was a bit over three hours away from home.  I was wanting to get there shortly after sunrise, around 7-7:30am.  Doing the math, that meant that I was going to have to leave around 4am, which put me waking up earlier than that.  I'm not a morning person by any stretch, but a photographer has to do what a photographer has to do in order to get the pictures.

Beneath the Blooms
Somehow, I made it out of the house shortly after 4 and was on my way to the mountains.  I ran into a little rain here and there as I was heading West, but I knew that rain was a potential for the day.  Sometimes rainy weather makes for the best waterfall photography.  I arrived at the park just before 7:30, and I was already about the 10th vehicle in the parking lot.  I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to jockey for position at the different sections that I like to photograph.

A Bit of Drama
My goal for the day was to capture a section of Big Creek that I shot during a drought a couple of years ago.  I had not been back to this particular section since that trek and really wanted to see what it looked like with water flowing.  I have actually really liked this image since I shot it, and have entered it into several contests since.  In order to make sure that I achieved my goal, I wasn't going to stop at places unless there was something particularly interesting to photograph differently than I had seen before.  This would speed things up and make sure that I could get to the the intended location well past Mouse Creek Falls.

Another one of my goals which I had was to shoot some more instructional videos for Singh-Ray about how to use a polarizer for a more normal application than old cars.  I wasn't sure when this was going to happen, but I went into it knowing that I would be shooting some video since the lighting was good, and relatively stable.  This is what I love about shooting waterfalls on cloudy and rainy days.  I can pretty much count on the light being right for long periods of time.

Summertime Swim
As I was working my way down the trail, I was looking over to my left where the water was flowing to see if there was anything interesting.  One thing that I quickly noticed was that the brush was pretty thick this time of year and it was obscuring many of the locations that I was used to shooting.  I didn't spend long trying to get a vantage point at these locations since there wasn't much different than what I had shot previously.

There was one little section which I tend to shoot regularly which caught my eye once again.  It wasn't the water this time, but the blooming Mountain Laurel just above the falls.  This was worth taking a little bit of time to work with, so I worked my way down the scramble path to get into position.  I did a little rock hopping until I found the position I wanted to use to capture the falls and the seasonal greenery behind it.

As I was setting up with my 16-35mm lens, I decided to do a little comparison shooting with and without a polarizer.  This might be the first time I have ever shot a waterfall without a polarizer, and honestly, I didn't like it much.  It was a good comparison though, and I was able to send them to Singh-Ray.

This image is straight out of the camera with no filters.  I just did a proper exposure and shot it.  You can see how the water shows a great deal of glare, and it lacks a little visual pop which I like in my images.  This composition ultimately ended up as my opening image for this blog entry.

This next image is the same composition but with the addition of the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer that I use in the majority of my photography.  You can immediately tell the difference in the water, and a lot more contrast has been added.  Just the addition of the polarizer lengthened the shutter speed from 0.4 seconds to a full 2 seconds to blur the water.

Since I was already working without a filter, I figured that this would be the best time to shoot the video that I had been planning on.  I went ahead and got everything prepped for easy of manipulation with only one hand and got my cell phone out to record the video.

After doing some of the behind the scenes work that I had planned on doing, it was time to pack up and move to my next location.  There were several along the trail that I really enjoy working with but this time, they really didn't stand out all that much to me.  The next time I exited the trail was at Midnight Hole which I really didn't want to stop at since I have two really good pictures of that waterfall already.  However, when I walked passed it, I could see that there was some really good color to the water.  It was worth a stop to see what I could do with it.

Summer Smells
I worked the scene from a distance away and gradually moved in closer.  For this waterfall, I used my 24-70mm lens with the polarizer attached.  The ones from a distance were fair, but nothing all that special.  As I got in close to the tree with the exposed roots, I ran into a problem with a tree that had fallen and was floating on the water.  This was just too much of a visual distraction and I had to abandon that composition relatively quickly.  I composed a tight crop on the falls and included the blooming tree above it for a touch of seasonal flare.  As I was shooting this series, the air was thick with the perfume of Summer.  With all of the moisture around and the Mountain Laurel in full bloom, it just smelled like Summer in the mountains.  When I was titling this piece, those memories came right back to me, and it pretty much named itself.

I did a little work with the small cascades in the stream over to the side, but I wasn't able to find a composition that really worked.  There was just no organization among the rocks.  I needed something for the eyes to follow.  Since I Wasn't having much luck, I went down to another section by the trail and found that the lighting was even better on the rocks.  I went ahead and pulled out the camera once again, and fitted the 70-200mm lens and polarizer.

Mountain Stream Abstract
I was starting to have some pretty good luck with these rocks.  I could find order in the chaos with them, and was able to pick out several workable compositions.  While shooting these isolations, I got the idea to do another video about how I can get a nice long shutter speed with just a polarizer attached.

Video is not my specialty by any stretch, but considering I'm doing this on a cell phone while manipulating the camera I'm doing pretty good.  This shows a bit about how I do these isolations, and what I'm looking for on the back of the camera.  Unfortunately, I ended up not liking this particular composition on a big screen so it was trashed.  However, I did do another one from the same area which turned out pretty good.

Mossy Islands
When doing these intimate captures, it really is all about simplicity of composition and having something poking up above the water to give a nice visual anchor.  The silky ribbons from the passing water give the visual drama to the image which makes it interesting.  It didn't take long and I was tired of shooting the intimate shots and was ready to get on to the main goal which was still a good ways up the trail at this point.  In order to get there, I chose to pass right by Mouse Creek Falls which was looking pretty good, but not spectacular.  I even passed right by the bridge which overlooked some really good cascades.  I thought that if I had time I would grab a few shots here on the way back, but for now, I needed to get moving.

The Drop
Things had changed so much with the extra greenery and increased water flow that I almost didn't recognize my spot. It also happened a good deal further up the trail that I had anticipated.  When I arrived, I quickly remembered where I had been set up and made my way to that spot.  I was actually pretty amazed at the difference a little water would make.  I went ahead and used my 24-70mm lens with the Color Combo Polarizer.  I wasn't quite happy with how the overall composition was going, so I started to shoot some isolations here showing off the full flowing water.  The one that I really liked ended up getting processed as a black and white image because it lacked the visual pop it needed in color.  This way, the detail in the water is very apparent, and I think it is a much stronger image this way.

I did finally settle on a composition that I liked.  I had to adjust from how I shot it last time because the pool at the bottom right was just too bright, and became too much of a focal point if I included too much of it.  By reducing the footprint of the white water, I was able to compose a workable image of the location that shows the difference in the water.  I still like the original image, and possibly better, but this one turned out quite nice as well.  There is a lot to look at as you eyes work their way to the background.

After about 20 minutes here, I had shot all that I cared to shoot of this location.  My camera position was pretty restricted due to the rock that I had to be on, so there was only so much that I could do compositionally without falling off of the rock I was on.  That was OK since I had plenty of other things that I wanted to shoot.  I started to work my way back down the trail towards the bridge overlooking the creek.

Full of Life
When I arrived, there was no longer anyone standing on the bridge which was a very good thing.  You see, on these wooden bridges, any movement translates into vibrations which affect the sharpness of the image.  I had the bridge to myself and took advantage of it. I shot low to minimize the perspective distortion that I was going to have from shooting this far up.  Fortunately, I was able to peak the 24-70mm lens through the slats without any issues.  I had to use my B+W polarizer for these shots because my Singh-Ray had gotten fogged over pretty bad on the last set and had a thick haze on it which I was unable to remove with a lens cloth in the existing humidity.

Through the Trees
The gentle curve of the creek allowed for a great composition in both landscape and portrait orientations.  When I was editing the landscape shot, I started to see it as almost a square composition.  I ended up cropping pretty drastically from the right to change the feel of the image.  It allowed everything to line up much better than its native aspect ratio.  The portrait shot worked well as it was thanks to the two rocks in the foreground that really provide a nice visual anchor for the eyes.

I would have loved to have gotten down to the water for some really dramatic shots, but there was just no way I could get down there safely.  I checked a couple of different locations for other compositions but found that I had already located the best spots to shoot this from.  I went ahead and packed things up and got ready to head on to Mouse Creek Falls a short distance down the trail.  The lighting was about the same as it had been, and I figured as long as there were no people there I would give it another try.

Cascades in the Forest
When I arrived at Mouse Creek Falls, I was very happy to find that there were no hikers to be found.  I started to work my way down the scramble path to the bottom. I knew that the best composition was from about the half way point on the path, but with the low limbs near the falls with leaves on them, I needed to get down lower.  Looking at the scene in front of me, I decided that while I really wanted to use the 16-35mm lens, I would be better suited with the 24-70mm which I put on the body.  I added the B+W polarizer as well since I had smeared my Singh-Ray beyond use for the rest of the day.  I found a couple of workable compositions before trying to get in closer.

As I was swapping over to my 70-200mm lens, I had my first real run in with hikers.  There were two guys coming down the scramble path to enjoy the waterfall.  They asked if they would get in my way with I though was very considerate.  I said that I doubted it, but I would only be another couple of minutes.  They patiently waited as I got the long lens fitted with the polarizer and started to make a few images.  I wasn't really happy with what I was shooting as I wasn't getting quite close enough.  I thanked the hikers and said that I was finished.

They actually went well out of my way to sit down and have lunch which made me feel kind of bad since they wouldn't have been in my way regardless.  While I was starting to pack up, I remembered my 2x teleconverter which I carry in my bag.  This piece goes between the camera body and my 70-200mm lens to make it equivalent to a 140-400mm lens.  I have only used it twice before, and figured that this would be a good time to give it another try.

Dreaming in Black and White
I was very happy that I thought to give this a try.  I was able to zoom into about 253mm for this image.  It was just a smidge tighter than what I had been able to get with the lens alone, but it was an important compositional change.  It also kept the lens at its sweet spot near the middle of the zoom range.  I shot this figuring that I would convert it to a monochrome to really make the water stand out.  The color version was pretty good, but there was just too much green in the image, and I wanted a higher level of contrast.  The conversion to black and white worked just perfectly and I ended up with a really nice execution of the concept that I had when I switched over to the long lens in the first place.

This was the last bit of pictures that I shot.  When I got back to the trail, there were hikers by the dozens going up and down the trails.  Many were obviously set to go swimming in addition to hiking.  The clouds were also starting to part a little more than I liked.  With these things going against me, and seeing that the time was after noon, it was time to head back to the truck.  I had shot 123 frames during the five hours that I was in the park.  That would be enough to keep me busy for most of the night once I got home.

It turned out to be a pretty good day.  I achieved all of my goals that I had set for myself for this trip.  It was also a fantastic day to be outside.  The temperatures stayed right around 70 with just a passing drizzle with the clouds.  After weeks now of 90+, it was almost a Fall day in the woods.  I am starting to get tired now as I have now been awake for 19.5 hours and still have a few more things to do before bed.  Thanks for joining me on my hike at Big Creek!


  1. Nice write-up and great photos. Thanks.

    1. Thank you so much Larry, I really appreciate it!