I had never visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park so I was excited about photographing there over a long weekend in late July 2011. This trip was actually a “scouting mission” before a vacation my wife and I planned to take there in the fall. Visit my gallery here to see images from both trips. After a lot of research, I put together a shooting plan that I thought would allow me to make the best use of the time I had available. One image at the top of my list was a “classic” Smoky Mountain sunset with the sun setting behind the receding ridgelines of the Smoky Mountains. The Morton Overlook along the Newfound Rd. was reportedly one of the best places in the park to photograph this scene in late July if you wanted to include the sun in the composition. Since I had never been to the park I arrived in the late afternoon so I would have enough time to get familiar with the area while it was still daylight, find the Morton Overlook and get set up well ahead of sunset. As I approached the overlook I was totally shocked to see orange barrels, yellow caution tape and a large sign saying the overlook was closed due to construction – “this wasn’t part of my plan, how could this be” I thought! The overlook was deserted and it looked like it was definitely safe enough for me to take a few shots so I drove a few hundred yards back down the road to a pull-off I had passed, parked and walked to the overlook with my gear. I set up my tripod and camera and waited for the magic of sunset to begin. I had been there maybe 20 minutes when some construction workers showed up and a PARK RANGER! “They see thousands of photographers around the park and I obviously wasn’t up to anything sinister so surely they won’t make me leave” I thought. Wrong! I was told very firmly (but politely) that I would have to leave immediately. They looked at me like “The big sign said CLOSED – UNDER CONSTUCTION, what didn’t you understand?!” I pleaded my case that this was my first visit to the park, I just got here all the way from Ohio to get a sunset shot from this spot so couldn’t I stay long enough to get a few shots? “No way, drive up the road to the next pull-off, you can take some nice pictures from there” the ranger said. By now, it was getting close to sunset so I had to move fast. I drove past the Morton Overlook, waived to my new “friends” and a few minutes later I found the pull-off the ranger talked about. My heart sank when I saw that the only view of the western horizon was between two trees and to make matters worse a thick band of clouds on the horizon would completely obscure the setting sun in a few minutes. Needless-to-say I set up my gear quickly and started shooting. As you can see in the “Summer Smoky Mountain Sunset” image I managed to catch the setting sun just before it disappeared behind the thick clouds on the horizon. It’s not quite the shot I had visualized getting at the Morton Overlook, but I was very pleased with the way it turned out! What an exciting start to my trip I thought. Luck (a lot of it in this case), patience, and perseverance all combined to help me get this shot!
For this particular image, the camera was tripod mounted, as it is for most of my work and I used my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens. Although I would have preferred to use a wide angle lens to capture a wide vista of the sun setting behind the mountains, I had to shoot between 2 trees so I decided to use a telephoto lens, and compose a portrait oriented shot tight enough to eliminate the tree on the right side of the scene. Even though the sun was setting and partially obscured by the clouds, the sky was still much brighter than the trees and bushes directly in front of me so I knew my exposure would be a little tricky. If I set my exposure by metering the sky, the foreground trees and bushes would have been silhouetted. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I wanted to bring out some detail in the foreground. I kept the aperture the same, spot metered the sky to the right of the sun (the brightest part of the scene without the sun in the viewfinder), and then spot metered the foreground (the darkest part of the scene) to determine the number of “stops” of exposure difference. I found that the dynamic range of the scene was about 2 stops greater than I could capture in a single exposure and still hold some detail in the foreground. Shooting in manual mode, I set a shutter speed of 1/10 second, an aperture of f/11, ISO 100, a focal length of 100mm and I used a Lee 2-stop soft split graduated neutral density filter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with split graduated neutral density filters, they are made of rectangular/square glass or resin and are dark on the top and clear on the bottom with a smooth transition area in the middle of the filter. The filters come in various densities, 1, 2, and 3 stops are typical. There are also “hard” edge filters which have a very sharp or hard transition area from dark to light in the middle. Using the 2-stop filter reduced the brightness of the sky and kept it from being over exposed so I could bring out a little detail in the foreground bushes. I could have gotten similar results using HDR techniques taking multiple images and combining them in post processing, or used software to simulate the filters’ effect, but I decided to use the soft split graduated neutral density filter to get the image I wanted with a single exposure. One of the great advantages of shooting with digital cameras is that there are often multiple ways to solve the problems we photographers face to capture images the way we visualize them. By the way, I know the process I used sounds pretty complex and time consuming, but with a little practice it can be done quickly and it’s definitely a lot faster compared to the amount of time it would take you to get the same results on the computer.