Great Smoky Mountains Photo Summit Photography Recap

In Photography by Matt K19 Comments

A few weeks ago I had the honor of teaching at the 2nd Annual Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit. Last year was the first year and it was so amazing that I immediately signed up to teach the next year right on the spot.

I equate this photo summit with going to WPPI (the wedding and portrait photographers conference). It’s an amazing experience in every way. An essential element of WPPI is that you get to shoot, interact with instructors and other photographers, learn post processing, and get inspired all at the same time. For me, any successful landscape photography conference has to do the same. And this one totally delivers.

The Location

You couldn’t ask for a better location this time of year. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited of all national parks and a large part of it happens during the fall. The colors, scenery and wildlife are amazing. The summit was hosted at the awesome Tremont Lodge & Resort. The lodge was owned by the visionary behind the entire summit, the late Wilson Reynolds. Wilson saw a dream come true last year with the first summit, and the smile on his face throughout was unforgettable. Sadly he passed earlier this year, but his memory and presence was felt the entire week.

An Interesting Keynote Talk

I was asked to give the summit’s opening keynote talk on Wednesday which is always really exciting (and really stressful). It’s everyone’s very first class of the conference, and I always feel that it sets the stage for the week. So the past two years I’ve tried to do something a little different than just the photography training or post-processing class.

Last year I did a class called “The Top 10 Things that Outdoor Photographers Need to Know But No One Will Tell Them”. I labeled it as a slightly irreverent but important look at outdoor photography. This year I changed it up a bit and did a class called “Shut Up and Shoot! (5 Ways to Start Enjoying Photography More)”. If last year was labeled “slightly irreverent”, this year would definitely rank on the full-on irreverent scale 🙂

Nothing was safe. I pretty much went head on at some of the photography myths, rules, and thought processes I see that hold people back from just making a nice photo. Everything from the Histogram, to the infamous “sweet spot” on the lenses were all targets in this class 🙂 It was fun though, and I got a ton of really great feedback on it throughout the summit. In fact, it was really fun because someone would walk up, ask me a question and then say “Yeah, I know… Shut up and shoot” 🙂

Gear and Post-Processing

I traveled pretty light on the trip. I took my Sony A7Rii with the usual lenses. I did borrow a Sony 24-240mm lens to try out. I’ve been wanting to really lighten the load in my backpack and see what I can do when shooting with just one lens, so I figured this would be a good trip to try it out on (and I was really happy with it by the way).

As for post-processing, most of the photos below were processed in Lightroom for the raw edits, tonal/color correction, sharpening, shadows, highlights, lens corrections, and noise reduction (where needed, which isn’t a lot of landscapes).

Then they were mostly finished in ON1 Effects for stylization (glow, warming, detail/contrast effects). And I used my iPhone 7  Plus a TON during the trip and did most of the editing on those in Lightroom Mobile.

The Foothills Parkway

This is a really popular place to photograph the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve been there several times and usually go at least twice each trip. It’s a common sunrise spot, but I always like to go at sunset when the light is going down on the other side and just casts some warm light throughout the hills.

The photos here probably aren’t winning me any awards. I’ve seen MANY better shots of it. I’ve photographed this place no less than 10 times and I know that I even have better photos. But the experience of going and hanging out with a few buddies, enjoying a couple of glasses of wine, as we talk, shoot and watch the sun set is worth going back every time. Sometimes photography isn’t just about the photos 🙂




Elkmont (Morning 1)

This first morning, I led a group out to the Elkmont area. There’s a nice stream there to shoot and it’s different from some of the other spots in the park because it has a nice bridge near it. So rather than just shooting the water and trees, you can change it up a bit and include the bridge. I was really happy with this composition since it included some of the water and rocks in the foreground, and the bridge in the background with some nice color trees along the way.


Tremont (Morning 2)

The next morning I led a group to Tremont Road. I’d shot there a lot last year (you can see some photos here). This year, the water wasn’t flowing as much and the color wasn’t as good, so I grabbed my Sony 90mm macro lens, and tried to shoot some different things, and even some close-ups.

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And just as we were leaving (already in the car), the light started coming through some trees and I grabbed this photo with my iPhone 7. In fact, I did a video where I edited it right here if you want to see.


Elkmont (Take 2)

On my last morning there, I led another group to Elkmont. A lot of people saw my earlier photo and asked where it was. So I set up a group to shoot in that direction. I walked around with some others from the group trying to find something different to shoot.

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Well, for a while it was kinda quite before the sun came up. And then, all of the sudden, on the other side of that bridge we started to see some god beams coming through. The trees were glowing from backlight so I put on a wide angle lens and got some foreground leading up to it (and there’s a quick Behind the scenes photo).



Then, I walked closer and Wow! I borrowed the Sony 24-240mm lens that so many people hate on because it’s so-called not “sharp” or has diffraction at the edges, or whatever other reasons I hear website reviews talk about. For me, being able to shoot with one lens for this entire area was priceless. I was able to really be creative and shoot wide and zoom in and I think I ended up with more keepers because of it. I’ll most likely end up purchasing this one because I was so happy with it.

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And for some reason, this composition just screamed pano to me. So I shot a 4 photo panorama going across and stitched it together using Lightroom.


As you can see below, I even tried setting my picture style on my Sony A7Rii to “High Contrast B&W” and had some fun. And before you ask, yes, it’s a JPEG and not a raw file – and yes, I’m still alive after shooting JPEG, and lived to tell the story 😉


Wrap Up

Overall I had an awesome week. Sure, the color wasn’t as vibrant as we would have liked. The water wasn’t flowing as much due to a drought. But that didn’t keep anyone’s spirits down. Landscape, outdoor and nature photography is as much about being outdoors, as it is about photography. And when you’re in such a beautiful area, there’s always something to shoot.

A huge thanks to April Love and Bill Fortney for working tirelessly to put this together this year, as well as, the summit team and volunteers that made this such a wonderful experience. While Wilson wasn’t there this year, I’m sure he had a smile on his face to see his memory kept alive with one of the dreams he got to see fulfilled.

Have a good one! 🙂


  1. Randy P.

    Is there room for real rookies our is this geared toward more veterans in the field? I live about 3 hours away and would love to come next year.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Hey Randy – I’d say most people there fall in to the beginner/intermediate level. I think you’d be right at home. You’ll love it!

  2. Don Tingle


    Was there, loved your irreverent speech. Will we see you next year?

    Randy P.,it is for shooters of all experience levels, instructors will answer questions and offer suggestions.

    It’s hard not to get some great shots here, and April Love did a wonderful job of organizing the event.

  3. Jerry Schwartz

    I attended a workshop there a few Autumns ago, and was amazed at the venue, and at the crowds. The people were from everywhere, and I even was able to help a Japanese family with car trouble. Luckily,, one of the sons spoke english. And the amazing thing is that the entire park is laid out specifically for photographers. A wonderful experience.’

    Is there any way to reduce the gray or blue haze over the distant hills? Every year when Photoshop is updated, I keep hoping they will include something that would make my beautiful shots of the mountains more colorful by eliminating the haze that dulls every long shot.

    Thanks for your great tutorials.

    1. Author
      Matt K

      Hi Jerry – I’m sure there is a way, but the hazy foggy effect over the hills is what draws me to that place. I would personally never remove it. The atmosphere is what “makes” the shot to me. In fact, that’s what they’re named after. “How did the Great Smoky Mountains National Park get its name? The Smokies are named for the blue mist that always seems to hover around the peaks and valleys. The Cherokee called them shaconage, (shah-con-ah-jey) or “place of the blue smoke”.

  4. Mike Wilson

    I am sad to hear about Mr. Wilson’s death. I met him at the first Summit and had a few nice conversations with him. He was a true gentleman. My sympathies to his family and friends. I enjoyed the summit and have recommended it to all of my fellow camera buddies out here on the West Coast.

  5. John Swarce

    Great write-up, Matt! I am really going to try to make this next year. I heard nothing but good things from someone who went this year. What better way to learn?


  6. Jack Zigon

    Matt, I was unable to come to this year’s event. Is there any online archive of your presentation that can be viewed? I really enjoyed your Lightroom seminar in Philadelphia 2 years ago.

  7. Kathy Roberts

    I’ve eyed this conference the last couple years and have enjoyed your write ups about it. It sounds like something I need to really consider next year. I live just west of the GSMNP in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC but don’t get to the national park too often. For me, there’s nothing like photographing these great mountains ranges and I try to do it as often as I can.

    Hope you will be able to make it next year! Would love to say hello and could point you to some great spots here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 🙂

  8. René

    Hello Matt,

    I enjoyed your photos. Especially ELKMONT (MORNING 1). It is really art.

  9. Cindy Hollingsworth

    Love your sessions, Matt, and the candid, fun, irreverent way you present great information. Loved finding the bridge — that I had driven over at least a dozen times. It never crossed my mind to look at it from below. DOH.

    And for those who are wondering about attending next year, DO IT!. What an awesome bunch of people in an awesome location. Absolutely wonderful experience.

    Bill Forney and April Love do a fantastic job and I am certain that Wilson Reynolds is smiling from heaven as he watches this unfold.

  10. Gail Patton

    It was a wonderful time and I learned so much. Your classes are easy to follow and you make them fun to learn. Thank you. Looking forward to next year.

  11. George Coffey

    Matt, this article came at a perfect time. I am going to Townsend tomorrow for a Georgia Nature Photographers weekend outing. I have a Sony A7r2 and a 24 to 240 lens and will see what I can do to emulate some of the shots I saw here.

  12. Bruce Himelman


    Had a great time at this year’s Summit. It was great to finally meet you after following you from Kelby to Onone. I met some great photographers and it was great to speak about taking and making photos with guys like you, Bill Fortney , Jack Graham and Dan Bailey. Will look forward to any announcements for 2017.


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