NEW COURSE: MATT K’s Guide to Bird Photography… Now On Sale

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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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 😉

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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! 🙂

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