Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let There Be Light!

It's 5:00 am at the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont, and alarms ring in the darkness, awakening the women asleep in the dormitory. We struggle into clothes and stagger to get on the van. Stars shine by the billions in the black sky. By 6:30 we are at the pull-off on the Foothills Parkway, yawning as we set up tripods and wait for the dawn. "Coffee is ready!" calls Josh, and we all rush for a cup, followed by breakfast from the back of the van.
Finally, someone shouts, "Here comes the sun! Get ready for some great shots!" Click, click, click, click, click echo the shutters. Oh, wow! After yesterday morning's clouds and flat light, I am jumping up and down in excitement. Yesterday, the sunrise was covered by clouds, which cleared up later in the morning, but it stormed most of the afternoon and all night. Today, we reap the photographic benefit of the passing storm front. Now I understand why people worshipped the Sun God.
This is the Photography Workshop at the Institute, attended by photographers varying in skill from beginning through intermediate to professionals. We all expressed interest in learning about light and composition. The leaders encouraged us wimps to get off the built-in program, and use manual settings and a tripod, neither of which I usually do of course.
We learned that there is soft light and hard light, wet light and dry light, adjectives that I normally would not apply to light. But it makes sense the way the instructor explained it. He likes light on an angle, at sunrise or sunset, backlighting, and wet light during a fog or rain. Well, we certainly had plenty of that wet light! He further recommends that we learn to interpret the weather forcast for ourselves, to know whether it will be worthwhile to get up at 5:00 in the morning or not. I didn't think there was enough light at all, under the trees, and had little to no luck focusing because it was too dark. But aha! I later learned that I can crank the ISO up to 400 to make a difference in all the settings. Full of despair, I donned my raincoat, put a shower cap over my camera, and with tripod over my shoulder, headed up the Waterfall Trail behind the Institute. As I puff and pant towards the top of the ridge, the wind blows at gale force, or so it sounds to me. Ford those creeks! A tripod also makes a pretty good hiking stick, and can be used as a monopod on a narrow trail. At one point, the Park Service stretched a log with small steps carved in it across a steep part in the trail. Gulp! There's a lot of down on this trail! Be brave, I tell myself, you can do this, and I forge on. The waterfall is worth the effort, and a Northern Water Thrush sings his congratulations for my courage.
Today, the sun and clouds are perfect! After last night's storms, everything is saturated, so fog and mist rise as the sun warms the earth. The spring trees have color too. You don't have to wait till fall in the Smokies to see color.
It's just like all the photos our instructors showed us last night! The birds are excited too, singing from trees and brush along the road. A Whippoorwill starts, joined by a Brown Thrush, Northern Cardinal and Carolina Wren. A Black and White Warbler sings a high weesa, weesa, weesa, to counter the deep gobble, gobble, gobble of Turkeys down the hill from us. It is just too cool!
The last of the clouds speed away over distant ridges, made clear and distinct by the low angle of the sunlight. By golly, he's right when he talks about soft light!
Spring in the Smoky Mountains is full of wildflowers, of course. Yellow Trilliums bloom in abundance right outside the dining hall. Dwarf Crested Iris carpet the hillsides.
As the sun rises, and the shadows move, I glance behind to see a small flash of pink among the trees. What's that? Pink Azaleas! How wonderful, since the Rhododendrons haven't even started to bud yet.
I spend the late morning sorting through about 300 photos from the morning's shoot, trying to edit and choose only THREE for the class critique this afternoon. Then I hope we will go out again. Cades Cove? Haven't been there for years and years. Tomorrow before I leave, I want to take another trail with Trilliums. Then Gabby the GPS will direct me home again.

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