At times, I’ve heard the Oconaluftee referred to as the “lifeblood of the Smokies” and as far as the east side of the park goes, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. Hundreds of small streams and tributaries drain the airy heights of peaks like Clingmans Dome, all coming together to produce a formidable amount of water by the time the river makes its way to the gateway town of Cherokee, North Carolina.
For the image below, Mountain Cascade, I waited until a late afternoon thunderstorm had recently rolled through the mountains and was beginning to clear. As it did, I changed into swimming trunks and waded into a nearly waist deep pool of water below a cascade I’d visited on many occasions. With fog hanging along the banks of the river and warm, late evening light filtering through the trees, conditions were perfect. I used a 2-stop soft graduated neutral density to control the overall dynamic range, the filter was placed at an angle from right to left, following the line between river and surrounding foliage. The subtle curvature of the river, the angling foreground cascade and lush greens of the foliage all came together wonderfully.
Canon 5D + 17-40 L @ 24mm, 6.0 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100. 2-stop Soft Graduated ND Filter + Circular Polarizer.
In the spring and summer, and on rare winter days after a snowfall, the Oconaluftee is one of the most beautiful areas in all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But, with throngs of visitors focusing their time on the western side of the park, it’s also surprisingly quiet for much of the year. This is especially remarkable considering the overall popularity of the park with its nearly 15 million visitors each year. It’s all too easy to ignore the Oconaluftee as you race up Highway 441 to the higher, more dramatic areas of the park.
Canon 5D + 17-40 L @ 20mm, 5.0 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100. Circular Polarizer.
Usually, downstream compositions aren’t as compelling as those looking upstream. But, in this particular case, I found the early morning light and bend in the river to be strong enough elements to create a photograph around. When composing this shot, I was care to not crowd the little wisp of a cascade in the bottom right as I feel the line it makes coming into the shot is very important to the photograph’s overall success.
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- Scott Hotaling