If You’ve Seen One Stream, You’ve Seen them All
As I wrote in one of my recent guest blogging installments on 1001 Scribbles, on the final morning of my trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park last month, I ran into another photographer while shooting in Cades Cove. After exchanging a few pleasantries we had the following conversation.
Other Photographer: Have you been in the park long?
Kerry: A little more than a week.
OP: Is this the first time you’ve shot here?
K: Oh no. This is my fourth extended shoot in the Smokies, but it’s my first time here since 2009.
OP: So you know the location pretty well then. This is my first time, and I just got here last night. What are your favorite spots? Any suggestions for great places to shoot?
K: There are lots of terrific locations. Obviously you know about Cades Cove. Have you checked out Roaring Fork or Tremont?
OP: For stream photography you mean?
At this point, a funny look came across his face, as though he’d just gotten a whiff of something really unpleasant.
“I have to tell you, I’m really sick of stream photography,” he said. “This place is lousy with streams.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that he told me that he was “sick of stream photography” even though he’d just arrived the previous night (how is that even possible?). Saying that the Smokies is “lousy with stream photography” is like saying that the Galapagos Islands are “lousy” with wildlife shooting opportunities. On the one hand, duh. On the other hand, if you regard this as a negative, why are you going there in the first place?
After conversing with this gentleman a bit further, it became clear to me that he had the notion that “if you’ve seen one stream, you’ve seen them all.” This is an attitude with which I heartily disagree.
Working the Scene
You’re probably familiar with the expression “working the scene.” It refers to the exercise of thoroughly examining a shooting location and milking it for everything it’s worth. A working-the-scene mindset forces you to consider different ways of looking at the scene beyond the immediately obvious. It pushes you to consider alternative perspectives, focal lengths, genres.
I want to illustrate this point through a series of examples from my Smokies trip and, yes, my goal is to explode the “if you’ve seen one stream, you’ve seen them all” notion. I apologize in advance for this image-heavy post.
My first example comes from the Greenbrier section of the park. The following three images were all made mere steps from one another. The first, immediately below, was taken after I waded into the Pigeon River to obtain a low in the water perspective. This required the appropriate footwear–in this case, a pair of knee-high rubber boots that I have with me any time I’m photographing around water–and some care as I navigated the slippery rocks on the river bottom.
After I’d completed this shot–which was taken in a light drizzle–I climbed out of the river and made my way atop a bridge spanning the river, which was no more than 25 feet behind me when I took the above shot. This very same scene takes on an entirely different dimension with the “aerial’ perspective afforded by the bridge, as you can see below.
My position for the first shot was just out of the bottom of the scene shown above, a bit below the pair of large overlapping rocks an inch or so inside the lower right corner of the frame. Note how the two images have a completely different feel.
After the shot from the bridge, I moved downstream roughly 150 feet and waded back into the shallows of the river to produce another series of images, only one of which I’ll include here. This is looking back upstream, and you can clearly see the bridge that served as my shooting location for the second image in the series.
Three stream shots, all within 200 feet of one another, all facing the same direction, in fact. But despite all of the location and genre similarities, all three, I think you’ll agree, evoke distinct emotions.
If it’s possible to take three shots of the same scene and produce different images it should go without saying that it’s possible to take shots from different streams and produce entirely different photographs. So why am I saying it? To combat the “when you’ve seen one stream, you’ve seen them all” mentality.
The below shots of Roaring Fork–a very, very different sort of stream from the Middle Prong of the Pigeon River (the Greenbrier material above) or the Middle Prong of the Little River (which flows through the Tremont section of the park, which I’ll illustrate later)–were all taken within walking distance of one another, and several from the exact same location (doubling down on the point made with the Greenbrier images).
The first image, made with a telephoto lens, emphasizes a means for picking out details and using color contrasts to produce a clear center of interest and a very different look from the wider angle shots from Greenbrier (and some of the ensuing Roaring Fork photos).
The second Roaring Fork shot is also a telephoto intimate, but the black and white conversion places the emphasis squarely on lines, form, tones and contrast, an entirely different theme than exists with any of the other stream shots in this collection presented thus far.
The remaining shots return to a wider angle approach, but the subject matter is entirely different from the wide shots from Greenbrier. Roaring Fork is a much, much narrower–and steeper–waterway than the Pigeon River, and includes far different secondary elements, such as mossy rocks and rhododendron and all of this creates the opportunity for distinct imagery. The main element is still the stream, but note how different the images appear once you move past the superficial similarities.
Again, different perspectives–and experimentation with different technical settings (such as longer or shorter shutter speeds) keep the shots distinct from one another.
Utilizing perspective advantages–such as another of the narrow bridges that cross Roaring Fork at a variety of spots–can also help foster distinct points of view.
The Tremont district of the park has its own unique elements and photo opportunities. It’s still “stream photography,” but take note of how the elements of the scenes included below distinguish themselves from Greenbrier and Roaring Fork. The inclusion of dogwood trees is one difference, as you can see in the first image below.
Tremont can also be a great place for reflections, depending on the weather conditions and the time of day. Again, it’s still “stream photography,” but it’s completely different from anything else in this collection.
The final three shots were all taken within steps of one another, but are completely different renditions of the same scene. I’ll present the broadest shot–an aerial perspective from high up on the bank of the Middle Prong of the Little River–first.
The second shot is telephoto shot of the main cascade–also taken from up on the bank–in the image immediately above, converted to black and white to emphasize the yin-yang dimension.
For the final image I carefully climbed down the 25 feet or so from the bank to the river’s edge and then climbed on top of the huge boulder you see near the bottom of the frame, immediately below the principal cascade, in the first of these three images. By crouching low on that boulder I was able to render the scene with an entirely different in-your-face perspective, emphasizing the power of the rapids.
There you have it–13 stream shots, 13 unique images. I have plenty of other stream photographs from this trip which produce their own unique imprint but I think my point has been made; there’s no need to beat it into the ground any more than I’ve already done.
I’ve focused on streams as the broad subject matter for purposes of illustration, but I could just as easily have been talking about mountains, or lakes or beaches or sunrises/sunsets…really, just about any superficially categorized bit of subject matter. If you’re having difficulty rendering “common” subjects in differentiating ways, it’s very likely a function of you, not the subject matter itself. Change things up. Experiment with a different lens, a different perspective, a different shutter speed…anything that will help you look at your subject with fresh eyes. Before you know it, you’ll discover just how unique each location is, even if you’ve encountered it many times before.