Posted by: kerryl29 | May 7, 2013

Preconceived Notions: Keeping Your Eyes (and Mind) Wide Open

It’s fine to be purposeful about your photographic objectives, but if your single-mindedness is causing you to miss unanticipated opportunities, you may want to consider modifying your approach in the field.  Not infrequently you can find photo opportunities that you weren’t expecting–if you give yourself the chance to find them.

During my trip to the Smokies last month, I routinely visited particular sites with a specific goal in mind, but I always try to keep my eyes open and my mind free enough to explore image possibilities that weren’t specifically on my agenda.  Allow me to illustrate the point with a series of examples.

Example 1:  Redbud and Phacelia

On my first full morning in the Smokies, I was planning to head to the Greenbrier section of the park.  The forecast was for mostly cloudy conditions and I’d been alerted that about 1.5 miles down the Porters Creek Trail was a setting rich with fringed phacelia.  My driving route to Greenbrier took me along the Little River Road and before long I caught a glimpse of a potentially intriguing scene, so I pulled over at the first available pullout and ran back to take a good look.  A redbud, in peak bloom, had caught my attention from the driver’s seat and when I had the opportunity to size up the scene with my feet on the ground, I saw that it was worth a delay on my trip to Greenbrier.  That image is immediately below.

Little River Redbud, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Little River Redbud, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Eventually I was on my way, but the morning’s forecast turned out to be wrong; it was almost completely sunny, so I spent most of my time at Greenbrier scouting.  The report I had received about the phacelia was spot on, and I noted some photo opportunities that would work for better conditions.  I returned the following morning and took advantage of the previous day’s scouting session (see below).

Phacelia Carpet, Porters Creek Trail, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Phacelia Carpet, Porters Creek Trail, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Moral of the story:  Despite having a clear agenda, I never shut down my image detection sensors.  The redbud shot was entirely different, in style and location, than the “flowerscape” I envisioned at Greenbrier, but I kept my mind open enough to see the Little River possibility when it was presented to me.

Example 2:  Smokemont and Reflections

Later during my week in the Smokies, after a sunrise shoot at Newfound Gap, I wandered down to the North Carolina part of the park to check out the area around the Smokemont Campground, a section of the park I’d never explored before.  I wanted to check out the Lufty Baptist Church, and found the place with little difficulty.  It’s a very photogenic setting as the old church is an attractive building tucked into a heavily forested nook, providing some compositional and exposure challenges.

Lufty Baptist Church, Smokemont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Lufty Baptist Church, Smokemont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

After I had finished with the church, I wandered back to my car, which was parked alongside the Oconaluftee River.  Something made me take a look at the river and I noticed the effect the still-rising sun was having on reflections in the water.  I was intrigued and spent some time capturing semi-abstract images, including the one below, with a telephoto lens.

Oconaluftee River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Oconaluftee River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Moral of the story:  I gave myself the time to wander and simply look around for something that might catch my fancy.  It can be difficult to recognize these kinds of abstract opportunities when your mind is focused on more literal/traditional landscape subject matter.  I know that I find it easier to spot these types of images when I’m not in pursuit of something specific, or–as will be illustrated in the next example–if I give myself the chance to explore a bit once I’ve gotten my purposeful shot “out of the way.”

Example 3:  Laurel Falls

I hadn’t been up to Laurel Falls since my first trip to the Smokies, way back in the fall of 2004.  For one thing, I hadn’t been all that impressed with what I’d found the first time.  For another, Laurel Falls can become very, very crowded.  It’s not a very long hike (roughly 1.4 miles one way) and while there’s a fair amount of elevation gain, the trail up to the falls is paved, which makes it a very, very easy climb.  Typically, by 9 AM, the area starts getting crowded.  In the middle of the day, the parking lot is overflowing.  If you want to photograph the waterfall it’s best to get up there shortly after sunrise.  In addition to having fewer people to deal with, the waterfall is shaded in the early morning, even on a sunny day.  Thinking that I might have missed something nine years ago, I decided to make the trek one morning, and had the place mostly to myself for roughly an hour.

Laurel Falls is a bit of a challenge to photograph, because it’s impossible to move very far back from the main set of tiers without falling roughly 40 feet down a steep ravine.  This means getting creative with sectional shots or carefully using an ultra-wide angle lens.  (I did both, though only one example of the latter is included here.)

Laurel Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Laurel Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

After I finished shooting the waterfall itself–and I decided that it had been worth the return trip after all–I decided to look around a bit, just to see if there were any less than obvious subjects of interest.  I noticed a bit of an eddy that was forming below the footbridge that’s used to cross in front of the waterfall–just to the right of the frame in the image above.  It was difficult to detect, but it appeared to me that, with a very long exposure, some interesting effects might be yielded.  There were some small potholes in the adjacent rock, dotted with fallen blossoms from one of the nearby flowering trees.

I concocted a composition that included only one moving subject–the water in the main pool– and using a polarizer and and the appropriate exposure settings, I was able to generate an eight-second exposure of the water.  The image you see below is actually a composite of two exposures; the eight-second exposure caused the white flower petals to be blown out, so, with the camera still locked own on the tripod, I took another exposure of two seconds, which allowed me to retain detail in the petals.  I combined the two images in Photoshop, and converted the image to black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro, to remove the distraction of color from the emphasis on the patterns and textures.

Whirlpool black & white, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Whirlpool black & white, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Moral of the story:  Once I had freed myself from any limitations imposed by the principle subject of the shoot and gave myself the opportunity to look around, other less-traditional opportunities presented themselves.

Example 4:  Tremont

On my second to last full day in the park I spent the late afternoon and early evening in the Tremont section.  Nine years ago this autumn, I acquired this image near the end of the road in Tremont.  Five years ago, I wanted a shot from the same location in the spring, but the trees were late to leaf out that year and by the time I left the area in 2009 they were just starting to bud in Tremont.

This time around, things were different, but as I arrived at the designated spot early in the evening, there was still direct sunlight on the scene.  I was going to have to wait a bit to get the shot in even light.  So while I waited for the sun to drift behind the ridge to the southwest, I turned my attention to other possible subjects.  Interestingly, what struck me was the same thing that was “ruining” my planned shot–sunlight on the subject.  I saw some backlit leaves on a nearby tree, hanging over one of the cascades of this prong of the Little River, and quickly maneuvered myself to try to take advantage of it before–do you see the irony here?–the sun’s position drifted to the point that the shot lost its impact.  The remarkable dynamic range of the D800E did the rest.  This image is immediately below.

Backlighting, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Backlighting, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Shortly after this took place, the sun fell below the tree line and I was able to produce the shot that had drawn me to the location in the first place, as you can see below.

Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Moral of the story:  Sometimes the “other shot” is being created by the very thing that is inhibiting you from getting the shot you wanted in the first place.  If something is preventing you from getting “your shot,” consider whether there’s a way to turn that “something” to your advantage.

In Sum…

Despite differing circumstances, all of the examples cited here share a commonality:  a willingness to look past the preconceived shot though never, I hasten to add, at the sacrifice of the anticipated image.  In all of these cases–and numerous others I haven’t taken the time to flush out–I obtained the shot I had been looking for, sometimes right away, sometimes after a brief wait, sometimes on a different day entirely.  But I also obtained something I wasn’t looking for, and that came by giving myself the cognitive freedom–by keeping my eyes and my mind open–to look beyond my own preconceived notions.


  1. Very nice post Kerry! Sadly, the redbuds on Kiawah all were infected by a disease or a bug that has totally wiped them out. They are such a gorgeous tree. We miss them 😦

    • Thanks, Tina. Sorry to hear about the status of redbuds on the SC coastal islands. Not to rub it in, but they’re currently absolutely at peak in NE Illinois.

  2. Giving yourself time to wander. I love it. Beautiful photos. 😉

    • Thanks very much.

  3. Very good advice, I find that I get so focused on one thing that I forget to look around to see what else there is around me that I should photograph. Excellent photos, I do love your work!

  4. Good lessons here about timing and lighting, Kerry.I love the water eddies and in the others the overall composition and choice of shutter speed . I will keep this in mind, hopefully, as the season ripens here.Lovely images of Spring.

    • Thanks, Jane. I wish you the very best of spring weather.

  5. Beautiful shots. I have a lot of time to wander with my camera in hand but it’s always a good reminder to try to expand my ‘usual’ perspective. Thanks!

    • You’re most welcome. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  6. Kerry, thank you for such an inspiring and enlightening post as well as your usual gorgeous photos. Now that I am officially on sabbatical, I am about to embark on months of image capturing for my new project and your advice is tremendously helpful. “. . . giving myself the cognitive freedom–by keeping my eyes and my mind open–to look beyond my own preconceived notions.” That is a great insight and great advice. I am renting some lenses this week to try out before I drop the big bucks; I now am determined to shoot even my test shots with this philosophy in mind – thank you, thank you, thank you 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. Good move re the lens rentals.

      Very best of luck with the image capture; please let me know if I can be of any help.

  7. I love this post and how you have shared not only your thought process but also the images that went along with it. Great seeing you and love your images.

    • Thanks very much, Emily.

  8. Great shots and advice. I’m the same way. My image detection sensors are always active. I keep an open mind and often end up with unexpected treasures. Or maybe I’m just afraid that I’ll miss something!

    • Thanks, Angela. Sounds as though you’re very much on the right track.

  9. Great post Kerry. I’m like Angela…keep an open mind so I don’t miss anything…there just isn’t enough time…

  10. Beautiful photos – especially the Oconaluftee River Reflections.

    • Thanks very much, Robert.

  11. Wonderful post, great photography!
    Greetings from Norway

    • Thanks very much, Dina.

  12. Beautiful photos! Great job!

  13. […] specific idea of what I expect to find there (often based on previous experience at the spot), I try to keep an open mind and act […]

  14. […] I’ve also covered the notion of “the shot” mentality when in the field, and tied it all up in a bow or at least attempted to do so.  But I want to return to the subject […]

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