Posted by: kerryl29 | May 23, 2013

Variations on a Theme

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?

K:  Yes.

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 are “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.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Pigeon River, Greenbrier, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Roaring Fork

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).

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Roaring Fork black & white, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork black & white, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Again, different perspectives–and experimentation with different technical settings (such as longer or shorter shutter speeds) keep the shots distinct from one another.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee


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, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Tremont Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

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.



  1. First, awesome photos as always! I agree with you, especially when it comes to stream scenes. As a trout fisherman, I know that ever section of a stream has its own distinct personality, and the same applies to every subject that there is to photograph. There are times when I feel a little foolish looking at thousands of flowers on a single flowering tree looking for just the right ones to photograph, but the results are worth it.

    • Thanks, Jerry. And, yes, being extremely thorough will definitely pay off in the end.

  2. Terrific post Kerry and the photos are super! I’ve looked at them 5 or six times each, and really wish I was there. I also agree with your change things up philosophy. You go to a familiar place with a fresh outlook, you’re bound to see things differently. Now…if I see one more stream photograph…

    • Thanks very much, David. I think you’d have a phenomenal time in the Smokies…even if it is full of stream photo ops. 🙂

  3. Ha Ha Ha Maybe he needs “a better camera.” I wonder what he was thinking of shooting?. Beautiful spring streams, love the slower shutter speed and point of views.The B/W ones are striking as are the spring colours.

    • Thanks, Jane. Want to hear something ironic? This guy was shooting with a D800 (not the E version). How do I know that? He told me. And, no, I didn’t ask. In fact, this will be the subject of a future blog entry.

      • Love this article, great photos… I couldn’t agree with you more.
        If you didn’t ask then it sounds to me like he was bragging about his camera. Just because you have an expensive camera doesn’t make you a good photographer. Just like owning an expensive car doesn’t make you a good driver. Some people have more money than brains… what a snob… The one good thing is that the experience inspired you to share this topic with us.

        • Thanks, Angela.

          The camera story is a bit more complicated than that, but I don’t want to tip my hand just yet. 🙂

  4. I’ll go with the “maybe he needs a better camera” comment! Perhaps a brain upgrade might also be in order?

    • I don’t want to be too hard on the poor schlub. I mean, at one time or another we’ve probably all expressed fatigue with a photo subject. The part I really don’t understand is…if you’re not into streams as a setting, why go to the Smokies…in the spring…for more than a week? Going to the Smokies for an extended time, willfully, and complaining about streams is like buying a major league baseball season ticket package and complaining about how long the games last.

      • Precisely. And I expect you’re right about us all complaining at one time or another. I cannot believe that I ever get a bit bored with my beach at Bandon on occasion, but I do. It’s nice to take a break every now and then to something quite different. I think my latest trip helped to shake things up a bit – from sea level to the Rockies.

        • Having been to Bandon Beach…once…yeah, it’s pretty hard to imagine tiring of it. 🙂 But, of course, if you’re there day after day, year after year, a change of pace every once in awhile has to be welcome.

          Not incidentally, I viewed with some interest your recently posted photos from Utah and Nevada.

  5. LOL on the comments. Clearly having a camera doesn’t make him a photographer, he’s just a guy with a camera!

    • There’s a well-quoted statement that’s on point; I will paraphrase:

      If you buy a flute, you own a flute. If you buy a camera, you’re a photographer.

  6. Beautiful images!

    • Thanks very much!

  7. fantastic images… the black and whites are absolutely spectacular!

    • Thanks very much.

  8. “I apologize in advance for this image-heavy post.” Kerry, an image heavy post from you is a great delight! You should consider writing a book, Kerry; you are so articulate about so many aspects of photography, but especially the “why” of choosing what to shoot. I am just venturing into capturing images of streams and waterfalls, practicing on our local falls, so this post was enormously helpful in both words and images. I’m also trying to see things in a new way, so once again, your challenge to seeing with a new POV is so helpful and inspired. Many thanks for sharing your unique gifts and talents with all of us!

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Lynn. They mean a great deal to me, both because of the substance and the source.

      The very best of luck with your foray into shooting moving water; if I can be of any help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

      • I am curious about how you protect your camera from drizzly rain and from water splashing while filming streams.

        • That’s a good question. I’ll deal with the two sides of this separately in this response, because I treat them somewhat differently in the field.

          Rain. If there’s a light rain or drizzle, I often don’t do anything in the way of protection. My camera is weather sealed, so light drizzle isn’t going to do it any harm. I just make sure to dry it off carefully with a towel when I’m done. If I’m going to be out for awhile in one place, I have been known to set things up and then hold an umbrella over the entire contraption (camera, tripod, etc.). This can be awkward, since it ties up one hand, but I typically will get all of my settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus) in place and then pop up the umbrella. (One thing about a drizzly day: light levels don’t usually change much if at all, so once you have exposure settings nailed you probably won’t have to change them, unless you’re experimenting with end results).

          Another thing I’ve done is to get everything set up with the camera on the tripod (if you have a vehicle with a hatch you can sometimes get everything set up without getting wet) and drape a large plastic trash bag over the entire contraption, and then walk with it until I get to my shooting location. I can then pull one end of the bag over my head, so I can interact with the viewfinder and controls, without exposing the camera to the rain, and pull the other end of the bag so it sits on top of the lens hood. The only part of the rig that’s exposed to the elements is the lens hood itself.

          There are numerous rain covers that are sold by a variety of vendors that will keep your camera dry and have a hole in the cover that the lens will peek through. These tend to be a bit pricey, but are (usually) effective. Of course, you can rig up something like this yourself by retrofitting a large plastic trash bag.

          Stream/Creek Spray. This one’s easy. If there’s a bit of stray spray here and there that hits my camera, it doesn’t bother me, for the reasons stated above in the rain section. If I’m being subjected to a constant spray that’s hitting the front element of the lens (or, more likely, the polarizing filter on the front of the lens), I move my setup somewhere else, where this won’t happen because, frankly, if water droplets are constantly hitting the front of the lens, it’s going to ruin any resulting image. If it’s an occasional thing, you wipe off the front of the lens as needed, but if it’s a constant thing–even with the lens hood in place–there’s really nothing to be done other than to reposition yourself to a spot where this won’t happen.

  9. Great tips, Kerry, many thanks!

  10. I quite agree with you and I hope you are sending this article to this person you met. 🙂 Each image evokes a different mood and of course, each is shot with different elements in mind. I could take a thousand photos of one flower and find something different in each shot.

    • Thanks very much, Naomi.

  11. Great images Kerry, and I couldn’t agree with your sentiment more. You could spend a lifetime in the Smokies and never capture every possible stream image. You’d still have a lifetime’s worth of stream shots, but as your post illustrates, each would be unique in it’s own right. Quite possibly the gentleman you met was tired of “his” stream photography!

    • Thanks, Derek; your characterization of the photographer I met may very well be correct.

  12. […] the guy who was “sick to death of stream photography”?  He did have time to ask me a question about my […]

  13. I happen to love the stream images, the captured moments of the living water…and I do take many photos from the same streams again and again, different times of day and season…and still find them refreshing…wonderful. I appreciated the narrative and commentary, and your gorgeous photography….thank you for sharing, Kerry.

    • Thanks very much, Scott.

  14. THat is what I like when I go photographing: exploring the several angles and undestand better where I am. THnks.

    • Thanks–I greatly appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.

  15. […] the concept of “working the scene” frequently on this blog, most prominently, perhaps, here.  But I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the time to describe the idea thoroughly, […]

  16. […] the notion of “working the scene” multiple times on this blog in the past, most notably here and here.  (Both entries explain the concept in some detail.)  It’s remarkable how often […]

  17. […] times, all but one of them in the spring, when the dogwoods and wildflowers are in bloom and the creeks are flush with the winter run-off.  Most of my trips to the park have been relatively successful, […]

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