I almost always manage to forget something on every trip, despite the use of several travel lists. This year, in the Smoky Mountains, it was my tripod.
I don’t use tripods all that often on vacation, but the opportunities for waterfall photography in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park justifies the hassle of hauling it along. But this year, I was overly concerned with packing enough cereal, lunch meat, and baby carrots to sustain us for the week, and neglected to plan ahead for photographic opportunities.
Why a tripod? For waterfalls to have a silky, flowing appearance, it’s necessary to use a long exposure. I like to use at least 1/2 second, but longer is often more effective. There are certainly those who prefer their waterfall photography to show crisp splashes, which are done with short exposures, but I still like to get both versions.
Bracing myself against a tree, I have been able to pull off sharp images at 0.6 second before, but this year, I wasn’t so steady. All of them came out a bit soft in the details of the rocks when viewed up close. Also, we mostly toured during midday, when the sun was bright, and there was a lot of dappled sunlight over most of the waterfalls. This is terrible for long exposures, because the areas in sunlight go completely white, without any detail.
We did finally find some deeply-shaded rapids, and better yet, this one had a large, flat rock that was well-positioned for camera support. I used my hat to prop up the lens, enabled my mirror lockup feature, and used the self-timer to reduce camera shake from the mirror moving in the camera and my heavy finger on the shutter button. I used ISO 100 at f/16. I had a polarizing filter in my camera bag, which further reduced the light coming into the lens, so I was able to get my shutter speed all the way down to ten long, luxurious seconds. Since I wasn’t touching the camera, and the rock was even more stable than a tripod would have been in the rushing stream, the images were satisfyingly sharp.
In this situation, the limiting factor was my son, who was running out of patience with my long exposures and wanted to get back to the car and finish our tour before the rain set in. As it turned out, he was right, as the raindrops started falling when we were at the last stop.
Despite my lucky break, I have now added “tripod” to my Smoky Mountain travel list for next time.