The Intimate Landscape: How to find Paradise in a Parking Lot

Forest Details Great Smoky Mountains

Forest Details by Richard Lewis 2014

A Tree in the Forest Smoky Mountains

A Tree In The Forest by Richard Lewis 2014


Spring Trees Smoky Mountains

Spring Trees by Richard Lewis 2014

Intimate Forest Smoky Mountains

Intimate Forest by Richard Lewis 2014

“Sometimes you can tell a large story with a tiny subject.”
Eliot Porter

When I learned that our first morning in the Great Smoky Mountains would be spent photographing in the parking lot of a visitor center, I thought that I may have wasted a bit of money going there. For a hiking fanatic, sitting at the edge of one of the most beautiful natural areas in the world, heading to a parking lot to shoot seemed like a mistake. As usual, I was wrong.

Eliot Porter (1901-1990), a pioneer of color landscape photography, introduced the concept of the “Intimate Landscape.” Unlike a grand scene of mountain ranges, the intimate landscape focuses, literally, on the intimate part of a scene like the shape of a tree, the visual flow through a meadow, or the texture of water flowing over rocks. The intimate landscape is what we were looking for because a parking lot in a national park can offer a unique glimpse of the forest’s edge.

How I Did It – When photographing the intimate landscape it is important to notice the details. Dan Sniffen, a great West Coast photographer, uses the term “complex simplicity” to describe this process. A simple thing like a tree is really a complex array of branches, colors, textures and tonal range. The trick is to put all of these complexities together in a way that delights the viewer and invites them into the simple little piece of the world you are recording with your camera and lens.


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Magic Light, French Impressionism and a Big Japanese Maple Tree.

A Little Piece of the New Hampshire Landscape

Glowing Japanese Maple

Glowing Japanese Maple by Richard Lewis 2014

Once in a while something really nice makes itself known to your camera and you can’t wait to share it. This Japanese Maple is next to my brother’s home in New Hampshire. We spent a few days there visiting and on this particular morning I headed out early to photograph the area but gave up when it started to rain hard.

While we were enjoying breakfast, the rain stopped and and the sun stated to work its way through the clouds causing the wet landscape around the house to glow, particularly this Japanese maple with its red leaves. As much as I was enjoying the conversation, this was one photograph I could not pass up the opportunity to create.

How I Did It - Deciding how to express beauty in a photograph is as important as discovering the beauty. In this case I felt inspired by the French Impressionists and their interpretation of light and color. What was going on in front of my lens was all about the play of light and color and not the beautiful tree. I used a tighter composition to keep the tree and the background somewhat abstract. Thanks for the inspiration Claude Monet.



Life in an 8mm Circle

My first experiences with a fisheye lens

Smithville through a Fisheye Lens

Smithville in the Round by Richard Lewis 2014

Photographs are rectangles and sometimes squares right? Well…. If you want to upset your sensibilities as a photographer try photographing in circles. The above is from the new love in my life, an 8mm fisheye lens. Like all new loves, this one is full of the passion along with the challenge of getting to know someone.

It is kind of shocking to look through the viewfinder of your camera and instead of seeing that familiar old rectangular view of the world there is a circle. It is kind of like looking through a periscope or one of those peep holes in hotel room doors. But then you accept it and you start to redefine how you look at the world with your camera.

How I Did It – Here are a few things I learned from walking around the Smithville Historic Park in Westampton, New Jersey with a fisheye lens for about an hour or so.

  1. Forget the rules of composition. Rule of thirds, forget about it. “S” curves, everything is a curve. Using a Fisheye redefines composition because of the severe distortion and the simple fact that everything is in a circle.
  2. Look at the bottom of the frame. This is probably the most important Fisheye advice that no one ever mentions. A fisheye lens shows a 180 degree view. That is half of your world in one little circle. The reason to look down is that most likely your legs and feet are in the photograph. I found it necessary to lean forward when clicking the shutter.
  3. Tripods are not necessary. I feel like I’m breaking the sacred oath of landscape photographers by saying that. Not only can you get away with longer hand-held shutter speeds when using an 8mm fisheye lens, but just like your human legs, your tripod legs will probably be in the photograph unless you are using a monopod.
  4. Get close. An 8mm lens is a really, really, really wide angle lens. Because the wider the lens the more distance is distorted, it is good to get close, really close, to your subject.
  5. Don’t fight the distortion. Anything not in the middle of the image will be distorted. Use that and enjoy the lack of reality.  Embrace a circular view of the world.

A fisheye lens is a great tool for expanding your vision as a photographer. It can also make the familiar and possibly the boring fresh again. There is nothing like a little challenge to help one grow as an artist.


The Great Smoky Mountain Creeks

The creeks are one of the things that make the Smoky Mountains great. 

Tremont Creek, Smokey Mountain National Park

Tremont Creek, Smokey Mountain National Park by Richard Lewis 2014

Little River Gorge in Smoky Mountain National Park

Little River Gorge by Richard Lewis 2014

Dogwoods On Tremont Creek

Dogwoods on Tremont Creek by Richard Lewis 2014

Dark Waters in the Smoky Mountains

Dark Waters in the Smoky Mountains by Richard Lewis 2014

Waterfall by Tremont Creek

Waterfall by Tremont Creek by Richard Lewis 2014

My week in the Great Smoky Mountains was spent being overwhelmed by the beauty of the Dogwood blossoms and the Smoky Fog. However, another stunning aspect of this place was the water. While nothing can compete with my favorite local creeks like the Tohickon and Glen Onoko Falls, the abundant flowing creeks in the Smokies were beautiful to look at, photograph and just sit beside.

How I Did It – The technique of photographing flowing water uses a slow shutter speed, usually around 1 second, which may require a neutral density filter. A polarizing filter is also useful to control glare and reflection. Once you master the techniques to create images of beautiful silky flowing water,  you will need to look at the rest of the scene you are creating. If the area surrounding the creek or the creek itself is full of unsightly debris or if the entire scene is compositionally challenging, you might need to find a better spot. Depending on your feelings about altering a photograph, removing less flattering things with a little “digital landscaping” might also be something worth considering. The difference between a really good photograph and a really great one is paying attention to the details and controlling the composition of the scene you are capturing.

Flowing water is something that has fascinated me since I first picked up a camera. In a previous post I talked more about my “love and fear” of water. Click here to see that post.


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Back on the Trail in Harriman State Park

One way to grow as a photographer is by stretching your comfort zone and not getting “stuck” in a certain style. We need to get past the idea that “I only shoot landscapes or flowers or puppies” or whatever. You can love or be compelled to create a certain type of photography, but trying other things will help you improve and hone those core passions.

I’ve recently made a conscious effort to to do this. Part of the inspiration came from friends like Mike Pillows, and Pat Worley who are willing to try anything photographically. This year I started photographing old and abandoned buildings, people, and taking on some commercial photographic assignments. One was for a trucking company where I even got to drive a big rig for a short distance. One of a photographer’s little perks.

Recently, I returned to my core passion when I loaded up my gear and hiked a 9 mile series of trails in Harriman State Park in New York. It was my first serious photographic hike in a while. As much as I love what I’ve been photographing recently, it felt great to be back on the trail again with camera gear, and some new perspectives in tow. There is beauty and solitude in hiking through the landscape and photographing a wilderness that is only available to those who desire to make the effort to get there.

West Mountain

The panorama below was taken from the top of West Mountain. It is one of my favorite views in the park. Although I’ve been here before, it felt like I was looking at it for the first time. A whole new set of visual cues and flows that I never noticed before revealed themselves to me.

View of the Timp from West Mountain in Harriman State Park

View of the Timp from West Mountain by Richard Lewis 2014

Bald Mountain

The photograph below was taken from the top of Bald Mountain. I love the simplicity of the Hudson Valley landscape. It has a settled, comfortable beauty that is very different from the drama and severity of areas with high mountains. I was lucky to be hiking here when the soft spring colors in the valley were showing.

Spring at Bear Mountain State Park

Spring at Bear Mountain State Park by Richard Lewis 2014

In the photograph below, the hiking trail opens up along a small rocky ridge that creates a “hole” in the forest. For years I’ve admired this quiet little spot but never saw a photograph. Since my trip to the Smoky Mountains, I’ve been much more sensitive to flowering trees and how branches can add flow to a composition. Looking at this scene with a fresh perspective allowed me to noticed how the lone dogwood plays against Bald Mountain in the background.

A Dogwood in the Shadow of Bald Mountain in Harriman State Park

A Dogwood in the shadow of Bald Mountain by Richard Lewis 2014

By stretching your comfort zone, you learn to see better as an artist. Then, when you return to the work you love most, it will be with a new and expanded vision and comfort zone. Heck, you might even find a new love along the way.


Why They Are Called The Smoky Mountains

They are called the Great Smoky Mountains because on cool moist evenings fog develops in the low lands that looks like smoke in the morning. It is a beautiful thing to behold. The fog can change from minute to minute creating quite a show.

Morning Fog in the Smokey Mountains

Morning Fog in the Smokey Mountains 1 by Richard Lewis 2014

Morning Fog at Dawn in the Smokey Mountains

Morning Fog at Dawn in the Smokey Mountains by Richard Lewis 2014

If you are in the low land valleys, you get to be part of the fog developing. In the photograph below the mountains are barely visible through the forming “smoke”.

Smokey Mountain Evening

Smokey Mountain Evening by Richard Lewis 2014

Even on clear days haze in the valleys gives the impression of smoke.

Details of a Morning

Details of a Morning by Richard Lewis 2014

Blue Hour in the Smokey Mountains

Blue Hour in the Smokey Mountains by Richard Lewis 2014

Of all the things in the Smokies that I fell in love with, this was by far the most beautiful.

How I did It – Be in the moment. When you are in such overwhelming beauty it is great to let yourself go into the moments you are experiencing. When that happens, the way to make photographs is to know your equipment, and the rules of exposure, well enough to put the technical part of photography on auto pilot and just create. It is important to be able to get lost in the beauty and not in the technical details of exposing an image.


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Sparks Lane – How Can One Road Be So Beautiful?

Sparks Lane in Cades Cove by Richard Lewis 2014

Sparks Lane in Cades Cove by Richard Lewis 2014

Sparks Lane in Cades Cove Smokey Mountain National Park

Sparks Lane at Dawn #2 by Richard Lewis 2014

Sparks Lane in Cades Cove at Dawn

Sparks Lane at Dawn by Richard Lewis 2014

Sparks Lane in Cades Cove

Evening on Sparks Lane by Richard Lewis 2014

If you told me when I went to the Smokey Mountains that I’d spend a fair amount of time photographing a road, I may have thought twice about going. Then I saw the road. Sparks Lane is a little gravel path in Cades Cove, a beautiful and historic valley in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. It a magical little road in an equally magical setting. One could spend endless hours photographing this short one mile lane.

How I Did It - Landscape photography is the art of knowing how to wait for the light. The last photograph in this series is probably the most photographed scene in Cades Cove. In order to make something that popular your own requires applying your unique vision to it. For me that meant the light. On this particular evening the light was changing from minute to minute as the setting sun was moving in and out of the clouds. It was this particular moment, when the light softened and the trees began to glow that caught me.


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