Sunset from Look Rock

Sunset from Look Rock

A beautiful sunset as viewed from Look Rock in southeast Tennessee

For the last two months, we have had a house guest from Cape Town, South Africa staying with us.  As often as possible we have people from other parts of the world visit with us in our home or stay as guests. It’s our way of introducing our kids and ourselves to other cultures without having to travel to do so. Of course, we love to travel, too, but that’s sort of the point with this blog isn’t it?

Our guest isn’t used to seeing a lot of snow. So, during a recent cold snap, we took a drive up to the north Georgia mountains to see if the higher elevations had received at least a dusting. As it turned out, the mountains had gotten a few inches and some of the primary sights that we wanted to show him were closed. At least, the access roads to them were closed in the morning while the road crews were making their way to them.

So, we pushed on to the mountains of western North Carolina. Going over a pass at 4,000 feet or so, we finally got into the snow. That was fun, but it seemed certain that we could do better. Since we were this far north, I decided we might as well go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and see what the snow was like there. The great thing about the Parkway is that the highest point is near its southern terminus. It’s an easy drive from Atlanta and the vistas are breathtaking. So we pushed on an made it to the beginning (or end) of the road in Cherokee. Unbelievably, it too was closed.

Now, since we were in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to try our luck with the Newfound Gap Road. Surely, it wouldn’t be closed. And, it wasn’t. As we ascended we saw more and more snow on the road side. By the time we made it to 5,000 feet there was at least three or four inches on the ground. That isn’t a lot by the standards of the Rockies or the northern tier of states. Truth be told, it isn’t even a lot for the Smokies. They are high enough that it isn’t unusual to receive a foot or more of snow at the highest elevations. But, it was enough snow to have a snowball fight and enjoy the white stuff a bit.

Since we had achieved our objective, we could either go home the way we had come or we could make the loop by returning through eastern Tennessee and northwest Georgia. We decided on the latter, but agreed that we would find a proper place to view and capture the sunset. Matt was filming using his new GoPro and I had thrown my camera bag and tripod in the car.

One of my favorite spots in the Smokies is the Foothills Parkway. There are great spots to shoot sunrise and sunset with ridges of mountains as your foreground. It was obvious that a decent sunset was brewing, or at least the conditions for a decent sunset were in place. We made our way to the Look Rock viewing area and set up shop there. There were a couple of other photographers already at the viewpoint that I wanted to use. They kindly allowed me to set up my tripod behind them and gave me a clear range to shoot.

Fortunately, the sunset cooperated. As the sun sank behind the mountain in the right foreground, the clouds began to glow bright red. There was quite a bit of contrast in the scene and I used a Lee graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky a bit while holding detail in the foreground. The Lee rig looks like something that NASA would have developed. It’s a large filter holder that clamps onto a ring around the outside edge of the lens. The filters I use are either 4×4, 4×6, or a 105mm circular polarizer. It sometimes looks like I have a small pie strapped to the front of my lens.

This particular image was captured after the official sunset as are most of my favorite sunset images. At that point, there is still enough reflected light to illuminate the foreground and the clouds are often at their most colorful. I don’t recall if I was still using the graduated neutral density filter at this point, but I likely wasn’t. I did, however, stitch together five shots separated by one stop in order to capture as much shadow detail as possible while not losing any of the highlight detail in the sky and clouds. As usual, I did this with Photomatix Pro and made final tweaks in Aperture.

I have lots of shots like this one, but I never tire of shooting a Smoky Mountains sunset.

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