Creek On The Chimneys Trail

The Scene

The trailhead for one of my favorite hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is found on Highway 441 only a few miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The Chimney Tops trail navigates hikers past streams and big trees for two miles to a summit where unusual chimney rocks and spectacular mountain vistas await. The trail begins with a moderate grade that gradually steepens until it becomes a psychological test which beckons hikers to quit as they encounter seriously steep grades that end with a short climb to the summit. It is a good thing the trail is short.

Alas! You don’t have to hike the steep trail to experience truly beautiful scenery. A wonderful creek that is located only a few hundred feet from the trailhead provides numerous photo opportunities that include crystal clear water, lush vegetation and gorgeous rocks. That is where the photograph discussed today was recorded.

Compared to the much younger Rocky Mountains, the ancient Smoky Mountains are more rounded, fertile, lush and, to me, feminine. That character was evident at the scene of today’s photograph which emphasized water flowing past lush vegetation as it tumbled over rounded rocks down a mountain. The photographic challenge was simply to capture the essential features of the subject that were laying abundantly before me. The photography was straightforward and the success of the image depended mostly on composition.


A bit of effort is required to set up a large view camera and compose an image on its ground glass while crouching under a black cloth. To minimize that effort, I nearly always explore possible compositions at a scene with a viewing frame before setting up my camera. This inexpensive device consists of a rectangular hole (diagonal is about 1.25 inch) cut into a black plastic holder with 4:5 proportions to match my 4 inch x 5 inch film proportions. The hole contains a medium yellow filter to provide a nearly monochromatic image (yellow but monochromatic) to help visualize scenes as black and white images. The small viewing frame is attached to a string that hangs around my neck for easy access.

Since photographic success at this location depended largely on composition, I visually explored the stream with my viewing frame from many different locations and was finally drawn to a circular pattern of water below a black rock in the center of the stream. I identified that pattern as the most important feature of my photo so I jumped from rock-to-rock with the viewing frame to locate the best spot to set up my big camera. A flat rock provided a small dry area for my feet and one tripod leg while two tripod legs were placed in shallow water. A 210 mm lens included important scene elements in the image and excluded nonessential elements. I liked what I saw.

A few quick light meter readings indicated that all important scene elements fit nicely within the film’s tonal range so the negative was marked for normal development. Water flow was the most important scene element in the image so I tried to separate it tonally from other objects in the scene by placing the water as high on the tonal scale as I could. Most areas of whitewater were placed on Zones VI.5 – VII (bright but with plenty of detail) and a few small areas fell on Zone VIII (brighter with little detail). Although such high tonal placement was a little risky, I thought it would strengthen the photograph psychologically by helping the mind digest an image of lightweight water flowing over heavy rocks.

Next, I needed to decide on an appropriate shutter speed for the photograph. The shutter speed needed to be slow enough to capture the feeling of “flowing” water but not slow enough to blur the water so much that flow patterns were not clearly visible. On the other hand, the shutter speed could not be so fast that it “froze” flow so the water didn’t feel like it was moving. I frequently encounter this situation in landscape photography and often use a shutter speed of 1/4 sec for streams flowing at moderate speeds. The light meter told me that a shutter speed of 1/4 sec required an f-stop of f/22 for Kodak Tri-X film (ASA 320).

Getting all important scene components in sharp focus at f/22 was a challenge that required careful optimization of camera focus. This was a situation where the flexibility of a view camera was key to obtaining a successful photograph. Most cameras that are aimed horizontally position the lens focal plane vertically in the scene. For the image here, a vertical focal plane position would waste focus space in the scene because the upper half of the scene contained nothing that required sharp focus until the Rododendron tree (on the right) is encountered quite far into the scene. The lens’s focal plane could be utilized considerably more effectively if it were tilted forward in the scene so its bottom included the foreground water and its top included the Rododendron tree.

This effect can be achieved easily with a view camera two ways – by tilting the lens forward or tilting the film plane backward. Tilting the lens forward only repositions the focal plane in the scene whereas tilting the film plane backward repositions the focal plane and also slightly increases the size of foreground objects. Since I wanted to emphasize water flow patterns in the foreground, I tilted the film plane backward to increase the size of the foreground while the focal plane was repositioned more effectively. This view camera adjustment allowed sharp focus to be obtained through the whole scene with an f-stop of only f/22.


Tonal values of the negative were good so no hardware adjustments were required during drum scanning and a high resolution digital file was acquired at 5,000 ppi with 16-bit pixel depth. As usual, the first two edits performed in PhotoShop were minor levels and curve adjustments to nudge image tones to slightly better values. Care was taken while making those edits to optimize tonal separation of the water from other objects in the image.

Additional digital editing concentrated on separating the water tonally from other objects to emphasize the pattern of water flow. First, dodging (lightening) was done at numerous darker locations of the stream to help separate them from darker scene objects and strengthen flow continuity along the entire length of the stream. Next, dodging was carefully done to the rings below the dark rock to emphasize the circular patterns. Finally, water below the dark rock which surrounds the bright flow rings was darkened slightly to further emphasize flow patterns by tonal separation.

A small amount of dodging was done to the Rhododendron trees since they were an important part of the lush vegetation at the scene.

Sharpening was not performed during image editing and only very minor sharpening was performed during printing.

I have printed this image at several different sizes and it looks good at nearly any size although large prints (e.g. 24 inch x 31 inch) looks a bit more impressive than smaller prints.


The subject of this photograph was an old mountain stream in the Smoky Mountains. I thought that an image which is true to the subject should include clean water, lush vegetation and rocks that were rounded by years of water flow. I believe this approach worked quite successfully in a black and white photograph. Any comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, its composition, or image workup will be appreciated.

For a larger view of the photograph, visit here.

Randall R Bresee