Fall color in the Smokies

Hi gang! Get ready for another image-rich post. Last week, we worked our way south from NJ to Tennessee via the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the end of my last post, we had just arrived in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and were ready to head out and explore. Shortly after entering the park, we immediately realized that we had hit the sweet spot of fall color. Our drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway was just ok when it came to that. We had hit a lot of it past peak, so there were more browns than we would have liked. But once we hit the Smokies, we were in beautiful, colorful bliss!

We spent a lot of time just driving around looking for scenes that best displayed the color, so we made a lot of stops to capture windy roads twisting through the woods, or low-lying branches over rivers that provided nice colorful reflections in the water. We also drove up to Clingman’s Dome, which is the second-highest point east of the Mississippi (the highest only trumps it by 40 feet), to shoot sunset one night. The sky put on a pretty good show, as you’ll see from the image below.

As an added bonus, we also got to see some black bears in the Smokies! You can tell that there are bears around by the number of cars backed up on the roads, and the rangers directing traffic. We were allowed to get close enough to get some good shots though. In some instances, the bears had climbed trees and we were shocked at how high those suckers can climb! They were so high (several stories) that it was hard to spot them when looking up at the treetops.

We were really happy with our time in the Smokies, and I ended up getting a lot of nice photos to show for it. If you ever plan on visiting the area, here are a few things to keep in mind. First, this park gets twice as many visitors than any other national park (because half the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the place) so expect crowds. Fall is a spectacular time of year to visit. The whole area is wooded and when the leaves change, it’s just an explosion of color. The last thing I would say to keep in mind is that restaurant choices are fairly limited… unless you’re ok with places like “Hillbilly Barbecue.” Karen and I like to eat pretty healthy, and Karen doesn’t eat meat, so we had a bit of a hard time finding places. However, the Dancing Bear Lodge has a restaurant that is fantastic, and the lodge itself is beautiful. The only thing is that it’s pricy, but we ended up going twice because we had such a great experience there.

After leaving the Smokies, we made the one-day drive down to Atlanta, where the bus will hang out for a bit. We were happy to be there because it meant we could hang out with our wonderful friends Eddie Tapp and Judy Host, who are Atlanta locals. After a few days, I had to fly out to Seattle for a creativeLIVE event. More to come!


BenSmokies19Some of the black bears we saw in the Smokies


BenSmokies16Sunset at Clingman’s Dome, the second highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi

The rest of the images here are fall color shots I took in the Smokies… with a few of me and Karen thrown in there as well. Enjoy!












Eastward through South Dakota

Hi gang! After the past several posts here, you’re probably wondering if this one is going to include yet another national park visit. The answer to that would be yes… two actually! After leaving Grand Teton National Park, we headed east toward South Dakota. We’ve been making several stops in SD, and here’s what we saw:

Motorcycles: Lots of motorcycles

This one was actually completely unintentional. We planned on stopping in the old western style town of Deadwood and then continuing to Custer. What we didn’t realize at the time we were making plans was that our visit would overlap the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. Luckily, we were still able to find an RV park that had space for us! The heart of the rally is in Sturgis and the event bears the same name, but every town within a 50-mile radius is completely full of bikers. And when I say full, I mean FULL, as in the streets become parking lots for motorcycles because there isn’t enough room elsewhere. It really was something to see… all the unique bikes and the unique characters that went with them. We spent a few hours exploring the historic town of Deadwood, but it was kind of hard to take in the whole wild west vibe when everyone and everything was covered with black leather and the sound of throaty bikes filled the air.

1147569_10153562778325355_1293223837_oThis was the scene in downtown Deadwood, SD. We were going to visit Sturgis as well but decided against it after seeing this.

Mount Rushmore

We continued on to Custer, South Dakota, which was also completely full of bikers. We wanted to stay there so that we’d be in close proximity to some of the attractions on our list, the first of which being Mount Rushmore. Karen had never been and wanted to check off that national landmark, but we didn’t really need a lot of time there. I mean it is what it is… four heads carved into a mountain. It is impressive to see, sure, but we wanted to save most of our time exploring some of the more natural wonders the area had to offer. The image at the top of this post is one that Karen shot at Mt. Rushmore.

Wind Cave National Park

This park is located about 30 minutes south of Custer, and is a very unique national park. The park covers nearly 34,000 acres and is home to one of the country’s last remaining intact prairies. Hidden beneath the surface is one of the world’s longest caves. It’s hard to tell just how long the cave is because it’s still being explored, but several hundred miles of cave has already been mapped. Karen and I took a tour of the cave on her birthday and really enjoyed it. You don’t see all the usual cave formations, like stalactites and such. Instead, the cave features this interesting boxwork on the walls and “ceilings” that’s formed from eroded limestone. You can see a picture of it below. We were wondering why it was called “Wind Cave” because it wasn’t windy at all inside. The reason is because at the single natural entrance to the cave, which is just a small hole, has a constant flow of air coming out of it. We were told that the wind coming out of that little hole has been known to reach over 70 mph! After touring the cave, we drove around the prairie and photographed the wildlife. There is quite a lot of different animals that call this park home and they are basically all over, so they’re really easy to photograph. We saw a lot of buffalo, mule deer, elk and prairie dogs, all within close proximity to the car. This park was also far less crowded than the recent parks we visited so the animals seemed more comfortable being in close proximity to the road (and at times, ON the road.)

644240_10153564594875355_1850748359_nThis is an iPhone shot I took of the boxwork inside Wind Cave. 

WindCaveNP-19This is one of Karen’s shots from Wind Cave National Park. Everywhere you went, there were bikers.


I know. You’re thinking, “You said this was all South Dakota!” Well, the bus stayed in South Dakota, but Karen and I took a day trip south to visit Toadstool State Park, which was about 30 minutes south of the Nebraska border. Karen had yet to check Nebraska off her state list and we heard this park was pretty interesting. It was kind of like a mini badlands, with lots of formations called… you guessed it… toadstools. Aside from the hour of driving on an unpaved road, the park was an easy visit, with a parking area and a 1-mile loop trail that you could take to see everything. The only bummer for us was that we were there midday, so the light wasn’t very good, but hey, we saw something really cool… in Nebraska.

1150175_10153575391830355_543447921_nMy iPhone shot from Nebraska. This was about all we saw for the first hour driving in NE. 

1008985_10153568221275355_308013630_oHere is my iPhone pano from Toadstool State Park. Pretty cool formations here. 

Badlands National Park

Our second national park in one week! We parked the bus in Wall, South Dakota, which is about 1o minutes north of the entrance to the park. This made it easy in and easy out. I had been to the badlands before, but this was Karen’s first time. The Badlands hold such a different landscape than what we’ve been seeing in recent weeks, with a mixture of grasslands and wild orange and yellow rock formations. We’ve been driving into the park every day for either sunrise or sunset to go exploring. With this park, you can go hiking if you want, but there’s definitely lots of opportunities to see things right from the road, as many of the spectacular overlooks are off the main road. This was nice for us because we could work out of our trunk instead of lugging our gear around.

Here’s a side note about Badlands National Park: If you plan on visiting for more than a day, bring food with you, because there is hardly anything in the park or in town. Well, ok, there ARE eating establishments, but the finest place in town got three stars on Yelp (with explanations that it would really be 1.5 stars if located elsewhere) and every entree came with a side of tater tots. My health-conscious wife is counting down the hours until she can shamelessly indulge at a Whole Foods.

994328_10153574885370355_1032567676_nAn iPhone shot of a Badlands buffalo

BadlandsNP-314-Edit-EditKaren got this shot of me after we shot sunrise in the Badlands

1009242_10153582213385355_736712283_oMy iPhone shot of Karen this morning.

We’re spending one more night here in the Badlands and then heading eastward toward Minneapolis, the town I grew up in! More to come…

Grand Teton: Another National Park!

That’s right, folks. This is our third national park in as many weeks! After being parked near the north entrance to Yellowstone for over a week, we moved south to Grand Teton National Park, which is actually very close to Yellowstone. We stayed at an RV park right outside the east entrance and went exploring from there.

As far as photographing Grand Teton goes, this is a sunrise locale. Period. The mountain range runs north to south with the whole park (valley) on the east side of it, so if you want to photograph nice, soft light on those pointy peaks, you’ve got to be up before the sun. Karen and I are night owls, so waking up for those sunrise shoots can be rough, but we do it anyway, and it’s always worth it.

Our first morning shoot was at Oxbow Bend, which features a still body of water winding toward the mountain range. There is a parking lot there but we climbed down to get vantage points along the water. What’s funny is that there was a group of photographers already there, and when we saw the cars, we thought we might be jockeying for tripod positions. We were wrong, though. These guys were all lined up along the edge of the parking lot, all shooting from one place. And as the sun rose, they didn’t move around one bit. Karen and I chuckled at this, but in reality, we were glad that we had complete access to the entire bank, and we moved around quite a bit. At one point, one of the parking lot warriors yelled out for me to move so he wouldn’t have to Photoshop me. 🙂  (If you happen to be one of those shooters, check out the “Workshops” page of this site and I’ll teach you how to Photoshop me out of your frame.)

BenTetonPanpA DSLR panorama from Oxbow bend.

During the daytime, we basically scouted out places to shoot at sunrise or at night for a lightpainting shoot. We visited a grouping of old barns and buildings called Mormon Row, where there is a beautiful old barn I wanted to shoot. We actually visited that barn twice after dark so that I could lightpaint it. We also went there for our second sunrise shoot. As soon as the sun starts to come over the mountains, it kisses the barn and the light is just beautiful. There was also a group of shooters there, and they were a fun bunch. We enjoyed chatting while waiting for the light.

GrandTetonNP-211It looks like I posed for this but I really didn’t. I was trying to figure out how to best frame the barn for my late-night lightpainting.

1146849_10153547656620355_1640868024_oThis was my first lightpaint of the barn. Unfortunately, the camera moved a tiny amount on this one so it’s not as crisp as it should be. That’s why I went back to lightpaint it for a second time. 

BeniPhonePano-BarnAn iPhone pano of the sunrise shoot at the barn.

Another sunrise shoot was at Schwabacher Landing, which is a beautiful view with still water and wildflowers in the foreground with the mountain range in the background. Because Schwabacher Road was closed, we had to park on the main road and hike it down to the trail. While this forced us to get up earlier, we were glad that no other photographers decided to do the pre-sunrise hike, as we had the whole area to ourselves.

As far as sunsets go here, we found that the best way to make a successful image is to shoot when there’s a dramatic sky, with interesting clouds. There are several overlooks that can be good sunset locations when the conditions are good, and we stopped at Teton Point one night that there were actually clouds. (We had clear skies for most of our stay.)

1084964_10153548770530355_1765059929_oSunset at Teton Point

As you can probably tell from the images here, I’ve been doing a lot of iPhoneography lately, and posting at least an image a day on Facebook. I love the app-based editing process and how easy it is to create nice effects. There aren’t more DSLR shots on here because I haven’t been able to process many this week. Since we’ve been up for sunrise and out lightpainting until late at night, I just haven’t had the energy yet!

This week, we will be heading east through Wyoming and into South Dakota. Our next major stop will be Badlands National Park, with a visit to Mount Rushmore as well. It’s also a complete coincidence that we’ll be passing through Sturgis, South Dakota during the annual motorcycle rally, so that should be pretty crazy! More to come!

561480_10153550082465355_2134094084_nAn iPhone shot from Schwabacher Landing at sunrise. 

Yellowstone: America’s first national park

Yes, that’s right. We went from one national park to another! This past week, we’ve been exploring Yellowstone, which is America’s oldest, and largest, national park. The park is not only huge, but it’s incredibly diverse, with everything from wildlife (and lots of it), to geysers and other geothermal features, to huge waterfalls, to open prairies. You could literally spend weeks exploring everything.


We parked the bus at a campground in Gardiner, the small town right at the north entrance to the park. From there, we would head in and spend hours driving around as far south as Old Faithful, which is in the southern area. Because of the time of year, the sun sets extremely late, giving us a bit of an extended golden hour… very nice if you’re a photographer!

During this visit to Yellowstone, I really wanted to focus on shooting some of the amazing geothermal features here. Not only are there geysers, but the warm springs and colorful pools can make for very interesting images. Just north of Old Faithful is a series of walkways (miles long) that wind around a very active geothermal area, full of pools and bubbling springs. We spent a good amount of time shooting there (the area is known as Upper Geyser Basin) as well as the Grand Prismatic Pool area, which is referred to as Lower Geyser Basin. We’ll probably even return to these areas again before we leave the area.

BenGrandPrisAbstractThis is a detail shot of the geothermal terrain reflecting the twilight sky at Grand Prismatic Pool, at Lower Geyser Basin.

BenMammothSpringsMore geothermal features, at Mound Terrace, which is located just south of Mammoth Hot Springs. This is a great sunset area.

We also explored the Canyon Village area, known as the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone” and famous for the huge Upper and Lower Falls. We’re still trying to find an angle from which to shoot the falls where there is nice sunset light. And of course, the amount of wildlife here is pretty amazing. You don’t have to hike for it either. When driving around the park, just wait for a traffic jam and then get your camera ready. Chances are, there is some kind of animal or animals hanging out on the side of the road (or IN the road). We’ve seen loads of elk, goats with their babies and bison, all from the road. I ALMOST got a fisheye shot of a bison walking down the road as we [slowly] drove by.

BisonInRoadA classic Yellowstone traffic jam.

We plan on hanging out in the area for a few more days, returning to some shooting locations and exploring some more. I also am trying to arrange a lightpainting shoot of one of the vintage yellow busses the park uses for public transportation (similar to the red one I photographed in Glacier National Park.)

If you follow me on Facebook, keep your eye out for new Yellowstone images, as I’m trying to post at least one per day!


Karen’s shot of Chromatic Pool in Upper Geyser Basin. She used MY a polarizer filter to cut through a lot of the reflection. I would have liked to have gotten a similar shot, but I realized that my polarizer fits my old 77 lenses and not my new ones. Needless to say, there is a new one in my Amazon cart right now!

More to come!


Glacier Photos: The Before & After Versions

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been posting a lot of images that I shot in Glacier National Park. I thought you all might like to see what the “before” versions looked like before I made my edits. Use the sliders on the images to see the before & after versions.


* Drag the slider handle to see the before & afters *




This image was difficult to capture because I had to have my tripod planted right at the centerline of the Going to the Sun road at a skinny spot where nobody could get around me. There was also no shoulder at all on the edge of the road… just a tiny stone wall and then a huge drop off… that meant that I had to keep popping back and forth between the stone wall/ledge to let a car go by and the centerline of the road to get the shot. Using the manual focus tilt/shift 17mm lens made it a more laborious process as well. Finally, the sun was shining directly onto the falls, which made nailing the exposure that much more difficult (I prefer to shoot waterfalls while they’re in the shade).




This was optimized from a single raw capture. The contrast range is somewhat extreme, which made it essential that I shoot in raw format to capture the most information. There was a real delicate balance in trying to achieve good contrast while retaining shadow detail in the lower portion of the image. It was processed using only Lightroom.  If I were to further refine it for printing, then here are a few things I’d do to finish the image: 1) remove tiny glowing edge in the U-shaped area of mountain near the center of the image. A curves adjustment layer and mask would do the job. 2) Darken the dark areas of the mountains on the right half of the image above the large shadowed area that dominates the bottom of the photo. Another curves/mask combo would do it there as well.




I love when the sun just skims the top of the trees here in Glacier National Park. Underexpose enough and that’s all you’ll get… where the sun kisses the landscape.




 Just another waterfall from Glacier. This is a panorama stitched from five captures. I had to keep the exposure consistent, so I pressed the * button on the back of my Canon 5D Mark III to lock the exposure settings before swinging the camera to make the pano. I shot this 1/4 second exposure at f16 and ISO 50. I’m assuming I had my neutral density filter on the lens, but I don’t know for sure.




This bus is from the vintage fleet that Glacier National Park uses for public transportation. The most difficult part of this light painting was dealing with all the black areas on the vehicle. Those areas either absorb all the light falling on them and become a black hole, or reflect light of a certain angle back into the camera like a mirror. I had to light the black areas from odd angles to pick up the texture of the material, or light the ground surrounding it to get an interesting reflection. The same is true of the front bumper, which would have come out black had I not strategically lit the ground and other areas to produce a nice reflection to define its shape. It doesn’t really get dark until close to 11pm this time of year in Glacier. That’s why I chose to capture this image in a barn where darkness could be achieved while the sun was still up. 




We took an hour long cruise on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in this 1929 wooden boat. I thought an antique treatment was appropriate. This isn’t a “true” before and after image because the color version is a merged panorama where I made pre-merge adjustments. This slider shows the before and after of the vintage effect I applied using OnOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite 7. 




I love when the sun just skims the top of the trees here in Glacier National Park. Underexpose enough and that’s all you’ll get… where the sun kisses the landscape.

waterfall-animationThis isn’t a before and after. It’s just a fun gif I made out of two waterfall images.