Laurel Falls and East Tennessee Snow!!!

Taking a week break from my Zion recap videos because we had a big event in East Tennessee last weekend...SNOW!!!  Nothing gets Tennesseans more excited than the possibility of snow.  We also tend to raid the stores for milk and bread at the first mention of the white stuff.  Is this just a regional thing or do people do this in other parts of the country?  I never really understood it as a milk sandwich is about the last thing I want during a snowstorm.  Or any other time for that matter.  Who is eating the milk and bread sandwiches?!

As the forecast called for only 1-2" we decided to forego stocking up on supplies and take our chances.  We like to live life on the edge like that.  My family had to be in Sevierville for the weekend to attend my nephew's birthday party (he turned one...the cake smashing was anticlimactic) so I of course packed the camera gear.

I awoke Saturday morning to see the ground beautifully covered in....rain.  Thanks a lot meteorologists!  However, I could see that the peaks of the mountains were starting to get white. I just needed some elevation.  I headed out early with no real goal in mind.  This is not ideal for large format photography.  I thought about shooting a scene I passed on my previous hike to LeConte.  However, as is usually the case anytime weather is around, the road leading to this trail (Newfound Gap Road) was closed.  I needed a new plan; in fact, forget a new plan, I just needed A plan.

At the beginning of last year, when I really decided to commit to large format, I made it a goal of mine to photograph all the major waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.  On that list Laurel Falls was one I dreaded the most.  To say Laurel Falls is crowded is a gross understatement.  At 1.3 miles, paved, and gently ascending, this trail is certainly very popular.  Compositions are also extremely limited because the park placed a bridge at the base of the falls.  Seriously.  You can basically touch the waterfall from the bridge.

On this morning though, I thought the snow meant I could at least catch a break from the crowds.  Also, the snow meant I would have a somewhat unique image of a location that really doesn't lend itself well to unique photographs.  As I drove toward the parking lot for the trail, the snow line was pretty distinct.  Within about a quarter mile of driving the ground went from completely bare to covered in about 2 inches of snow.  It was definitely pretty, and with a goal now in mind, I was excited to take an image.

Camera selfie (iPhone pic)

Camera selfie (iPhone pic)

I pulled in the parking lot and was disappointed to see that there were already two cars there.  I loaded up and hit the trail.  I quickly passed two hikers (sometimes I race-hike...no big deal) as I set a fairly quick pace in order to stay warm.  I was the first person to arrive at the falls that day.  I crossed the bridge and took off my pack, resting it on a bench just beyond the bridge.  There would be no wilderness experience today!  One thing I had not anticipated was the amount of snow that was falling from the sky.  It was REALLY coming down at this point!  As you can imagine, water and wooden film cameras do not play well together.  I did my best to keep everything covered, but it was impossible to keep it dry.  As I set up and composed, I became a bit concerned about how I would keep my film dry.

Another concern was these incessant snow flakes.  I wasn't worried about them showing up in the image; the long shutter speed would take care of that.  I was worried because it was really causing the shadows of my scene to be washed out.  I decided to cover my camera with the dark cloth and wait for a break in the snow.  As the inevitable crowds arrived, I offered to take people's pictures for them in front of the falls (Fun fact:  I am NOT at all familiar with Droid based phones.  Apologies to the couple that now has several videos of them in front of the falls instead of images!)  I also got the normal inquiries about my camera, including this exchange...

Hiker:  Wow, that's a big camera!  You must be serious.

Me:  Thanks!  It's a large format film camera.  It shoots sheets of film.

Hiker:  Nice.  Does the image pop up on the back of the screen when you take a picture.

The camera uncovered during a brief break in the snow. (iPhone pic)

The camera uncovered during a brief break in the snow. (iPhone pic)

Hmm...  I don't think people remember what film is all about.  (Sidenote:  Has there ever been anything take over/change an industry as fast and completely as digital cameras have done with photography?  Smart cell phones maybe.)  The snow eventually subsided enough to where I felt it was safe to take a shot.  As I was still a bit unsure what the snow would do to the shadow areas of the scene, I bracketed multiple shots on Kodak Ektar ranging in exposure time from 1 second to 43 seconds.  If you've ever shot Ektar you can probably guess which shot turned out best.  I also took 2 exposures on Ilford Delta 100.  I really thought I would like this scene in black and white, but I didn't much care for the monochrome shots.  I think it's because snow is almost monochrome already so seeing it on black and white film doesn't add anything to the scene.  Weird.

Laurel Falls 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/32, 6s, N+1 development

Laurel Falls 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/32, 6s, N+1 development

Laurel Falls 4x5 Kodak Ektar 100, f/32, 43s  (Note:  I would've liked to have given the whitewater on the lower right more room to "breathe" in the composition.  However, there is a walking bridge immediately to the right of the image.)

Laurel Falls 4x5 Kodak Ektar 100, f/32, 43s  (Note:  I would've liked to have given the whitewater on the lower right more room to "breathe" in the composition.  However, there is a walking bridge immediately to the right of the image.)

A few thoughts about Kodak Ektar.  (If you're not a film or large format photographer, you'll probably want to skip this paragraph.)  A year ago I hated, and I mean HATED this stuff.  So many people raved about it, particularly it's huge dynamic range, but I couldn't scan it if my life had depended on it.  I kept getting these weird color casts and horribly washed out images.  It made me rage-quit photography on multiple occasions.  I had to shoot it though because my other color film, Fuji Velvia 50, can only be shot in limited circumstances.  So I stuck with it, and now I've got to say I'm completely confident in it.  Here are a few things I've learned about it in the past year.  First, NEVER underexpose it.  Your scans will look terrible.  When in doubt, always err on the side of giving it more exposure time as you will almost certainly not be able to blow out any highlights with this film.  In my opinion, you have to meter as carefully for the shadows in Ektar as you do with the highlights in Velvia; do not let the shadows go beyond -2.  Second, expect to spend some time with levels and curves to correct color casts.  This is just part of shooting color negative film I believe.  Once I understood those two things, I have come to absolutely love this stuff.  It is every bit as sharp (if not sharper) and finely grained as Velvia 50.  It's dynamic range is as advertised too.  When exposed correctly, I have seen it hold detail across 10 stops; that's a really big deal.

So back to the falls.  It had been almost an hour from the time I set up until I took my last exposure.  That's a long time to stand still in cold weather, and my hands were really starting to feel it!  I only wore a thin pair of SmartWool touchscreen compatible gloves.  Since I use my iPhone so much when shooting large format, these gloves are a must.  For the most part when I'm hiking and my heart rate is up, this is not a problem.  However, when I'm standing still and I've had to dust snow off my gear, it's a different story.  I don't think my hands have ever hurt as bad as they did that morning!  I actually ran part of the way back (the snow had now melted on most of the paved trail) just to get my blood circulating again.  By the time I returned to my car, they didn't hurt quite as badly.

My gear was soaked so I knew I needed to get it dry pretty quickly.  I returned, unloaded everything, and dried everything off as best as I could.  I've done this several times and I've found that, as long as you don't let it sit packed up while it's wet, having water on a wooden camera is not the end of the world.  In this case, I would let my stuff air dry overnight.  I had also returned to a little girl who wanted to go hiking...badly!  Unfortunately all we had packed were clothes for a birthday party; nothing warm at all.  Despite our warnings about the cold, Addison had to go hiking in the Smoky Mountains and the snow!  Her desire to spend time outside definitely makes me a proud parent. :)

I bundled her up as much as I could (long sleeved t-shirt, thin pants, and a hooded vest...no gloves) and we headed back out.  I was hoping that driving in the snow would be enough for her, but it wasn't.  So we pulled off at one of the "Quiet Walkways" that are everywhere in the Smokies and did some "hiking."  We walked down by the river and threw some rocks in...her favorite pastime.  There were a few other people there and I could feel their judgmental stares.  "Does he not know how to dress a child?" their looks said.  She had a blast though!  As all good things must eventually end, she told me she was cold after about 30  minutes so we hopped back in the car.

She had a blast! (iPhone pic)

She had a blast! (iPhone pic)

In what I'm sure is completely unrelated news, Addison has been sick all week and had to visit the doctor twice.  All you guys out there who thought about competing in "Father of the Year" might as well just give it up...I'm pretty sure I've got that one locked up!