Tag Archives: Smoky Mountains

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies: Clingman’s Dome

In late April  I found myself alone atop the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  It was 4am, and I had just gotten out of my car in the freezing parking lot at  Clingman’s Dome.  It had been about an hour and a half since my iPhone alarm had roused me from my toasty room in Cherokee, NC and I was having second thoughts.

So, why would I want to be there…and at THAT hour?  Well, I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way from the top of the mountain, but according to my Sky Safari app, it wouldn’t rise high enough above the horizon for a decent photo until 3:30am.   I had just driven up from Florida the evening before and my 50+ year old body was cranky and sleep-deprived as I hiked up the path to the Observation Tower.  About halfway up the trail, I stopped and looked up.  My fatigue was instantly forgotten as I glimpsed the Milky Way with my bare eyes for the first time in nearly six months:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

No matter how many times I see it, sight of the Milky Way always leaves me in awe. ____Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

At the end of the short but steep trail, I reached the observation tower.   The Milky Way was pretty high in the sky and I set up my tripod almost directly below the tower.  From this perspective, the ramp seemed to lead all the way to the band of starts:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

“Tower of Terror” ________Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 3200/30 sec.

I used my headlamp to briefly illuminate the tower for a few seconds during the 30 second exposures.  It took quite a bit of trial and error to avoid having one section overexposed and the other dark, but eventually I got the hang of it.

After a while, I moved further away from the tower which allowed the Milky Way to wind over the serpentine tower:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

♫Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy…♪__Nikon D800E/Nikkor 14-24 lens/f/2.8/ISO 2200/30 sec.

After about an hour and a half, I noticed that the Milky Way was starting to fade as dawn approached.  That gave me just enough time to try something new.  I had been reading about time-lapse photography and thought this would be a great venue to give it a first shot.  So I set my Nikon up to automatically take a series of 30 second exposures…one after another.  I started it up and sat back as the camera started snapping away.  Well, I only had about ten minutes to spare before I had to hit the trail and since it takes 30 frames to make one second of a time-lapse, that means that I ended up with less than one second of  actual ‘film.’  See the clip below if you have a free moment (literally) to spare:).

Did you miss it?  Yup…that is what you call a short video!  Not a terrible first effort…but it was clear that next time I would need to shoot for a few hours.  Plus I would bring warmer gloves, a folding stool and a book so I could stick it out long enough to make a real video.

I hiked back to the Subaru and then joined the other photographers setting up for the sunrise on the edge of the parking lot.  The lack of clouds eliminated any chance of a ‘National Geographic’ shot, but even an average dawn at Clingman’s is wonderful.  There is nothing like the view of the dancing orange sky behind those blue mountain ridges receding off into infinity:

Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

Smokies Icon

Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t another clear night the whole week I was there, so I didn’t get another shot at my time-lapse.    But I’m not whining…I learned a lot and besides, now I have something to look forward to on my next trip to the Smokies!

Milky Way Tips for Photographers:

Check out my Milky Way how-to Blog to learn about the basics for this type of photography

Specific Tips for Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s Dome:

  • Locations:

    Milky Way Photography in the Smokies:  Clingman's Dome

    “The Emergence” __D800E/Sigma 15mm Fisheye/f2.8/ISO 3200/ 30 sec

  1. Most photographers set up right on the edge of the parking lot at the top of Clingman’s.  It is a good location facing south with unobstructed views stretching from east to west.  But, there is quite a bit of light pollution on the horizon with nothing to block it out. Sometimes that can work to your advantage like it did for me in the shot shown to the right:
  2. The trail to the Observation Tower can work out well.  Keep looking over your shoulder as you walk up the trail and look for views in which the Milky Way is framed by the trees (like the first shot shown in this blog).
  3. Shots that include the Observation Tower are my personal favorite.  The design is so “Jetsons”  and futuristic that it just cries out to be silhouetted against the cosmos in a Milky Way shot.
    1. The paved trail from the parking lot is only a half mile but it isn’t lighted and it is steep…plus you will be carrying a tripod and the rest of your equipment.  Give yourself at least a half hour.
    2. Also, if you aren’t used to the lack of oxygen at 6643′, you might find yourself out of breath.  I’m from Florida and our highest point is only 345′, and trust me, there is a difference!
  • Equipment
  1. Dress warm.  It is often 20 degrees cooler at Clingman’s than it is in Gatlinburg or Cherokee.
  2. Dress dry.  I swear that I get wet at least half the time I’m on Clingman’s even if the rest of the park is dry.  That might be a slight exaggeration, but pack your rain gear for you and your equipment.
  • Safety
  1. Like any isolated spot, you should consider your safety at Clingman’s, especially  if you are there for a night shoot.  I’ve never personally had a bit of trouble but leaving valuables in plain sight in your car would be tempting fate.
  2. Yes, there are bears in the Smokies, lots of them, but unless you try to kidnap a cub from it’s mother or have a pork chop hanging around your neck, you should be fine.
  • Time of year
  1. Spring thru Fall is the best time of the year to observe the Milky Way in the Smokies.  However, it is most visible during the summer. Also, it isn’t visible early in the evening during the spring but by late fall you can see it right after sunset. Use the internet or a smartphone app so you know exactly when it will rise…that way you can plan when you should be at Clingman’s.
  2. The Milky Way also shifts where it appears in the sky during the course of the year.  During the spring it appears more in the southeastern sky but by the fall it will shift to the southwest.  Again, apps like Sky Safari will let you know where to expect it.

Enjoy your Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s and best of luck!


Posted in Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Southeast U.S.A. Also tagged , |

Karma at Clingman’s

I’m not a superstitious guy so I’ve never really totally bought into the idea of Karma.  Sure, if you do good things for people, they certainly tend to return the favor…plus you sleep a lot better at night.  But the idea of being rewarded in the future for doing a kindness for a total stranger that you will never meet again, well no.   I mean, sure that would be nice, but just because if might be nice doesn’t make it so.

Or does it?

2015 Smokies_04_30_03129

The weather just gets worse…

I’m not quite so sure now…because of a experience that happened to me a couple weeks back that still has me scratching my head.

I was photographing in the Smoky Mountain National Park and it was getting late.  And the weather had turned ugly.  Overcast.  Rain.  Not exactly ideal for a nice sunset photo.  But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

So I started driving up into the mountains hoping to get higher than the bad weather.  Up I drove…but the weather didn’t improve.  I got to Newfound Gap and it was still terrible, so I decided to go all the way to the top of Clingman’s dome (at 6643′ it is the tallest peak in the Smokies and the third highest east of the Mississippi).

Well, the weather went from bad to worse as I snaked my little Subaru around the twisted road.  Visibility forced me to drop to less than 10 mph at spots (those sheer drop-offs on either side of the road did a great job encouraging caution).  Then, I noticed that the rain was weird.  It wasn’t clear…heck, it was white!  It was snowing!

Hey, I might be a Florida boy, but I grew up in the north and I spend my share of time photographing in the snow, so it’s not like I’d never seen it before.  But this was the last day of April…and the temperature had been in the 60s an hour ago.   Snow?  Really?!

It took me over a half hour to drive the 7 miles to the peak.  When I finally got to the top, it was covered in a full-scale blizzard.  The wind was wicked and the snow was coming in hard.  Clingman’s is usually packed with people…but it was totally deserted  Not a soul in sight and the parking lot was empty (it turns out that the rangers had closed Clingman’s:  my car was the last one thru before they barricaded the road).  I decided that I might as well wait and see if the weather would break.   I pulled on my parka, hat and gloves, pushed my seat all the way back and grabbed my book to help pass the 40 minutes till sunset.

BAM! BAM! BAM!  My door window shook and I jerked my head around to see a guy standing next to the car.  I didn’t know where the heck he had come from and frankly, it startled the crap out of me!  He looked pretty rough…kinda like a homeless guy and there was a nice 12″ sheath knife on his belt…not exactly what you want to see when you are on top of a mountain all alone.

But I took a second look and noticed he was in shorts and a thin jacket, shivering…obviously cold…and maybe looking a bit scared.2015 untitled shoot 30 April 19653 He said his name was AJ and he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail and had just reached Clingsman’s when the storm hit.  He and another hiker had taken shelter in one of the National Park bathrooms.  AJ said they had no heat and were freezing…and the bathrooms stunk (if you’ve ever been in one of those bathrooms, you know what he meant.)  He asked if I would give them a ride off the mountain.

Now, I have never in my life picked up a hitch-hiker.  Too many bad stories in the paper.  And this was far from an ideal situation.  It was getting dark, I was alone, no cell coverage.  But I’d been a Scoutmaster long enough to see that these guys were truly hikers…so…for some reason, I told them; Sure, I can get you out of here.

They tossed their backpacks in the car and climbed in…all the time rubbing their hands together, trying to get some circulation back.  I took a deep breath and thought I should just blow off the sunset (slight as the chance of seeing one was) and just take them down the mountain to Gatlinburg where they could find a place to stay.

Well, the drive down was as every bit as bad as it had been on the way up and it took us a while to reach the main road at Newfound Gap. We had time to spare and started talking.  AJ said I could call him ‘Deju Vu’ (later I learned that his real name was Alexander Devaux).  He was very talkative.  Heck, even frozen solid, that boy could talk.  Jim Buker turned out to be the name of the other fella but he was pretty quiet until he started to warm up a bit later.

When we finally reached the end of the Clingman road, I made the turn toward Gatlinburg.   As I did so, I noticed a streak of pale orange out of the corner of my eye.  I slowed and noticed that there was a sliver of sky clear to the west peeking under the solid overcast.  So I pulled into the next overlook to check it out.

That slice of pale orange got my attention.

That slice of pale orange got my attention.

It wasn’t much.  But I had photographed from this same spot (Morton’s Overlook) the night before…and knew that the sun would set right in that clear gap above the valley between the mountains.  The chances for a decent shot were slim.  But the chances were zero if I just got back in the car and drove away… so I asked the guys if they would mind waiting a half hour so I could try a sunset shot.  They seemed to be pretty happy campers just warming up in the car and had no objections.

I got the tripod and camera set up.  It wasn’t quite freezing anymore but it sure was chilly…and a nice sleeting rain was falling.  I shuffled my feet back and forth over the next 20 minutes as my fingers slowly went numb.  I stole envious glimpses at AJ and Jim in my warm, dry car and realized that they were probably a heck of a lot smarter than me.

Just then the sun slid into that clear slice of the sky.  I looked into my viewfinder and took the shot:

2015 Smokies_04_30_03253_HDR

♪Here comes the sun…♫


I thought, well…that’s a nice image…but certainly not worth standing in the freezing rain for 20 minutes.


But then, a couple of seconds later…the…valley…below…me…EXPLODED!

Morton's Overlook Sunset Photo by Jeff Stamer

Most photographers will look at this shot and think I oversaturated the heck out of it in Photoshop. And honestly, when I first processed this shot I thought the same. I went back to the raw shot and saw that, no, this is really what the camera saw. I knew it was incredible while I was standing there looking at it, but even now, seeing the photo, it is still hard for me to believe…

I’d never seen anything like it.  One second everything was dark and monochrome…but a moment later crimson sunlight was brilliantly ricocheting across the fog-laden valley in a riot of color.   I heard the car door open and AJ or Jim blurted “Holy Crap!” (well, maybe something a bit stronger than that). Vehicles driving by hit their brakes, swerved over and camera phones started clicking while voices excitedly pointed out the view in urgent tones.

After that first burst of red light the intensity of the colors cooled a bit as you can see in this next shot…but it didn’t lessen the suburb vista. Morton's Overlook Sunset Photo by Jeff Stamer

I know that some of the most dramatic landscape photographs are taken during poor weather or clearing storms.  I’ve taken more than a few shots in those conditions, but this scene was on a whole different level of magnitude.

I was shooting quickly.  Checking my focus…making sure my settings were right…trying different compositions.

2015 Smokies_04_30_03361

Just like that…the moment was gone.

But, it didn’t last.  In less than 4 minutes…it was over.

The sun stumbled below the horizon and a dark, heavy shroud fell upon the valley.   I shook my head in wonder at what I had just witnessed and broke down my gear.

AJ and Jim were excitedly talking about the sunset when I got back to the car.  I turned over the engine and pulled onto the road.  Then I looked in the rear-view mirror, caught their eyes in the reflection and said:  ‘Thanks.”

They furled their brows and said ‘What are you thanking us for?’

I smiled and told them that if I hadn’t picked them up, I would still be on top of Clingman’s praying for a break in the clouds.  I would have missed the single most glorious sunset of my life.  I owed them a debt of gratitude.

Karma, Good Luck, Dumb Chance?  Heck, I don’t know.   Whatever the reason, I was grateful.  Because I will carry the memory of those 240 seconds for the rest of my life.



PS:   AJ and Jim are both blogging about their 2168 mile trek on the Appalachian Trail.  You can follow their adventures here and here.  Join me in wishing them safe travels!

Technical Notes for Photographers

  • All these photos were taken on a tripod with a Nikon D800E mounted with a Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8. The only exception was the iPhone shot of the snow covered bathroom the hikers were huddled in.
  • Since I knew there was going to be a widedynamic range, I set camera for 7 shot auto-bracketing.   This  gave me images ranging from -3 exposure to +3 for each shot.
    • During processing, I selected two frames of each 7 shot group (one overexposed and one underexposed) and hand blended these in Photoshop.  I tried some HDR, but the results looked ‘fake’ so I went with the more subtle hand-blended option (even though the results still don’t look subtle!)
  • I had the shot pre-focused and composed before the sun made an appearance, so all I had to do was trip the shutter with my remote.  However, the challenge I did have was water droplets on the lens from the rain (despite the lens cap).  As a result, I had to dry the lens between each shot (I carry a big microfiber cloth with me for just this type of problem).  But I still had some ‘spots’ on my images I had to remove with photo shop.
  • I ruined a few shots with bad focus.  Even though I had pre-focused, I managed to bump the focus ring when wiping rain off the lens.
    • No, I didn’t check the focus after every shot on my LCD.  But I will next time.
  • I used an ISO of 200 and kept my lens at f8 (its sharpest setting).  I shot in aperture priority and let the camera select the shutter speed.  I set the camera on manual focus and used my Live View feature to make sure the image was sharp from front to back.
  • Morton’s Overlook is a wonderful sunset spot during the spring and summer.  The sun settles in the valley that stretches before you with mountains on either side.  By fall, however, the sun is out of position for good composition and you will want to seek out a different location for your sunset shot (like Clingman’s or the overlooks on the last 20 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway).
  • I set the camera on Auto White Balance, so those intense colors aren’t the result of a ‘Vivid’ or ‘Cloudy’ setting.
    • Frankly, I still get a bit uncomfortable when I look at that first photo of the sunset exploding over the valley…even though I didn’t saturate the reds, it sure does look like I did.  For those of you who also think it is a bit much, I’ve done another version in which I subdued the colors (especially red).
Morton's Overlook Sunset Photo by Jeff Stamer

This version is perhaps a bit less dramatic than what we actually saw, but even ‘toned-down’ I still think gives you a good idea of that amazing scene.


Posted in Southeast U.S.A. Also tagged , , |

The Cubs of Cades Cove

I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of bears.  Well, black bears anyway…I don’t think I will ever take a Grizzly for granted!  I live near a state park and see black bears walking thru my yard all the time.  So last week when I was photographing a sunset in the Smokies and the guy next to me insisted I see the bear photos he had taken the day before, I took a deep breath, hid my lack of enthusiasm and glanced over at his smartphone.  And what I saw took my breath away.  He didn’t have your garden-variety photos of bears…he had photos of bear cubs!

Keep reading to find out how I got this adorable shot.

Keep reading to find out how I met this cute little fella…

I had lived around bears for twenty years but realized in that moment that I had never seen a cub.  And Lord…they were so incredibly cute!   Although I had made my trip to the Smokies intent on photographing landscapes and spring wildflowers, that focus suddenly shifted.

Black Bear Cub Photography

I was lucky to find some Mountain Laurel which anchored this image.

A couple days later, I was taking a sunrise shot from the Foothills Parkway when a lady pulls into the overlook and sets up her tripod.  I couldn’t help notice that she was still in her PJs…and that started a conversation.  It turns out she was a local (she had rushed out of her nearby home to photograph the sunrise and didn’t have time to change, which explained the PJs).  As we talked, I realized that I had seen her photography on Facebook.   Her name is Kellie Walls Sharpe and a friendlier person doesn’t exist on this earth.  As we worked the sunrise, I mentioned the bear cubs.  Kellie knew all about them and told me exactly where they could be found (her local knowledge of wildlife and photography locations was amazing). Well, as soon as the sunrise had faded, I thanked Kellie and headed off to the spot in Cades Cove she had told me about.  About an hour later I was hiking across a field and sure enough, spotted a bear.  But it was just a yearling…kinda scrawny and not terribly photogenic. So I kept walking and looking.  Ten minutes later movement caught my eye near the base of a hill.  I ambled up and saw a pair of cubs…and a big mama bear about 20 feet beyond them.

Now, let me say that the Park regulations require you to keep a 50 yard distance from bears.  And although black bears are not usually aggressive, only a fool would get between a mother and her cubs.  Fortunately, I had brought my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter, so I was able to keep my distance and still get tack-sharp images.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Twins: Up they go!

The twins immediately scrambled up a tree.  Mama took a hard look at me, decided I was just another fool photographer and then promptly and totally ignored me for the rest of the day.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama checking me out…’

I lifted all seven plus pounds of the 200-400 for the first time and started shooting.

Black Bear Cub Photography

These little guys could really climb.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Well, now I really understand what inspired the first ‘Teddy Bear’

The cubs were delightful.  They played like a couple kittens…taking swipes at each other, rolling around in the grass, tripping over their own feet…just adorable.

Black Bear Cub Photography

It’s time to go kids!

Soon I noticed that the bears had a system.  Mama bear would look up at the tree…make a series of short grunts and the cubs would climb down.  Then she would rumble about a hundred feet away to a new patch of the forest and start scavenging for food.  The cubs would tag right along behind her and as soon as she stopped, they would head right up the nearest tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Snacktime for the cubs

Being youngsters, they had big appetites.  They nursed at least twice over the next few hours.    Afterwards, I think mama needed a break, so she took a good stretch and rubbed her back against a tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Nothing like a good scratch in the right place.

By late morning the cubs were getting tired.  They climbed a big walnut tree, settled in a comfy fork between two branches, stretched, took a good look around, snuggled together and started to snooze.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama tucks in her cubs for their nap.


Black Bear Cub Photography

Getting settled in for naptime

Black Bear Cub Photography

One last peek!

I hung around for another 20 minutes but the cubs didn’t move an inch.  And frankly, by then I had been following them for three hours and had lifted that darn 200-400 what felt like a million times.  No, I hadn’t brought my monopod.  I had figured that if I did see bears, it would be for only a few minutes, so why bother bringing another piece of equipment?  I’ll never make that mistake again…my arms were jelly…heck, my elbows still hurt now and it’s a full week later!

Anyway,  I figured the 1500 frames I had were plenty, so I left mama and babies in peace and hiked by to the old Subaru. As I walked back I counted my lucky stars.  It had been a blessing to spend the morning with my little ‘Bruin’ family observing their antics.  I knew that I had captured some nice images and even if I drove home right then, my trip would have been a success.

But little did I know that the best was yet to be. With that teaser, I’ll conclude this story.  You’ll just have to wait till next week for the rest!

Till then,


Black Bear Cub Photography

If you don’t have floss, you just make do with what you can find.


Posted in Southeast U.S.A., Wildlife Also tagged , , |