Appalachian Vacation - Carter Shields Cabin (GSMNP)

September 22, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

When we visited Cades Cove during our recent Appalachian Vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of my primary goals was to photograph the Carter Shields Cabin. In my mind, this cabin, set in a small clearing embraced by the mountains, is one of the most charming little destinations in the Smokies. And by way of full disclosure, I'm going to tell you that what I wanted was simply to try and recreate someone else's image. Months earlier, as I was researching photo opportunities in the Smokies, I checked out some of the landscape photographers I regularly follow to see what they'd done in the Smokies. One of those is Steve Perry and his Backcountry Gallery page. I don't know Steve personally, but he's done some amazing work as you'll see if you visit his site. On his page, I saw the most impressive image of the Carter Shields cabin I'd ever seen. You can see Steve's image, which I readily admit is better than mine, here. He even talked a bit about making the photo in the second half of a how-to video. Go ahead. I'll wait while you go check it out. And don't feel bad if you get lost in his gallery of beautiful images and never find your way back here. I understand.

Okay, if you made it back here, thanks! I wanted a similar image for my collection of Rustic Living images. Now, what you'll see in Steve's image that, to me is the defining element in the photograph, is the beautiful warm glow of light that pours out of every window and door in the cabin. I thought about how he might have accomplished that long and hard before I went and had a solid plan to reproduce it.

Obviously I'd need lights inside the cabin, but beyond that, there were a number of issues to consider:

  • How to trigger the lights from my position at the camera

  • Which way to direct the lights (facing the windows, or facing the back or side walls)

  • How many lights to use

  • Time of day

Steve made his image at dusk and that made sense to me as well. It's easier to balance the ambient light with supplemental light (especially from small flashes) when there's less ambient light. So dusk it was.

Triggering the lights was also relatively simple. Because the lights would be inside the cabin and I'd almost certainly not have line of sight, I'd need radios. Enter my Paul Buff Cybersyncs.

After a bit of study and experimentation, it seemed like the best solution for facing the lights was to try to illuminate the back and side walls, and let the light radiate out from there.

These decisions were all relatively easy. The next few were a little more involved. For instance, how many lights to use. I had two lights available to me, a Nikon SB-700 and an older Nikon SB-80DX. The SB-700 is my main speedlight and the one I use most often, usually driven by the built-in flash on my Nikon D7100 or my my Nikon SU-800 wireless commander. It is my workhorse flash and I love it. However, it does not have a sync port which means I couldn't use it in this case as a primary light driven with my radio triggers. So the SB-80DX, which does have a sync port, was the first light brought to bear. I figured I'd need everything the light could give me, so I set it on manual at 1/1 power (full power), hooked up the Cybersync receiver, and sent my first assistant (my son) into the cabin.

In the first image, the light barely registered in the exposure, so I quickly brought out the SB-700, set it to optical slave mode so it would trigger when it saw the flash of the SB-80DX, set it to full power as well, and sent my second associate (my wife) into the cabin.

Not much better. You'd think that with two speedlights both operating on full power, I'd have all the light I need. Well, there's something you may not know about the way flash works: the flash exposure is driven in your camera by the aperture. As your camera's aperture gets smaller, the relative input of your flash is diminished. The shutter speed affects the ambient exposure, but the aperture affects the flash exposure. There's physics and some dark voodoo involved here, but that's the way it works. Because it was important to me that everything in the frame be sharp, I was using an aperture of f/22. And it was robbing me most all my flash power. I tried f/16 and it really wasn't much better.

Well, we experimented with aiming the flashes at different areas within the cabin, but the best we could do was the exposure at the top. I like it, but it's not Steve Perry's image. So Steve, if you find yourself reading this, I tip my hat to you. You are the master, I am the padawan.

So, what could I have done differently? Several things actually, each involving varying degrees of difficulty or cost:

  • I could have brought a bigger light, something like the excellent Paul Buff Einstein or even one of his Alien Bees, since Carter Shields never ran power to his cabin, that option would've required a battery pack, like Buff's Vagabond Mini. And I had none of those with me at the time.

  • I could have opened my aperture, say to f/16, f/11, or even f/8. This would probably have done it, but may have required . . .

  • Taking an exposure in which I focused on the trees, and another exposure in which I focused on the cabin, and then merged them both in Photoshop.

Any of those options would have worked, really. All it would've taken was for me to think of that while I was there. ;-) Honestly (and I'm trying to be honest about all this, because honesty is helpful, in spite of the fact that I'm about to come off looking like a bit of a ditz), by the time we were done shooting that evening, I was pretty well undone by my inability to suss out the problem. It wasn't that I didn't know the answer; it was that I couldn't think of the answer. I was already well and truly familiar with the intricacies of flash and aperture and how all that works. But at that moment, out in the weeds of a challenging field shoot and facing the pressure to produce a shot I'd been dreaming about, as the sun was quickly setting on my only evening at that cabin during a vacation that was rapidly winding down, I was having a mental melt-down. The voice inside my head was hurling disparaging words at me rapid-fire about my lack of ability, my ancestry, and the opinion that I was probably better suited for other pursuits, like backgammon, maybe . . . or curling. And the best I could produce was the image at the top of this post.

So there you have it. All in all, while I did not completely recreate Steve's image, I'm happy with the image. I also made another one I'm very happy with, from a slightly different angle that doesn't look quite so much like someone else's image. It's the image you see below.

No warm glow coming out of the windows and door, but to me a very pleasing image nonetheless.

More to come . . . .


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