Don McGowan

Don McGowan

Friday, 13 April 2018 23:17


Sometimes it's fun to approach a usual subject in a somewhat unusual way, and so I found myself looking down at the spreading blossoms of a beautiful dogwood (Cornus florida) on the edge of a small forest of dogwoods growing along the last stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway above Big Cove in the Qualla Boundary. It was a scene that seemed to demand the use of a short focal length lens and a somewhat unusual wide angle-of-view with the low-bending blossoms in the foreground and the spindly, angular trunks of neighboring trees in the background.

A focal length of 27mm, solid wide-angleland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field and a shutter speed of 1/13th second at ISO 100 froze any slight motion and gave me an overall slightly-lighter-than-medium exposure. A single deformed blossom in the foreground provided an interesting counterpoint to the otherwise lush and full array of white.

When out-of-the-ordinary compositions present themselves, don't hesitate to go outside of your usual box of compositional thoughts and see something unsual in the beauty around you.

Saturday, 07 April 2018 15:06

Sort of Like Surfin'

Middle Prong of Little Pigeon River in the Greenbrier section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been one of my greatest teachers. Every time I begin to believe that I have "seen" this wonderful stream in all of its moods and in all of its faces, it proceeds to reveal to me another of its amazing features. The extensive Roaring Fork Sandstone outcropping near the entrance to cove has produced one of the most appealing cascades in the park, and so often I am tempted to include the entire drop, as well as the banks on either side of the river. Usually I'm also tempted to throw in some of the beautiful potholes that make Roaring Fork Sandstone so intriguing when exposed to moving water for a few thousand years. Recently, however, I decided to focus on the top of the primary drop itself and to only show some of the sensual curvature in the rock as the sky- and foliage-reflected water poured over it.

A focal length of 330mm, definitely telephoto-land, gave me the reduced angle-of-view and increased magnification I wanted to emphasize the reflection and the flow. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 1/5th second at ISO 100 gave me a slightly-lighter-than-medium overall exosure.

Colored water in motion; just when I thought an amazing river had shown me everything it has. What will it think of next?


Thursday, 29 March 2018 15:14

Seeking Its Own Level

As it slowly wears away the low ridge that defines this portion of the watershed of Middle Prong of Little River, Big Hollow Branch drops through a wonderfully verdant, 40' moss-covered plunge of small boulders, known as Walker Fields Cascade, before joining with the rushing waters of Middle Prong itself. This stretch of river valley, once owned and farmed by Black Bill Walker, became, in the early decades of the twentieth-century, the logging community of Tremont, owned by W.B. Townsend's Little River Lumber Company. Now, it is one of the most special places to be found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A focal length of 31mm, just within the limits of wide-angleland, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted - the entire span of the cascade from the perspective where I stood. An aperture of f/13 provided depth-of-field primarily because of the camera-to-subject distance, and a shutter speed of 1.0 second at ISO 200 gave me an overall medium exposure. I needed to adjust the aperture to wider and the ISO to greater sensitivity in order to achieve the shutter speed indicated. A longer time would have meant a milkier presentation of the water, but what I wanted was what I expressed here.

The watershed of Middle Prong of Little River tells so much of the geological story of these mountains; but it also tells much of the human story as well. Every time I am there, I hear its words. It is the sound of moonlight flowing over crystal.

Sunday, 25 March 2018 01:13

High Atmosphere

The Smokies High Country, along Thomas Divide especially, is, in a clearing winter storm, a showplace of atmosphere and light. As the clouds drop and the coves and hollows begin to fill with their vaporous passing, the light often breaks through to bathe the scene from above. What it feels so much like is being a kid in an ice cream store and faced with the impossible decision of where to look next, much less choose among focal lengths compositions.

Looking out from avove the Deep Creek drainage I chose, in this moment, a focal length of 450mm, at the high end of moderate telephoto, for the angle-of-view I wanted to isolate clouds and sections of bare ridges. An aperture of f/20 provided depth of field and a shutter speed of 1/25th second at ISO 100 gave definition to the moving mists and created an overall medium exposure.

From the places of high atmosphere, the world seems a swirl of shape and form in frozen motion.

Friday, 16 March 2018 10:51

Patience and Light

While the valleys below slowly start their turning toward new growth and verdancy, the high ridge of Thomas Divide, overlooking its watershed from Deep Creek to the Little Tennessee, must await patiently for its greening up to begin, just as Shot Beech Ridge must wait each day for the light to bathe its slopes, as its moss- and lichen-covered old oaks wait silently for the sun.

Standing on Swinging Bridge on a late-March morning, the bare-tree-covered mountains stretching away before me seemed like a welcoming blanket of shape and form enhanced by the dimensionality-producing sidelight of early day. A focal length of 52mm, quite normal, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.4 second, in the windless air, at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

It is on days and in times like these that the Great Spirit, by whatever name you wish to know it, to me reveals itself most clearly. Walk in Beauty.

Saturday, 10 March 2018 11:04

Nestled in the Light

John and Lurena (Luraney) Oliver arrived in Cades Cove sometime in 1818, having walked there from Carter County, Tennessee, a hundred miles away, one child in tow and another on the way. By the early 1820s they had built a cabin, in which they raised a family and lived in until their deaths, John's in 1864. The structure you see here was actually built as a honeymoon cabin for one of their children, their original dwelling being located a short distance away deeper in the woods. It was owned by the Oliver family until it became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. We know it as the John Oliver Cabin, in spite of the misnomer.

When the dawning sunlight of early April pours in through Crib Gap to the east, the tops of the forest above the blooming dogwoods at the base of Rich Mountain are bathed in the sidelit glow; and the old cabin beneath their crowns becomes a magical kingdom for Smokies pioneer history. From halfway across the field to the south, a focal length of 180mm, moderate telephoto, gave me the angle-of-view and magnification I wanted. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.5 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

Being at the cove's entrance gate when the ranger opens it at sunrise is essential to being in place to do this sort of work at the Oliver cabin. It's well-worth the effort.

Saturday, 03 March 2018 11:28

Where the Waters Meet

Some of the most photogaphically accessible waters in the entire confines of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are to be found in Greenbrier, the beautiful cove drained by Middle Prong of Little Pigeon River and its numerous tributaries, including Porter's Creek. William Whaley and his brother, Middleton, came here from South Carolina around 1800, about the same time that Col. Return J. Meigs was conducting his survey to establish the boundary between the United States and the Tsalagi Nation, a line that crossed the crest of the Smokies at Mt. Collins less than fifteen miles away to the southwest. William established his home here, where Middle Prong and Porter's Creek merge their waters; the Whaleys became one of Sevier County's most prominent families; and Greenbrier came to preserve the natural beauty and rich history of this amazing land.

A focal length of 44mm, just plain "normal," gave me the angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/18 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.8 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure. I could have gained a bit faster shutter speed by opening up to say f/11, but I liked the visual flow of the water at the chosen aperture.

The confluence of these two streams is one of the most compelling water visuals in a flowing land that is filled with many of the same.

Friday, 23 February 2018 10:59

Designing Bisti

The Desert Southwest is an amazing and wonderful place, and nowhere in the desert is this more evident than in the geological wonderland called Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, a small wilderness of 45,000 acres, cobbled together from two even smaller contiguous tracts, Bisti and De-Na-Zin. This badland is nature's design at the peak of its creativity, and it is essential to be mindful so that nothing is overlooked, nor passed by. It is such mindfulness that leads to the everyday beauty that fills the eroded forms of Bisti from the highest strata above you to the rain-washed dirt at your feet, a soil so darkened gray that you might be tempted to believe that here the earth itself once caught fire and burned to ash. What water as does arrive in Bisti, unless it merely evaporates, leaves through an interlocking series of washes, and when the water has gone, the remaining dirt shows the intricacy of Nature's written language, the intricate cuneiform of a desert streambed.

Hiking the edge of one of Bisti's washes, I spotted this design in the place where the water sometimes flows. A focal length of 110mm from about 3.5' above the soil gave me the angle-of-view I wanted and a bit of magnification. An aperture of f/22 gave me depth-of-field and sharpness edge-to-edge; and a shutter speed of 1/15th second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure.

The dimpled outlines of small droplets of evaporated rain gave an additional sense of texture to a surface that already seemed interesting in its delicately eroded appearance.

Saturday, 17 February 2018 23:14

Twilight Time on Old Smokey

Looking south off the upper slopes of Kuwahi, known to those of European descent as Clingman's Dome, into the vastness of the Forney Creek Watershed, the Great Smoky Mountains are a maze of forested wonder illuminated by the last rays of a setting sun. When I look into the face of this mystery, I am reminded of how small and inconsequential is the time I spend on Earth and how majestic is the universe of nature of which I am a part. Yet it and I are of a piece; and the Beauty into which it guides me is all-encompassing.

A focal length of 92mm, very short telephoto, gave me the angle-of-view I wanted, isolating the depths of the watershed on its way to the Little Tennessee. An aperture of f/20 provided depth-of-field and a shutter speed of 0.3 seconds at ISO 200 gave me an overall slightly darker-than-medium exposure, emphasizing the rich quality of the light below.

This was the last day of our two-week Arrowmont autumn adventure, a visual gift to be remembered. In the lower elevations most of the leaves were still on the trees and more than a few were still producing chlorophyll.

Saturday, 10 February 2018 22:57

In the Winter Palace

A temperature map of the 2017-2018 winter thus far might look uncannily like the profile of any major theme park's premier rollercoaster. While there have been plenty of ice-free moments to celebrate, there have also been quite a few days of thickly frozen liquid to appreciate as just another of Nature's wonderful artforms. This tiny unnamed tributary of Walker Camp Prong at the base of Anakeesta Ridge on the Tennessee side of the Smokies is one of my favorite places to find and be creative with the amazing iceforms that can be found there. During the peak of winter this watercourse gets relatively little direct sunlight, and when the thermometer hovers below freezing for several days at a time, a winter palace begins to take shape: an invitation to bundle up and go outside. A focal length of 150mm - near the boundary of short telephoto-land - gave me the intimate angle-of-view I wanted. An aperture of f/16 provided depth-of-field, and a shutter speed of 0.6 second at ISO 100 gave me an overall medium exposure and an apparent flow of the water that expressed the motion effect I wanted to create.

Winter will soon enough give us a way to spring; but until then; its sculptured forms can offer us much to celebrate and enjoy. 

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