Fall Season 2018

Fall is always an exciting season in East Tennessee. We had quite a bit of late and muted color this year, and I’m not sure that it’s completely over, but given that a storm is blowing through as we speak, the majority of the season is probably done. 

The reason for my lack of posting has been, honestly, that I’ve been out and about trying to shoot most nights. I’ve not always been successful, but I’ve come away with a few images I think will be keepers.

The biggest change for me this year has been the addition of the Mavic 2 Pro to my gear bag. This isn’t a panacea, as you’re not technically allowed to fly it in Great Smoky Mountain National Park (which is why I haven’t been there except to ride bikes) or off the Blue Ridge Parkway (which is why I only have one “normal” set of pictures from there. That said, the M2P is game-changing for landscape photography. It allows you (in the areas where you can fly) to move to perspectives that are certainly not possible from the road, and in many cases aren’t possible even with a lengthy hike. Sure the camera has shortcomings when compared with my D850, but its ability to move 30-40 feet beyond the overlook is, in itself, an amazing thing that completely transforms the kind of images you can capture. 

Along with that, this is the first season with my D850. Last year I walked away with a few strong images, but all were with my D750. I didn’t get the D850 until November, when the color was long gone in this area. As a result, at season’s start I had only 3 images in my main photo gallery taken on my D850 – exactly the same number taken with the D90 that I owned for a hot minute in 2009 as a backup camera (which has by far the lowest shutter count of any camera I’ve owned and seriously used), and less than I took with my OM-D E-M5 in the two years I owned it. All that to say: I was excited about the possibilities the D850 offered.

October, however, turned into a rather interesting animal.

The first important variable was our trip to Park City, UT, at the turn of the month for our friends’ wedding. This lent some spectacular scenery, but because of weight reasons the D850 stayed home in favor of the M2P and A7RII. That’s not to say there weren’t some great shots, though.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro, Wastach National Forest

On Sunday September 30, we drove out to the Wastach National Forest, for some spectacular scenery, including an incredible display of turning aspen trees. The DJI performed great here, though not to be outdone, the A7RII and Voigtlander 15 put in a great show (currently on display in our downstairs bedroom):

Aspens in Wastach National Forest. Sony A7Rmk2, Voigtlander 15mm.

I’ve said several times that the A7R2 platform is worth owning just for the ability to use the Voigtlander 15. I stand by that statement.

Returning to Tennessee, there was still a pretty significant learning curve with the Mavic 2 Pro. One of my first attempts to capture a scene came just after we returned from Utah, and had almost nothing to do with nature’s beauty:

Traffic crosses under a bridge on Interstate 40 in Knoxville, TN.

After dinner with some friends, I tried a couple of shots I’d been wanting to capture on I40, which is only a mile or so from our house. In the process – and completely unplanned – I ended up with the above, which will probably become one of my signature shots from the drone going forward.

As mentioned above, the legalities of drone flying present a challenge in my area. While there are many areas that are totally kosher, other areas – particularly areas like Smoky Mountain National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway – are off limits. As a result, I spent more of this season than usual on the Cherohala Skyway – an area which is drone friendly – and which turned out to be a fortunate coincidence.

The main highway in our area that gets press is US-129 between Maryville, TN and Robbinsville, NC – often called the “Tail of the Dragon” because of its many curves. The better road – for both driving and scenery – is the Cherohala Skyway, which runs from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, TN. While the Skyway doesn’t have the best overlooks – that is, from the perspective of traditional photography, it does have some incredible vistas if you happen to have a drone. And because it’s not a National Park, you’re perfectly clear to launch there.

Sunset on the Cherohala Skyway
Color changes on the Cherohala Skyway

While there are plenty of spots on the Cherohala Skyway, exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway is an essential part of October in this area. Because launching drones is verboten on the parkway itself, some creativity must be had. To that end, there are several perfectly legal launch sites on NC-215, both north and south of the parkway proper. With some scouting, I was able to identify one that turned out to have a great vantage point:

NC-215 cuts through the Western North Carolina wilderness as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Clearly it would be better if just a bit more color were showing, but all in all, I’ll take it.

Not to be outdone, the D850 had a reasonable October too – not in terms of quantity, but rather quality. For a while, I’ve been toying with what I call the “Sunset Project” – a view of the same sunset through time on a single evening. Perhaps, at some point, I’ll get around to making good on the promise. With that in mind, my wife and I headed out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and captured a spectacular sunset that continued in its glorious hues for almost an hour on October 20:

Let me be totally transparent: I made a lot of mistakes (including some rookie mistakes) that night, but the D850 managed to salvage my incompetence. All in all it was a great sunset, made all the more great because I shared it with someone special (

The season may not be over, but it likely is. I’ll update this post in November if it turns out something interesting came up…  Otherwise I’ll see you over the winter with (hopefully) some other interesting pictures.

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