The best part of picture work is being there in the moment. Unfortunately, the majority of my meager work is done alone. You, the appreciated viewer, never get the full story of a photograph. I have decided to select some photographs and share with you all the small miseries and triumphs that surround the making of some of my favorite images.
The Story of Buzzard's Roost
The weather decided to turn unreasonably cold the week before I left for Fall Creek Falls. Late November is not exactly the most popular time to camp in Tennessee’s most visited state park. Most of the popular areas will be deserted and free of the loud and disruptive onlookers that can steal the serenity from the even the most tranquil of scenes. This is the reason I chose this time to make my first trip to the park.
I'm here to photograph this, the so called “Buzzards Roost” but at night and with the Polaris star trail in the background. This is an image I pulled from the internet showing the tree from another vantage point. I DO NOT OWN THIS IMAGE I DID NOT TAKE THIS PHOTOGRAPHI DID NOT TAKE THIS PHOTOGRAPH
It is a small outcrop of rock that is adjacent to Millikan's Overlook(more on this shortly) with vertical drops on three sides that range from 90 ft -124ft into the valley below. I will limit the scope of this tale to the events and circumstances that surround the making of this photo only. The rest of the trip though, was epic.
This is the finished image.
It’s the second night staying in the park and I leave my camp around 9PM. I drive up to the Cascade Falls area and set myself to making some exposures. It’s around 20F now and I hope that the rocks aren’t slicked over as I make my way along the trail to the falls. I make a few exposures of the cascades when I notice the beam of a flashlight zigzagging along the trail towards me. No doubt it’s a ranger there to investigate a vehicle parked at the visitors center long after closing. Sure enough, the ranger appears and introduces himself and in my most professional and confident tone I do the same. I know I’m not supposed to be here and he knows that I know I'm not supposed to be here. Still, I explain what I’m doing in detail and what I am here to accomplish. He seems enthusiastic so I go on to tell him that I also would like to photograph Buzzards Roost but I had learned that the area was closed to the public at night. To my elated surprise, he tells me he will contact his Captain to request that I enter that area of the park. A few minutes later, I am following the ranger deeper into Fall Creek Falls towards Millikan's Overlook. We park and I am escorted through the trees and boulders to the famous Buzzard’s Roost.
After showing me the way to the bluff, the ranger decides to tell me a little story about the overlook…. Turns out that Millikan's Overlook is named for Dr. Glen Millikan. He was a prominent Vanderbilt physiologist, who fell to his death in a climbing accident in May , 1947. Here. He fell here; under circumstances that the ranger described as “questionable.” I am told that the locals say that the Dr’s wife was being less than faithful and the accident was no accident, but murder. The ranger then basically tells me good luck and that he’ll be back around midnight asks that I lock the gate behind me if I’m done sooner. He turns and I watch the beam of his flashlight quickly vanish into the darkness. I am completely alone.
So that we’re clear, I am standing in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black of night on a cliff that's probably haunted by a murder victim with the wind trying to push me down and it’s so cold that my eyes are hurting. Now, let’s make a picture.
There were little land mines of foot robbing ice everywhere.
The wind is so high I know that the star trail is out of the question. You have to secure your camera on a completely motionless platform in order to get blur free star markings. With the wind howling I know my tripod will vibrate too much. My heart sinks. But still, I refuse to let this opportunity go to waste. I decide to shoot the tree from the same perspective I had planned, but from a different spot. I'll need the city lights that are miles away to backlight the tree so it will be visible in the dark. I know the wind will blur the tree and hopefully give a sense of motion to the image. I use the following exposure: f/4 for 162 seconds at 11mm focal length. I wanted to keep the grain down so I settled for ISO 200. I’f I had to do this again I would opt for around ISO 1000 and cut the shutter speed down to around 45 seconds. The reason I say this is because if you look closely the stars are beginning to show motion from the rotation of the Earth. I wanted them fully arrested with no motion except for the wind swept tree in the foreground.
*NOTE* The sensitivity of film and digital camera sensors is measured by ISO rating. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive it is to light but it also introduces grain. High ISO settings allow you to shoot in lower light.
I make three or four exposures before I remember the story about Dr. Millikan. Honestly, it unnerved me under the present circumstances. I started hearing noises that I can't explain and I swear the wind was beginning to carry the sound of broken voices. I say to myself “Self, time to go.” So I pack up my gear quickly, pull my shemagh as tight to my face as I can, and then attempt to make my way through the crags and trees back to my truck without plummeting 100 feet into the Hemlocks which I'm certain will break my camera. I head back towards the gate to lockup up just as the ranger has arrived to take me back out. I thank him profusely for allowing me to photograph in the closed area of the park. I make it back to camp and spend another two blustery days roaming the empty lands and waterfalls while consuming massive amounts of bacon.