“I wanted to hold onto the feeling of being there.”
This is how Carl Heilman describes his inspiration for becoming a photographer. More than 40 years ago, after moving to the Adirondacks in upstate New York, he was compelled to recreate what it felt like to take in the area’s staggering landscapes. “I figured I could do that with a camera,” he says.
Since then, through limited formal training and a lot of self-taught pluck, Heilman has become a prolific and acclaimed photographer, taking thousands of pictures across the United States and Canada, and teaching workshops in New York’s Adirondacks region (where he still lives) and Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Among his favorite encounters, he highlights shooting pictures of a mountain range in the immediate aftermath of a snowsquall, and photographing a deer just after a rain had ended, as the sun went down and a perfect mist formed. “There are so many times where you just have this magic that comes together,” he says.
A Photographer's Life
Heilman's latest book through Rizolli Books is “The Great Smoky Mountains: Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park” (released in April 2018). Between 2016 and 2017, Heilman took five separate trips to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains and the two national parks it encompasses — Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains — awaking most days around 3 or 4 a.m. and not setting aside his camera equipment until 8 or 9 p.m. To capture his shots, Heilman used a pair of Nikon D750 full-frame sensor cameras, using additional lens and focal-length options for everything from close-ups to telephoto shooting as needed.
Far & Wide spoke with Heilman about some of our favorite photos from his journey. Want to experience what he captured for yourself? Heilman recommends taking two weeks to motor north to south through the Blue Ridge Mountains, starting at Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, then connecting with the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, passing waterfalls, balanced granite boulders, remarkable wildlife and more along the way.
With these photos, prepare to be inspired to do just that.
That Little Spot of Sunlight
Heilman snapped this photo during the first trip he took for the book, in October 2016, when the area’s fall colors were in vibrant form. The image captures the Humpback Rock Visitors Center and Picnic Area along the famous, 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. The foreground of the photo showcases a sunlit butternut tree.
The area is one of the most popular among visitors, thanks to its accessibility and historic farm buildings, open to the public most of the year.
Heilman’s goal for this shot was to “catch that little spot of sunlight” peeking through the top of the tree. With older camera technology, he says, this would’ve been difficult to capture because of the effects of backlighting, which could make the tree appear as a black silhouette against the sun.
With his digital camera, though, he was able to get what he wanted, using a wide angle to take in the tree and the walkway behind it, to “provide a sense of walking into the house.”
Heilman captured this winter shot of the Mabry Mill in Virginia — “one of the most photographed locations in all of Blue Ridge,” he says — after also heading to the area the fall before. “It’s fun to do seasonal shots of specific locations for the book,” he notes.
Because there’s no snow-plowing in the Blue Ridge Parkway, it can be difficult to access certain parts of the area in winter months. But with his four-wheel drive, Heilman was able to make it there to shoot this snow-kissed landscape.
He knew he had his shot, he says, when he noticed the cardinals coming out to feed on birdseed a previous visitor had tossed out.
With shots of birds (as with all animals), the tricky part of taking pictures is the unpredictability of motion. Unlike a mountain or boulder or carefully posed human, animals move frequently while photographers try to get their shot.
To combat this issue, Heilman uses a quick shutter speed, to avoid blurring when, say, a bird moves its head. He also sets the exposure ahead of time, so, he says, “I can just fire away and know I’ll get my shot.”
This striking cave image was taken at the aptly named Dream Lake in Luray Caverns, just outside Shenandoah National Park. The photo captures stalactites reflected in the water below, creating the impression of touching formations.
A tip for visitors to Luray: Make sure to check out The Great Stalactite Organ, a musical organ that, instead of using pipes to create sound, strikes stalactites of various lengths and thicknesses.
Capturing the reflection in this shot was made easier, Heilman says, by the water being “as calm as can be” — a benefit of taking a photo inside a wind-free cave.
Heilman also didn’t have to worry about lighting, since nature took care of making the colors perfectly lit and brilliant.
Off the Beaten Path
At Cades Cave, a popular valley inside Smoky Mountains National Park, most visitors circle around Loop Road, a one-way, paved route that runs along an old railroad track. Not many know to venture to Sparks Lane, which cuts directly across the road and offers a scenic way to explore the terrain. Heilman found himself roaming this lane because, he says, “I’m always off the beaten path as much as I can be.”
For this shot taken in May, Heilman wanted to capture “the lights going down and the clouds above,” and started shooting when he saw the extraordinary reflection in the water puddle.
Heilman got close to the surface of the puddle to pick up its reflection of the clouds, trees and fence posts above.
To ensure the photo was sharp, he used a small aperture opening. (A note for photography neophytes: “aperture” refers to the size of the opening in a camera lens.)
This shot was also taken in Cades Cove, which Heilman emphasizes is one of his favorite spots to snap photos for a reason. “There are open fields throughout and mountains all around the edge, and it’s really easy to spot wildlife,” he says. “It’s one of those locations that speaks to you.”
When he’s in a place so picture-perfect, Heilman makes sure to have his camera on his car seat in front of him at all times, so he’s at the ready when he inevitably sees something remarkable. In this case, when he spotted a white-tailed deer traversing a field as fresh snow fell, he was able to swiftly “see, stop and shoot.”
In addition to using a quick shutter speed, it’s important to be cautious around animals, Heilman says.
Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most-visited national park, welcomes more than 11 million visitors a year, so deer aren’t too skittish around humans,. Still, Heilman always moves slowly, and he notes that it can be helpful to take photos from inside the car. “Most places, wildlife is used to people in a car, so they’re not as weary as if you get out.”
(Visitors, take note: Other animals frequently spotted in Cades Cove include black bears, coyotes, groundhogs and raccoons.)
This shot actually wasn’t taken during one of Heilman’s recent trips through the Blue Ridge Mountains — it was snapped in the early ‘90s, when he was camping with his son.
The photo captures the view at sunset from Gregory Bald, one of the few remaining balds (a type of mountain summit) in the western Great Smoky Mountains. The open meadow area below is from, you guessed it, beautiful Cades Cove.
While Heilman often uses a quick shutter speed to avoid blur, especially when taking animal shots, here he purposely slowed down the shutter speed because he wanted to capture the motion of the swaying native grass.
“I wanted you to feel the wind blowing,” he says.
Cataloochee Valley is a highlight of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — a verdant valley, once home to a significant Appalachian community, surrounded by rugged peaks rising 6,000 feet into the sky.
Heilman passed this vista as he was heading to a different area of the park to try and find elk during his fall trip, and stopped there on the way back. The shot compelled him, he says, because of its “color in the foreground and misty mountains in the background.”
This shot, Heilman says, was all about the composition.
By capturing the bold colors of fall foliage on the left and right hand sides of the image, he ensured those looking at the shot would take it all in, their eye traveling from one point to another.
He also tightly framed the fence along the road to “pull you in and make you feel like you were there.”
This shot is of Price Lake at Julian Price Memorial Park along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The area is popular with tourists because it provides views of the mighty Grandfather Mountain, which you can drive to the top of. That peak features the Mile High Swinging Bridge, America’s highest suspension footbridge, which crosses a deep ravine between two points on the mountain a mile above sea level.
Heilman drove right past this particular landscape initially, and says he’s so glad he noticed its splendor when he passed it again. “The reflections were perfect,” he says. “It was such a calm day.”
Heilman says he kept his shutter speed high to minimize blur when capturing ducks paddling across the lake. He took several shots that more prominently featured the ducks, but none were chosen for the final book.
This one does include a sighting of the waterfowl, though: Look for the water stream following a small creature on the left hand side of the photo.
Highest of Highs
This photo captures the vantage point from an observation tower at Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans is the highest mountain not only in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but in all of Tennessee.
The day before this photo was taken, Heilman says, a cold front swept through the area; hence the “frosty white” of the trees. The orange light in the photo was captured still hours before sunrise. That bright spot in the sky is Venus.
The difficulty of a photo like this is capturing both the highlights and the shadows; often, a camera will overexpose an image in such circumstances. Heilman avoided this by relying on a “highlights alert,” a feature of some modern cameras that blinks a light where anything appears overexposed.
Often for heavily contrasted images like this, a photographer will actually take two otherwise identical shots using two different exposures, then composite them together using HDR Software, Photoshop or Light Room.
“I’m an early riser,” Heilman says, by way of explaining why he awoke at 3 a.m. to drive to Sharp Top Mountain, one of the three Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway, for this starry shot. “It was a beautiful clear night,” he recalls, “with a last quarter moon that looked like it was shining a spotlight on top of the mountain.”
The city lights beyond belong to Lynchburg, Va.
Fun fact: Because the northern star stays fixed in the sky while the others stars move throughout the night, Heilman uses a different exposure (30 seconds) when facing north than he does when facing east, west or south (20 seconds). If he didn’t, he says, the stars could appear as streaks, rather than as perfect pinpoints in the sky.