Top of Amicalola Falls shot from below.
Don’t Miss Amicalola Falls
By Tom Wilson
As a photographer, one of my favorite waterfalls is Amicalola Falls in North Georgia. Technically a cascade, Amicalola Falls tumbles a dramatic 729 feet, making it the highest in Georgia and the third highest east of the Mississippi River.
Located within Amicalola Falls State Park, an 829-acre gem between Ellijay and Dahlonega, this cascade offers remarkable accessibility. There is trail access to the base of the falls, the top of the falls and to the mid-point of the falls, with a level path that is ADA-accessible (see the park website for a trail map). All of the accesses have parking areas. These multiple access points make it possible to photograph the falls from different perspectives, and all of the access points are connected so you can utilize one or all of them.
Waterfall detail shot in winter from bridge midway up the falls. Photo by Tom Wilson
This ease of access also has a downside, however, which is the fact that the park attracts lots of visitors. I would recommend getting there early in the morning, or during weekdays, for the best photographic opportunities. Many of your photos can be made from the boardwalks and the stairs that climb up the falls, but bear in mind that lots of foot traffic can mean lots of vibration on those boardwalks, which can result in blurry photographs.
Because the cascade is inside a state park, there are plenty of amenities available, including a visitor center, restrooms, camping, lodging and even a restaurant at the lodge. The visitor center is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and there is a $5 fee to park in any of the lots all day. You can instead use your Georgia State Parks Pass if you have one.
View from the lower platform in early fall.
Waterfalls can be difficult subjects to photograph due to their high-contrast environments. One solution for this problem is to plan your trip for cloudy days. Another option is to visit the falls early in the morning, before the sun is shining directly on the water (as mentioned, this also helps you avoid the foot traffic you’ll experience at busier times of the day). The park is open during daylight hours so you should be able to enter even before the visitor center opens. I have photographed the falls in all kinds of light, and each trip has yielded good, if different, images.
Be sure to visit the Georgia State Park website before you go. Check the weather and do some research about water levels in North Georgia; when levels are really high, the water can be brown and unattractive for photographs. Take all of your hiking essentials with you, including water, sunscreen, rain gear, seasonally appropriate clothing, first aid kit, etc.
Near-peak fall colors at Amicalola Falls.
The photographic equipment I take with me is my camera body/bodies, sturdy tripod, remote release, lenses with hoods (from very wide angle to telephoto), polarizer, neutral density filter, a small towel for drying the camera due to spray from the falls, and a microfiber cloth for the lens.
View from the top of Amicalola Falls.
My favorite aspect of this waterfall is the variety of images that you can make. I have included some of them with this article. For instance, you can get images from the top of the falls that show the surrounding countryside. Because of the boardwalk, you can position yourself close to the main cascades for some really imposing shots of the falls or finer details. Further down the trail you can access shots that include more of the creek tumbling on down the mountain after it has gone over the main falls. The photos I have included range in seasons from early fall before the leaves have started to turn, to the peak of the fall color and into winter. No matter when you choose to go, you’ll find some great opportunities for photography!
Tom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.
Big Bull in the River. Photo by Horace Hamilton
Photographing Elk in the Smokies
By Horace Hamilton
Few big-game animals are as awe-inspiring and majestic as wild elk. And while many photographers head to national parks in the West to find them, we are fortunate to have large herds a short drive from Georgia.
Let’s take a look at this remarkable herd in western North Carolina, as well as tips on the best places, times and strategies for photographing them.
But first, photographers need to understand that elk are the largest animals found in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park area. And while normally peaceful, they can be quite dangerous in certain situations. A cow elk weighs up to 500 pounds, and if she thinks her calf is in danger, she will defend it aggressively. A big bull, meanwhile, can tip the scales at 700 pounds. Amped up on hormones during the rut, he will use his massive antlers to drive intruders (including people) away from his harem of cows. These elk don’t perceive us as predators, so they won’t run from people like a bear or coyote might. In fact, they commonly approach humans so closely that the burden is on us to move out of their way.
Consequently, it’s critical that we maintain a minimum of 50 yards distance from all elk. Do not enter any field where elk are present, and be very alert when walking the trails around the Oconaluftee Visitors Center or other places where elk are common. Remember to watch for elk approaching from behind as well. Even if you are beyond the 50-yard yard limit, if an elk changes its behavior because of you, you are too close! Listen to the rangers and volunteers; their job is to keep you safe.
Photo by Horace Hamilton
Elk in the Smokies
At one time, elk were prolific in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. But they were eradicated in the 1800s by overhunting and loss of habitat.
In 2001, the National Park Service began a restoration program by introducing 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes area (on the Tennessee/Kentucky border) into Cataloochee Valley. After the success of this first group, another 27 elk were added in 2003.
This original herd has flourished and now numbers 200-plus animals (estimates vary widely), spread across western North Carolina both inside and outside the National Park.
Calves (usually only one per cow) are born in June, normally in a secluded area away from the main herd. But within days of birth, the cows return to the herd with their calves. Those calves will nurse for six to seven months, but from shortly after birth they also forage for other food, mostly grass. They are able to walk within minutes of birth.
Bulls lose their antlers in late winter. New antlers begin growing back immediately, reaching full size by summer.
Mating season (the rut) occurs in September and October (best observed from mid-September to mid-October). Bulls battle each other for dominion over their harems—groups of cows that can grow to 20 or more. Photographing the rut is so addicting that I have done so with a group of friends every fall for the past eight or nine years!
A dominant bull may lose up to 200 pounds during rut, as he spends his time and energy defending his harem rather than eating. As the dominant bull weakens toward the end of rut, younger bulls may have an opportunity to breed with any as-yet unimpregnated cows, thus increasing the herd’s genetic diversity. Elk have a life span of about 15 years.
Photo by Horace Hamilton
Where Can Elk Be Found?
There are two large herds of elk in the Smokies.
The most easily accessible area to find elk is in and around the town of Cherokee, at the entrance to the park on Highway 441.
Watch for them in the fields along Hwy 441, from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and north to the Smokemont Campground. If you don’t see them there, look in the fields in the Job Corps Center, which can be accessed via a bridge over the river, about 100 yards north of the exit from the visitor center parking lot. There is limited public access in this area, so pay attention to the signs.
Finally, elk can be found along Big Cove Road, which is accessible from Hwy 441, between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the town of Cherokee. Watch for directional signs. Elk also frequent the Cherokee Trail, behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Patience is required, but this is a wonderful place to photograph them as they cross the stream in the afternoon.
The second great location is in Cataloochee Valley, also in GSMNP.
You can access Cataloochee from Hwy 276 at the intersection with I-40 (Exit 20). Turn on Jonathan Creek Road, which is immediately before the I-40 intersection and only goes west. In 0.3 miles keep right and follow this road into Cataloochee. After about 10 miles, turn left at the stop sign and continue straight from there into the valley. The drive from Hwy 276 into Cataloochee may take up to 45 minutes on a narrow, winding mountain road that turns to gravel before entering the park. There are no visitor amenities in Cataloochee, other than bathrooms. There is no cell service.
Photo by Horace Hamilton
While the Cherokee herd tends to stick pretty close together, the Cataloochee herd can be spread throughout the two-mile-long valley, in smaller groups of 10-15 animals. Beautiful landscape scenes – including elk – can be found in the Cataloochee Valley at sunrise.
In addition to these primary locations, elk occasionally can be found in downtown Cherokee, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Maggie Valley, Bryson City or most anywhere else in the area. Be on the lookout when driving in these areas, but remember that these are not the most reliable locations for finding elk.
Is There a Best Time of Day?
In early summer, in the fields along Hwy 441, cows and calves are often seen throughout the day. But early morning and late afternoon are always the best times to view the herd.
During the September and October rut, elk are most active at sunrise and shortly thereafter, or in the late afternoon. The rest of the day, they tend to be found grazing in the fields. During mid-day, they are often in the woods and difficult to find.
Photo by Horace Hamilton
The Photography Experience
Finding elk in the Smokies is one of the most exciting photographic experiences that I have enjoyed anywhere. From the loving relationship between a cow and her calf, to the testosterone-fueled battles between big bulls, to the magnificence of a bull crossing a stream in Cherokee, to the incredible beauty of wispy fog in the yellow walnut leaves in Cataloochee, you can find endless possibilities for photography.
Landscape opportunities also abound in the area. Cataloochee Valley is great for foggy landscapes at sunrise. The Blue Ridge Parkway has many beautiful places to view sunrise and sunset, and you’ll discover streams and waterfalls. Black bears are often seen too (although not nearly as often as in Cades Cove).
Photo by Horace Hamilton
In most cases you will want to use a long telephoto lens, 400mm or more, mounted on a tripod. You can also use your widest angle or mid-range lenses to capture landscape images at Cataloochee. Another useful item to bring is a collapsible seat to help you stay near eye level with the elk while waiting for action in the fields. Bug spray, sunscreen and rain gear are also important.
Mid-day temperatures during rut are usually mild, but mornings and evenings can require a jacket or sweater. Precipitation is common, so bring rain gear for you and your equipment. If you plan to go to nearby places like Clingman’s Dome or Blue Ridge Parkway for sunrise or sunset photos, plan on much cooler temperatures and windy conditions. Summertime temperatures are warm; winter is cold with a risk of snow.
Rangers can be found at the visitor center at Cataloochee during all open hours and are very helpful. They can possibly help you locate elk, if you are having difficulty. Volunteers (look for their bright yellow vests) are another great resource, but they are most often found where the elk are present. You will find them to be very knowledgeable about elk. Most have worked as volunteers for several years and know a lot about individual animals and their habits.
I’d encourage everyone to make plans to witness this wonderful treat in North Carolina, just a few hours from Atlanta. This not an experience that requires stealth or hours of sitting in a blind; you can go with friends and make it a social event. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
A past president of GNPA, Horace is also a former board member and the founding coordinator of the Gwinnett Chapter. He’s been photographing nature for more than 40 years, and has served as a jurist for numerous photo exhibits. He has also conducted training classes for GNPA and camera clubs across Georgia. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of his favorite destinations, where he enjoys photographing its animals, landscapes, streams and flowers.
Mountain Laurel along the Chattahoochee River. Photo by Tom Wilson
By Tom Wilson
I’ve been photographing the Chattahoochee River for 20 years, and although I love all the different units that make up the recreation area, my favorite is West Palisades.
Located just within I-285 and just east of I-75, this portion of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is a beautiful place to visit any time of year. But right now, during May, might be the best time to explore its beauty.
One of my favorite photos I’ve taken of this area was in May 2007 (it was featured on the Park’s 2012 annual pass). I took it when the Mountain Laurel was in bloom across the river next to the bluffs. I made the photograph right from the access adjacent to the bathrooms and just upriver from the small boat ramp. The bluffs are beautiful, as are the “Devil’s Racecourse” and the Thornton Shoals sections of rapids upriver of the bluffs, and Thornton Shoals on the downriver end. The area is also particularly good for wildflowers, starting in late winter and lasting through spring.
Great Blue Heron with his catch. Photo by Tom Wilson.
This section of the river and its surrounding landscape offer a wide range of photo opportunities, so I always hike down to the river prepared for almost anything. I remember one morning on the river when I saw 11 Great Blue Herons at one time. While in this area, I’ve made landscape photos, macro images, telephoto pictures of birds – you name it. In fact, I have never hiked down to the river without finding some nice opportunities for landscape photographs. This is also a particularly good place for photographing people enjoying the river (I’ve included one of my photos of two kayakers, which now appears on one of the park’s brochures).
This area can be accessed from the Akers Mill Parking Area. Turn onto Akers Drive SE off of Akers Mill Road and drive up the hill until you see the National Park sign on your left. Turn left there and follow that road down to the parking area. For a map of the trails, visit the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area website, click on “maps” and scroll all the way down for the West Palisades Unit Map.
Kayakers in the Chattahoochee River. Photo by Tom Wilson
You will need a pass to use the parking area. To learn about fees and passes, go to the same Chattahoochee NRA website, click on “Plan Your Visit” and then “Basic Information” and “Fees and Passes.” This unit will also soon be included in the National Park Mobile App, which you can download from the App Store.
Anytime I’m photographing rivers, I always have my tripod and a polarizing filter with me. The tripod is helpful because it allows me to shoot at slow shutter speeds, and the polarizer removes glare from the water and the vegetation. You may want to watch out for the usual polarizer issues, such as uneven polarization of a blue sky, but it’s definitely worth having one with you.
A view of East Palisades, taken from West Palisades, on May 3, 2021. Photo by Tom Wilson.
Make sure to pack your normal hiking gear, such as water, snacks, rain gear, sunscreen, bug repellant and any other essentials. If you have your cell phone with you, I believe you will even be able to see an indicator of your exact position by using the National Park App. I spoke to a Ranger today who told me that you should have a facemask with you in case you encounter a situation where it’s needed, and of course you should be social distancing. There is a restroom available by the river that is usually open during warmer weather, and it includes a station for filling water bottles.
No matter what type of nature photography you prefer, chances are you’ll find some great opportunities at this hidden gem.
By Eric Bowles
Few places can offer the type of bird photography you’ll find at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, and the best time to visit is fast approaching. From late March through late May, photographers can encounter hundreds of wading birds that are nesting, courting, breeding, laying eggs and raising chicks. For nature photographers, this Florida attraction is a must-see.
Those who have experienced the site know the raucous cacophony from hundreds of birds and chicks that greet you upon arrival. Visitors dutifully line up before 8:00 a.m. at the famous Red Door, along with a couple dozen photographers who are there each morning. Everyone in line either has a Photographer’s Pass or is buying one, because that pass allows early entry and also allows you to stay late, after normal closing time. While you wait, you strike up a casual conversation with other photographers. You find the group is a mix of locals, regulars and others from all over the country.
Copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
When the doors open, you all head to the wide boardwalk that winds its way through the rookery. There is plenty of space to observe and photograph. You’ll often be at distances of less than 10-15 feet from nesting wading birds. The largest birds are the wood storks – prehistoric- looking creatures that were once on the endangered species list and are now making a great recovery. Nesting in the same trees are Great Egrets with stunning white plumes and brilliant green lores during breeding season. Not to be confused with the Great Egrets are the Snowy Egrets – smaller white egrets with bright yellow feet, black legs and a raspy squawk. Recently we have seen increased numbers of Roseate Spoonbills, with as many as 50-75 birds nesting in the area. You’ll also spot Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons and scattered Green Herons and Cattle Egrets nesting in the smaller palm trees and bushes. All told, there are usually more than 700 adult birds, and at least that many chicks in the nests.
Finally – before you get too comfortable – don’t forget the alligators. There are hundreds of alligators on the property, and many of the large ones are swimming under the boardwalk. It’s mating season, so you’ll hear their deep rumble and see droplets or water vibrating on the surface nearby.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is listed on the National Historic Register and has operated in the current location since 1920. It is actually a world-class zoo, and the only place that features all the species of alligators and crocodiles found on the planet. They have a full staff to support not only animal care but research and conservation activities as well. This is not a game farm; rather, it’s an internationally recognized, fully accredited zoo.
Originally, it started as a tourist destination where visitors to St. Augustine could see creatures they had never experienced. Through the years, the alligators have increased in number and now dominate the swamp. The alligators are captives, but the birds understand that those ever-present alligators prevent predators – snakes, opossums and raccoons – from raiding the nests and stealing eggs or chicks. The result is an amazing rookery.
If you want to visit, be sure to get a photographer’s pass. The midday light can be harsh, and the best photos are taken first thing in the morning before the public enters, or in the afternoon after closing time for the public. My routine is to arrive for entry at 8:00 a.m. (don’t be late!), and to photograph the birds for a couple hours or so. Then I’ll head to brunch or an early lunch, and back to my hotel room to process photos. In the afternoon I plan to enter at 4:00 p.m. or a little later and start photographing around 4:30. I’ll typically stay until near sunset in order to take advantage of late light.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
Your gear should include a camera, long lens and tripod. Most photographers are going to want a gimbal head for their tripod, and many use a flash with an extender to magnify your flash, such as a MagMod, Better Beamer or Flash Extender. Lenses will typically range from 300mm to 600mm, but this is one place I have actually used a fisheye for bird photography because the birds are so close and are not afraid of people. On a couple of occasions, I have used extension tubes with a long lens to reduce the minimum focus distance. Be sure to bring plenty of memory cards and some form of computer to download your images and backup your files. I normally take 1000-1500 photos in a half-day session. And don’t forget two important items – sunscreen and a hat.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
The big advantage of this rookery is that you can photograph birds in a variety of positions and situations. On your first day you’ll be photographing everything that moves – and wind up with far too many images. You’ll learn to make critical decisions about image selection and discard images based on a shadow, head position or even the lack of a catch light in the eye. After that first session, you’ll learn to concentrate on better compositions and head positions. You’ll avoid the harsh light of mid-day and look for better opportunities. You will begin to watch for birds in the background that might distract from your composition. You may even work on birds in flight, pan blurs and other techniques that require repetition and practice.
One final tip: Remember I suggested that you bring a hat? Keep an eye out for large white spots on the deck in areas under the trees. Don’t stand there, regardless of what a good photo location it might be.
For more information about the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, visit their website at https://www.alligatorfarm.com/
Long-tailed Duck at Rehoboth Beach, DE. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Great Locations for Winter Waterfowl
By Mark Buckler
By this time of the year, many of our familiar birds have migrated farther south. However, for some species of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), the southeastern United States is a prime winter destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of birds. In January and February you can find remarkable photo opportunities within easy driving range of Georgia, where huge flocks spend the winter loafing and feeding in preparation for the spring migration to their far-north breeding grounds.
Of course, for many bird photographers, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is the ultimate bucket-list destination for winter bird photography. But with Covid-19 cases surging and long-distance travel more problematic, now is a great time to explore close-to-home options that offer similar world-class photography experiences.
Snow Geese at Pocosin Lakes NWR, NC. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Here are some of my favorite winter locations for bird photography (especially waterfowl):
Northeastern North Carolina
I often describe winter in this area as “Bosque del Apache times ten.” You’ll encounter far more birds here than at Bosque, but they are spread out over a rather wide area. There are 11 National Wildlife Refuges nearby that are home to one of the most significant wintering waterfowl regions in all of North America. Your best photographic options are the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR (massive numbers of tundra swans and snow geese) and Lake Mattamuskeet NWR (ducks, swans and a smaller flock of snow geese). The Pungo Unit is home to approximately 30,000 tundra swans and upwards of 50,000 snow geese. Lake Mattamuskeet (the largest natural lake in North Carolina) often boasts 300,000+ ducks, geese and swans.
Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware & New Jersey
In downtown Cambridge, Maryland (at Oakley Street) on the Choptank River, you’ll find a well-known spot for some amazing duck photography. Due to decades of feeding, the birds here have become habituated to people, and you will have literally hundreds of ducks (scaup, canvasback, widgeon, mallard, bufflehead, redhead and more) at your feet. At nearby Blackwater NWR, you can find large flock of snow geese, tundra swans and ducks, along with many bald eagles. Visiting coastal Delaware and New Jersey will provide lots of opportunities for photographing sea ducks.
Lesser Scaup at Cambridge, MD. Photo by Mark Buckler.
I absolutely love photographing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park. Here you will find many species of birds in addition to a smattering of ducks. That wide variety is part of the appeal. Photographers will discover a smorgasbord of shorebirds, water birds and some waterfowl. You can also venture to other nearby areas, such as Viera Wetlands and Cape Canaveral National Seashore, which offer additional opportunities.
Purple Gallinule at Orlando Wetlands Park, FL. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Hiawassee NWR in Tennessee
This is not a place to photograph waterfowl, but it does host perhaps the biggest congregation of sandhill cranes in the eastern third of the United States. This will provide you with the closest thing to a Bosque del Apache experience that you can find in the East.
Photographing waterfowl is a lot of fun, but presents some real challenges. Ducks are very fast flyers (reaching speeds of over 50 mph) and are incredibly hard to locate and track through a telephoto lens. If you hope to photograph them in flight, you had better practice on some slower-moving birds first. I also suggest that you use some type of gimbal head with your tripod that will allow you to track the birds much more easily. I am a huge fan of the FlexShooter line of products, which are essentially ballheads that also act as a true gimbal head.
Setup at Pocosin Lakes NWR
Photo by Frank Clemenson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to check out Mark Buckler’s GNPA article about how to photograph birds in flight by clicking here.
You will need at least a 400mm lens to photograph waterfowl, but I strongly suggest a 500-600mm lens to provide more reach. Set up your camera as you would for any fast-moving object, and position yourself according to the sun and the direction of the wind.
Ducks and geese are among my favorite photographic subjects. Consequently, I spend nearly every day in January and February at one of the locations I listed above. I hope to see you out there!
In the Thick, Tom Wilson, GNPA
Making Autumn Last At Banks Lake NWR
There’s still time to photograph unique fall landscapes at this south Georgia gem.
Tom Wilson explains what you need to know.
By Tom Wilson
The fall always seems to slip away too quickly; one week the leaves are at the peak of their fall splendor, and the next week the limbs are bare as the more somber moods of winter take over.
But in Georgia, I’ve found a way to extend autumn in a way that December 1 becomes just as colorful as November 1. I gas up my vehicle, pack my gear in the back and head south to Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Lanier County in south Georgia.
In late November and even into early December, the Cypress trees that grow in profusion in and around the lake turn a shade of rust that can best be described as other-worldly. My favorite time of day to photograph there is early in the morning, due to the direction of the light and the possibility of fog drifting over the water. There are other places in south Georgia with beautiful fall Cypress foliage, including the Okefenokee, but I really like Banks Lake because of how convenient it is to get to, and the fact that you can find some great views of the lake without having to get into a boat. That being said, if you want to move around by boat, you can rent one from the concessionaire located in the parking area.
Milky Way Over Banks Lake
Most of my photographs have been taken from the wooden deck located next to the parking area. This is a good vantage point, but be aware of vibrations caused by other people walking on the deck. It’s not usually a high-traffic area, but when others are moving about, you should avoid opening your shutter until the vibrations have stopped.
I usually choose my full-frame Nikon bodies for photographs at Banks Lake. Typically I’ll pack focal lengths from 16mm to 120mm, but I’ve used lenses as long as 500mm to reach across the lake. In my experience, the best dates to go are from November 20 to December 3, but as with all things in nature, that can vary from year to year.
Banks Lake on a Foggy Morning
Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located at 307 GA Hwy 122 near Lakeland, and is administered by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston. There is a concession opened daily at the location on Hwy 122 that offers snacks, drinks and tackle for sale, as well as canoe and kayak rentals. Check the Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge website for contact information and more details.
For landscape photographers, it’s a special place…especially right now.
Editor’s Note: To read Charlotte Gibbs’ article this month about shooting winter landscapes, click here.