A continuing discussion….

7 years, 9 months ago 36



The other day I got an email that I thought was very thought provoking and that should be shared as this is an interesting and vital discussion among all of us that go into the field to do workshops and just enjoy shooting the natural history environment!  I have not named the person who sent the email in respect to his privacy and I think his message was well crafted and with a lot of  merit.  I have included the responses from myself, Bill Lea and Jack Garham and I hope this will spur more discussion of this issue among my readers!!!  The orange is the origianl email the responses in blue.


Bill, Jack & Bill,


I respect each of you as photographers and have followed your work for some time. Bill Fortney, I met you when you were affiliated with Nikon and we were both photographing a scene in the Smokies. You impressed me then as a kind soul, encouraging me to join NPS even though our conversation was brief. Bill Lea, you and I have bumped into each other several times in Cades Cove and at the Morton Overlook as we stood side-by-side photographing and enjoying the wonderful scenes in front of us. Jack, I’ve not met you but have followed your work.


Recently Jack and Bill Fortney have commented in blog posts about the crowds at “iconic” photography sites – Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Monument Valley, etc. – and I have seen similar posts from other photographers and workshop leaders (Tony Sweet is one that comes to mind). Your posts struck me as ironic and somewhat self-serving, so I thought I’d share my thoughts privately (“Praise in public, criticize in private” was something I learned early in my corporate career).


I’m a resident of (DELETED) and have lived here for more than half of my life. I enjoy the diversity of scenery and seasons and combine my love of the state with my love of photography. Since 1998, I’ve traveled to the Smokies almost every fall to capture the fall color. Lately though, the venues have been overcrowded, and in some cases almost impossible to photograph due to the number of workshop and tour groups that arrive in vans, buses and carpools, all with tripods and cameras (and/or smartphones) in hand. You all are involved in a workshop (The Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit), that is now in its second or third year, that invites 200 photographers and 15 workshop leaders to the small town of Townsend, TN during the peak week of fall color. Similar workshop “collisions” occur in Acadia, the Tetons, Yellowstone and other popular destinations (even Brooks Falls in Alaska).


As the photography business has changed, more and more professional photographers have resorted to leading workshops, as their print sales, stock image sales, and online revenues (Scott Kelby’s enterprise, for example) have dwindled. I understand the business model transition and don’t have a quarrel with it. But it has produced an unwanted consequence – every workshop leader wants to be in each iconic location at the same peak time. The last week of October happens to be that time in the Smokies for fall color.


My message is simple. Understand that you, the workshop leaders, are a part of the crowding problem. As an individual photographer, I’ve had to fight my way into a tripod row to get a shot I wanted, as workshop leaders were all instructing their acolytes on proper long lens technique rather than on photography etiquette. I saw it begin to happen in Bosque del Apache with Art Morris’s workshops. The crowds aren’t all Asian tourists. They’re photographers who arrive at these locations in groups of 10 to 200, each wanting to “get the shot”.


I won’t be heading to the Smokies this year. I can’t imagine trying to park along the narrow unpaved Tremont Road or getting into Cades Cove for sunrise with 200 of my closest friends vying for a spot for their tripods. Yes Bill Fortney, the “good old days” are behind us.




My response:


Dear Sir,
Thanks for taking the time to chime in on this issue!  My response is meant to be from just me, I cannot speak for Jack or Tony or any of the hundreds of others that teach workshops in the National Parks.  First I plead guilty, I and all the rest of us do definitely contribute to the crowds.  With the nature, outdoor, landscape, stock markets crashed it seems everyone is trying to make most of their living teaching  and leading workshops and tours.  There are a large number of bus companies and non-photography tours out there too.  I’ve run into a lot of  Chinese an Japanese, but certainly every European country has joined that list as well.  Outdoor Photograph magazine list all the great places in every issue and of course that has not helped.

I think it is fair to say that anyone that wants to go to any of these, now overcrowd, spots has the perfect right to be there!  I do not in any way think those magical places should belong to just a few of us.  I think the frustration that Jack and I were expressing simply was that things are changing and it is no longer the pleasant experience the it once was. I am going to personally do something about it and walk away from going to all those places where the crowds have grown so large, mostly so the people that go with me don’t feel that frustration. I not only understand your feelings of frustration with our groups, but I go out of my way to offer a prime spot to people that are not with my groups understanding that to hike into Mesa Arch and not be be able to shoot it is something no one should have to experience. On more than one occasion I have not made a single shot to accommodate others, not with my group, so they could “get the shot”!  As to the Summit I helped the late owner of the Tremont Lodge, Wilson Reynolds,  plan it, but begged him to not make field activities a part of what we offered, it was not my event and I was over ruled.  I still think even doing very early morning field trips is not a good idea, but I guess when people come to the Smokies for a week in the fall, it is understandable they want to get out and shoot.

I hope you change your mind and come to the Smokies this fall, you would be welcome to join me in anything I was doing or maybe I could give you a heads up on places that might be less crowded!  If you come to the Summit, I will personally get you in and have the fee waved.  I know we do not go to Greenbriar, which I think is still prime spot!

In closing, I’ve spent my life enjoying the parks and other photographers and have never wanted to be a source of frustration for anyone else.  When I have been, I’ve done everything I could to lessen that impact on others, so for any way I might be the source of personal frustration for you, I sincerly apologize and hope we can stand in the field some day and have a great time and laugh about the whole situation!

With much respect,

Jack Graham’s response:

Dear Sir,


First thanks for your note. It’s always great when folks who have something to say make their points…all vary valid and well taken.


I won’t speak for Bill regarding the Smoky Mt event, but this event is primarily an inside, breakout sessions etc. event. Yes, about 4-5 small groups venture out in the am for a few hrs., but the summit is really about the breakouts and group sessions.


It’s really quite ironic that in most of my workshops the amount of “photographers” ( everything from pros to amateurs) have not really increased in the past 5 years in many locations. The amount of photo workshops at Schwabacher Landing in the Tetons in late September is no more than it was 5 years + ago. What has increased is the amount of “individual photographers” and tour busses filled with both US and foreign tourists. The tour bus folks are the folks squeezing their way in with their selfie sticks and iPhones. The individual photographers are almost without exception great to be around and are very respectful.  However there are also a few that listen on my teaching sessions knowing full well they are not part of my group. If it doesn’t bother my paying folks it doesn’t bother me. This happened last week in California. I even get questions from individuals on where to go etc. Depending on my mood  and or how they go about asking me, I help them or sometimes not.


In addition, I and other workshop leaders I know are increasingly taking their groups to the less than iconic locations with equaling appealing imagers. I just returned from the Eastern Sierra. Yes we went to Mono Lake one morning ( the Inyo NF limits photo workshops to 3 per day, not a lot at Mono Lake) but for three other mornings we are in locations with no other workshops and made some great images. Responsible workshop leaders are not the problem believe me. ( Yes there are many no so responsible). Also there were many “individual photographers” literally climbing all over the tufa. I actually had to remind one that the tufa is fragile and they are not supposed to be  climbing on it. My attendees are instructed not to do so.


Believe me, not every workshop leader wants to be in each iconic location at the same peak time.


I am in the field about 250 days a year. To sum up what I see


1)      Are there more workshops every year … not really

2)      Are there more individual photographers ( most think they know more than they do) definitely YES!

3)      Are there more individual photographer at your level—not really ( I looked at your images and work Joe and your work is superb, as good as any Professional I know, including me!!!)

4)      Are there more tour busses and pardon my French, half ass photographers—Definitely YES!!!!

It’ not workshops Joe, it’s not folks like you… it’s the other categories that are making things tough.  We can’t eliminate them from being in locations so it’s just a tough time to be a photographer. It will probably get worse ! 


Just my $0.02… and thanks for your input!


Best regards,



PS—Take a trip up to the Cuyahoga NP in Ohio  in October and some of the Cleveland Metro parks—they are amazing good for color, as good as anywhere else. Bill and I are going to be there in 2017. I’ve been doing events there for over 10 years now!  Small crowds, great color, great locations! There is more to fall color than the Smoky’s! How many times can you shoot the Tremont river from “the” bridge or Cades Cove… it’s been done—-do we really need more images from Mesa Arch?



Bill Lea’s Response:


Dear Sir!
Thank you for your note and for sharing your thoughts and concerns with us – I appreciate it.
Your points are well-taken,  I pretty much agree with everything you wrote.  Last year the Summit was held Oct. 28 – Nov. 1st.  This year it is a little earlier and thus has a greater impact on the numbers of people during PEAK fall color season in the Smokies.  I personally would like to see the Summit held during the first week of November.  It is amazing how the number of people coming to the Smokies drops off drastically and almost immediately on November 1st, even in those years when the colors are still very nice at the lower elevations during that first week of November.  In addition, having the Summit during the first week of November would help local businesses during the time that tourism drops off drastically in Townsend.  Meals at local restaurants would also be easier to obtain in a more timely manner for participants, due to the fewer people in town at that time.
I would love to see the Summit moved to the first week of November in the future and am hoping this is something we could consider.  Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us, Joe.  I look forward to the next time our paths cross.
Take care,
Bill Lea


I think that this is a real issue we must all face and I am very proud of the way in which my freinds responded, I hope we can all continue to have a meangful discussion on such issues and work together to remdy the problems we all face!
the pilgrim
The lead shot is of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands N.P., one of the worst places to run into large crowds of photographers on almost any day at sunrise!


36 Responses

  1. Jorge says:

    Kinda have to agree with the writer of the original email. You guys (workshop leaders) ARE part of the problem. I have a home in Maine near Acadia and in all honesty I tend to stay away from there in October! The tour buses, the crowds, the idiots climbing in places they shouldn’t be climbing is just outrageous! The photographers are not the problem — the problem are the tour buses and some of the “workshops” It makes the park a huge mess. Luckily since I live less than hour away I can pick and choose my times to visit Acadia. Unfortunately from my main Jersey home it’s a haul to make to Cades Cove and/or The Smoky Mountains so those trips I have to plan much more carefully to avoid the massive crowds. And in all honesty YOUR workshop in late October kinda screwed that up further.

    I do feel that workshops and tour buses should be charged a massive premium for the privilege of entering a National Park with say more than 10 individuals in tow. Massive premium I say.

    AT least in Acadia not ONE single trip I make into the park is not marred by a moron doing stupid, or some other dumb tourist who needs an airevac or ambulance ride.
    My two cents.

    • admin says:

      First, Jorge,
      I admitted guilt. Yes, we are part of the problem, not all of it, but certainly we contribute to it. While I kind of understand your frustration, I might offer a little advice, take a deep breath, not all these people are stupid or idiots, yes we see some of those folks, but most are just wanting to enjoy this beautiful country. While we all feel frustration, we need to be more charitable with the others out there just wanting to enjoy the same places we do. Owning property in such a beautiful place must bring you a lot of joy most of the rest of the year, maybe concentrate on that. Just a thought.

      • Jorge says:

        Please don’t get me wrong. I very much appreciate what I have ALL THE TIME. I am very, very grateful. Make no mistake there. I did not imply all people are idiots or stupid — just the ones that do idiotic and stupid are the ones that stand out (of course).

        As I said I’m lucky enough that I can visit Acadia if I happen to look out the window and see interesting weather — I’m that close. It’s the other parks – Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains, etc that I have to plan ahead for, and take into account the mass of people.

  2. Steve Hurst says:

    I understand the frustration and as I have said before we as photographers create some of the problem when we share these great images of these iconic places. In turn people see them and want to go there. What we need to do is to start to spread out the knowledge of other great places. There are many lesser known fantastic places within very short distances of our homes. The only problem is we need to get the word out to where they are. Somebody out there needs to create a site that allows everyone to put in a radius of “x” number of miles of a certain spot and get results from all of us. This creates a way of getting new and great places to go, spreading out the population, and making our pursuit less expensive. I have seriously thought about doing this but honestly I do not have the skill set to accomplish it. In fact it would be a great addition to something like 500px to put a map and pick a place, miles radius and go! Everyone deserves the privilege to enjoy this great creation the Lord has given us, granted some need to learn to respect it more but there is more than enough if we just look around at what he has done and then we need to continue to share it.

  3. Joe Colson says:

    Bill, while I didn’t expect my message to be posted on your blog, I’m pleased you posted it and don’t wish to remain anonymous. Thanks to each of you – Jack Graham, Bill Lea and you – for responding in such an encouraging, supportive and thoughtful way. As a North Carolinian, I’m blessed to be in a state with so many natural wonders that can be enjoyed and photographed year-round, and close to adjacent states that are equally photogenic. At the same time, I’ve witnessed the popularity of those natural wonders grow almost unabated with the unintended consequences of overcrowding, habitat destruction and commercialization. I have confidence that you, Jack and Bill will be constructive in addressing this issue that we as photographers (and people who simply enjoy our natural environment) face. Thank you for continuing the conversation on your blog.

    • admin says:

      Thank you Joe, this is much needed discussion within our community, because for better or worse, we will be part of the solution, together!

    • admin says:

      Thak you Joe, for bringing this to our communities attention, for better or worse, we will all settle this between ourselves.

  4. David W. says:

    I see many problems/issues/concerns that are being discussed are the product of the technologies that has enabled almost everyone with a cell phone or other digital camera (point-and-shoot, DSLR, etc.) to make some remarkable images. A generation or two ago, we had people wanting to see the wonders of nature but lacked the equipment and/or technical knowledge to try to get “the shot.” They settled for a few snapshots, bought postcards, and slides of the places they visited. We have recently seen people shooting videos showing “We were here” and, in the process, recorded unsafe acts and illegal actions including vandalism of some of these amazing places.

    As mentioned in the comments, there are hundreds of images of some of these iconic places. In a recent photo contest at my local photo club, a gate at Cades Cove was the winning image. The image was technically quite good. However, if placed with the numerous other images I have seen of that gate, it would have been just another great shot. It brought nothing new to the viewer that was not in the other images.

    As photographers, we think about what the image is saying. We should be thinking “What can I express differently from what has already been said.” We may say the something that is essentially identical to what other have said. We may need to look for a new way to tell that same story or possibly tell a similar story in a different place. Perhaps we should look for a different story to tell.
    Someone mentioned that changing the dates and/or locations of workshops would avoid many of the difficulties that arise at many of the iconic places. This is an excellent idea. Getting off the prime tourist times can be a better experience for the workshop participants and may benefit those communities in the off season. It may help us learn to say something new or different. We should go looking off the beaten path for stories that are as interesting and as strong as those from the iconic sites. (I’ve suggested this to a couple of workshop organizers.) If we just look, we can find numerous unknown locations that would give us new images that could become iconic and would challenge us to be better photographers. I think there are numerous possibilities that are within a three or four drive of GSMNP. For those that want a seashore location, there are hundreds of small fishing villages and towns along the coasts.

    Technology has presented numerous unintended challenges to us. Thinking about what we want to say and finding new times and places will allow us to continue to makes images that speak to us and to others.

    • admin says:

      I think you are on the right track, find new iconic places, and enjoy things not shared before, you get my vote!!!!

  5. chasaiken says:

    Bill / Steve….you mean a website something like this? Not my site, but I use it for research prior to travel.


    • David W. says:

      This appears to be an interesting site. I briefly looked in my ‘neck-of-the-woods’ and saw a several places I know and a few new possibilities.

    • Steve Hurst says:

      I like the site and while it is not exactly what I visualized it is pretty close. We just need to figure out how to best use and populate it for our own uses. Thank you Chasaiken.

  6. Gary P. says:

    Interesting discussion. I live close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and go there on a regular basis year round … but not as much during the summer months. Like most people have commented here I see the large groups on tour buses, the photo workshop groups, etc. However, when I set out for a destination in the park and find it full of people I drive on to another location that’s less crowded. There are so many trails and places one can go to avoid most of the crowds if you take the time to look for them. Sometimes I just enjoy the challenge of looking for that “less traveled road” and a less photographed area. Peace.

  7. Bill Pritchard says:

    I also live near the Smokies and visit often 15/20 times a year. Most of the time I go early in the morning and I am at the gate to Cade’s Cove before it opens. It is not bad at that time of day, by 10:00am it is a different story. It not the photo groups that cause the problems. I cannot count the times when the loop road is blocked by someone who gets out of their car but leave the car in the middle of the road. Photographer generally are well aware of what to do and how to act.

    True there are a lots of photo groups in the area, but they have the right to be there as much as I do. If I cannot get to the area I want, I move on to another place. Now if someone could figure out how to get people with cell phone to stop chasing the bears and deer!

  8. Richard Browne says:

    I’ve just watched a couple of webcasts Scott Kelby has done recently – one of Iceland and one of Venice. In both webcasts, he mentions (and shows photos of) the number of people using iPhones and iPads to make photos, and he says that they’re the ones crowding the scene and making photography difficult. That’s been my experience also. Most photographers using DSLRs and tripods, etc. are considerate of their fellow photographers – or if they do get in the way, are most apologetic and will quickly get out of the way. “Normal” tourists are not so accommodating. They have a tendency to walk wherever they want, regardless of who might be trying to make a photo – or even just enjoy the view. This seems to be particularly the case with foreign tourists. (And in this regard, let’s not forget that Americans traveling abroad have long had the reputation of being “Ugly Americans” because of the way some of them behave. This is a problem that crosses national boundaries.) Part of the solution is, naturally, for people to be more aware of their surroundings and more thoughtful in sharing their photographic space. Part of the solution is also, as others have mentioned, either abandoning the popular and iconic areas for less well-known venues, or, perhaps, shooting the well-known spots at less popular times. Also, with respect to the Great Smoky Mts, many of the popular spots are at the roadside and those, being the easiest to access, are the places that get overcrowded. However, there are many places that require a little hike, but may offer fewer people and even better scenery – but you have to make the effort!

    • admin says:

      All excellent and very true points. I heard a stastic recently that more photos are now taken with iPhones and iPads than all other forms of imaging combned, by a huge margin, it is the new reality!

  9. I have felt that the proliferation of smartphone and iPad photography has increased the number of people on location, not workshops. I’ve been a workshop participant, attendee and spectator and haven’t seen many that have created problems. Sometimes there will be an arrogant leader who will hog all the space but that doesn’t happen often. I have seen the tour bus infestations and usually feel sorry for many of these people who make a quick appearance and go without really getting to experience the place. I know I can be annoyed but I when I am tempted I also remember that they have just as much right to be there as I do and also that here have been times because of being a photographer, etc., I have had access when they haven’t. Plus, if they are foreign visitors, it does reflect on us as Americans how we treat people. I try to think how I would feel if I was a visitor in a strange country. One thing (time permitting) that seems to work a bit is to offer to take a shot of them with their camera or phone. Usually the gesture is appreciated and they come away with a positive view of us and probably a better shot than they would have taken. Also, sometimes good photographers will to the extent possible look out for each other. Like the time some dumbkoff from the GAPW left his Nikon camera and tripod on the Foothills Parkway and it was returned to him by Bill Lea and friends!

  10. Robert Tucker says:

    Over the past few years I’ve been to Michigan’s UP, Acadia, Yellowstone/Tetons, and this year Colorado. My experience is that I have seen multitudes of photographers, but never bumped into a workshop. (did meet a Nat Geo videographer) I think the comments are right, that the advance of digital cameras has gotten to the point that anyone can learn quickly and good results with a little effort. And this is why these places are getting more crowded. Some are just so well known, that there will always be traffic jams there – found that out when we visited Maroon Bells. An hour before sunrise, we found literally a hundred photographers lining the lake. The parking lot closes a 8:00 from being full, and they bring in busload after busload – standing room only. This was the only time I felt really overcrowded. At any rate my focus shifted a little this year from landscape to wildlife. Easier to get off by yourself.

    • admin says:

      At last years Summit Matt Kloskowski did a session on images he had made with an iPhone, and to be honest it made me think twice, even shooting with the Fuji X System, “why am I carrying all this stuff???” Now I’m not going to give up using “real cameras” but I certainloy understand the mind set and the change, you’re right Dick, let’s get off to ourseves!!!

    • admin says:


    • admin says:

      Only advantage to being my age is remembering stadning at Maroon Bells, in the fall, alone at sunrise!!!

  11. jack Graham says:

    Imaging this!—In 2014, according to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report, people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion digital images every single day. That’s 657 billion photos per year. Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.
    Now they are not all Mesa Arch, however credit Instagram, Facebook, etc for receiving these images. Credit the iPhone, Social Media, etc for a lot of this also.Believe me..if we, the amateur to serious to professional photographers all stopped going to to Mesa Arch, Slot Canyons, Cades Cove the locations would still be over run and trampled like crazy. I don’t have an answer, but I can tell you, I am going to be spending time in Idaho, Montana and areas less visited in the future.
    While in AZ, I had my office pull all workshops in Arizona in 2017. I’m heading to the West Fjords of Iceland ( dirt roads, less folks etc) and to scout other locations in which I can finish out my last years of being a workshop leader. Other can go to the slots, they just ain’t going with me. I can’t deliver a product I want in these areas.
    I have some ideas on perhaps a website fur us …stay tuned!
    It’s really weird being home on a weekend—oh well that will end in 6 days when I head out ( with young William (Fortney) for weeks. (3 with Bill one on my own) before putting a lid on 2016!

    • admin says:

      Interesting numbers!!!!!

    • Dave Benson says:

      …Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica have become the “new” places to go to find great less travelled landscapes… and now there are tours by the hundreds every season of the year … and the crowds will follow close behind… maybe that will mean a reduction at some of the older classic haunts in 10 years… breathe… just breathe… on a recent trip to Jasper National Park in Canada I experienced some of the much discussed annoyances… it just means I need to work harder to find the images… and I do… sometimes it is because I use the Bill Fortney suggestion of extraction photography… and sometimes it is just because I drive a little further… or a little shorter to avoid the mass humanity at the bus stops… it means I walk a little more…. and at my age that has become a good healthy alternative…

  12. Doug Berg says:

    Interesting discussion. Maybe it is time to seek other venues for fall color photography such as Brown County Indiana or northern Michigan . See October Outdoor Photographer for fall photo ops in Michigan.

  13. Jon says:

    I don’t know exactly what times and locations where all this happens (I mean the exact spots), but so far I’ve rarely run into this situation. I’ve seen it before, but not too often. Maybe it’s just related to the exact time of day and the exact locations that I decide on to ‘get the shot’. I do tend to avoid crowds in general and stay far away because while it’s nice to talk to other photographers, I find that I usually don’t get along with many of them due to some behavior I find annoying to some degree or another 🙂 So, maybe I’m a loner in that regard. It just so happens that I WILL be in the Smokies at the end of Oct/early Nov but I imagine I’ll still be able to avoid most of the crowded photog areas. I mean, small areas where people are competing for a place to drop a tripod or stand. I look forward to my trip (with wife and son) and I’m sure I’ll be able to get some shots I want. You can check my galleries if you don’t believe I’ve been able to sneak in some nice photos at the parks 🙂

  14. […] Bill Fortney published my email and the responses on his blog and the discussion continued with comments from […]