Crowds at Popular Photo Destinations

As a landscape photographer primarily, I’ve been a keen observer of the increased popularity of digital photography and its effects on popular photo venues. Iconic locations like Mesa Arch, Antelope Canyon and Schwabacher Landing have become so crowded with photographers, that squeezing into a row of tripods has become a struggle (or an impossibility depending upon how early you arrive). That’s good news and bad news. The good news is that photography as a hobby or profession is vibrant and growing in popularity. Everyone with a smartphone is a potential photographer. The bad news is that the crowds have discouraged some visitors and, in some cases, ruined the experience for others who follow. Some have blamed the crowds on tour bus operators who bring bus loads of eager tourists to popular spots. Others have blamed the ubiquity of the smartphone – a camera in everyone’s pocket.

After reading a few blog posts by well-known photographers and workshop leaders addressing this subject, I came across an invitation to join The Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit, which invited 200 photographers and 15 workshop leaders to the very small town (one traffic light) of Townsend, Tennessee during the peak week of fall color. While the surrounding area is extremely popular (the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited National Park in the US) for recreation (hiking, biking, kayaking, sightseeing…) and photography, it seemed ironic that the same people who had expressed concern about crowded destinations were inviting 200 people to descend upon a tiny area of the GSMNP during peak season.

I decided to point out the irony of this very popular gathering to three of the instructors (Bill Fortney, Jack Graham and Bill Lea), all well-respected photographers, workshop leaders, and friends. Here’s the text of my email, followed by the responses I received (with a few minor typos corrected).

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 after being encouraged by Ron Basinger, a close friend who attended one of your workshops.

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 North Carolinian 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.



Bill Fortney’s response:

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 and Japanese, but certainly every European country has joined that list as well. Outdoor Photography magazine lists 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 overcrowded, 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 overruled. 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:

First thanks for your note. It’s always great when folks who have something to say make their points…all very 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 equally appealing images. 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 not 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’s 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:

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

Bill Fortney published my email and the responses on his blog and the discussion continued with comments from readers.

Update: The 2017 Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit is scheduled for the beginning of November rather than the last week of October.


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