One of my favorite southeastern US travel destinations is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I try to time my trips to the park to coincide with either the peak of dogwood blossoms in the spring or with the peak of fall color. Sometimes I hit a home run and sometimes I strike out. I just missed (by one week or one storm) the dogwood peak and there were only a few blooms left on the Tennessee side of the mountains. Not to worry. Photo ops abound around Townsend, Tennessee in Cades Cove, along the Little River Road (from the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg to the Townsend “wye”), and in the Tremont area. I spent four days at the end of April and had great weather for photography – morning ground fog, a thunderstorm, an afternoon with no wind, periods of muted sunshine and periods of full sun. Late April is also a good time to visit the park ahead of the crowds that descend after Memorial Day when schools are in summer recess.
This was my first road trip with the Hasselblad X1D medium format camera and XCD lenses. I had used the camera and the three XCD lenses enough close to home to be confident in the system as my primary kit for this trip. The last item on my “wish list” for the trip was a spare battery and I managed to get three spares just prior to hitting the road. I anticipated using the camera from a tripod and shooting at ISO 100 as much as possible. Being familiar with the territory helped in this regard, as did understanding the likely weather conditions. For water cascades and river shots, I needed both 6-stop and 10-stop ND filters in a couple of filter sizes. I also wanted to try the Xume (now Manfrotto) magnetic filter adapters to evaluate their ease of use in the field. And I’ve been conditioned to always carry circular polarizers and a rain cover.
Here’s what I packed into a Gura Gear (now Tamrac) Bataflae 18L backpack:
- Hasselblad X1D camera body & Really Right Stuff L-plate – A
- Hasselblad XCD 90mm lens – B
- Hasselblad XCD 45mm lens – C
- Hasselblad XCD 30mm lens – D
- Accessories (SD cards, carabiner,
X-Rite ColorChecker, compass, bubble level, hex keys) – E
- Spare batteries & charger – F
- Rain cover – G
- Headlight – H
- 6-stop, 10-stop ND & circular polarizer filters – I
- Giottos Rocket blower – J
- Hoodman loupe – K
- Hasselblad GPS accessory – L
- Camera strap – M
- Body cap, rear lens cap – N
- Lens pen – O
- Soft cleaning cloths – P
Total pack weight – 14 lbs. Not bad for a medium format kit.
I also packed some things separately:
- Power strip & extension cord
- Car inverter (for battery charging while in the car)
- Sensor cleaning supplies
- Gitzo GT3541 tripod
- Arca-Swiss C1 Cube tripod head
- Apple MacBook Pro
Since I’d be working close to my car and didn’t plan any hikes, I packed the Gitzo GT3541 tripod and Cube. That combo is heavy and isn’t ideal for hiking. By the way, the carabiner in my accessories pouch is for hanging my camera bag from the tripod hook in a windy situation for added stability.
My base of operations was the Talley Ho Inn in Townsend, Tennessee. I’ve stayed there many times and enjoy its convenience to the park (and to the Carriage House Restaurant next door). The rooms are clean, the beds are comfortable, and most rooms are well equipped with microwave ovens, small refrigerators and TVs. And it’s quiet. The WiFi is free but iffy, and cellular service in Townsend is spotty (or nonexistent).
Although I missed the peak of the dogwood blossoms, the spring foliage was in full display and the rivers were full and running rapidly. Water seemed to be falling or seeping from every rock and crevice. I spent most of my time on the Cades Cove loop road and along the Tremont road. Getting into Cades Cove for sunrise was remarkably easy, quite different from the summer months when crowds line up at the entrance an hour or more before sunrise. Wildlife (including black bears) was plentiful and there were more than a few photographers with pro DSLRs and long lenses photographing every bear sighting.
The X1D performed well and didn’t surprise me. After using the X1D for this trip, I’d summarize its positives and negatives this way:
- Ease of use either from a tripod or hand-held
- Outstanding image quality and tonal range
- Excellent performance across a wide ISO range
- Easy to focus using either AF or MF (focus peaking or auto magnification)
- Lightweight body and lenses making for a lightweight pack
- No live histogram
- Few and large AF points, resulting in mis-focus on more than one occasion
- No image review in EVF; reviewing images on the rear LCD in bright sunlight is difficult or impossible
- No distance scale on lenses or in EVF or Live View display
- Glitches (“No card” error, unresponsive touch screen, erratic control/scroll wheels) *
Startup time was slow compared to my Sony a7RII. That didn’t annoy me since my subjects were landscapes and didn’t move. I turned the camera off between locations and turned it on as I was setting up the tripod.
As I described in my “First Impressions” blog post, the X1D is very easy and fun to use. It’s solid but doesn’t feel heavy. The lenses are well matched in size and heft to the camera body. I found, while the camera was mounted on the tripod, changing settings using the rear touch screen was so simple that it quickly became second nature. During the variety of weather conditions I experienced, I didn’t fret once about the vulnerability of the camera to dust, fog, mist or rain. The weather sealing is superb, and so good that mounting and removing lenses takes considerable effort. By the way, I usually pack a rubber jar lid gripper, available at most hardware stores, to remove stubborn filters, and now lenses.
During this trip, I was curious to see how the camera would handle long exposure situations and triggering exposure without the use of a cable release. With other cameras (Pentax 645Z, Sony a7RII, Nikon D810) I had abandoned the use of a cable release in favor of the self-timer feature. Setting the self-timer to a sufficient interval to allow dampening of vibrations caused by manually pressing the shutter release button has usually worked a treat and has allowed me to forego packing another accessory. The self-timer feature of the X1D can be set to be “sticky” and applied to every exposure until deactivated, or set to be activated for the next exposure only. For both the self-timer and long exposures, a countdown clock is shown on the rear LCD, giving me a visual gauge of time remaining. As with the other rear LCD settings displays, this is presbyopia-friendly. No reading glasses necessary!
Another option for triggering exposures with the X1D is with the Hasselblad Phocus Mobile app and the camera’s built-in WiFi function. I chose not to use that feature on this trip in order to conserve battery power (on both the camera and iPhone) and to simplify my workflow. For me, early morning photo shoots can be brutal and simplification is the order of the day.
The Manfrotto Xume quick release adapters were a joy to use. In the past, I’ve tried capturing waterfall and moving water images by screw-mounting fixed or variable ND filters onto the front threads of a lens without disturbing focus or composition, and it’s tedious, especially in low light or in cold weather wearing gloves. In evolutionary fashion, I transitioned to rectangular filters (Lee, Singh-Ray, etc.) that slid into a filter holder mounted to the front of a lens. Once again, tedious and accident-prone. With the Xume adapters, I kept a Xume lens adapter mounted to the front filter threads of each lens, Xume filter holders mounted to each ND and polarizer, and could easily pop on any one of my filters magnetically when needed. The workflow was simple and more or less foolproof for the moving water images – 1) compose and focus, 2) determine exposure without ND, 3) set shutter speed to compensate for 6-stop or 10-stop ND, 4) magnetically pop on the selected ND, 5) trigger the exposure. I also found that the Long Exposure Calculator app on my iPhone was useful in calculating the shutter speed for step 3. Not necessary, but useful.
I highly recommend The Smoky Mountains Photographer’s Guide by Bill Campbell and Nye Simmons if you’re planning to visit the park for the first time or want to find new areas of the park to explore.
* Update: Hasselblad released a firmware update v1.17 on June 29, 2017 that improved overall stability, fixed a focus error problem that had been reported with the XCD 90mm lens, and fixed the incorrect “No Card” indication. The erratic control/scroll wheel problem required a repair by Hasselblad US. The repair process was smooth and transparent and took a total of 10 days from start to finish.