Understanding ISO Settings in Photography

ISO, like exposure and aperture, is one of the three fundamental components of the exposure triangle. Of the three, it tends to be the photography setting that most confuses people. This is a real shame since it’s really not a difficult concept to understand. In fact, the ISO effects two things:

  1. The amount of light in a scene that’s required to produce a given exposure.
  2. The image quality and amount of noise in the image.

By the end of this guide, you will have a solid understanding of what the ISO is and how to properly control it to obtain the best possible exposure for your images. Let’s jump right in!

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The sunset from Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

A Day Trip to Spruce Knob in West Virginia

It has been several years now since I've first laid eyes on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Ever since that first trip to Dolly Sods I have been in love with the area's scenery.

Here lately I've been getting a serious itch to head back out that way again, so I loaded up a cooler and threw my camera in my Jeep to make the 6-hour drive to the national forest. Here's a quick recap of the trip!

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The sunset from Auxier Ridge, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

A Few Recent Images from Auxier Ridge in the Red River Gorge

Over the past few months I have spent a fair bit of time out on Auxier Ridge in the Red River Gorge portion of Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest. Despite the area featuring some of the best views in the entire Bluegrass, I rarely spend this much time out there during the warmer months since it's quite the popular area. This year, however, has been an exception.

Over the course of these quick trips out onto the ridge I've captured a few new images. Let's take a look!

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The Milky Way over Half Moon Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky

How I Plan a Milky Way Shoot

There's a lot of work that goes into getting a successful Milky Way image, not the least of which is planning. There's a number of factors to take into account when planning your shoot. As such, it can be a daunting task for those that are just starting out, so I figured I'd write a guide on how I go about planning these late-night shoots.

Let's not waste any more time and dive right in!

The Milky Way over Half Moon Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky
The Milky Way over Half Moon Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky

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Sunrise at the John Oliver Cabin - Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Sunrise at the John Oliver Cabin

Sunrise at the John Oliver Cabin - Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Anyone that has been to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee knows that, despite its immense beauty, the area is often jam-packed with tourists. In fact, it can often be pretty difficult to find peace and tranquility in this mountain valley. When one does find some peace and quiet, however, it's a magnificent experience.

Peace and quiet is exactly what I found on this chilly March morning in the Cove though! I was delighted as I made the short walk out to the John Oliver cabin and saw that the sky was developing a bit of color from the sun that was just starting to peek above the mountains.

These were by far some of the most peaceful moments I've had in Cades Cove, with the exception being the time I walked the loop during a small snow storm.

An old Northern Kentucky residence left to rot away to nothing.

A Few Abandoned Places in Northern Kentucky

I really enjoy abandonment photography, though I don't practice it nearly as much as I do landscape photography. Every once in awhile, however, I like to throw my camera in the car and just drive around to see what I can find. Sometimes you come away with something and sometimes you get completely skunked, but that's just part of the fun.

I recently did one of these drives and came away with a a few locations that I thought I'd share. Enjoy!

Left Behind

The basement of an abandoned, decaying house in Northern Kentucky.

This property was an interesting one. It contained the abandoned remains of three residences. The first was a very old house that was barely left standing. To the left of this structure was an abandoned mobile home and behind these two was a much more modern, but largely collapsed house. This newer house had everything left behind in it. Because of the structural issues I only poked my head in the basement for a quick shot.

A long forgotten home in Northern Kentucky.
The oldest of the three homes on this property.

An Old, Forgotten Church

Unfortunately I don't have any information on this church, but it's pretty clear that it has been long abandoned. It was a rather cool, unexpected find. This is the perfect example of why I enjoy exploring the back roads!

Left To Decay

An old Northern Kentucky residence left to rot away to nothing.

The final property I found on this particular trip was this old residence. Once again, I wasn't able to find out much about this place. If you look closely at the second story, however, there's what appears to be an old sign post, suggesting that this place was perhaps used as a business at some point.

Copperas Falls, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

Best Resources for a Waterfall Hunter in Kentucky

I'm sure by now it's no surprise that I'm addicted to visiting the many waterfalls that can be found across Kentucky. One of the most common questions I get asked when I share an image of a waterfall is how you can get to the particular falls. Like many landscape photographers these days, I rarely give out specific information about where a photo was taken. This is to help protect these areas from abuse and overcrowding.

Pine Island Double Falls, Kentucky.
I cannot over state how many times I've been asked how to get to Pine Island Double Falls!

What I'll do instead, however, is share some of the great resources that are available to the would-be waterfall hunter in Kentucky. So, without further ado, here's my list of the best resources available to waterfall hunter in Kentucky!

The Kentucky Waterfall Database

The waterfall map on the Kentucky Waterfall Database Website.

No list of Kentucky waterfall resources would be complete without mentioning the Kentucky Waterfall Database. This is THE database for waterfalls in Kentucky and is an invaluable resource to waterfallers in the Bluegrass state. At the time of writing this, the database contains 707 waterfalls, with 616 of those being present on the wonderful waterfall map.

This website isn't going to hold your hand and give you turn by turn directions to a waterfall, which is part of the reason I love it. This helps to ensure that the people visiting these falls are at the necessary skill level to reach them safely and responsibly (for example, many of these waterfalls are located off-trail). What you do get is all of the information you could possible need to be able to locate them.

The KWAL Facebook Group

What on Earth is KWAL you ask? Well, it stands for Kentucky Waterfalls, Arches and Landscapes and it's by far one of my favorite groups on Facebook! The name is pretty self explanatory on this one. The group is a great place to see some of the amazing natural beauty that Kentucky has to offer and to get inspiration for your next excursion. Myself and most other Kentucky based landscape photographers frequent the group.

Pooch's Turtle Falls, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Pooch's Turtle Falls, located in the Red River Gorge, is a great example of a waterfall that thousands of people walk by (or rather, over) every year without necessarily even realizing it.

USGS Topo Maps Downloader

An absolutely essential tool for any backcountry traveler, especially those who may be wandering off-trail in search of waterfalls, is a good set of topographic maps for the area. Luckily for us in the United States, we can freely download the defacto standard topo maps from the United States Geological Survey. They provide a handy map tool that lets you browse to the areas you want to download so that you can easily find the quads you need and download them.

Topographic Map Skills Rusty?

Luckily I've written a free guide to help you with just that!


CalTopo Slope Angle Shading Layer

Paper maps are great (and essential for safe backcountry travel), but what about digital mapping tools? Well, for that it's hard to beat CalTopo (though I have been recently warming up to the planning tools built into Gaia GPS, but that's a different topic). CalTopo is a fantastic tool that lets you view, build, and customize your own topographic maps. There are seriously way too many things you can do with the software to list them out here. If you need a good introduction perhaps I could recommend checking out the blog post I wrote on the subject.

LIDAR Mapping

I was hesitant to mention this one since I don't intend to get too much into LIDAR in this post. It's not because LIDAR isn't useful (quite the opposite, actually). It's just that it's a topic that is far too large to dive into in this post. If there is interest, however, I could workup a dedicated post on the subject.

Resolution Falls, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Resolution Falls, located in the Red River Gorge, is an example of a waterfall I located using LIDAR.

So, what is LIDAR mapping? Well, it's a method of mapping terrain by bouncing lasers off the ground. This is useful because it allows us to build extremely detailed elevation maps for an area. The maps produced are so detailed that you can often make out trails and old logging roads in the terrain! As such, it's a great tool for not only planning routes to a waterfall but for finding new waterfalls. It really is a fantastic tool!

I think an example speaks for itself as to how powerful LIDAR mapping can be.

As a bonus that you may not realize, the Kentucky Waterfall Map, mentioned earlier in this post, has its own LIDAR layer ;)

Google Maps Aerial View

So you've found a waterfall, prepared your maps, and found the best route down to it. Now, where are you going to park? What does the general area actually look like? These are many other questions are easily answered using the aerial view in Google Maps. To be honest, I don't think this resource needs much more of an introduction, but I figured it's worth pointing out. On a related note, Google Earth is another fantastic tool!

Nickle & Dime Falls, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.
Nickle & Dime Falls, located in the Beaver Creek Wilderness of the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a great example of a waterfall that doesn't have an obvious parking location.

Explore DBNF

Explore DBNF is a website I created to help people get out and explore the Daniel Boone National Forest. At the time of this writing it doesn't have a huge amount of content, but I am working on expanding it and have some plans for it over the course of 2020 (assuming Covid-19 doesn't continue to throw a wrench in them!).

The Community

You may recall that at the beginning of this post I mentioned that myself and many other photographers don't just give out the locations of natural formations anymore. This isn't to say that we won't share with anyone and want to just selfishly keep these wonders to ourselves (well, at least we're not all like that). It's just that we aren't going to give out the information to any old person who we don't have confidence we can't trust to treat the place with respect.

Funston Arch Complex, Private Property, Kentucky.
The Funston Arch Complex, located on private property, is a great example of why the community is so protective of locations. We can no longer visit this wonder because of one irresponsible member of the community.

In other words, I'm saying that you can't approach a photographer who you don't know and haven't had any interactions with and just expect that they're going to hand you all of the information that you're looking for. Like so many other communities, the Kentucky landscape communities are far more open to sharing information with you when you've built up a reputation with them.

By far the best way to learn the locations of stuff is to get involved in the communities and start making friends! Not only are you going to learn some new stuff, but you'll meet some great people in the process!

That's All Folks

That's it (for now)! Hopefully these resources will help answer the relentless question of "How do I find waterfalls in Kentucky" or "Pretty picture, where is this located?".

What about other resources? Is there one you absolutely love that I didn't mention here? I would love to hear about them in the comments below!

Lower Nada Twin Arch, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

Lower Nada Twin Arch

Lower Nada Twin Arch, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

Located on private property just outside the Red River Gorge is a lesser-visited set of Twin Arches: The Nada Twin Arches. This unique geological feature is composed of an upper and lower (pictured here) arch. What really struck me about the lower arch was the brilliance of the reds and oranges in the rock. I was completely awestruck by it!

Note: This arch is on private property owned by Red River Gorge Getaways.

Daylight West Arch, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.

4 Tips for Shooting Natural Arches

By now, it's probably no secret that I have a love for natural arches. I even have a whole section of my portfolio dedicated to them!

Despite my love for these natural beauties, however, it can be really hard to get a photograph that makes them look like little more than big holes in even bigger rocks. As such, I find arches to be a challenging subject!

That's why I'd like to share with you 4 tips I've learned over the years for shooting natural arches.

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A Review of 2019 as a Photographer

It's time once again for a year in review post! As 2019 quickly winds down, and 2020 rolls its way in, it's helpful for photographers to sit down and reflect a bit on the past year.

As a side note, those of you interested in last year's reflection can check it out here, though I am changing up the format a bit this year.

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Exploring an Abandoned School

Exploring an Abandoned High School

Something I haven't done a whole lot of is exploring and photographing abandoned buildings, an activity often referred to as urban exploring or urbex. It's a subject that has always interested me, I just haven't had much chance to practice it myself. As such, I jumped on board when I was invited to go explore an abandoned high school with some friends.

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The Milky Way from Chimney Rock, Red River Gorge

The Milky Way as seen from Chimney Rock, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

This past Thursday I met up with my buddy Josh Lowe and headed out to Chimney Rock in Kentucky's Red River Gorge to shoot the Milky Way. Other than a few clouds along the horizon, conditions turned out pretty great!

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Photographing Ohio's Waterfalls

I have a really bad habit of discounting some of the natural beauty that can be found throughout Ohio. Despite having spent the majority of my early life in the state and still living quite close, I rarely ever venture up that way for photography.

So far this year, however, I have spent several weekends shooting some of the waterfalls throughout the Buckeye state. Here's just a small sampling of what I've seen so far.

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