Richard Bernabe Photography Workshop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Backlit Smoky Mountain Ridges

  Last October I attended a Great Smoky Mountains National Park photography workshop with the renowned nature, wildlife, travel Photographer Richard Bernabe, In the weeks leading up to this trip, I told my friends that I was going on a trip of a lifetime.  That was a true statement at the time, because I had never attended a photography workshop before, and it had been at least 20 years since I had spent any significant amount on a vacation.

 The workshop began on a Thursday afternoon at 3:00 PM, and after some brief introductions we all car-pooled off following behind Richard’s car in our four assorted vehicles. Of course with it being late October, and being the Smoky Mountains, it was overcast and drizzling when we arrived at our first destination.

 As we all piled out of our vehicles, I scanned the group making quick assessments as to where I fit in with this new group of photographers. Some appeared to already know Richard, and I learned over our time together at a group dinner that evening, that indeed, they were repeat participants. About half the group had been through other workshops with Richard before. This fascinated me, and I pondered the idea of why people would repeat? I’d soon learn why!

Richard’s Tree

 The following two and a half days were nothing short of incredible! With Richard guiding our path, each and every stop we made was more breathtaking then the last. I’d seen beauty in nature before, but witnessing it through the eyes of a photographer with a respected and illustrious career, brought a heightened sense of purpose to my photography, and beauty to me personally. As an example, we had a sunrise shoot scheduled at Ocanoluftee Outlook.  We arrived there in time so that we had the prime spots for our tripods and gear packs. It was very dark, windy, and so cold that hand warmers were the hot commodity! As the morning sky started to lighten and the mountains before us went from black to dark greens, the excitement, expectations, and urgency for getting the shot grew. The eastern sky lightened more, and Richard began shouting out his get ready countdown. And then after all the build-up of anticipation, the sun peaked over the mountainous horizon, spilling glorious colors of ambers, peach, and subtle yellows across the sky. I fired my shutter off to what seemed like a million frames, I didn’t want to miss one second of this glorious show! My face seemed to be getting colder at one point, so I put my hand up to my cheeks to add a little warmth, which is when I noticed that my face was wet. The event had been so moving and visually spectacular for me, – that I hadn’t realized that I had been weeping!

Sunrise at Ocanolufftee Outlook

  Every stop after that was just as inspirational and appealing. We went to waterfalls and rapids, tall straight tree tops, Clingman’s Dome for a sunset, and a section of the Cades Cove Loop. If one needed assistance with composition, and in some cases camera settings, Richard was there to help and guide. He shared skills and techniques that were new to many, including one experimental technique involving a longer shutter exposure and dragging the camera while the shutter is open. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t display a very excited demeanor over this technique, but have now grown rather fond of the results of those images… My apologies Richard!! I hope you’ll forgive my short sightedness on that one?

Tall Straight Trees
The woods are lovely…
Capturing SunStars

Another moment that was compelling for me was at a waterfall. It was down a fairly steep trail with slippery rocks and roots to step over. I had backed off, thinking that the vantage point was beyond my navigating skillset, given my particular challenges of bad knees, etc. I happily watched as the other photographers made their way down to the waterfall in groups of no more than two at a time. As everyone else had had their turn, I heard Richard call out my name. I responded by saying that I didn’t think I would be able to handle the trail. Richard’s response? “Absolutely not, I don’t take no for an answer!” So together we made our way down and back up that trail, while he instructed me on where to put my feet, and how to use three points of contact as I walked. And guess what happened? I shot some of the best images of my life! I was never in danger, and he patiently walked me through my apprehensions. Woohoo!

Smoky Mountain Waterfall
Richard helping with composition
Richard offers advice
One of the spectacular waterfalls
The darkening gray blue sky at Clingman’s Dome before a sunset…

 Thank you to all the workshop leaders out there that are willing to share their knowledge, and guide those that need a little push, or help those to find their focus. Before my workshop experience, I had called it a once in a lifetime trip, and it was! I discovered things within myself as a photographer. I pushed my envelope of what was challenging to my comfort level. I learned skills and techniques that has improved my outdoor nature images. I gained great friends through the camaraderie of car-pooling and shooting together. We still stay in touch through social media. And, I have come to realize that it wasn’t a once in a lifetime trip, I’m planning to go on more workshop trips in the future. It was however, a life changing trip. I see the world differently through my camera lens now. I returned home a totally different, improved, renewed photographer.

I found my mojo, at this Great Smoky Mountains National Park workshop. I was looking for an opportunity to jump start my inspiration. I felt like I had exhausted the boundaries of home through many hours of shooting. I was challenged to find different ways to photograph the familiar that would be inspirational to myself and others. I found all of these things and more. I offer up a huge thank you to Photographer Richard Bernabe . I am enriched!


Light and Love- Leslie



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Cades Cove- Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Original Log Cabin and fencing in Cades Cove


One of my favorite stops along my journey through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was at Cades Cove. The Cove is a lush valley surrounded by the Smoky Mountains, and settled within its confines one finds many of the original old log cabins and barns from the early settlers. There are also churches and an old grist mill.

Navigating through the Cove was easy because of the 11 mile one way loop access road. I visited in late October and there was little traffic present, but in the spring, summer and fall months the visitor traffic increases. Thankfully, the park services has provided “pull offs” along the route for visitors to stop to enjoy the landscapes.

This section of the GSMNP (Great Smoky National Park) for me at least was redolent. Everywhere I looked I felt the echoes of the families that farmed this land before “eminent domain” removed them from the farms that generations before them had worked. There’s a stillness there, a solemnity that evokes respect for its history. Although I love the GSMNP, and all it offers visitors today, I am also conflicted by how history played out for the people that called the Cove home.

At the turn of the 20th Century life had changed from farming to more of a logging core. Large logging companies created the job industry for many residents. As is the nature of logging effects, the results was extensive deforestation. This resulted in the states of North Carolina and Tennessee purchasing land to create the National Park. Eventually as land was being bought up, Cades Cove was combined into the land purchases. One might expect that the preponderance of occupants refused to sell their land. In the end, the Tennessee General Assembly granted the Park Commission authority to seize the properties within the boundaries. A shining example of “eminent domain” at work within our National Parks. Like I stated earlier, having been aware of this history, I found Cades Cove to have a melancholy ambiance.

On the day of my visit in October, the valley was still and snowy. Although I didn’t personally witness the abundant wildlife, I know it was there, and what it meant to so many in history that depended upon it for survival.

I left Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park enriched as a Photographer because of the things it shared with me, but what’s more what it instilled in me!

Light and Love,- Leslie

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