Cades Cove

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING IN CADES COVE

An hour after sunrise, the first light reaches the valley and washes across Sparks Lane. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/60 @ f11, ISO 200.

An hour after sunrise, the first light reaches the valley and washes across Sparks Lane. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/60 @ f11, ISO 200.

Cades Cove is located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And if the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, then Cades Cove is the most visited section of the most visited national park in the United States.

And for good reason. Located 27 miles from Gatlinburg or just nine miles from Townsend, Tenn., Cades Cove offers something for every photographer: wildlife, landscapes, waterfalls and historic structures.

So whether you plan to spend one day or five days exploring Cades Cove, these five tips will help to make the experience a joy rather than a frustration.

1. Patience. Cades Cove is circled by an 11-mile one-way paved road with a 20 mph posted speed limit, which means that even with no other cars it would take you 33 minutes to complete the loop. This will never happen. Give yourself plenty of time and trust me if you are a photographer, you must. Plan for at least two to four hours making the loop, especially considering you will want to make frequent stops to take in the scenery and wildlife.  

Also note that late October, early November for the fall colors and spring for the wildflowers are the busiest times to visit, along with almost all weekends.

As the sun rises in Cades Cove, it falls first on the tops of the surrounding mountains. In this photograph, the sun lights the fall foliage on the side of the mountain in the background. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/30 @ f11, ISO 200.

As the sun rises in Cades Cove, it falls first on the tops of the surrounding mountains. In this photograph, the sun lights the fall foliage on the side of the mountain in the background. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/30 @ f11, ISO 200.

2. Arrive early. The loop road will not open to automobiles until sunrise and the queue begins at least an hour before that. I recommend you join them, bring coffee and breakfast and refer to tip number one. Use this time to go over your gear and make sure you are ready to start taking pictures the moment you arrive at your first location because the sun will be rising fast.

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from early May until late September prior to 10 a.m., the park is only open to bicycles and foot traffic. This is a great option to consider if the thought of traffic is already causing you stress.

In this early morning photograph taken on Hyatt Lane, I was able to get a few shots without cars in the scene. What you don't see are the two cars and a van loaded with photographers behind me. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/15 @ f10, ISO 200.

In this early morning photograph taken on Hyatt Lane, I was able to get a few shots without cars in the scene. What you don't see are the two cars and a van loaded with photographers behind me. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 16mm, 1/15 @ f10, ISO 200.

3. Take a shortcut. There are two roads that cut across the center of Cades Cove, Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Both are two-way, so they offer the option to cut your visit short or return back to the loop road from the direction you came. They are also great places to photograph, especially during early morning or late afternoon. One thing that will surely test your patience, is getting to your first shooting location quickly after the ranger opens the gate. While you have some leeway because the sun will take a little bit to rise above the mountains, you still want to be in place early.

So while non-photographers will normally concentrate on traveling around the loop, I suggest making the first left onto Sparks Lane shortly after entering Cades Cove and setting up to capture the sunrise. You will most likely be among the first ones there, or at a minimum, joined by other photographers. Park in the small area to your left just after you cross the creek and then explore the lane on foot.

The Eligah Oliver Place is just one of over a dozen historic structures located either close to the road or a short hike away. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 200.

The Eligah Oliver Place is just one of over a dozen historic structures located either close to the road or a short hike away. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f8, ISO 200.

4. Take your time. Spend the whole day or spend half a day, but don't rush your visit. Give yourself time to explore and after you've taken that sunrise or first light photograph, visit the restored cabins, barns, or churches. Take a hike, leave the paved road, venture into the woods. Look for locations that you want to return to later that day or the next day. Just remember to pack a lunch, bring water, a bag chair, whatever will make your day more comfortable and ease the temptation to rush.

A bear cub photographed with a 50mm (75mm equivalent) and cropped. Park rules require you to keep a 50-yard distance from all wildlife. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f2, ISO 800.

A bear cub photographed with a 50mm (75mm equivalent) and cropped. Park rules require you to keep a 50-yard distance from all wildlife. Fujifilm X-Pro2, 50mm, 1/500 @ f2, ISO 800.

5. Don't forget the wildlife. Cades Cove is full of creatures, big and small. White-tailed deer, bear, turkey, coyotes and other animals are numerous throughout the valley. And the nice thing is you don't need a super long telephoto lens to get great shots. Be respectful and maintain a 50-yard distance from all animals and of course pull off the road. One strategy I've used is to pick a location, park and wait for the wildlife to come to me. After only a few visits you will begin to get a sense of where wildlife will typically appear. Sometimes it might take an hour or longer, but every time I've done this, I've been rewarded. 

There are probably many tips I could offer, but really it boils down to having patience and taking your time. Despite a large number of visitors, Cades Cove is an incredibly peaceful place and no visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be complete without spending time there. It is also a great place to meet other photographers and to find out what their favorite spots are to photograph. I've always found that most are very eager to share.

PHOTOGRAPHING IN THE GREAT SMOKIES - DAY TWO

Low clouds backlit by the rising sun. 1/50 @f22, ISO 400.

Low clouds backlit by the rising sun. 1/50 @f22, ISO 400.

What a difference a day makes. I entered the Cades Cove loop through the already open gate at 7 a.m. and headed straight to the location I had decided on yesterday, passing only one other person along the way. The sky was clear and there was a cloud layer that was moving fast across the top of the mountains.

It is exciting to imagine photos coming together in your mind as you are driving along and it took everything I had not to stop and start shooting prior to arriving at my pre-planned destination.

Once I parked and set up my tripod and camera with a 24-70mm, I forced myself to take a breath and relax. While it seems everything is happening fast, often there is more time than you realize. It is better to get it right than realize your ISO was still on 3200 from the night before. In this case, I worked the sunrise for almost 30 minutes before it was completely up over the mountain. In that time I was able to use multiple lenses, bracket, try out my new split neutral density filters and move about 50 yards down the road for a slightly different composition.

Switched to the 24-70mm with a Cokin split neutral density filter just as the sun rose above the clouds. You can see how the clouds just stuck to the top of the mountains. 1/60 @ f22, ISO 200.

Switched to the 24-70mm with a Cokin split neutral density filter just as the sun rose above the clouds. You can see how the clouds just stuck to the top of the mountains. 1/60 @ f22, ISO 200.

Remember as the sun is rising and consuming your attention, all that great light is falling somewhere and that somewhere is behind you. When I did finally turn around I immediately was drawn to the tops of the mountains and those clouds which were slightly backlit, yet at the same time light was falling on the face of the mountain. I only had to cross the street and climb a slight embankment when I saw that the sun was hitting the trees in the foreground.

Once the sun rose above the clouds I turned around and was treated to some wonderful light. 1/40 @ f22, ISO 200.

Once the sun rose above the clouds I turned around and was treated to some wonderful light. 1/40 @ f22, ISO 200.

When I see layers leading into a photograph, I instantly think of long lenses and compression. It doesn't matter if the layers are created by color, tonal quality, or texture, compressing and flattening the scene makes a pleasing photograph.

On my drive in I saw plenty of deer and thought it was time to move to a new location and with only a few other cars on the loop, I was able to exit and re-enter in about 20 minutes. Once back on the loop I stopped a few times and waited in locations where I had seen wildlife the previous day and sure enough, I spotted four deer off in the distance in the same field I had seen the coyotes.

They were a fair distance off so I grabbed my 300mm with a 2x converter. It was then that I noticed there were three bucks and a doe. After waiting and watching it became clear that the bucks were going to interact and sure enough, they locked antlers several times. It also became clear that they were slowly moving in a direction that would have them crossing the road just below where I had spent the morning. I debated staying put, but sometimes you have to take a chance and move.

I'm glad I did. As I parked the deer were still heading in the same direction so I moved to the exact location that I had taken the above photograph earlier. As the deer continued to head in my direction they were still slightly backlit, but after they crossed the road the light was perfect and when they started to run as a car approached, I just started shooting. I had a long lens on which was nice to capture the deer but meant I was unable to include any background or context.

I moved to higher ground in order to capture this photo of a male whitetail deer. Thinking ahead in order to place yourself in the right spot is key to getting the photograph you envision. 1/800 @ f7.1, ISO 200.

I moved to higher ground in order to capture this photo of a male whitetail deer. Thinking ahead in order to place yourself in the right spot is key to getting the photograph you envision. 1/800 @ f7.1, ISO 200.

By mid-morning I decided to pack up and leave Cades Cove and explore more the Great Smoky Mountains, but not before one more stop at Tipton place. Only this time I was across the road photographing the double-pen corn crib and cantilever barn when the dripping water from the roof caught my attention. Up until this point everything, other than wildlife, was a medium or wide angle photograph, so it was nice to get a detail shot.

Sometimes it's about the details. With locations like Cades Cove, the tendency is to focus only on the vistas, but sometimes a photo like this tells the story of melting snow. 1/640 @ f2.8, ISO 200.

Sometimes it's about the details. With locations like Cades Cove, the tendency is to focus only on the vistas, but sometimes a photo like this tells the story of melting snow. 1/640 @ f2.8, ISO 200.

On the way to Gatlinburg, I stopped at the Sugarlands visitor center and looked around the museum. This is a great thing to do in the middle of the day and besides giving you a break, it gives you some history and context, which may lead to additional photo ideas. Additionally, rangers can be a wonderful source of information on hidden shooting locations.

After leaving the visitors center, I thought I would drive the 13 miles to the Newfound Gap outlook and scout out locations for the next morning. It is a really pretty drive although it soon became apparent as I increased in elevation that I would be entering the clouds by the time I reached the summit. Of course, these were the same clouds that I had been photographing in the morning.

So before I was fully in the clouds, I stopped about a quarter mile from the top and took a few photos of the clouds moving by which added some softness to the bare trees. Tomorrow I plan on heading back to the summit to photograph the sunrise even though the forecast calls for rain.

Just short of the Newfound Gap summit, the clouds were already rolling in and provided just the right amount of softness you see in this photograph. 1/800 @ f7.1, ISO 200, Exp. Comp. +1

Just short of the Newfound Gap summit, the clouds were already rolling in and provided just the right amount of softness you see in this photograph. 1/800 @ f7.1, ISO 200, Exp. Comp. +1

PHOTOGRAPHING THE GREAT SMOKIES - DAY ONE

Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just after first light.* 1/250 @ f10, ISO 400.
Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just after first light. 1/250 @ f10, ISO 400.
Day one began at the entrance to the 11-mile one-way Cades Cove loop road along with a half dozen other cars waiting for the park ranger to open the gate. The plan was to photograph the sunrise, however, the ranger didn't open the road until roughly 7:20, so the sun was already over the horizon. The first day of any assignment, whether a paid job - or like this, a self-assignment - brings with it some anxiety and anticipation. I've never been able to shake that, but, of course, the only thing to do is just start shooting. Anything will do, the point is to just start shooting.

Because temperatures remained cold in the morning, recent snow still stuck to the trees, offering nice contrast between the bare trees in the foreground and the pines in the back. 1/320 @ f13, ISO 400. TIP: Using a long telephoto lens compresses the scene and enhances the contrast between foreground and background.
Because temperatures remained cold in the morning, recent snow still stuck to the trees, offering a nice contrast between the bare trees in the foreground and the pines in the back. 1/320 @ f13, ISO 400. TIP: Using a long telephoto lens compresses the scene and enhances the contrast between foreground and background.
So as I entered the loop with the sun already rising fast, I pulled over at the first opportunity and began taking photographs. It wasn't great, but it did fit the idea that I start shooting. Ideally I would have been able to scout the location so that I had a better idea of where to stop along the 11-mile loop to get that first shot. With 11 miles to cover you never really know what's ahead of you and since it is a one-way loop, you can't turn back. I did four trips around the loop, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

Still fairly early in the morning there was a slight warmth to the sky while the mountain has a blue-green look. The colors change throughout the day offering many looks at the same scene. 1/800 @ f16, ISO 400.
Still fairly early in the morning there was a slight warmth to the sky while the mountain has a blue-green look. The colors change throughout the day offering many looks at the same scene. 1/800 @ f16, ISO 400.
Being unfamiliar with the route, I pulled over almost every opportunity, got out of the car and looked around. Sometimes I grabbed my camera and shot, other times, I quickly returned to the car and headed for the next turnout. My goal was to make at least one loop as fast as possible, without missing any photos along the way and then take more time during subsequent loops.

Deer were the most visible wildlife I saw during my visit. Here two bucks greeting each other. 1/250 @ f8, ISO 400.
Deer were the most visible wildlife I saw during my visit. Here two bucks greeting each other. 1/250 @ f8, ISO 400.
One thing almost all visitors to Cades Cove are sure to see is wildlife. Everything from horses, deer, turkey, elk, wolves, fox, coyotes and black bear*. Your chances of just spotting these creatures are reduced while driving, especially by yourself. I did spot some bucks in the distance and stopped to photograph them for about 20 minutes. I then walked to the other side of the street and that is when I spotted two coyotes moving across the field and finally before getting back in the car, spotted a bird Flicker Woodpecker off to the left. Three nice animals all because I stayed put for a while.

Not all wildlife is large and easy to spot. This Flicker Woodpecker (yet to be identified) was only a short distance from my feet as I was standing around looking at the great vistas. 1/200 @ f13, ISO 400. TIP: Don't forget to look down and always be ready to shoot.
Not all wildlife is large and easy to spot. This Flicker Woodpecker (yet to be identified) was only a short distance from my feet as I was standing around looking at the great vistas. 1/200 @ f13, ISO 400. TIP: Don't forget to look down and always be ready to shoot.
But it is the Great Smoky Mountains, so much of the time on the first loop was spent photographing them. One thing I noticed is that the color temp and look of these mountains change throughout the day depending on light and angles. That was fun; it was like taking a completely different photo of the same scene each time.

Later in the day the mountains took on a different color and with the warming temperatures and snow melting, more of the grass became visible and provided a warm contrast to the cool mountains and sky. 1/50 @ f22, ISO 200, Cokin graduated ND filter.
Later in the day the mountains took on a different color and with the warming temperatures and snow melting, more of the grass became visible and provided a warm contrast to the cool mountains and sky. 1/50 @ f22, ISO 200, Cokin graduated ND filter.
Along the way, there are a number of structures and old cabins to explore. During the second loop as the sun rose, but still provided some quality light, I made sure to explore a few and am glad I did. I was drawn by the warm look of the wood that contrasted with the snow and also the shadows created by fences and the buildings.

Tipton Place is near the end of the loop and offered several structures to photograph. 1/160 @ f20, ISO 400, Exp. Comp. +1. TIP: I shot from a low angle since the snow surrounding the area had been trampled.
Tipton Place is near the end of the loop and offered several structures to photograph. 1/160 @ f20, ISO 400, Exp. Comp. +1. TIP: I choose to shoot from a low angle since the snow surrounding the area had been trampled.
Typically there is more parking located at these sites and since I was already exploring the buildings, it seemed like a good time to explore the surrounding woods. Don't be afraid to walk off the road and into the woods, you might be surprised what is just out of site.

This small stream runs past Tipton Place and allowed me to take advantage of some nice light streaming though the trees. 1/50 @ f20, ISO 400, Exp. Comp. +1. TIP: When shooting into the sun, use the tree or branch to block light from hitting your lens.
This small stream runs past Tipton Place and allowed me to take advantage of some nice light streaming through the trees. 1/50 @ f20, ISO 400, Exp. Comp. +1. TIP: When shooting into the sun, use the tree or branch to block light from hitting your lens.
When I returned in the afternoon it was a different experience for several reasons. First, the temperature had risen 30 degrees which meant the snow was melting fast. The first place I noticed this was the trees. Also, the number of cars making the loop had more than tripled quadrupled, which meant traffic jams as people would just stop in the middle of the one-lane road, mostly to look at deer. So it took more than twice as long to make the loop as it did in the morning. And this is the winter, so be prepared in the Spring. Again, my suggestion would be to take your time and not worry about spending too much time in one location. Why not let the wildlife come to you.

Clouds started to build and the moon came out in the late afternoon once again giving a very different look to the mountains. 1/50 @ f22, ISO 200, Cokin graduated ND filter. TIP: When you have interesting clouds, grab a wide angle and aim high.
Clouds started to build and the moon came out in the late afternoon once again giving a very different look to the mountains. 1/50 @ f22, ISO 200, Cokin graduated ND filter. TIP: When you have interesting clouds, grab a wide angle and aim high.
With the first day of shooting down, my plan for tomorrow is to return to Cades Cove and a few locations I've identified along the loop in the hopes of getting a better sunrise. Then I'll start making my way to Gatlinburg, shooting and scouting along the way.


* Bears hibernate in the winter.