National Parks

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.

FINDING PHOTOGRAPHS IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

The light that appears just after sunrise is special. In this case, I liked how it made the sand colored mountains glow. I wanted something in the foreground and picked this lone josohua tree which I originally thought about shooting in silhouette, however, as the sun began to rise above the mountains behind me I knew I would have a few minutes where the sun lit the top of the tree, but before it lit me and cast my shadow into the scene. Sometimes missing the actual sunrise is fine.   Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/60 @ f14, ISO 200 .

The light that appears just after sunrise is special. In this case, I liked how it made the sand colored mountains glow. I wanted something in the foreground and picked this lone josohua tree which I originally thought about shooting in silhouette, however, as the sun began to rise above the mountains behind me I knew I would have a few minutes where the sun lit the top of the tree, but before it lit me and cast my shadow into the scene. Sometimes missing the actual sunrise is fine.  Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/60 @ f14, ISO 200.

It was still dark outside when I left Oceanside, Calif., on my way to Joshua Tree National Park, hoping to arrive in time to photograph the sunrise. As I made my way west on the I-10, still some 40 miles from my destination, a place I've never been, and the sky began to slowly lighten, it became evident that I was probably going to miss another sunrise.

It was only then when I recognized a familiar anxiety, which shouldn't exist, yet an anxiety that creeps in almost every time I decide to make one of these personal photo trips. Why do I put any kind of pressure on myself and why does it matter if I miss the sunrise? Am I really missing the sunrise if I'm watching it with my eyes? Do I have to actually capture the sunrise in a photograph in order to alleviate the anxiety? These are the questions I struggle with.

During the middle of the day I had a great time exploring a section of the national park called Jumbo Rocks. Lots of fun climbing around the granite rock formations in search of interesting shapes. I thought the light wrapping around this particular boulder which was balancing on an even bigger boulder made a nice composition. Choosing to convert to monochrome during post  processing helps to focus on that composition as does using a red filter, which turns the blue sky almost black.  Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/900 @ f8.0, ISO 200 .

During the middle of the day I had a great time exploring a section of the national park called Jumbo Rocks. Lots of fun climbing around the granite rock formations in search of interesting shapes. I thought the light wrapping around this particular boulder which was balancing on an even bigger boulder made a nice composition. Choosing to convert to monochrome during post  processing helps to focus on that composition as does using a red filter, which turns the blue sky almost black. Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/900 @ f8.0, ISO 200.

The strange thing is that I rarely feel this kind of anxiety when I'm on a paid assignment, like the one I just finished the day before. I feel pressure for sure, but somehow it's not the same. I've reflected on this before, this feeling that I have to get a remarkable image or somehow the trip was a waste.

Of course, the reality is that I normally come back from all of these trips with at least some photographs that I'm proud of. What I am certain of though is that I do return from these trips with memories of a great experience. Maybe that is more of the point.

I kept noticing how these lines of a different type of rock  made their way through the giant granite formations. In this case, I used the line to lead the viewer into the photo.  Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/680 @ f11, ISO 200 .

I kept noticing how these lines of a different type of rock  made their way through the giant granite formations. In this case, I used the line to lead the viewer into the photo. Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 35mm f2 R WR, 1/680 @ f11, ISO 200.

I'm fortunate that I get paid to take photographs. And I'm also fortunate that I get to travel in pursuit of those photographs. And when I can extend that trip in order to experience a new location with my camera, I try to take full advantage of it.

One of the best things about photographing during the winter months is that the sun sets early enough that there is still plenty of time for dinner. What is difficult, however, is with close to 800,000 acres of land, how do you find the perfect spot to photograph that sunset in Joshua Tree National Park. During my travels through the park earlier in the day, I found a section with a lot of trees, so I returned to that spot and after about 20 minutes of walking around as the sun dropped behind a distant mountain, I found a nice composition and made my final photo of the trip.  Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 16mm f1.4 R WR, 1/60 @ f9.0, ISO 200 .

One of the best things about photographing during the winter months is that the sun sets early enough that there is still plenty of time for dinner. What is difficult, however, is with close to 800,000 acres of land, how do you find the perfect spot to photograph that sunset in Joshua Tree National Park. During my travels through the park earlier in the day, I found a section with a lot of trees, so I returned to that spot and after about 20 minutes of walking around as the sun dropped behind a distant mountain, I found a nice composition and made my final photo of the trip. Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon XF 16mm f1.4 R WR, 1/60 @ f9.0, ISO 200.

Sometimes on these personal trips, I just need to remind myself to slow down, realize that there is not a deadline and that there is not an editor waiting for the results. These trips are about me and my camera and capturing memories. And sometimes when I miss that photo of a sunrise, I need to remind myself that I still had the experience and know that I'm fine with that.

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING IN MUIR WOODS

Occasionally, some light makes its way to the forest floor which adds some nice contrast. Fujifilm XT1, 0.5 sec @ f11, ISO 200.

Occasionally, some light makes its way to the forest floor which adds some nice contrast. Fujifilm XT1, 0.5 sec @ f11, ISO 200.

If you are visiting the San Francisco Bay area, I urge you to take some time and visit Muir Woods National Monument. Located just 12 miles north of the city in Marin County, California, and part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, Muir Woods features 240 acres of old-growth Coastal Redwoods and plenty of photographic opportunities.

I recently spent five hours exploring the park and hope that you will benefit from the five photographic tips below.

1. Lens selection. I would probably leave the telephoto behind, but that doesn't mean you need to bring only super wide-angle lenses. The Coastal Redwoods are big and everywhere, so you will not need a telephoto to see them, but adding something in the 70-120mm range would allow you to compress a scene or reach some trees that may be a little further off the path. A longer lens could also come in handy if you want to aim up into the canopy.

As someone who does not shoot a lot of verticals, this location was the exception. Fujifilm XT1,1/2.3 @ f18, ISO 200.

As someone who does not shoot a lot of verticals, this location was the exception. Fujifilm XT1,1/2.3 @ f18, ISO 200.

2. Don't forget the tripod. You will be doing a lot of walking during your visit and you might be tempted to leave the tripod behind. Don't. Even during a bright sunny day, not much light filters down to the forest floor, forcing you to shoot at very slow shutter speeds even if you have fast lenses. And even though tripods are allowed in the park and the paths are fairly wide, remember to be courteous to other visitors, especially during busy times.

"This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world". - John Muir

3. Stay on track. Photography is allowed throughout the park, but you must remain on the paths and boardwalks. There is an easy loop path with an occasional trail that branches off. It took me about four hours to make the loop, but you could certainly do it in less. My recommendation would be to spend the whole day and plan on making several trips around the loop or take advantage of a ranger-led program.

There are a few places along the trail such as Cathedral Grove where you are able to get nice canopy shots from the trail. Fujifilm XT1, 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200

There are a few places along the trail such as Cathedral Grove where you are able to get nice canopy shots from the trail. Fujifilm XT1, 0.3 sec @ f14, ISO 200

4. Get there early or late. Normally this tip would refer to taking advantage of the best light, but in this case, it is more about the parking and avoiding the crowds. Parking is very limited, especially on weekends, but even during my weekday visit, I noticed parking was gone, even a mile down the road when I left the park around 2 p.m. Another option would be to take the Muir Woods shuttle which runs weekends from April 4th through October 25th. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, or in this case, take the time and look for details among the trees.  Fujifilm XT1, 1/13 sec @ f4.5, ISO 200

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees, or in this case, take the time and look for details among the trees. Fujifilm XT1, 1/13 sec @ f4.5, ISO 200

5. Big picture - small picture. I was amazed by how much these Coastal Redwoods would impact me. Their size and beauty had me yearning to just shoot wide, take it all in with every frame. But that didn't always convey the true size of these magnificent trees as I reviewed the pictures. Force yourself, as I did, to try other focal lengths in order to achieve a different look. And if you have a macro lens, be sure to bring that too. There are incredible textures everywhere and plenty of interesting subjects on the ground if you can manage to look down.

Shooting from a low angle with a wide-angle lens enhances the grandeur. Fujifilm XT1, 1/8 @ f8, ISO 400.

Shooting from a low angle with a wide-angle lens enhances the grandeur. Fujifilm XT1, 1/8 @ f8, ISO 400.

Finally, be sure to take some time and relax during your visit. Since the lighting is fairly constant, there really is no need to rush, or limit your visit to the "best time" of the day for shooting. Find a bench, take a seat, and just enjoy this beautiful redwood forest that William and Elizabeth Kent donated to the federal government in 1908.

Download a PDF to learn more about the history of the park and the California Redwoods.