Photographing at Smoky Mountains Tennessee (Plus Photography Workshop Tips)


A photography workshop will bring many fun and possibly even surprising benefits to photographers at all levels. In the last few months, I participated in two completely different workshops from a geographic perspective. Across both workshops, the audience included photographers with many years of film and digital experience, photographers who serve as judges in regional competitions, global photographers and those new to the craft.

Having this broad of a group enriched the photography experience. We learned from each other in addition to the workshop leaders. The Costa Rica workshop was led by both Ian Plant and Richard Bernabe (read more about it in my earlier article here). The photography locations were footsteps away from just about any direction, so the small groups changed frequently depending on interest.

The Smoky Mountain Tennessee workshop had one instructor, Richard Bernabe. Richard navigated us through the rich, autumn colors, waterfalls, and trails with vibrant hues where he has spent years as a photographer. Because of the vast amount of terrain, we formed small groups in cars to reach our destinations. We needed to be prepared to pull over quickly as unexpected photography opportunities could emerge based on lighting, foliage, water flow of a given waterfall and wildlife activity.

From sunrise to sunsets, golds, oranges and reds were complimented by powerful, rushing waterfalls and fast moving streams.

Learning Something New

As it was a workshop, we were all there to learn. Richard's coaching approach is very much ‘in the field' which I preferred versus sitting at a table and presenting techno camera speak (he can do the latter very well by the way when asked). The “a-ha” moment of the real value of the workshop came surprisingly the first day. We were driving in the mountains and the car caravan pulled up beside a slow running stream that I barely noticed. In all honesty, I couldn't figure out why we stopped there.

Our first opportunity in the workshop? Abstract! “Seriously, are you kidding me? We're in the Smoky's with all these mountains and we're doing abstract? I've never really had an interest in abstract and I'm here for landscapes,” was going on inside my head.

Bingo! This is a key benefit of going to a workshop. To learn something new. To do something different. To stretch yourself as a photographer and an artist. So after asking Richard a few questions I dove in. After all, that what I was there for. The outcome was a personally rewarding set of images and a mindset that I've taken into other photography moments with other subjects. If interested in abstract photography, has more information.

At various locations, lens suggestions and composition ideas were offered in a way that made the equipment and image decisions our own. As an instructor, he would offer ideas for us as individuals when asked or if he perceived we had questions.

Throughout the workshop, we explored landscape and waterfall compositions, lighting, bracketing sunsets and sunrises. We did wide angle, macro, telephoto and some work with our primes. The last morning we photographed the historic area of Cades Cove under a vintage Smoky Mountain morning sky.

The Fence
At Cades Cove, Photo by Sheen's Nature Photography

When you think of vacationing with non-photographers, how many of your friends are willing and even excited about the idea of being up at least an hour before dawn to get to the right spot? For most photographers, we find our family and friends sleeping in while going out solo which has its own personal benefits.

When you travel with other photographers, it is a band, a crew, a ‘cast of characters' that shares a common interest and new ideas to be learned. Another outcome? Friendships and a network with other photographers that enjoy talking about lenses, f/stops, filters, cool gear and accessories.

If you you're thinking about a workshop, see below for some tips that may be helpful in selecting a workshop. These are from talking with other photographers who've attended workshops, workshop leaders and my own experience.

Finding & Selecting a Workshop that's Right for You

Your time is precious, and to ensure you maximize your investment here's a few tips in finding your right workshop:

  • Research the instructors and see their work. Do their images, their blogs inspire you to try something new and different?
  • Reach out and connect with one if not both (if there is more than one) to see how engaging and responsive they are to your questions.
  • What is the size of the group? If it is large, will you get to spend valuable coaching time with the instructor? If it is a small group, what activities are planned and what additional activities are available in the event you want to do some exploring on your own?
  • If you want one/one time, will they make that available to you?
  • Explore the website of the location where the workshop is located so you'll know what to expect
  • Some destinations may require medical shots, reach out to your local travel medicine center to know what medicines, vaccines or shots are recommended well in advance.
  • Have your instructors been to the area prior? What does the agenda look like and is it flexible in the event of unpredictable weather?
  • What is the fitness level required to get your desired shots? If hiking or stairs may pose a limitation for you that would be disappointing after you arrive, ask in advance!
  • Trips that have small, local planes have very specific weight restrictions and potentially unpredictable schedules. Be sure to allow for plenty of layover time. We arrived one day in advance of the departure to the workshop.

There are so many beautiful places and subjects to photograph from our own backyards, neighborhoods, regional, national and global locations. A workshop doesn't necessarily have to be somewhere far away to bring fun and new ideas. If you're not sure you'd enjoy it, jumping in on a local workshop that's in line with what you want to accomplish may be a good place to start.

About Author

Sheen Watkins is a conservationist, wildlife photographer, instructor, author and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website.

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