Posted by: kerryl29 | May 11, 2020

The Story Behind the Image: When You Least Expect It

Although it’s been a few years since I’ve been there, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been a frequent destination for me.  I’ve spent extended time five times, all but one of them in the spring, when the dogwoods and wildflowers are in bloom and the creeks are flush with the winter run-off.  Most of my trips to the park have been relatively successful, because the conditions on those occasions have been, if not perfect (they’re never perfect), decent.

There was one exception, however, and that’s when I spent a a few days in the Smokies in April, 2009.  As I recall, I was there for parts of four days; I’ve typically been on site for about a week at a time, so cutting things short in this particular instance was probably my first mistake.  Regardless, the problem on this trip was that I experienced one blue sky day after another, without interruption.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the only thing worse than an endless string of cloudless days is an endless string of days of hard rain.  This is particularly true at a location like the Smokies, which is filed with forested spots that rarely photograph well in bright sunlight.

Because of the sky conditions, the days on this trip were filled with frantic sessions at the edges of the day–when the light was briefly nice and/or there were good-sized plots in the even light of the shade cast by the steep mountainsides.  The rest of the daylight hours were spent scouting and photographing diffused subjects–when the wind cooperated, which wasn’t often.  (Don’t get me started on that subject.)

The park straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina state line and I’ve always lodged in Townsend, Tennessee, just a short distance from the Tremont section of the park.  On one day of that 2009 trip, I’d spent the afternoon on the North Carolina side of the park, and early in the evening I was returning on the Newfound Gap Road to the Tennessee side.  The Newfound Gap Overlook is the high point of the road as it crosses the mountains and roughly straddles the state boundary.  A series of tight curves makes up the first part of the decent back into Tennessee and the road drops steeply back in the direction of the Little River.  I was probably halfway down the mountainside, snaking through a series of bends in the road, alternating between areas bathed in the remaining light of the day and those in dark sunlight when I rounded a curve and something to my left caught my eye.  I was moving too quickly to tell exactly what it was, but it had been striking, so when I reached the next pull-off on the road, I took it, got out, and ran a few hundred yards back up the shoulder to see what it was that had attracted my attention.

A tree on the roadside, right next to a fairly sheer drop-off, in fresh spring greenery, its leaves just beyond the budding stage, was in a shaft of sunlight.  The mountainside in the background was in deep shadow.  The contrast was striking; the still budding leaves lit up like tiny jewels.  I ran back down the road to get my camera and tripod, then ran back to the original spot; there was no time to lose because when the tree was no longer sunlit, the image would be gone.

I sized up a composition for the first time.  There was no way to include the entire tree in the frame.  It was too tall; the top was above the distant ridge line, which would destroy the intimate, contrasting effect were it to be included.  My focus was on two adjacent boughs and the branches arching from them.  I filled the frame with the two trunks and their progeny and exposed entirely for the highlights.  If the shadows went completely dark, so much the better.  Fortunately, for one of the few times during that trip, at that moment there was a little wind.

The end result was what had caught my attention in the first place:  the bright green buds and a kind of rim light that carved the detail of the branches into the viewer’s imagination.  On a trip mostly devoid of memorable images, this one continues to stand out for me.

Backlit Tree, Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee


  1. Such a lovely image…definitely pays to keep your eyes open to possibilities at all times.

  2. ….great photograph, great story

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