Turning Misfortune into Opportunity: A Photographic Journey

Val in Real Life

Each April I return to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for the spring photography workshop led by the fabulous Bill Lea. While it’s largely a family reunion for me and I love spending time with people who constantly inspire me, I also look forward to honing my photography skills when I’m there.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont - Val in Real Life
My Tremont family: Sue, Steve, and Tom, my late macro lens, and maybe an extra-large beer for commiseration purposes.

At the Tremont workshops (both spring and autumn), I’m notorious for my love of macro work and penchant for wallowing in the dirt for shots of the micro-worlds of the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s my photographic wheelhouse, so-to-speak. To a fault.

So imagine my panic when I got into the field at this year’s workshop and I realized my macro lens wouldn’t focus! I was a figurative deer-in-the-headlights to say the least and there may have been some minor hyperventilating. As my initial bewilderment subsided, it dawned on me—I’d dropped it off my kitchen bar a few weeks earlier in a rush to get out the door to the airport. I hadn’t ended up needing the lens for my work in that time so I completely forgot the mishap.

Sitting behind my camera in a bed of moss, I finally mustered the gumption to hold the lens to my ear and gave it a little shake. There was a heart-sinking rattle. Lenses aren’t supposed to rattle. I got up and walked in a daze towards my buddies to tell them the news. They were quite sympathetic, of course. And understood the implications for me in particular.

That night, my friends Tom and Steve tried to find a way to get a new macro lens to me so I could have something for the workshop. I was drawn into the idea at first, partly because I couldn’t imagine life without my beloved macro lens.

After some processing time though, I opted to embrace the challenge to my photography rather than scramble for a new lens. It would force me to look at my workshop experience from a new perspective and expand how I see and shoot. I convinced myself to look at my lack of macro lens as a new opportunity rather than a missed one, even though I’ll admit it took some time to fully accept.

That’s not to say I didn’t manage to use my 14-140mm zoom lens in a macro capacity in some cases. But here’s what I came away with after deciding to accept my situation and not waste a bunch of time and energy fast-tracking a new macro lens.

Foothills Parkway - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Soft light as the sun rises over Foothills Parkway.


Elkmont - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
At Elkmont, I’m even more inclined to go macro but I pushed myself to pull back to capture bigger details of the abandoned cabins.


Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
An iconic view of Lynn Camp Prong that includes the bridge. I’ve spent most of my time in the past trying to keep it out of the shot.


Bluets - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
A different style of macro than I would shoot with my “actual” macro lens. More of an intimate landscape macro. Bluets are an iconic flower of the Smokies and the slightly larger view than I would normally shoot gives perspective to their presence.



Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
My lack of macro lens forced me to recall the joy of shooting reflections. Capturing the lush intimacy of the Smokies was quite a joy. Rounded river rocks, moss, blue sky, tall trees…


Elkmont - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Working with reflections in the abandoned cabins at Elkmont.


Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
I can’t help but dive into the beautiful micro worlds… I love the detail.


Foothills Parkway - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Ok, so I couldn’t resist this macro situation on a morning when the landscape vista was completely obscured by fog. Can you blame me? I did take some good- natured teasing for professing I wasn’t going to be shooting macro during the workshop but ended up on the ground wallowing in the dewy grass anyway…

I did manage to spend a good bit of time in my other guilty “wheelhouse” pleasure: infrared photography. Sometimes baby steps toward change are ok, right?

Foothills Parkway - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Foothills Parkway after sunrise


Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
An intimate landscape of a small cascade on Sam’s Creek… to me, this is very “Smokies”


Cades Cove - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
The famous Cades Cove tree bathed in fog.


Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Seeking a new perspective sent me down a path I’d never gone before even though I walked past it countless times.


Sams Creek - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Giving Sam’s Creek the infrared treatment


Cades Cove - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Cades Cove fence intimate landscape


Cades Cove - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
Infrared portrait of the Cades Cove tree.

And now for your moment of green…


Foothills Parkway - Great Smoky Mountains - Val in Real Life
My new perspective inspired me to shoot a panorama, a rare technique for me. Here’s to stretching your horizons…



  1. Wonderful pictures. I am looking for stories like yours to share with my class about turning everyday misfortunes into positive experiences. Is there anyway you can send a printable copy?

  2. Beautiful work. Always a fan of the famous Cades Cove tree.

    1. Thanks, mom. 🙂

  3. I really like your collection of images. Nice job! And this collection is decidedly different from the other great collections you’ve created in the past. I like them, especially the IR work ;), but I have to say that my favorite, though, is the Foothills shot shot in color with the soft light. Very nice!

    I’m so happy you resisted the urge to fast-track the macro. You’re right, you would have fallen into your comfort zone. Strange how we need a good challenge sometime to break those shackles. You’ve reminded us that familiarity is the enemy of originality. Thanks for that!

    (Now…I assume you have a new macro, right??? Please say yes!)

    1. Thanks, Stevie. I need to make “familiarity is the enemy of originality” a little mantra for myself when I’m out shooting.

      Yes. Managed to find a used one in great shape. I’ll have to remember to forget it sometimes though, I think. 😉

  4. Val,
    Having been a witness to your initial distress – it was great to see your reflections on how it forced you to see with a different perspective – let alone different lenses. We all need to get out of our comfort zones sometimes and develop new skills. Nice images!!!

    1. Yes. Took some effort to shift my expectations and desires but I’m pleased with what I came away with from the workshop. Not to mention the joy of hanging out with great friends. 🙂

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