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East of Zion

A Photographic Exploration of
Southern Utah's National Parks

Utah has more National Parks than any other state in the U.S. The reason for this is likely because it has more remarkable and varied scenery than anywhere else in the country. For 5 days in early March, 2003, together with 3 other photographers, I explored four of these parks — Zion, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon and Grand Staircase Escalante. The later is actually a National Monument (not yet a Park) and is one of the most remote and unknown parts of the country.

My companions on this shoot were Steve Kossack, southwestern U.S. photographic guide, and Alain Briot, the well known large format landscape photographer. Chris Sanderson, director of The Video Journal, was the fourth member of the group and was filming our expedition for an upcoming issue of The Journal.

Winter is an excellent time to visit this area. There are very few tourists, and the weather isn't too hot (in fact it can be downright cold). The lack of other travelers means that there is no need to book ahead anywhere. Pull up to a motel at 9pm and there are rooms available. Try that at any other time of year and you'll end up sleeping in your car.

Readers tell me that what they want to know most is "how" successful images are made. What combination of light, location and circumstance lead to them, as well as relevant technical information. Here then is a look at some selected images from this shoot. I hope that they give you a feel for this remarkable area and also provide some insights into how the images were made.

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Zion National Park

This photograph is one of a series taken just to the east of the tunnel in Zion National Park, a couple of miles before Checkerboard Mesa. We had arrived at the Park during the afternoon before, but heavy clouds rolled in and it started to snow. We drove the road east of the tunnel and were excited about the fresh snow on red-rock, but it then started to snow heavily, and as the light faded we retired to our motel in Springdale somewhat dejected.

We awoke before dawn and were excited to see that the snow had ended and that the sky was full of stars. We drove up through the tunnel and came out onto a scene that would be any landscape photographer's dream.


Zion Dawn 1 — Zion National Park. March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

The challenge with this photograph was how to capture the extreme dynamic range — from foreground shadows to the backlit clouds. I thought of doing a series of bracketed frames (and then merge them digitally) but a quick test frame and a look at the histogram showed that it could be captured in one frame with little loss, as long as I didn't blow out the highlights. It took a bit of work with Curves in Photoshop to put all of the tonalities in their proper place, but one frame was indeed enough.

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There had been a dusting of a couple of inches of powder snow overnight. The wind was calm, and the sun was just rising behind the hills to the east. As it brightened some thin clouds started to whip around the hill tops, softening the dawn light and putting a fine scrim over distant objects. I was like a kid in a candy store. Magnificent subject matter and fantastic light. I could hardly work quickly enough, there were so many opportunities.


Dawn East of Zion. Zion National Park, Utah — March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

We parked at a pull-out and spent the next hour walking up and down a 100 yard stretch of twisty mountain road shooting dozens of frames of various scenes. I felt in a heightened state of awareness as I quickly moved from one subject to the other as the rapidly evolving light altered the scene from moment to moment. This particular photograph existed for about 20 seconds as the light kissed the edges of the red rock, making them glow.

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In addition to light and location the next most important component for a successful landscape photograph are "atmospherics". Clouds can be a critical element in making or breaking an image, and in the photograph below they have become a vital component.


Cloud Swirl — Zion N.P., March 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

These clouds were moving so quickly (though there was no wind at all where we were standing) that the scene before us was constantly changing. Features would be obscured one second, and bright blue sky would predominate the next. There was no point in waiting so we just shot what appealed. This frame is the one that best captures for me the combination of light and clouds along with a strong foreground interest.

The trick with this exposure was to avoid blowing out the very bright highlights in the clouds. I thought of spot metering the clouds and then opening up a couple of stops, but a glance at the camera's histogram showed that the integrated metering mode had perfectly captured the dynamic range, with detailed shadows as well as highlights.

There is also always a choice when printing such images of what colour balance to choose. This is one of the reasons that I always work in RAW mode when shooting digital. One needn't make a colour temperature setting choice at the time of shooting. I tried this frame, and others, with the clouds selected for neutral, and also the foreground snow. If the snow is selected the clouds become beautifully warm, but the approach chosen here — with the clouds neutral and the snow blue with deep shadow — appears the most natural.

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I have driven Hwy 9 though Zion numerous times, and on several occasions have noticed a lovely small gully located just west of Checkerboard Mesa. But the light was always wrong. I never could figure out when a good time to photograph it might be, and in any event, this isn't a location that I could spend much time in as there are very few pull-outs on this narrow twisty road and it's otherwise many miles from anywhere.


Stream Glow — Zion N.P. March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ 150mm. ISO 100

On this remarkable morning I was so taken with the range of photographic possibilities that it was a while till I realized that I was near the gully that had fascinated me for so long. I took a few frames, and was pleased with the snow frosting, but then I ran out of bits. The camera's Microdrive was full and I didn't have another in my pocket. I walked about 100 yards back to the truck, loaded a new card and returned to the gully about 10 minutes later. In those few minutes the rising sun had started to glow on the foreground water and within another few minutes reached back to the end of the gully as well. Perfect!

I now know when to take a photograph at this location. After a snowfall in March, and shortly after dawn. As the cliche goes — f/8 and be there.

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We returned to Zion on our way back to Las Vegas at the end of the trip and spent an afternoon shooting within the valley. In the past I have usually visited the valley during the fall when foliage makes it a place of almost irredescent colour. In March the trees are bare though the grass is still green and this produced some striking juxtapositions.


Zion Hillside — March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 24-70mm f/2.8L @ 50mm. ISO 100

What attracted me to this composition was the contrast of forms, colours and textures. The challenge here was to hold depth of field from the foreground grasses, though the mid-ground tallis slope to the rock face. This was done by using an aperture of f/11. I deliberately didn't use a long lens because it would have flattened the perspective too much. I wanted to be able to feel the depth, and believe that this has been accomplished.

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The mistake that many photographers make when visiting the National Parks in the western U.S. is to try and repeat the famous grand vistas taken by previous photographers. This can be enjoyable, but it rarely produces great art. I much rather try and find the "bijou's" — the little jewels that no one else has photographed before, or at least to photograph them in seasons and light that are unfamiliar.


Tree and Rock — Zion National Park. March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 24-70mm f/2.8L @ 50mm. ISO 100

This, and the frame above were taken within a few minutes of each other. The light was soft as we were in the deep shade of Zion Canyon in late afternoon. I was walking down a path toward where I had seen the possibility of the previous frame from the road, when I saw this bare tree and rock. It struck me at the time as very lovely, and I knew it would compose beautifully. An aperture of f/11 was needed to hold depth of field through to the distant cliff face. In a large print the wealth of detail and richness of colour is extraordinary.

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Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument


Tractor and Trees — Escalante Utah. March, 2003
Photographed with a Canon 1Ds with 100-400mm f/5.6L lens @ 250mm. ISO 100

This photograph resulted from a missed turn. We had left our motel in the town of Escalante before dawn looking for the dirt road leading to a remote area where we hoped to shoot sunrise . But, we missed the turn in the dark and went quite a few miles out of our way before we realized our mistake. By the time we got back to the highway the light no longer worked and so we started back to Escalante somewhat disappointed and thinking more about breakfast that photography.

As we drove along Hwy 12 at one point the sun cleared a low hill and threw a shaft of intense warm light onto a row of bare trees silhouetted against hills that were still in shadow. We quickly pulled to the side of the road, set up tripods, and a long zoom allowed for tight framing. When I loaded the image into Photoshop a week later I had the choice of how to set the colour balance. I decided to make the shadowed hillside neutral and this made the warm branches even warmer than they might have otherwise appeared. The glow was very real though.

You may note that this photograph is one of the few displayed on this page that was taken with the Canon 100-400 f/5.6L IS. For a long time when using the Canon 1v, D30 and D60 camera bodies this was a favourite lens. But, it has turned out not to offer enough resolution for the 1Ds. I first found this to be the case on my Costa Rica Workshop, where I used the lens extensively with the 1Ds for the first time. I know that this finding will upset many people, but numerous comparisons with my 70-200 f/2.8L and 300mm f/2.8L IS show it to definitely be the case. The 1Ds simply outresolves the 100-400mm. It's as simple as that. Incidentally, I found this to be the case early on with the 28-135mm IS lens as well. It appears that only Canon's top glass will satisfy the resolution needs of the 1Ds. One can really see the difference.

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The ground appears parched, but it is just an illusion. This part of Utah had heavy snow and rain during the winter of 2002-3, and though not enough to really make up for the 5 year drought, nevertheless below the surface the earth was very soft. Each step caused the earth to collapse and one had to be very careful of one's footsteps or a potential shot could be ruined.


Gully — Escalante, Utah. March, 2003
Photographed with a Canon 1Ds with 24mmT/S f/3.5L lens. ISO 100

I find detail studies like this to be full of mystery. But, only when there is extreme detail and depth of field from top to bottom will such a frame be successful. By using the Scheimflug effect of tilt / shift lens I was able achieve this at a moderate aperture and at very close range. Though I don't use it often the 24mm T/S is an invaluable lens for this type of intimate and detailed landscape work, and for this reason is always found in my bag.

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Capital Reef National Park

This photograph was visualized in the early afternoon but executed some hours later just before sunset. We were driving down the Notom road, just east of Capital Reef National Park. This road runs down the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geologic formation. The road ends at the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell. About 10 miles south of Hwy 24, just before the paved section ends, we encountered a very dramatic hoodoo right beside the road. It stood about 150 feet high, and the gap between the pillars near the base must have been at least 10 feet wide.


Hoodoo Keyhole. Capital Reef NP. Utah — March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 150 mm. ISO 100

The light was harsh, the sky was flat and colourless and there were no clouds. But I loved the shape of the space between the pillars, and after walking around a bit found that by standing in a certain position a distant peak (one of the Henry Mountains) could be placed right between them. A fascinating composition, but at that moment graced with lousy light.

Looking at the position of the sun, and calculating where it would be at sunset, I saw that the pillars would be in shadow while the mountain peak would still be illuminated. All that would be needed were some clouds to add interest to the sky. Though the sky was clear I knew that in the southwestern U.S. clouds often build toward sunset. Maybe we'd get lucky.

I decided that the opportunity was so good that we should return toward sunset and see if the light worked out the way I thought it might, and whether some clouds would grace us with their presence. By 5:00 PM, about 90 minutes before sunset, we returned and set up our tripods to wait to see what developed. The light started to get warm, turning the snow on the peak a lovely pink, but the few clouds in the sky refused to cooperate and enter the gap.

I paced back and forth in frustration, and just as I was about to give up hope Steve called to me that a small cloud had drifted just between the pillars. I ran over to the camera and took a frame. The cloud was there just for a few moments, but it was what I had been waiting for. Without it the shot wouldn't have worked. With it, it was a portfolio-grade image.

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Bryce Canyon National Park

Though it is remote, Bryce is one of the more popular National Parks in the southwest. Most Parks are fairly deserted during the winter but we saw numerous Europeans at Bryce, especially at Ruby's Inn, the largest and most popular accommodation near the Park. We were surprised to find a line-up at the dining room for dinner, something that we saw nowhere else during our travels that week.


Bryce Ridges — March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

These two photographs are the best produced from our morning shoot. In fact they are the best images that I've ever produced at Bryce, though I've been there several times in the past. I almost didn't want to go there this trip because in the past I'd never produced anything more than the usual cliched photographs.


Bryce Canyon — Dawn Glow. March, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 70-200mm f/2.8L lens @ 200mm. ISO 100

The light on this particular morning was superb. Also, a light rim of snow helped to outline and emphasize the ridge edges. Even though we drove to various overlooks between pre-dawn and mid-morning, and took a lot of frames, the best light lasted for about 10 minutes and thus only a handful of successful images resulted. But the ones that worked, worked very well indeed.

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Concepts: Zion National Park, National Park Service, Colorado Plateau, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, Kane County, Utah, Grand Staircase, Photography

Entities: Springdale, Escalante, Las Vegas, Hwy, Canon, U.S., Costa Rica, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capital Reef National Park, Bullfrog Marina, Ruby's Inn, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Henry Mountains, Michael Reichmann, the fourth member, Bryce, Steve Kossack, Dawn East, Alain Briot, Steve, Scheimflug, The Video Journal, Utah, Photoshop

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