Zion National Park. The words mean “place of refuge” and after spending a week there, I can tell you that it is aptly named. Everything about this park is awe-inspiring; from the wildlife, to the towering canyon walls, to the names of the locations: Court of the Patriarchs, Temple of Sinawava, Angel’s Landing, The Virgin River Narrows…just to name a few. The entire location had a very spiritual feeling to me. In fact I feel honored just to have seen a place so beautiful.
I have had this trip planned for almost a year, and when I told people I was going, their invariable response was, “Pictures don’t do it justice.” Since I was going specifically to photograph the place, I nodded politely, but my internal dialogue was, “Well, just wait until you see MY pictures of Zion!” However, the question remains; do pictures adequately portray the majesty that is Zion National Park? I will have some thoughts about that at the end. However, for now I will let you be the judge. I hope you enjoy my journey to and images from Zion!
Day 1: The Virgin River Narrows
Barring a flash flood, there was only one place that I was going on the first day of my trip: The Virgin River Narrows. The reason? It was a single picture of The Narrows that inspired my trip in the first place. Last year as I was perusing a large format photography forum, I came across a photograph that literally made my jaw drop: a river winding its way through a slot canyon toward a bright orange wall. After staring at it for several minutes, I knew that I had to visit this place for myself. (Incidentally, the photograph was made by a large format film photographer named Ben Horne. His videos on YouTube are required watching if you have any interest in Zion or just amazing photography in general. I cannot recommend them enough.)
The hike though the Narrows begins at the end of your drive (or shuttle ride in my case) into Zion Canyon. The canyon is the most popular area of Zion with several spectacular hikes and views along the way. As you follow the river up through the valley, the towering canyon walls slowly begin to close in on you. At the end of the road, the Temple of Sinawava marks the beginning of your hike up the Narrows. An approximately half mile hike on paved terrain ends at a decision point. The canyon walls have now closed in so much that you either have to turn around or continue hiking solely in the river. I do not recommend turning around!
Hiking the Narrows, depending on the flow rate of the Virgin River, can vary from a walk in the park, to borderline dangerous, to impossible. Fortunately for me, the river was down on the first day of my trip so I was able to make it upriver with relative ease. (Side note: In the fall, water temps make special gear mandatory! I rented canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and dry pants. I stayed very comfortable in the frigid waters that sometimes reached waste deep.) I began the hike with what I am sure was the goofiest looking grin on my face; I was like a child on Christmas morning! I just could not get over the fact that I was getting to experience this for myself!
The primary goal of my first day in the Narrows was scouting, but first a little bit about lighting in slot canyons…specifically reflected light. It’s almost counterintuitive for landscape photography, but the best time to photograph the Narrows is when the sun is high in the sky with no clouds. The canyon walls are so narrow that light can only reach them during this time. When it does, light from the brightly illuminated wall reflects onto the opposite wall causing an INTENSE orange glow! It is a surreal experience to watch. However, because the lighting conditions change so often, you really have to scout out locations to know the time of day that light will be best. I took a lot of cell phone images on this day to remind me of location and time of day that the reflected light was present.
While cell phone pics aren’t terrible, I was itching to take my first image of the trip. As I rounded a bend in the river, I came across the composition below. I waited for people to clear out and then took this photograph.
Canon 5D Mk.III 33mm ISO 100 f/22 1.6s Warming Cir. Pol.
If I’m being honest, it’s not really a great picture. The composition is ok I guess, but the lighting is not as strong as it could be. However, when I’m visiting a place for the first time, I find myself getting nervous and rushed about photographing it. I’ve found that getting a first image out of the way, even if it’s not my strongest work, helps me calm down and relax for the rest of my trip. Just around the bend at the middle of this image, the Narrows opened up a bit more and revealed the following image.
Canon 5D Mk.III 27mm ISO 100 f/22 2.5s Warming Cir. Pol.
Still in search of that elusive reflected light glow, I continued onward. I took a few more cell phone pics of potential locations, but I was getting nervous because I had yet to see that signature orange wall and the sun was getting lower in the sky. Then I rounded one more bend and saw it. Just past a group of cottonwood trees, the canyon walls narrowed even more than they had been. At the end of this constriction was my golden (literally) wall. I actually had to work rather quickly in order to get the shot because as the sun was moving, bright direct sunlight started hitting the top of the wall. I tried a few compositions, but decided that a horizontal worked best. I call the image Canyon Oasis. In the desert an oasis is a welcome respite from the sand. In the Narrows, land is a welcome rest from hiking in water.
Canon 5D Mk.III 50mm ISO 100 f/11 0.5s Warming Cir. Pol.
I feel very fortunate to have captured this image on the first day for several reasons. As I said earlier, times and locations of reflected light have to be scouted. Coming across a strong glow by chance is very fortunate. Also, as my (bad) luck would have it, this was really my only day in the Narrows. Oh well, at least now I have a reason to go back!
Day 2: The Subway
There are things in life that you’ll never forget because they are beautiful. There are also things you’ll never forget because they are painful. The Subway is forever etched in my memory because it is both a beautiful and painful experience. Let me explain.
The Subway is one of, if not the most, famous landmark in all of Zion. If you Google Zion National Park, it’s the first image that appears. Getting there requires a bit of logistics though. First, access is limited (and as it turns out, STRICTLY enforced…another LONG story for another day) and requires a special permit. These permits are distributed based on a lottery system. Second, it’s almost like knowing about the Subway involves being in some sort of secret society. It’s not mentioned on most of the maps I came across, and when it is, it’s given the name of Left Fork of the North Creek. I realize that the park is trying to limit visitors, but as it turned out, having this on a map would’ve been helpful. More on that in a bit. Third, there is the small matter of the hike…
So the hike to the Subway starts innocently enough. From the parking area, you start out on a well-defined, flat trail for approximately half a mile. Then you arrive at the descent; it’s literally 500 ft straight down. Believe me when I say this, as it’s NO exaggeration. Falling would be a poor idea. About halfway down it hits you; you’ve got to climb back up this at the end of your hike. That thought remains in the back of your mind for the rest of your day!
Once you make the descent, you are on what is officially described as a route. It’s not a trail because the park does not maintain it. However, getting lost is not really an issue; you just follow the river. With towering sandstone cliffs on either side, there really is only one way to go. The bulk of the hike is only mildly inclined, but there are several (read that as 20+) river crossings. For the most part, these are instances of hopping from rock to rock. I was very glad to be hiking in my climbing approach shoes. The sticky 5.10 rubber inspired confidence, particularly as I was carrying nearly 50 pounds of photo gear on my back.
The Subway is an all-or-nothing proposition. Everything that’s worth photographing is at the end of the hike. The bulk of the 9-ish mile hike is beautiful, but there are no compositions (at least none that I saw) to be found. Not that you should try to either. The locations at the end of the hike are absolutely as beautiful as advertised and should be the focus of your day. There are three locations that I had scouted previously and knew I wanted to shoot: Archangel Falls, the “Crack”, and finally Subway itself.
The first of these locations that you arrive at is Archangel falls. As with a lot of hikes in Zion, as you progress the canyon walls start to close in on you. Eventually you reach a series of cascades over beautiful red-orange rock. This is Archangel Falls. If you catch it in the early/mid afternoon, the reflected light gives you a nice orange glow as a backdrop to the falls. There are plenty of compositions to be had; in fact, the biggest problem I had was being patient. You see, once you reach the falls, Subway proper is VERY close. However, I managed to stay focused on the task at hand and chose a horizontal composition with one of the slabs of rock used as a leading line. I am very pleased with the way this image turned out!
Canon 5D Mk.III 31mm ISO 50 f/11 0.8s Warming Cir. Pol.
Finishing Archangel Falls, the hike continues upriver to the Crack. Once you pass by the falls, most of your hiking is done in the river. This is where the hike really starts to become surreal. The water, by now, has spread into a thin sheet gently cascading over that same red-orange sandstone. With each step, my anticipation grew; I could feel the Subway getting close! However, the Crack absolutely has to be photographed first. Aptly named, the Crack is just that, a 2-3 inch crack cut by water into the sandstone. At nearly 100 feet long, the sight of water funneling down the Crack is something to behold. However, what has stuck in my mind as clear as the day it happened is the sound that the water was making. Words fail to describe it (and I’m still upset with myself for not videoing it) so you’ll just have to make the trip and experience it for yourself! I composed what I consider to be an Icon shot…the same famous shot of a beautiful location that everyone has. Here is the result.
Canon 5D Mk.III 50mm ISO 50 f/16 2.5s Warming Cir. Pol.
In the interest of full disclosure, that leaf was really there. I did however move two leaves that were just on the edge of the upper right border of the frame. They were ugly, distracting, and the water would’ve moved them soon anyway.
After capturing the Crack, it was time for the main event: the Subway. I have studied so many pictures of this that I could probably draw it in my sleep, but it was still breathtaking to actually see this stunning landmark in person. As I continued past the crack, the walls that had been steadily closing in now took on a curved nature. In fact, aside from a small opening at the top, you are almost entirely closed in. As you enter the Subway, you are hiking up from the “bottom” as it is seen in most pictures (including mine). As you hike up and to the left, you pass by stunning emerald colored pools; the intensity of the green varies depending how much sand is at the base of each pool. Finally you reach the last set of slippery cascades. Thinking that I knew Subway like the back of my hand, I was caught off guard by just how slippery the last 20 feet were. It definitely made me think about each step due to the amount of gear I was carrying. I did safely reach the top, but did see some people fall; be extra careful here! Another surprise was just how small the “photography platform” is at the top of Subway. After several attempts, I decided on a horizontal composition with a wide-angle lens.
Canon 5D Mk.III 31mm ISO 50 f/22 13.0s Warming Cir. Pol.
Again, I am thrilled with the result! It captured the scene EXACTLY as I saw it. If there were one minor qualm, it would be the fact that most of the pools were filled with sand, thus robbing them of the deep emerald green that is present in so many photographs. I had only intended on one composition here, but there was one pool that was still a beautiful green color. Therefore, I added another composition to highlight this pool as well as more of the “exit” of Subway.
Exit Stage Right
Canon 5D Mk.III 30mm ISO 50 f/22 5.0s Warming Cir. Pol.
As you leave Subway, the “high” from seeing such a beautiful location remains for quite some time. After about two hours of hiking though, you realize what lies ahead of you: 500 feet of torture. I cannot tell you the best way to conserve energy, but I can tell you what not to do…because I did everything wrong. First of all, don’t panic when you don’t recognize the terrain. You hiked down in the dark so of course it’s going to be a bit unfamiliar. Second, don’t ignore hydration. I did this and it’s one of the dumber things I’ve done in quite some time. Thanks to some good friends I met on this trip, I was able to overcome my mistakes and finish. However, I cannot state this enough. If you are carrying any amount of gear, this is a difficult hike. Seriously consider your physical condition before you attempt it. With that being said, memories of the pain have already started to fade, and all that is left are the images I captured. I will of course return…and shoot nothing but film next time!
Day 3: Umm…
My original (and bold for me) plan was to photograph my entire trip on 4×5 film. However, I quickly realized that I am not yet 100% comfortable and confident with that format, so I brought along the digital gear as well. My first two days were strictly digital, and I am thrilled with the results! But the call of film is hard to ignore. So on the third day, I made sure that I wouldn’t shoot any digital…because I only took my film camera with me! As it turns out, I exposed two sheets this day, and I did so very poorly. One was severely overexposed (a real feat considering it was color negative film), and the other was underexposed. Mistaking Fuji Velvia 50 for Kodak Ektar 100 will do that…who knew?!
The main issue was that I felt rushed. The sun was starting to get a bit low in the sky, and I did not want to repeat the way I felt at the end of the Subway day, so I was in a hurry. Also, loading two different types of film in the same holder is apparently a more complex activity than my brain can handle! It was listed correctly in my notes, but I just assumed both sides were the same type of film. It was a valuable, but expensive lesson to learn. It was also a heartbreaking lesson as Fuji Velvia 50 is no longer distributed in the US.
Day 4: Bryce Canyon National Park
After 3 days of hiking, my body was starting to feel it! I needed something easy to shoot. I had read the rim of Bryce Canyon was a very easy hike. Combine this with the fact that clouds were moving in ahead of a storm and my decision was easy: I was shooting Bryce Canyon at sunset.
Bryce Canyon is one of the “Big 5” National Parks in Utah, with Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion being the other four. It is famous for its hoodoos, unique spires of rock that seem to grow from the canyon floor. It is about an hour and a half drive from where I was staying in Springdale, but I didn’t mind the drive because all of southern Utah is stunning to see. Whereas Zion’s beauty is revealed as you drive in, Bryce remains hidden until the last possible instant. From where I parked, the rim of the canyon was a bit uphill. A short 50-foot walk gets you to the canyon rim, and you immediately feel as if you are standing on the edge of another planet. Canyon and hoodoos extend as far as you can see; it’s another place I recommend experiencing for yourself.
I found a location and set up my gear. It was the epitome of lazy photography; each shot taken below was from the exact same location…with a bench about two feet behind me. Talk about roughing it! Also, if you want to pretend to be famous, shooting large format at Bryce Canyon is absolutely the way to go. Not kidding, I had people coming to me asking if that could take MY picture. An unparalleled landscape all around, and they wanted pictures of my camera and me…wild!
I spent about two hours here just watching the light change and praying the wind would die down. As is the case with so many of my shots from this trip, everything was dependent on reflected light. Under the right conditions, some hoodoos can glow fire orange, while others can appear almost translucent. I never got the bright orange light (I believe sunrise may be a better opportunity to experience this), but I did get a pretty good show of translucent rock. Below are some of my favorites of Bryce as the light changed throughout the evening.
Shen Hao 4×5 Fuji Velvia 100 180mm f/45 1.0s 2-stop soft GND
Canon 5D Mk.III 100mm ISO 100 f/16 1/40s
Canon 5D Mk.III 50mm ISO 100 f/16 1/6s 3-stop rev. GND
Not pictured are the plethora of mistakes I made with film. For starters, I exposed ANOTHER sheet of Velvia 50 as Ektar 100; did I mention they don’t make that stuff in America anymore?! Also, I pulled the dark slide with the shutter open. When the click didn’t sound right, I knew immediately what I had done. I slammed down the dark slide again, but I knew there was no point…the film was ruined. Developed it anyway; made a surprisingly accurate exposure all things considered!
Day 5: Zion Canyon and the High Country
After an admittedly lazy day of photography, it was time to hit the trails again. The previous day’s predicted storm had not yet fully arrived, so I had high hopes that the advance clouds would produce an amazing sunrise. I would not be let down!
According to The Photographer’s Ephemeris (THE app to have for landscape photography…I highly recommend it), sunrise was going to be 7:53. Considering that I was going to be in a canyon, I thought it would take a while for the sun to actually reach a height to shine over the canyon walls. This proved to be inaccurate.
As I walked out of my hotel room at around 7:45, the clouds above were already bright pink. As I was about 20 minutes away from my first location in the park, I had already missed the best light. Walking to the car, I had the following mental conversation, “Alan, it was not smart to sleep in and miss the best light. You are perhaps the least intelligent person in the world.” In real life, that internal conversation may have been a bit less G-rated though.
Oh well, still things to shoot without pretty clouds. I quickly made my way to the park. Despite missing the best light, my plan to start the day was to shoot two relatively easy locations: The Towers of the Virgin and The Court of the Patriarchs. The Towers of the Virgin is located just behind Zion Museum. They have even built a convenient viewing deck for you to take in the best light! Direct light on the canyon walls during sunrise or sunset causes such a brilliant explosion of color that it is tempting to think it’s fake…until you experience it for yourself. The below image pretty much composed itself.
Canon 5D Mk.III 50mm ISO 100 f/9 1/40s
For obvious reasons, this image is named Flaming Towers. The center peak is called The Sundial…again for obvious reasons. I love how The Sundial and the shadow below it mimic each other! As soon as I took this image, I flipped the camera to take a series of shots for a panorama, but the sun had already moved so much that the peaks were no longer aligned.
After taking in the spectacular color of sunrise at The Towers of the Virgin, it was a quick 5-minute shuttle ride to my next location, the iconic Court of the Patriarchs. As with so many locations in Zion, this area is named after patriarchs in the Bible. The three peaks are named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Jacob, the rightmost peak, is actually obscured in the image below. What you see on the right is a mountain called Mount Moroni.)
Court of the Patriarchs
Canon 5D Mk.III 22mm ISO 100 f/9 1/160s 9-shot pan. stitch
I love the clouds in this photograph, but overall this image is not one of my favorites. It’s composed of 9 separate images stitched together. The original plan was for a massive panorama, but distortion prevented that from happening. It actually took a fair amount of stretching and warping to achieve this final state, hence it being not one of my favorites. I decided to include it though because it’s a famous location and the clouds were too good to pass up! What this image doesn’t capture (and it’s something that just cannot be portrayed accurately on any photograph in my opinion) is the shear scale of these peaks. To get them all in frame, you either have to shoot wide (as in 24mm or wider) or stitch a pan together. When you see them in real life though, the Patriarchs are massive and right on top of you! So much so that I was caught a little off guard when I first saw them, as they looked SO different than all the photographs I had looked at previously.
As the sun continued to rise higher in the sky, and the incoming storm continued on its path, several other nearby peaks were becoming illuminated. The photograph below, called First Light, is actually just to the left of the Court of the Patriarchs.
Canon 5D Mk.III 35mm ISO 50 f/22 1/5s Warming Cir. Pol.
Perhaps the area I struggle with the most in landscape photography is the intimate scene. This was a particularly difficult area for me in Zion as you have grand vistas everywhere! However, I was determined to find a composition on a much smaller scale. Therefore, for about the next hour, I hiked around the canyon and forced myself to look down. I came up with the following composition.
Canon 5D Mk.III 100mm ISO 100 f/16 1/10s
The occasional flood means there is no shortage of fallen trees in the canyon, so it was only a matter of finding one with an isolated leaf that still had some color. I like how the intense yellow of the cottonwood leaf is a stark contrast to the dull gray of the dead, fallen tree.
As late morning transitioned to early afternoon, the wind only became stronger. There was not a still scene to be found in the entire park. Combine that with the fact that it was now starting to rain, and I decided to head back to the hotel, have some lunch, and regroup a bit for the afternoon. After grabbing a bite to eat and reloading some film holders, I decided to drive around a bit and explore some of the other parts of the park.
Zion is accessible by car in three locations: north in the Kolob Terrace area, a middle area, and the most popular canyon location in the south end of the park. For this trip I would be exploring the high country in the middle of the park. I didn’t really have anything in mind; in fact, I brought my camera along as a bit of an afterthought. Mainly, I just wanted to explore different parts of the park on this particular evening.
As I began my drive, I could see that the early storm that dropped rain in the canyon was nothing but snow in the high country. It was beautiful! All of the higher peaks and plateaus were covered in a thin layer of white. Unfortunately, a thick layer of clouds made the light much too dull to make any interesting photographs. I had thoughts about doing a bit of hiking, but since I was just in a base layer and fleece (and my car’s thermometer had dipped into the 30’s) I decided to just do some lazy tourist exploring.
After spending an hour driving, I decided to head back. At this point in the evening though, the clouds had started to break a bit, and some of the taller peaks were catching the last bits of sunlight. I knew I had to capture this moment, but it was literally freezing outside; what to do?! There was no way I was getting out of my car, so I did the next logical thing. I pulled off onto the side of the road, rolled down my window, set up my tripod beside the car, and composed the scene. All of that was done through the driver’s side window; I’m pretty sure if there were such thing as a photography card, mine would’ve just been pulled. There was just no way I was getting out in that weather. Also, what you can’t see is that coming snowstorm just to the right of the frame. Despite the numerous rules of photography I broke, I am really happy with this image. I feel that it captured the mood of the evening very well.
Canon 5D Mk.III 100mm ISO 100 f/11 1/125s
Day 6: The Virgin River Narrows and Zion Canyon
The previous day’s rain was supposed to have cleared out, but I woke up to a completely overcast sky. I was desperate to get back to the Narrows at least once more, so with a chance of sun later in the day, I packed up and hoped for the best. I didn’t check the river flow rates before I left, but on my shuttle ride into the canyon, I noticed the river looked quite a bit higher than the first day I was there. The clouds were showing no signs of breaking either. Oh well, I decided at that point I was going to enjoy my day even if I didn’t take a photograph. Besides, at my height, if anyone could hike the Narrows in high water, it was going to be me!
My first step into the river killed all optimism I may have had. On my first day, there were sections where I could almost run in the Narrows if I had wanted to. This day was a much different story. Every single step required thought and scouting with a walking stick. I eventually adopted a strategy of four points of contact: both feet, a walking stick, and either my hand or entire body pushed up against the left side of the canyon. The extra surface of the canyon wall provided more stability against deeper waters and the current was not quite as swift near the walls.
However, progress was extremely slow. About 2 hours in, I came to an impasse. There was a sharp bend to the right in the canyon. This meant that all the water was slamming into my precious left side of the wall. I had to somehow cross over, but that meant leaving the wall and attempting deeper, faster water. I was struggling mightily in the “easy” part so I came to the inevitable conclusion that the Narrows weren’t going to happen for me that day. Oh well, it was a long shot anyway. My next order of business was turning around and walking back downstream. Sounds simple, but just getting turned around was probably the scariest part; not scary in the sense that I would get hurt. Just scary that I would fall and ruin a bunch of gear and film. Hugging the sandstone as best I could I eventually got headed in the right direction and after a few hours of slow going, I was back on solid ground. (Just for fun, I went back and checked the flow rate of the river. It was around 100 cubic feet per second around the time I was hiking. This was only “moderate” flow. I would really hate to be in this place during a flash flood. Talk about power!)
I made my way back to the shuttle and pondered my next move. There was still some color in the valley so I hopped off at the first stop downstream and searched for a composition. A stopped called Big Bend (perhaps named for the right angle turn the Virgin River makes) had a vibrant grove of cottonwoods with leaves still remaining just at the point where the river turned. I was practically dying to shoot some film, so I set up the 4×5 and found this composition.
Big Bend Grove
Shen Hao 4×5 Fuji Velvia 100 90mm f/45 4.0s Warming Cir. Pol.
Finally! I didn’t ruin a sheet of film! It’s a decent image, definitely not a wall hanger, but the exposure was good. The rain and higher water levels kind of made the water a funky color, but other than that I’m pretty pleased with this image. At this point in the day, instead of clearing up like it was supposed to, rain actually moved back in. Water and wooden film cameras don’t tend to play well together so I hopped back on the shuttle bus and prepared to head back to my hotel.
Just like always, I sat on the river viewing side of the bus because I’m essentially a four-year-old at heart and like to stay glued to the window. As we neared the final stops, I noticed the rain had stopped and all of these great looking clouds were hovering over the peaks and plateaus above the canyon. I made an impromptu exit at the Zion Museum (site of Flaming Towers above) and rushed out back to set up. It still takes me a while to set up, compose a scene, and focus though so by the time I had my 4×5 setup, the cloud layer was gone and everything was in direct sunlight. I think I might have said out loud “You’ve got to be kidding me!” at this point. However, a quick look to my left showed another cloud bank quickly approaching. I triple checked everything and waited for the best light to arrive. The following is the result.
Shen Hao 4×5 Fuji Velvia 100 180mm f/51 1.0s 2-stop soft GND
I love how different the light is from my first image here…and it only got better over the next half hour! As the clouds started to break up, the Virgin Towers were becoming quite a bit brighter than the trees below. While I would have loved to stick with the film, my meter told me that the light had exceeded the range of my film. I quickly transferred to my digital gear, and again waited. Little bits of blue sky were now appearing and I was awarded with my second favorite image from the trip!
Canon 5D Mk.III 50mm ISO 100 f/11 1/125s 2-stop soft GND
About 10 minutes after this, the skies completely cleared and all that was left was boring, afternoon sunlight. A group of photographers arrived and began rabidly snapping away, but the light was so terrible now. As I was leaving, I spoke with another photographer who had been there the entire time I was. Our sentiment was the same…if they only knew what they just missed!
Day 7: Double Arch Alcove
Honestly, after a full week in Zion I was getting pretty exhausted, but I had one last location in mind. The Double Arch Alcove was the perfect way to end the trip. The hike was described as “perfect for families with small children,” it was in the quiet, northern corner of the park, and from research I knew the light would last a while so I could take my time with film.
While Zion Canyon is (rightfully) the main attraction of the park, I highly recommend a visit to the northern-most section: the Kolob Terrace. You’ll practically have the place to yourself. The hike to the Double Arch Alcove is only mildly inclined and follows Taylor Creek upstream. This creek ranges from mildly trickling water to non-existent toward the end of your hike. I reached the alcove in a little over and hour, and as with so many things in Zion, was taken aback by its scale. Again, I had scouted out the area well, but still didn’t realize how tall it was!
Also, and I know I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but the canyon walls close in on you as you go further upstream. It’s narrow at the end, so again this scene is completely dependent on reflected light. Just across the alcove is a massive white sandstone wall that collects direct sunlight and illuminates the arches above the recessed alcove. I arrived in clear sun; sweet! I set up a composition…and clouds arrived. I’m not making this up, I promise. Determined not to give up, I waited for about 45 minutes and finally caught a break in the clouds.
Double Arch Alcove
Shen Hao 4×5 Kodak Ektar 100 90mm f/45 1.0s
I LOVE this image for the memories it brings back! First, it took patience. Second, I got to see a scene go from nothing to magic as the correct light arrived. The best way to describe the light is it’s like watching an eye on a stove heat up and glow red. The walls seem to glow from within. The experience is so convincing that you half expect the wall to be warm to the touch! Finally, and I’m going to seriously nerd out on some film here, but this exposure covers 10 stops! I took 6 readings on the main wall between the two arches and one in the cave below. I took one in the cave itself to give it some weight in my average, but my main concern was the orange wall. The cave measured -4ish and the little sliver of sky was well over +5. I was completely prepared to let those go black and white respectively; you just cannot imagine how dark that cave was! However, the film got it ALL; unbelievable! There is detail to the very back of the cave and clouds in the sky.
Based on my previous failures with Velvia 50, I was determined to leave with at least one decent exposure of that film. However, the above scene had WAY too much dynamic range for Velvia; I needed something much narrower. I decided to change lenses and focus on just main wall between the arches. Just as I placed my film holder, the scene went completely dead; more clouds! I was beginning to think this film was cursed! Determined though, I waited a bit more. I paced around a bit as the temps were in the 30’s, took the obligatory Instagram (@alanbrock for a shameless plug :)) photo of my gear, and talked with the few hikers that passed by. One of them even asked if I was famous; I told her not yet. Ha!
Finally, the white wall behind me started to get some direct sunlight. Right on cue, the orange wall of the alcove began to glow from within. I metered it approximately a million times to make sure and came up with a one second exposure. Nothing can stop me now! I pushed the shutter release, heard the click, and then the familiar buzz of a large format shutter. This is going to be perf… Oh no! Something went wrong! The shutter closed WAY too fast for a 1 second exposure. Does my shutter need service? I checked…and of course I had somehow changed it to a half-second exposure; this film IS cursed!!! Fortunately, after some complex math, I realized that two half-second exposures would do just as well. Therefore, I VERY carefully recocked the shutter and fired off another half second.
Golden Arch Pines
Shen Hao 4×5 Fuji Velvia 50 180mm f/32 1.0s
The most beautiful double exposure of my (very short) film career! And my goodness, check out that thermonuclear saturation only found in Velvia 50! To be honest though, I actually think Velvia is pretty realistic in this case. The glow was phenomenal!
After packing up, I made what I knew was going to be my final hike of this Zion trip. As opposed to every other hike I had made, I really took my time with this one. There was a perfect sitting log near one of the historic cabins on the hike so I took that opportunity to get some water and soak it all in. It is a very strange feeling to be all alone surrounded by that much back country. It is both peaceful and a bit unsettling…and I savored every last second of it! I sat for about half an hour just listening to the sounds. Just below me, Taylor Creek trickled downhill. It would eventually pick up steam and join with the mighty Colorado River. The wind also filtered through the massive finger-like canyons of the Kolob Terrace providing an ever present background roar. I was completely at peace.
And also starting to get a bit cold again. So I reluctantly saddled up my gear and headed out…sad to leave the tranquility of the moment. I reached my car about half an hour later, but I still didn’t want to leave just yet. I drove a few more miles until the road dead-ended at an overlook. Just below me was Kolob Canyon, and across from me were the massive finger canyons. This alternating formation of canyons and plateaus was actually my first vision of Zion from the plane ride in. It seemed only appropriate to spend some time here on my last day. I hiked down from the road a bit, and again meditated for about an hour. The peace I felt was overwhelming. At that very moment I made up my mind…I’m going back next year!
So, WAY back in the beginning I considered a bit if photographs could do Zion justice. The photographer in me would like to say “Yes, absolutely they do!” However, I think a more honest answer is yes and no. I feel some scenes (Narrows, Subway, Towers of the Virgin) are reflected exactly in photographs. The shear scale of Zion is difficult to capture though. For someone who had never been there, I absolutely knew this place as well as I could. Yet, I was still taken by surprise and how massive some of the formations are. Also, there is no way to capture the three dimensional feeling of driving through the canyon and seeing these massive monoliths appearing around each bend. The solution? You’ve got to visit it yourself! I hope these images inspire you (like I was once) to take a journey like this on your own; it’s a beautiful world out there!