Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, UT Saturday, Sep 22 2012 

Angel's Landing

Angel’s Landing

Back in May 2011, I traveled to the Zion National Park in Utah with my friends and photographers John and Tyler. You can see a few of the photos I brought back here, here and here. The goal was to create some nice landscapes worthy of our portfolios and to have a good time hanging out with each other in the process.

Halfway there

Halfway there

One of the things we wanted to do while in Zion was hike the Angel’s Landing trail. It’s not a particularly difficult or strenuous hike, although it climbs a total of 1500 feet (500 meters). The main appeal of it is in the very narrow ridge that you have to negotiate while getting to your destination. Angel’s Landing is a tall rock protrusion into the valley and it was so named because it was believed that only angels had the ability to get up there.

But up there we went, the three of us, navigating the trail that at one point consisted of a meter-wide path with a death-defying drop on each side. There were plenty of places where you had to hold on to the chains bolted into the rock along the way, so that you would not lose your balance and fall hundreds of feet down.

I remember passing a family that included a girl who couldn’t have been more than 7 years old; the family was on their way down while we were on our way up. The three of us guys spurred each other on by saying, “If a 7-year old girl can get up there, then we can get up there, too.”

View from the Top

View from the Top

The view from up top was excellent. The main canyon of Zion was both in front of us and around us, and we truly had the “top of the world” feeling. Of course, by the time we got up there, it was mid-day, and the light was “wrong” for truly breathtaking photos, so I never really got to show these before, except to friends and family. But here they are, if nothing else, as a document of where I’d gone, like a t-shirt I purchased later that day in Zion. The shirt says “I hiked Angel’s Landing.”

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Virgin River, Zion National Park Friday, Jul 1 2011 

On our first full day at Zion National Park, Tyler and John and I wanted to take another stab at the Emerald Pool Lakes trail. We had done it a few years ago, but felt we could come back and get some good photos on it. While the jury is still out on some of those photos, after we came back down to the valley, we had time to kill before sunset, so we went to the Riverwalk Trail, at the very end of the canyon.

Record snowfall has turned Virgin river into a raging torrent, much like what we saw in Yosemite a year ago. At the end of the Riverwalk trail is the start of the Narrows, for which Zion is famous for, but the Narrows trail was closed because, well, there was no trail, only a river.

Virgin River

Virgin River

So we took a leisurely stroll, taking our sweet time setting up our gear in between the children and squirrels and other critters roaming around us. With no direct sunlight inside the canyon, we were trying to look at unusual scenes that you wouldn’t normally notice if you looked for grand vistas and bold scenes.

This was shot on Kodak Ektachrome 100 slide film with my medium format Mamiya 645 1000s camera, and, while I had some nice results with this film before, this was just flat and boring. I loved the composition, and the watery blur was in a perfect balance between a milky artificial look and the instant snapshot. There was depth there, and content, but the colors just didn’t work. This was a “maybe”, and that’s how I presented it to Tyler.

Virgin River, before Tyler-ification

Virgin River, before Tyler-ification

He made a few subtle adjustments, some of which are beyond my scope as a digital artist. He made some color enhancement – there was a lot of reflected blue light from the sky, and the green trees now look a lot better against the red canyon walls. He also encouraged the shadows and made the highlights behave. I’m posting the main photo the way he edited it, with the “before” image (direct slide scan) posted smaller, for comparison.

Canyon Stopper, Zion National Park, Utah Tuesday, Jun 28 2011 

Canyon Stopper

Canyon Stopper

My previous post was all about the mouth of the Taylor Creek Canyon in Zion National Park. Tyler and John and I spent a great evening shooting there, but, as I said, we also had a very productive day inside this canyon. As we followed a trail “less traveled by” into the canyon, the scenery continued to get more dramatic.

The canyon starts to narrow quite a bit and the vertical walls of red sandstone close in on top of you as you walk further in. There is a wooded meadow where we fanned out to photograph some really interesting scenes. Tyler in particular has some great shots, inspired by a great photographer Charles Cramer.

For me, not much really came together that day. I was enthralled with the beauty around me, but I seem to be trying too hard to convert it into a photograph. I have some interesting shots of tree canopies against colorful canyon walls (one such shot is presented below), but nothing really jumped at me (except a timid young buck, who really jumped away from me at one point).

Tree Canopy and Canyon Walls

Tree Canopy and Canyon Walls (digital)

But then I got a glimpse of the terminus of the canyon. Although we were already in May, there was a thick cover of snow in the everlasting shade. I kept walking toward the point where I expected the canyon walls to finally join, and then I couldn’t walk any further, because a massive boulder authoritatively announced that this is where the canyon ends.

I stuck my tripod in the snow until I felt it was solid enough to hold my medium format Mamiya 645. This was shot on Fuji Velvia 50 slide film, and yet again I failed to improve on the shot in post-production. I was thrilled with the range of red hues on display here; from the dark purples at the bottom, all the way to bright oranges up top, where sunlight bounces off the canyon walls. The image reminds me of something you might find at Antelope Canyon; sandstone carved by unrelenting force of water.

Taylor Creek Canyon, South Fork, Zion NP, Utah Wednesday, Jun 1 2011 

Life of a landscape photographer can be hard. Sometimes you have to try several angles until you find the right one. Other times you have to hike for miles to get to the right vista. There are those times when all your efforts go in vein because the light just isn’t there.

And then there are shots like this one, where all I had to do is not screw it up.

Taylor Creek Canyon

Taylor Creek Canyon

Most people come to Zion National Park through the eastern entrance and enjoy the spectacular main canyon, where Virgin river rages in between rocky cliffs. But, there is so much more to Zion than that, and on this visit, our third, Tyler and John and I decided to finally get at least a glimpse. This shot is a part of that glimpse.

The western part of Zion is comprised of several “finger” canyons, Kolob Canyons, which all face west and have awesome cliffs and peaks as their boundaries. There is a short road that goes up to Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, although you can pull over anywhere on that road and get an observation point just as wonderful.

We got here early that day (after shooting the sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin), shot this same scene early in the morning, until one of us noticed a trail winding down below us, leading into the canyon. The official Taylor Creek Canyon trail is in the next canyon over and ends with the scenic Double Arch Alcove, but, geniuses that we are, we decided to forgo the official trail and go with this one, which starts with a warning, informing hikers that Zion National Park doesn’t maintain it. After some rough going, we got to a gorgeous wooded meadow squeezed in between vertical canyon cliffs, and we spent most of the day there (more shots from the day at the canyon are coming soon). We hiked out, got some food in our bellies, and then came back to this spot for the sunset shoot.

I loaded a fresh roll of Fuji Velvia film into my medium format Mamiya 645 camera, got out of our car, walked about 100 feet, set up my tripod, and when the setting sun set the red cliffs ablaze, fired off this shot.

Sometimes, that’s all you have to do.

Formula Solution, Zion National Park, Utah Wednesday, May 25 2011 

I talked about The Formula before. All you need for a good photo is the golden hour light, just after sunrise or just before sunset, and Velvia 50 slide film. It almost doesn’t matter what your subject is; the colors that the chemical engineers in Fuji laboratories cooked up are so bold, they’re their own subject.

The Formula has some limitations and challenges. Slide film traditionally has a rather low dynamic range, meaning that your dark shadows (which usually afflict your photos during golden hour) are going to be indistinguishably black if you’re not careful. Even if you are careful, there’s often not much you can do. Such was the challenge here.

Formula Solution

These are the Towers of the Virgin, a series of ragged peaks soaring hundreds of feet above the little alcove at the mouth of the Zion Canyon, right behind the Visitor Center and museum. They have good fortune that they face the east and that their view of the rising sun is largely unobstructed. The bad fortune is that this geographical position makes them an easy favorite for sunrise subjects of photographers of all skill levels.

I’ve been to Zion with Tyler and John two different times before, and we have never been around this area this early in the morning. Below, in black and white, is a shot from one of the previous visits, where we snapped a few quick shots of this same scene in the afternoon. We also did some moonlit shooting on another occasion. So, on this morning, we decided to take this cliche shot off our to-do list.

I had some trouble composing the photo above. My normal lens was a bit too long, and some of the peaks would be left out of the shot. The wide angle lens seemed like an obvious choice, but I was frustrated that my shot consisted of a large swath of blue on top, equally large swath of black at the bottom, with a little strip down the middle.

Afternoon, 2008

The solution was simple – cut off the top and the bottom, and embrace the panoramic quality of the subject. There was really no point in trying to bring out the uninteresting vegetation of the meadow in the foreground. The resulting format is a little wider than 2:1, but I think it fits the scene. That afternoon, many photographs later, I will visit a park gift shop and find a similar shot on a very wide souvenir magnet; it’s nice to see that I have the same thought process as the park’s merchandising department.

Traditional Sunset, Eagle Crags, Utah Tuesday, May 17 2011 

I’ve been traveling with Tyler and John for four years now, for purposes of enhancing our friendship as well as our photography skills. And if there’s one thing that we bonded over more than over lens caps and ISO settings, it’s botched sunset shoots.

First, there was not one, but two sunsets in Monument Valley, a year apart, that left something to be desired. Then there was one when we didn’t get to Lake Powell in time on our way from The Wave, even though I hit 100 miles an hour to get there. There was one at Yosemite’s Tunnel View (although, the Sierras paid us back a few days later with a magnificent sunset from Sentinel Dome). And then the one when the skies finally cleared only when we were already many miles on our road out of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park…

If there’s one thing we can count on, that’s a less-than-perfect sunset.

Traditional Sunset

Eagle Crags, UT

And here we were, three hours before sunset, after a morning hike to Angels Landing, after driving up a bad dirt road, getting perilously off the hiking trail, setting up our tripods in between the bushes and trees, wondering if we will get rained on before the skies clear and allow some sunlight onto the peaks in front of us.

The peaks are called Eagle Crags, and they’re located just outside Zion National Park, near Rockville, UT. We saw them a few sunsets earlier, as they were the peaks getting the very last light, due to the fact that they’re outside the main canyon of the park, so the light lingers on them just a little longer. Tyler found a road on the map, and the road led us to a BLM hiking trail, which eventually goes all the way to the foot of the Eagle Crags hill.

Eagle Crags, UT

Velvia film shot, not as good as the digital

Skies were dark and foreboding, which made for a dramatic background. We were cheering for the sun to break through the cloud bank to the west and light up the red sandstone. We had reason to hope: it happened a little earlier, but it was not the magical “golden hour light”. I captured it on Fuji Velvia 50 film, shown here, and it looks nice, but it’s not quite the same as the main digital photo, taken just that much later. Light was changing fast, and I never snapped another film shot. I didn’t even time to change my lens – it was gone in a flash.

Still, we’ve seen some photos in the local galleries, and this formation, somewhat off the beaten path, offers great potential for some wonderful sunsets. On this evening, however, our tradition continued.

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