Colorado Plateau Trip: Lessons Learned

As I have mentioned many times before, photography is an endless process of learning. There is something to learn from each trip, each photo, and each location.

Most of my destinations on this trip were well known to me. This trip represented my 4th trip to Toroweap, My 4th visit to Buckskin Gulch, my 3rd trip to White Pocket, and I’ve lost track for Zion. With each location, I visited with a preconceived image in my mind based on previous attempts.

My goal was to capture a horizontal image at Toroweap, which I knew would be a difficult composition. I found something that looked like it might work, then dedicated to the shot. The next morning, I took 4 shots. The first 2 were good, the remainder suffered from lens flare. My technique for blocking the sun with the darkslide on the first two was right-on.  I questioned my judgment, and took the other shots out of fear that my dark slide was actually blocking the lens. This goes to show that I really do need to get a lens hood for this beast of a camera. I’ll have to get both a wide angle and normal hood for the Lee system. As I drove away from Toroweap, I thought for sure that I was walking away empty handed. You can imagine my relief when this is what I got back from the lab.

Toroweap Sunrise: Ebony RW810 | 300mm Lens | Velvia 100 8x10

To avoid disappointment with large format, I have learned to expect the worst, and be appreciative of what I receive from the lab.  I can blame nobody but myself when a shot does not turn out.  Likewise, when a shot does turn out, I know that my persistence, technical judgment, and effort paid off.  It is a wonderful feeling.

Buckskin Gulch is a favorite location of mine.  I am drawn to bold color, lines, and texture. Several of the subjects I photographed in here might not catch the attention of a passerby, but I’m a sucker for sandstone texture.  My favorite texture shot from the canyon is this particular section of cliff.

Wall of Ghosts: (Ebony RW810 | 450mm | Fuji Velvia 50 8x10 | 30s @ f/64)

This was a very straightforward shot really.  I waited until the reflected light was optimal, then made my exposure.  No special tricks, no fancy techniques, just a straightforward meter reading from my incident meter.  I originally planned on using just the lower section of this image (try a browser crop), but I ended up including the top portion as well.  We’ll see what I decide when it comes to print it.  The texture of this image is absolutely amazing up close.

After capturing this shot, My goal was to capture a photo that was elusive to me — a glow of reflected light.  After scouting the canyon for a couple days, I found a great subject.  This was a fast moving glow that only lasted for about 5 minutes. I was not fast enough to capture it that day.  I noted the time, and arrived early the following day.  Reflected light is like clockwork.  The following day will present nearly the exact same conditions — unless there are clouds.

I arrived early, and waited for the light to appear.

Canyon on Fire: Toyo 45AII | Nikkor 210mm | Velvia 50 4x5 | 30s @ f/45

I’d like to share my method for metering this one.  I started with a base metering by walking to the background of this scene, and doing a simple incident meter reading with the globe facing upward.  This would give me a benchmark exposure to ensure a properly exposed canyon floor in the background.  I returned to my shooting position, and switched to my spot meter.  I metered around the scene until I found a patch of sand in the foreground that matched my incident reading.  This served as a good neutral reference. I set that to be the average, then evaluated the highlights and the shadows. The brightest highlights were metering ever so slightly above +2.  I knew that they would contain enough detail.  The shadows on the left wall were metering at -2.4.  This was a bit of a concern, but I knew that I would rather have  good highlights with dark shadows than good shadows with blown highlights.  Just to be certain, I bracketed my exposure.  As it turns out, my middle exposure was perfect. I have complete trust in my Sekonic 558 meter.

Next up was my side trip to White Pocket.  Even though the conditions weren’t quite right, I tried some star trail shots.  It was a cold night sleeping on a rock, so it would have been great if that shot turned out — but it didn’t.  Next time, I will need to consider pushing the film, using a longer exposure, and perhaps trying for a bit more moonlight for the foreground.  This location holds a lot of potential for star trails, but that will be realized on another visit.

I had the opportunity to scout out another shot while I was there .  That shot will need to wait for a wonderful dramatic cloudy sunset around this time of year — maybe monsoon season next year?

Zion was my final destination.  I absolutely love that place. The river was swollen from snow melt, so the Virgin Narrows were off limits. This was not a surprise based on the amount of silt I saw in the river as I drove toward St. George a week prior.  The river was about 5x the typical flow.

I had heard that the left fork of the Virgin River was fed mostly by spring water.  Had I known that it too receives a lot of snow melt, I wouldn’t have even attempted the hike to Subway.  The left fork was raging with the intensity you typically find in the Virgin River.  The beautiful red sandstone was completely covered with whitewater.  I made a judgment call that it was too dangerous to reach my final destination, so I turned back.  I was 99% of the way there.  Had I been able to reach Subway, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been very photogenic.

Subway in May — not a good idea.  I’ll be back there again in October and November.

Overall, I learned more about some of my favorite locations, and I’m proud to say that I didn’t make any amusing mistakes such as shooting an empty film holder, having the wrong ISO dialed into my meter, or anything else along those lines.  They sure make for great stories here on my blog.

So what’s next?  Where to from here? In a couple of months, I’m heading to Yellowstone for a relaxing trip.  In the mean time, I’ll be concentrating on local subjects, and spending much of my time marketing my images.

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