Zion 2010: Day 2 (Subway)

Monday, November 1, 2010

My alarm sounded several hours before sunrise.  With exception of the rolling breeze, the campground was silent.

This time of year, subway never sees direct sunlight. The best shooting times are in the late afternoon, so a pre-dawn start is not truly necessary. However, with an 8×10 camera, I need time to scout a location, and decide on a composition. The last thing I need is to feel pressured when setting up my camera.

My goal was to be the first to arrive at Subway proper.  I did not plan on shooting any other photos that day.

I arrived at the trail head with just over an hour until sunrise.  I checked over my gear, ate a quick breakfast, then hit the trail.

If you have never hiked subway before, I would not recommend starting the hike before sunrise. The trail is hard to find in the dark — even with a headlamp. This was my forth time hiking subway, so I was very familiar with the trail.

The weather forecast was ideal for subway — clear skies with only a slight breeze.

On this trip, clouds are the enemy. In order to get the beautiful reflected light I was after, even a thin layer of high clouds will snuff out the good light.

My first glimpse into the canyon confirmed my best estimates on the fall color. Most of the cottonwoods were showing prime color. The younger trees were still green, but the older and stressed trees formed a procession of neon yellow torches.

I have heard from many people that fall color was a week behind schedule this year. This proved ideal for my trip. In past years, the stunning maples were well beyond peak color by the time I reached Zion. This year, I threaded the needle with my timing. The maples were amazing.

Several miles up stream, I encountered a beautiful maple grove.  Each crimson leaf was held delicately in place.

Such scenes are amazing to witness in person, but difficult to photograph. Upon seeing this tree, I was inspired to find and photograph a perfect maple grove in Zion. It was certainly a high order, but I had time to properly scout the park. On a side note, I find it somewhat amusing that none of my photos have trees in them — seriously, check out my gallery — not a single tree.

After several hours, and many miles, I reached my destination.

Upon arrival, I took a moment to study subway. My goal was to shoot a horizontal photo of this location. A horizontal composition helps give a sense of peace and tranquility. I felt that was very fitting for subway.

Unlike a SLR where you have a bright viewfinder, the ground glass on an 8×10 is VERY difficult to see in such low light conditions. Setting the focus is not easy, but composition is the biggest problem. it’s difficult to see the entire composition at one time. Imagine shining a flashlight through the forest at night. You can see the trees overhead, or the ground at your feet, but not at the same time.

My camera is an Ebony RW810, and I brought two lenses with me: Nikkor 150mm (wide angle) and a Nikkor 300mm (normal). The advantage of the 300mm is that it has a “fast” 5.6 aperture. This allows me to see the image much better on the ground glass.  My wide angle is f/8 lens, which becomes very difficult to see in low light.

I mounted the 150mm, and tried out a few compositions — nothing seemed to click. When I shot horizontal, there was too much dead space in the composition. When I switched to vertical, there was far too much foreground.

The deep pools of water, and the slippery sandstone don’t allow for very creative tripod placement in subway. I am convinced that an ideal horizontal composition is possible, but I simply could not find it.

I switched to my normal lens, and tried to find a composition.

When I still had my Canon gear, I often shot with an ultra wide angle lens. My philosophy was to get close, and shoot wide. Upon switching to large format film, I had the same shooting habits. With time, I have learned that a higher perspective is very useful. Rather than having my tripod mere inches above the subject, I have learned to seek a higher perspective.

I’ve heard that Ansel Adams shot many photos from the roof of his vehicle. I never understood why, until I took up large format. A higher perspective places more emphasis on the mid-ground, which further strengthens a composition. The elements of a composition often fit better when you include more mid-ground.

I’ve also known that many large format photographers tend to shoot with a normal lens. With my Canon setup, a 50mm lens was “boring” when used for grand vista shots. The use of rear movements on large format transforms a normal lens into an abnormal lens.  You can change the size of the foreground relative to the background.  This allows me to “fit” a subject onto the ground glass.  Background too big?  I can make it smaller.  Foreground too small?  I can make it bigger.

Pay close attention to the rear piece of wood on my camera in the below photo. See how it is angled forward? The top of the rear standard represents the bottom of the photo, and the bottom represents the top of the photo. By angling it this way, I am effectively enlarging the background.

The front standard (where the lens is located) is angled in a similar fashion to the rear standard. If you look very close though, you’ll see it’s not quite the same angle. That allows me to change the angle of the plane of focus. I have the front tilted so that the plane of focus extends from the bottom edge of the photo to the top edge of the photo. This allows me to get everything sharp. You can do the same thing with a tilt shift lens on a digital SLR.

Ebony RW810 w/ Nikkor 300mm | Lee Hood | Gitzo GT5541

I settled on a vertical composition with my normal lens with a higher than usual perspective.

I’m still a bit bummed about not finding a horizontal composition — maybe next time.

After setting up my camera, I was joined by 4 other photographers. For most of them, this was their first visit to subway.  I let them know that the best light would be in the afternoon.

We waited.

A peak at the ground glass. I used a long exposure on my G12 to show some detail.

Just as the light was getting good, a group of  top-downers rappelled into subway.  They had come the longer top-down route which is technical hike that includes 3 rappel points.

The calmness of subway was very much disturbed by their arrival. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has the right to be there. That being said, it is good karma to be considerate toward others.

The group spoke with an accent that I could not place — perhaps they were visitors from abroad. Of the 4 people that clunked into subway, there was only 1 that caused a problem.

A woman wearing a wetsuit appeared to be the ring leader of the group.

Imagine this — 5 photographers lined up, working very hard to photograph a scene. We were not milling around and making small talk. Each photographer was standing behind their respective camera, actively looking through the viewfinder and shooting.

My tripod was about 3 feet from the wall, which gave very good access for people entering or leaving subway. I made sure to provide this space, and be considerate toward others.

The woman plunked here equipment down inches from my tripod leg, then laboriously snapped several photos of subway with her point and shoot and built in flash. She was doing this, seemingly interwoven with my tripod legs. I politely told her to be careful of my tripod legs and not to bump them.

She snapped back “Well… It’s in my way!”

I guess my 3 foot gap was not nearly enough for her.  Strange.  Her statement would become more ironic as the events unfolded.

The woman then asked if I would take her photo. I was literally speechless. As I struggled for words, one of the other photographers volunteered to take her photo.

It gets better.

Unconvinced that the photo was enough, the woman was determined for something better. She handed the camera to her friend, and told them to record video.

She proceeded to sit down next to my tripod, push off, then slide down into the pristine emerald green pool.

I exchanged glances with the 4 other photographers beside me. We all had the same expression on our faces.

I can understand if the woman politely asked if she could be silly, and slide down into the pool — but no notice was given and her actions were impulsive. I guess she didn’t realize that we were taking photos.

After the slide, she checked the camera, and decided it was not good enough

Commence slide #2! With a loud echoing splash, waves of water spilled outside the pool, and the water became murky.

Nope, still not good enough!

Commense slide #3! The murky silt further clogged the pool.

We watched at she continued to slide into the pool over and over — seemingly unaware of the cameras pointed at her. How can someone be some oblivious? I really wish I could have recoded this on video, but I was very concerned that she was going to knock over my tripod.

As the group made their way around the corner, a sense of calm was restored to subway.

Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 300mm | 1.5 minutes @ f/45 | Velvia 100 8x10

Several hours later, here is what it looked like with an even stronger glow:

Subway in Full Glow (Velvia 100 8x10)


Am I happy with this shot?  I don’t know. I think I’ll have to sit on it for a while.  I’m bummed that I wasn’t able to get the horizontal composition I was after, but I made good use of a leading line from the lower right, and I did a good job balancing the foreground pool with the background glow. I used rear movements on the camera to enlarge the rear glow in relation to the foreground pool.  You would never notice this had I not mentioned it, but it’s just one of those tricks that is possible.

After taking my shots, I packed up my gear and hit the trail. I was treated to a great show of color on the hike back to the trail head.

15 Responses to “Zion 2010: Day 2 (Subway)”

  1. Ron Carroll Says:

    Very nice video production; top quality and I really enjoyed it. The dinosaur tracks were amazing. Is their location well documented? I did the subway a year ago and had no idea they were there; sure would have enjoyed seeing them. And the story of the woman hiker/swimmer was bizarre. Hard to imagine someone being so inconsiderate of others; fortunately she represents the extreme case, but still… So, are you going to be sharing your technique for drying out your boots? Or maybe you took a couple pairs. Anyway, good work. Thanks for putting it together for us.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The Dinosaur footprints are just over 1.7 miles from the trail head. It’s right at the point where I lose GPS reception. They are on the left side of the river.

      I naturally end up taking a break at that point, even if I’m unaware that I’m approaching their location.

      I did take two pairs of boots with me. They are identical boots, but one pair is dedicated for the wet hiking — the other for the dry hiking. Nearly all my hiking on this trip was wet hiking though.

      I was wearing neoprene socks, so that kept my feet warm. Also, I had no issues with blisters or anything else,

      I was camping at the south campground, and every night, the wind rolls through the canyon in waves. It makes for great sleeping weather, but it also is fantastic for drying wet clothes/shoes. I left my wet boots and my neoprene socks out on a rock overnight, and they were mostly dry in the morning. That is with exception for two nights when they were frozen solid in the morning… 🙂

  2. Bob Says:

    Great video Ben…really enjoyed this one to put it all in context. Never been to there before so this was a great travelogue as well. Too bad about not getting the horizontal shot you were after. Not being a large format shooter would a 4×5 have been better to get that shot or does it even matter??
    Hopefully the women is not allowed to breed….could do with alot less of those types!!!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      In that situation, the 4×5 would definitely be a lot easier to see. Since the ground glass is smaller, you can see it all at one time. Also, my wide angle lens on the 4×5 is a bit faster so the ground glass would also be brighter. I tried to take my G12 under the dark cloth of the 8×10 when I was setting up the subway shot, but it turned out black so I gave up. Later in the trip when I’m setting up in brighter areas, I have some video of the ground glass, and I give my thoughts on the composition.

      In some ways, not having that horizontal shot is good because it gives me motivation to go back. I think I found a pretty ideal shot with the normal lens, but it’s always nice to leave something on the table for a return visit.

      I still can’t believe that woman. She was oblivious to the world. All 5 of us were speechless. I had a feeling that if I said something, she would have snapped.

  3. Cris Says:

    Great videos Ben … keep them coming. What camera did you use for the videos?

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I used a Canon G12 for the video. I debated if I should get an actual video camera, but the size of the G12 is great, and I like that it also makes an excellent trail camera. I use a tamrac zipshot tripod (made of tent poles) for the stationary shots, and I have a monopod w/ cable release that I use for the shots when I’m hiking around with the camera and I’m narrating something.

  4. David Says:

    Great video Ben. Videographer may be in your future.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks David. I certainly enjoy the process of putting the videos together. It makes for a fun project, and gives me something else to think about in the field.

  5. Sharon Van Lieu Says:

    I think National Geographic should sign you up for some television specials. You do a great job on these videos, Ben. Thanks!


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Sharon. I figure that since we are in such a video-rich society, I might as well embrace it. It’s one thing to walk away from a location with a cool photo, but it’s another to document the process for later down the line.

      I started doing the videos because it helps me remember where I was, and what I was thinking. It turns out that they are also fun to share with others. I think it will be awesome for me to look back at these videos several decades down the line when I’m further into my career.

  6. Photography trip to Zion National Park | i am indisposed Says:

    […] The trail to the Subway wanders through the forrest, then drops steeply down to North Creek. From there you bushwack and cross the river a million times for 4 miles or so. It’s a long, rough, strenuous hike. While the Narrows hike is portrayed as a big deal, and with the potential for flash flooding, It’s not that big a deal really. But the Subway trail is rough. We didn’t have any problem with it, we’re hard core. So was the dude who lugged a 90 pound pack with an 8 x 10 film camera up the trail. [Just found out that this guy was So Cal FILM Photographer, Ben Horne. This is his report from that day.] […]

  7. Wolfy Says:


    Nice! Good write up. Just found this. I was one of the photogs there that day. It was cool hanging out and checking out your camera. I couldn’t see a thing when i looked under the hood. Great reliving the wacklady. I think at one point she almost knocked each of us and our gear into the drink.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Small world eh? It was great shooting with you guys back at Subway.

      I really enjoyed reading your blog post from the trip. Very funny stuff!

      It was interesting to read the other accounts of the crazy lady. Like I said when we were there — it’s probably best I didn’t have my bear spray on that hike.

  8. Barrett Donovan Says:

    Hey Ben, my name is Barrett…I’m Mike’s (Wolfy’s) friend from above.
    Added a bit about you in a recent photo I posted on flickr although it sounds like you might have seen it
    Great write ups man, really nice videos.
    You got some killer shots! Seems like you had a super trip – glad to hear it.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Good hearing from you Barrett! I enjoyed viewing the photos on flickr. It was interesting to see how green those trees were near Arch Angel falls in the summer time. I’m so use to seeing it in the fall.

      Also, your Dusy Basin shot is awesome. That’s some really sweet light!

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