Zion 2010: A Retrospective

The months leading up to my fall 2010 visit to Zion National Park were filled with anticipation and planning. Based on my success and failures in 2009, I formulated a plan to shoot as much as possible, and return with at least one solid keeper. On the drive to Zion, I had the opportunity to think through my goals and objectives for the trip.

Last year, many of my photos suffered from technical issues. These photos were lost due to factors well within my control. Since then, I have learned much more about metering, composition, and the other skills necessary for large format photography.

Shooting color slide film in low light with a large format camera is perhaps the most difficult aspect of landscape photography. A consistent and reliable metering ability is the most important skill a photographer can possess.  This year, I’m pleased to say that my metering technique was solid. There were no surprises upon viewing my developed film.

For that reason alone, I consider this trip to be a success.

Confetti (Fuji GX617 w/ 105mm | unrecorded exposure time @ f/32)

On Day 5 of this trip, I photographed a maple grove within the main canyon of Zion. This reminds me of a photo I took one year earlier.  My goal was to photograph the leaves at my feet. Last year, I setup a shot, and failed miserably.  The photo looked contrived, and I also managed to shoot it nearly 2 stops overexposed. To this date, I still have no clue how that happened. I clearly remember checking every setting.

This year, I shot an “as I found it” photo of maple leaves on the ground.  Rather than using my 4×5 camera, I used my chaos camera — a Fuji GX617 panoramic camera. Subjects lacking a defined focal point are difficult to compose with a normal rectangular aspect ratio.  If I shoot the same scene with my panoramic camera, the strong horizontal emphasis lends order to the chaos.

Although it is not a grand vista photo, I was very happy with the way this shot turned out.  When printed large and framed, this is a photo that you can get lost in.  Is it the be-all-end-all photo from this trip?  Probably not, but it’s much better than what I walked away with last year.

Up until this trip, it was difficult for me to visualize which subjects would look good on my panoramic camera. Here in San Diego, many of the usual subjects just weren’t suited for that camera. However, my panoramic camera was often the best solution in Zion. The towering cliffs, and the chaotic undergrowth lend themselves well to the panoramic format.

Maple Dreamland (with slight crop from right)

Without the panoramic camera, finding a composition among this maple grove would be difficult.

The panoramic format is also ideal for sweeping views within the Narrows. Here, the wide panoramic format allows the viewer’s eye to follow the course of the river.  I can’t imagine trying to find a composition with a normal camera.

The Vortex | Fuji GX617 w/ 105mm | 5 minutes @ f/32 | Velvia 50 120

I love everything about the camera, but up until now, I have not produced anything to justify keeping this expensive camera.  Quite frankly, I pondered selling this camera on ebay before my trip.  I’m glad I didn’t!  Ten days in Zion taught me the importance of this camera.

The river shot points out another thing I learned on this trip.  In the past, I was hesitant to move subjects within the scene. This was not because I felt it was unethical — It was because my past attempts looked contrived.

Like most things, practice makes perfect. On this trip, many of my photos involved moving rocks to strengthen a composition. In my photo “The Vortex,” I fully admit to adding the large rock on the left side of the composition. Without this rock, there was nothing to anchor the composition.  I carefully placed the rock (VERY HEAVY) in a way that is natural — paying close attention to the existing water line on the rock.

Paradise Cove | Ebony RW810 | Nikkor 150mm | Polarizer | 2 minutes @ f/45

My photo “Paradise Cove” also features rocks that were moved for the composition. Now that I called attention to this fact, I’m sure they are easy to spot. Two of the three clustered rocks in the lower right were placed there. On a photo critique forum, several people noticed that the foreground rock was shaped like a heart. I wish I could say this was intentional — but it was a happy accident.

This year at Subway, I was able to capture a vertical composition with my 8×10 camera. This is not the shot I was going for, but I’d say that the composition works. Next year, I will try once again to capture a horizontal composition. I know this must seem strange to those shooting digital SLR cameras where you can easily experiment with composition and orientation. With my 8×10 camera, it is difficult to even see the ground glass. You cannot see the entire composition at once, so it is difficult to see what works, and what doesn’t.

Subway in Full Glow (Velvia 100 8x10)

I was very fortunate to spend 6 full days in the Narrows at Zion. During that time, I took comprehensive notes on where and when to find the best reflected light. I can’t claim to know *every* instance of reflected light, but the photos I’ve posted from this trip showcase some of my favorite shooting locations.

I plan on using this information in the coming years to either lead tours into the narrows, and/or create an eBook Guide to the Narrows with the best shooting locations/times. Most photographers will stumble upon a good glow or two — but I can lead you to many more in just one day.

I already anticipate my return to Zion in the fall of 2011. I will revisit many of the locations I discovered this year, and scout many new areas as well. I don’t think I will ever tire of visiting this amazing National Park.

4 Responses to “Zion 2010: A Retrospective”

  1. Ed Schaffroh Says:

    I love you Narrows images. Thanks.

  2. Yashica Mat 124G: Women and Dreams « TLRgraphy Says:

    […] 6×17 panoramic cameras, such as the Fuji GX617, which still fetches a fortune on eBay. In the right hands these can produce stunning images, and in the wrong hands they can produce boring dross, just […]

  3. Eric Says:

    Your Paradise Cove photo is the best I’ve seen from this spot. Too many photographers put the rocks right in front of the lens for that “in your face” shot.

    Your photo proves that the beauty of this spot lies in the entire scene, not just on a single rock.

    I really like your 6×17 maple shots too. I just picked up a G617 and am having a custom ground glass made. I had intended to get a GX617 but the deal I found on the G617 was too good to pass up.

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