Tuesday, November 1, 2011
It was well before sunrise when my alarm sounded.
Yesterday’s scouting trip laid the groundwork for today’s mission. It is a simple plan really — all Shane and I have to do is retrace our steps from yesterday, but an hour earlier. Two shots await us in the Virgin Narrows.
I put on my dry pants, laced my boots, and we hit the road.
Let’s be clear about something here. Hiking up a river at night is not something I recommend. Though the Virgin River was flowing at very safe level, it is difficult to judge the current, and the depth of the water by headlamp alone.
With the knowledge gleaned from Day 1, I felt comfortable starting this hike well before sunrise. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have attempted it.
I wasn’t looking forward to the deep stretch of water that stood between us and our early morning shooting location. It is difficult enough to juggle a 75lbs pack while wading in nearly chest deep water. Doing so in the dark makes it all the more challenging.
The deep stretch must be crossed along a narrow, submerged sandbar. The edge of the sand bar is precarious at best. It has a tendency to crumble, sending the unfortunate hiker into deeper water.
We approached the deep section, and stowed each others hiking poles. A sure footing was guaranteed so long as you follow the narrow sandbar.
I took off my backpack, resting its full weight on my knee. I was standing in shin deep water along the right wall.
I lowered my head, and hoisted the pack onto my shoulders. The weight shifted, and I took a step forward to compensate. The backpack snagged my headlamp, sheering it from my head. It dangled precariously. Without the headlamp, I couldn’t see.
I shifted my weight, and caught the headlamp with my right hand just as it broke free. Pain surged through my left shoulder as I strained to control the momentum of the pack with my left arm.
I regained control, and put on the headlamp. Finally able to see, I made my way across the deep section of water.
I nicknamed this stretch “Zion’s Alarm Clock.” The water level was slightly higher than my drypants — leading to occasional busts of vivid awareness.
We made our way upstream until we reached our first shooting location. Our timing was perfect. It was an hour before peak light on the first glow.
With no dry ground in the immediate vicinity, I stowed my gear downstream on a rocky riverbank. I assembled my camera, and ported it some 50 yards to the shooting location.
In this magnificent stretch of the narrows, the river is only 30 feet wide, and flows wall-to-wall. A beautiful orange glow skims across the chiseled canyon walls, resulting in a mysterious sort of light — unlike any glow I’ve ever photographed. When combined with the green hue of the river, the scene has a tranquil, subterranean vibe.
I used a polarizing filter to help control the reflections on the surface of the water. I held it to my eye, turned it until the surface reflections disappeared, then backed it off a tad. It’s important to leave a bit of glare to give the water more dimension on film. I noted the number on top of the filter, screwed it to my lens, and properly aligned it. It would have been impossible to judge the effectiveness of the polarizer while viewing the dim ground glass.
The best glow was only 20 minutes away — I began metering the scene.
Two years ago — almost to the day, I attempted to take this exact shot. It was my first time in Zion with the 8×10, and I was unfamiliar with the many technical aspects of large format. My composition was solid, but the photo was horribly soft.
I learn best by making my own mistakes. Seeing those soft, poorly exposed transparencies taught me an important lesson. At $20 a click, I’m a fast learner.
I chose color negative film to shoot this photo. Known for it’s ability to show detail with high contrast scenes, color negative film also provides a nostalgic feel — which I’m learning to embrace in my landscape photography.
The first exposure was on Kodak Ektar 100. I left the shutter open for 11 minutes at f/45. This exposure time compensated both for the polarizer, and reciprocity failure.
Upon replacing the dark slide, I realized the back of my camera was loose. The film holder and ground glass are held in place by two metal sliders. When properly secured, the fit is snug. Otherwise, the film holder can move, and light can potentially enter the camera. This is a VERY bad thing.
I immediately recognized my error, and used a second film holder with a sheet of Kodak Portra 160VC. This film is more sensitive to light, which allows a faster shutter speed. I snugged up the metal clips, re-cocked the shutter, and took a second photo. This time, it was 7 minutes @ f/45.
The first shot suffered from technical issues from the unsecured camera back. Luckily, the second shot turned out great.
This shot was 2 years in the making. My ability to properly capture this scene is a testament to my personal development as a large format shooter.
Keep in mind that this is just a quick flatbed scan of the film. Other than a bit of dodging and burning, I haven’t done much in Photoshop.
With the first shot under my belt, I moved to my second location.
I debated between a horizontal and a vertical composition. Though I prefer to shoot horizontal as much as possible, a vertical composition placed emphasis on the beautiful glow.
At this location, the Virgin River zig-zags down a long stretch of canyon. Direct light strikes the right wall, illuminating this grand corridor in a spectacular glow.
The shooting window ends abruptly when direct light spills into view.
I selected my normal lens (300mm) and used a polarizer to control excessive glare in the foreground.
I began by taking two bracketed exposures on Velvia 50. In such contrasty conditions, I’d rather be safe than sorry. I followed up with a single exposure on Kodak Ektar 100 color negative film. I’ve used Ektar in slot canyons before, and knew it would give good color and tonality.
Despite my initial fears of overexposure, the Velvia 50 and Ektar 100 shots showed proper exposure.
My preference between the two shots is the one on Ektar. Color negative film better handles the extreme contrast — providing detail in both the shadows and the highlights. For this web presentation, I intentionally kept the shadows dark to restore a sense of depth. The original negative is full of tonality.
Just after taking my final shot, a beam of direct sunlight appeared on the right wall. My timing was perfect.
Moments later, a gust of wind surged through the canyon and the beautiful light evaporated before my eyes.
High overhead, I watched as a band of high clouds sailed past. That certainly explained the gust of wind. These clouds are the angel of death for reflected light. They bounce light down into the canyon, easily overpowering wonderful glows — even if the sun itself isn’t obstructed.
The canyon came alive as another gust surged through the canyon. Fall leaves rained down like confetti, and long delicate webs of spider silk floated gently in the breeze.
Today was a success. Two shots in one day? That’s almost unheard of. With my bag fully packed, I lifted it onto my knee. In one swift motion, I hosited it onto my back. A sharp pain radiated from my left shoulder. The struggle with my headlamp that morning had a painful consequence.