11 November 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part II

The time change (fall back!) contributed to the early morning freshness I was feeling when the alarm rang at 5:15 (O'dark-thirty!). The terrible in-room coffee left the proverbial bitter taste in my mouth but did the trick, further contributing to my wakefulness. (Note to hotels: not all Americans prefer the stale, acrid but thin brew you so quaintly label Coffee!)

Out the door at 6:15, the goal was to capture the early light and sunrise
on the Towers of the Virgin, just behind the old Visitor's Center (now administrative offices and a museum). Dan warned me that other photographers would likely be there and he was right. The meadow was large and the tripodists but a handful, so no one appeared in anyone else's viewfinder, that I was aware of anyway. The pre-dawn light was smooth, soft and cast a warm glow on the mammoth rock face before us. I'm always amazed at the amount of light that can be gathered before the sun rises or after it has set. Don't wait for the sunbeams...the light is already there! As evidenced by this 4 second exposure.

In fact, though the sun elicited an a-ha effect when finally its rays shone on the sandstone ramparts, the quiet, even early light is what I favor. Nonetheless, as the light curtain continued to crawl down the canyon walls we kept shooting, documenting the growing dramatic contrast between bright,
orange-ish cliffs and the dark foreground.

I process most of these shots to reveal some foreground detail, so contrast is dialed back a bit. Infrared images, however, have no such latitude. Deep, inky blacks and brightly lit rock produce chiaroscuro drama unrivaled in color.
Once the orange light began turning to a more prosaic white, we packed up our gear and headed to the Mean Bean Coffee House for some REAL coffee and an apricot scone.

Replenished our next photo stop was back up the canyon, where the river makes a large horseshoe around Angel's Landing. Called the Big Bend, the Virgin has cut a graceful river bottom ripe with cottonwoods. Longish exposures and the use of HDR photography allow me to capture bright, high cliffs and their reflections in the smoothly flowing but dark waters. We find an old uprooted tree that has much character. These are the kinds of "props" that you find, without knowing that you are looking for them.

Morning moves on and so must we: to the Narrows we go...Wandering up the short Riverside Walk
-- the 'civilized' stroll path that leads to the Narrows proper -- we look in vain for a stray red maple or two. Instead we stop to photograph a rich -- in texture and contrast -- weeping wall. This is perfect fodder for B&W photography and Dan begins the arduous, 20 minute process of setting up his 4x5 field camera for a shot, or perhaps two. He draws many comments from passersby and being the patient and pleasant guy that he is, happily answers questions that I'm sure he's answered countless times before. As he is fielding questions and setting up for his shot (or two, mayhaps), I blithely click away with both my Pentax K20D DSLR and my infrared-sensitive Fuji IS-1. Both smallish cameras, I feel like the little kid with a cheap plastic toy truck standing next to his older sibling with his solid die-cast monster Tonka dump truck. A slight feeling of inadequacy that would be called. I get over it and am relatively happy with a shot.

Just before the Narrows we find a wonderful stretch of the river that offers multiple opportunities to capture water crashing through a rollicking tumble of boulders. It's amazing how the proverbial time flies: we easily spend 45 minutes in a 15 square meter space shooting the river from different angles and directions. Non-photographers may not "get it," (though certainly their spouses have had to put up with it!), but if the light is good (to be defined at the time and place), hours can be spent in one relatively small space exploring lines, shapes, colors and contrasts.

The intention is not to explore the confines of the Narrows-- we'll leave that for another day, another trip. Instead, after a quick lunch, we back to what I now call the Glowing Wall ravine, off of the road to Checkerboard Mesa. Once there, Dan has in mind a series of B&W compositions with his 4x5 of a large dead tree. That occupies him for the better part of an hour as I wander up above the ravine and look for lines, angles and shapes.

Since we know what to expect now for sunset: glorious dying sun colors and the silver dollar orb of a luminous full moon, by later afternoon we are again set up in 'our' Checkerboard Mesa spot. In time to catch some glowing light reflecting off of the etched sandstone edifices...just before the moon begins its westward rise and journey.

We are further rewarded when shortly Earth's satellite begins its arc. I quickly realize that my Sigma 18-50mm is not going to yield the images I want and grab my Pentax K10D which I fortuitously had pre-mounted with my Sigma 50-500mm on a separate tripod (really, you can never have too many camera bodies, lenses or tripods!).

The moon is stunning in its size and clarity and I shoot well past the fading golden glow.

We are both looking forward to that first beer and meal, whatever it may be. But before heading back into Springdale, I convince Dan to pull off the road just past Canyon Junction so that we can do some moon-washed photography. Never having done this before, I help Dan with some settings on his camera (always good to help a pro!), and we take some shots of canyon walls just before the moon crests over the east ridge
(such as this purplish 30-second exposure) followed by some shots of the west walls when the moon is finally bathing them in its reflected light and the stars are shining in the deepening skies. The results are always stunning and Dan is amazed that his sensor can yield such images, in such diffused light.

It's finally time for that aforementioned beer and tasty dinner at the top-notch (but not terribly expensive) Flangan's Inn & Restaurant. It's been a long, but rewarding day. I don't know it yet, but tomorrow will be even richer.

08 November 2009

Return to Zion National Park, Part I

It had been 27 years since I last gazed firsthand at the towering sandstone monoliths and ramparts that define our 16th National Park, Zion. Too long. Invited by Dan Hendriksen -- a local semi-professional photographer who primarily shoots large-format (4 x 5) -- to accompany him on his yearly Fall colors trip to canyons and plateaus of the Virgin River, I jumped at the opportunity.

The weather portended to be optimal for touring and hiking (cool mornings, warm afternoons, no rain), if imperfect for shooting (we photographers love glorious, billowy clouds and indirect sunlight!). We arrived Halloween Day, after a seemingly short 4 hour drive from Salt Lake, in the mid-afternoon and immediately headed up Scenic Drive to the end of the road, at the Temple of Sinawava, and the entrance to the famed Narrows of the Virgin River. Our goal was to shoot lots of Fall foliage: the brilliant flame-reds of the slope-side maples and the shimmery, bright yellows of the river bottom cottonwoods. We got half the equation: most of the maples had already dropped their leaves and we were lefty with a smattering of burgundy here and there and many yellow plus green-to-yellow transitional cottonwoods. Dan was severely disappointed and though I knew not exactly what I was missing (I was last here in summer: the height of green), the occasional maple that had not lost all gave me a teasing taste of what it must have been like, several weeks before.

Photographers have no more control over the environment than other mortals, so we adjusted and began shooting the river as it was. The light was leaving the deepening canyon but some nice shots could still be had. With some foresight, I had brought my below-the-knee boots that I use on muddy days out at the Great Salt Lake. Wearing these boots, the water in the river was not so deep that I could not -- with some judicious foot placement -- wade into the river for a few waters' eye view photos.

With the tight canyon coils now in ever-lengthening shadow, Dan decided to take us up the Zion-Mount Carmel highway and into the light of a side ravine off that road and on the way to Checkerboard Mesa. In this cleft we found a small patch of red maples in front of an incredibly glowing, high sandstone wall. The reflected late afternoon sunlight appeared to gave the sheer, brick-red sandstone a warmth from within. Hard to capture with a camera it was a treat nonetheless to gaze at.

Easier to photograph were the few deep pools with the high sandstone buttresses still in the sun, reflecting in the dark pools.
Our last photo stop of the day was off the
highway and in front of the aforementioned Checkerboard Mesa. We scrambled to catch the dying light AND the rising of the almost-full moon. Though there were no clouds to give us a glorious burst of color, we committed to arriving at this spot again earlier the next night to better prepare and capture the dual beauties of sunset and moonrise.

After checking in at the
Best Western Canyonlands (recommended: quiet, convenient and reasonable) and a nice Mexican dinner at Oscar's (also recommended...the flautas were quite tasty) washed down with the local suds (Zion Brewery), we were ready for a night's sleep and an early sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin.