Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

While preparing the Utah parks book, I discovered all kinds of photo locations that are a bit off the radar screen.

I did an entire evening light session with Seth Hamel, a photo guide working in the Springdale/Zion area. Here are a couple of spots he took me to. Far side of the Zion River Valley:


This spot didn’t make it into the book because I try to focus that project on photo locations that aren’t hard for the photographer to get to on their own. And this spot requires a bit of travel on a 4-wheel vehicle, it’s on BLM land. Just for reference, Utah Route 9 runs along that plateau and adjacent to those low peaks on the far side of the valley. So Hurricane, Utah, is in the area off to the far left.

This shot was taken in the hills just east of Springdale, Utah. From Route 9 heading towards Zion, you take one of the roads off to the left and head up and past a residential area.


Those of you who’ve been to the Zion Valley may recognize the view. These peaks are what someone at Court of the Patriarchs would see on the west side of the Valley.

I did an extensive interview with Seth Hamel for the book. He has some great insights on how to shoot the Valley and on composition in general. Here’s a few of his thoughts on shooting the area:

Shooting Zion can be a challenge, especially the contrast issues with the bright canyons and the shade. It’s tough for an outsider to know where the light will be good and when. I can be precise as to where to be and when to shoot – the time of day, the right season.

Another thing is, Zion is getting a world-wide reputation. So pros and advanced camera folks have Zion images in their portfolios. That means a lot of locations are overdone.

And as the local pro, I know some obscure areas, locations with great scenery that no one else is shooting. And having a quiet place to shoot gives the photographer an intimacy that changes the quality of an image.

After all, photographers want that emotional connection to a spot. And that’s easier when you’re alone and not stacked up next to 5 other tripods.

Seth and I also did a day-long photo session in The Narrows. And having someone along who knows where the best light is for that time of year was a huge help. His experience meant I just needed to focus on getting the shots I wanted.

I will do a blog on the ins and outs of working with various photo guides — including the great landscape photographer David Muench, in a few days. I have a 4 day session with David starting this Sunday. Some of his iconic shots can be found here:



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Utah Parks Book: Notes on Adjusting Shutter Speed for Shooting a River

Zion is the most popular of the Utah National Parks. And the classic location of the Virgin River and Watchman is likely the most photographed. When shooting a river or stream, the flowing water can evoke various moods depending on how you adjust your shutter speed.

Getting There: Zion NP is in southern Utah about 40 miles off of Interstate 15. You get onto Utah Route 9 and at the far end of the resort town of Springdale, you’ll find the park. For most of the year, the park is accessed by the park buses. So park at the Visitor Center, hop on the shuttle and get off just after the Canyon Junction bus stop (just past the bridge over the river). Walk back to the bridge and set up on the south side and away from the road.

The shot is of the river below, and in the distance, The Watchman, one of the iconic Zion peaks. The best time for the shot is sunset. If you just want the picture, you don’t need a tripod. But if you want to play with shutter speed, you kinda need a tripod and a cable release (or you camera’s timer function).

So let’s assume we’ve found a spot on the bridge and gotten a composition and zoom level we like. (I talk about lighting and composition in the book and that’s too much to put into a blog post.) What might our initial shot look like with no special shutter speed chosen:


Focal Length-32mm, F-6.3, Exposure 1/40th of a second

Notice that at 1/40, the stream is totally frozen, no discernible blur. You’re getting lots of colors in the water from the trees and sky. And every little ripple and detail of that stream is clear.

Now let’s crank up the shutter speed to half a second:


Focal Length-40mm, F-5.6, Exposure .5 second

Now, don’t look at the photographer who wandered into my shot. And I won’t tell you what all the photographers on the bridge were saying while he stood there for 20 minutes. We’re just looking at the water.

And at half a second, the water no longer has as much detailing. You’re eye doesn’t get as caught up in the minute ripples. But there’s still plenty of detailing in the surface of the stream. In fact if I hadn’t added the shutter speed setting, the viewer would assume this image is pure stop action.

Now lets go long.


Focal Length-32mm, F-22, Exposure 8 seconds

Obviously 8 seconds is a lot. And you can’t make this shot work if there’s any wind. But the river still looks like a real river. All the standing waves are there as are the reflections. But the minute texturing of individual waves is gone, especially in areas without rocks.

Essentially what we’re doing is showing the eye how a river looks in time. In fact, we could take a shot with a 60 minute shutter speed and we’d still see the same set of standing waves. And subjectively, the shot does evoke more of a timeless feel than it did with a faster shutter.

Is the shot as “honest” as one with a fast shutter? Is a slower or longer shutter speed more true to life? That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, how does the viewer respond to a given image. If the change doesn’t seem weird or “fakey” to the viewer then the photograph will work for them. — The willing suspension of disbelief, to quote Aristotle.

The second question is, what’s the effect I’m going for? That’s ultimately what matters. I go back and forth on how much I want to push the shutter speed. For some river situations, a slow shutter focuses too much attention to the turbulence. But in a slow moving river that’s not an issue. Generally most viewers don’t mind the effect.

But this is just one element in a larger set of artistic considerations. In this shot I was trying to capture a feeling I have about Zion, that when I come, I’m in a timeless place. And the image gives me some of that feeling– a tranquil river flowing through a place that has been this way always.

But each of us has to make that shutter speed choice (and all our compositional issues) based on the mood we want to share in that shot. And there’s nothing wrong with exploring your choices.

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Big Island Hawaii Locations

Just got back from the Big Island — the name folks in the state of Hawaii give to the island of Hawaii. It’s bigger than all the rest of the state put together and also the point of lowest latitude in the whole US of A.

For a photographer, there’s lots to like about the Big Island: active volcano, great beaches, a multitude of climates and altitudes. Having regular lava flows into the ocean has also created some intriguing black sand beaches.

Rainbow Falls, Hilo

Rainbow Falls is on the west side of Hilo

Kohala Coast Hapuna Beach Park Hapuna Beach Park

Father and Daughter, Hapuna Beach Park

Father and Daughter: Hapuna Beach Park, North Kohala

Hapuna Beach Park

This southern section of Hapuna Beach Park is a great spot for snorkeling. But the area leading out to the coral has plenty of underwater lava.

Waipio Valley OverlookWaipio Valley Overlook

Tidal Pool

Tidal Pool: Part of the Hilton complex in the North Kohala area

Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach is at the bottom west side of the island. The warm sand is a favorite spot for sea turtles.

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