Zion is probably one of my favorites of all the National Parks. It is so diverse in what it has to offer; deep canyons, towering peaks, river walks, checkered bluffs, wildlife, and more. There's so much to see and most of it is packed into a small area half the size of Yosemite. Our Zion workshop is one of our most popular; as it combines all of the excellent scenery our Aperture Academy workshops are known for in addition to a bit more extreme adventure. This workshop also offers photographers the chance to visit the Zion Narrows, one of the best hikes in the world!
A group of 12 excited photographers met myself, and co-instructors Ellie Stone and Scott Donschikowski for a weekend of adventure in the red rock canyons of Zion NP. We had our customary orientation on Friday night where we got to reacquaint with old students and meet a bunch of new faces. Everyone was ready for the weekend, and we were hoping for some tremendous conditions on our first shoot in the park.
Morning came early, but thankfully not as early as it has on some workshops…that doesn't mean that we don't need a coffee break! We loaded up on caffeine and set off for the park. We had a special parking permit, which meant we were the only workshop able to park inside the main road, and didn't have to take the shuttle.
We rolled into the Court of the Patriarchs first. These massive red peaks loom over the green water of the Virgin River. We start by working the reflections and light along a slowly meandering section of the river. The other instructors and I work with the class on the importance of filters in this spot. We use polarizers to bring out the reflections in the water, and graduated neutral density filters to hold back exposure from the top portion of the frame and give nicely balanced exposures.
The sun rises and illuminates the red rock and the reflections look amazing. In addition to the reflected light we also work with the class on using some slower exposures of around 1/10 of a second to give the water a nice abstract look that mixes the complementary blue of water and red of the mountains…it's SO cool looking.
Once we finish the first stretch of the river, we move farther downstream to the rapids where students balance on trees and rocks to get some interesting movement in the water with strong foreground elements…and the ever looming red rocks providing a great backdrop. In addition to the rapids here there are also quite a few opportunities to use reflected light and some leaves to make some cool detail shots!
After we've worked the Patriarchs, we move up to the high country to work on a few cool compositions using some high country trees. The first tree is bonsai-esque and sticks out of a red bee hive shaped rock. It's great to shoot silhouetted against the red rocks behind it that are already lit by the morning sun. We arrive in time to spend 15-20 minutes with the tree in shadow before the sun hits it as well and provides a different set of compositional possibilities. Again we use polarizers to make the colors pop, and give the blue sky some added depth! Ellie works with some of the students on getting some cool sun-stars by using the higher aperture and right angle of shooting.
On our drive through the high country we were also treated to a site of a few desert bighorns strolling through the rocks on their way to find water or food. While they were too fast to get a really good shot, they were still great to see as they can be quite elusive.
Time flies, and before we knew it, it was time to get back to the hotel for a brief lunch break before heading into town to get our gear fitted for our morning hike into the narrows.
Gear fitting is always fun, from the goofy educational video we are mandated to watch, to the trying on of booties and shoes, everyone wants to make sure they are fitted just right for their long adventure the next morning. Most people have never done anything like this before with their camera gear, so understandably, people are nervous…we try our best to make sure they have the information and gear they need to feel confident.
After we get our gear and take it to our hotel we head back into the park for our afternoon shoot. The first stop is the Temple of Sinawava. We let the group loos to explore the rivers edge and all the rocks and colorful trees that line it. Ellie, Scott, and I walk along look over compositions and help answer any questions the students might be stuck with. We also try to find little details and ideas to help spawn their creativity and get them shooting things they might not have seen.
Our sunset spot was the foot bridges along the Virgin River that look out to the Watchmen rock formation. This is an iconic location, and one the fills quite quickly from traditional spots. The foot bridges offer great vantages as well and are not as crowded as the main bridge…plus less chance of being hit by a car! A few of our adventurous students climbed a nearby ridge for a completely different vantage point.
I joked earlier that I ordered in clouds, as there were none to be seen all day…and thankfully the “call” paid off…GREAT clouds rolled in and we were treated to an AMAZING sunset. Scott, Ellie and I walked the bridges and made sure everyone was dialed in with their settings and their compositions so when the good light hit they had only click the shutter.
I've been to Zion a lot, and that was one of the best light shows I've seen from that spot…WOW! It definitely left everyone in high spirits as we drove back to the hotel for some much deserved dinner and a good nights sleep!
Morning brought daylight savings time and an earlier start to our day…a day of hiking adventure in the Zion Narrows! This hike is one of the best anywhere. After a mile stroll along cement path the trail ends at the river, and the only way from here is in the water! We have all donned the correct gear to make sure we're comfortable while we walk in the river, and everyone is excited to start. We break up into three smaller groups and spread out to cover the canyon. We start early so we can get back to the narrow sections when the light is best, and beat the rush. The problem is that the whole darn canyon is full of cool opportunities to shoot that it's hard to keep making any progress. Everyone stops often and makes some great shots of the vibrant green waters with the towering red rocks…as the sun works its way upward the light hits the tops of the canyon walls and creates a magical warm glow throughout the canyon that is simply stunning on a camera screen…all the groups came away with some truly tremendous work. As instructors we act as a guide to help them find their way through the river and then offer tips on composition and settings, and occasionally showing them an idea on our screens so they can visually SEE what we see and help modify their compositions…I was so pumped to see so many of the students waist deep getting right up on the rocks and the rapids making those great flowing images.
The light was great until 1-2pm and it was after 3 before we all got out of the canyon. We started at 6:30am, so it made for a LONG day. Everyone went back to the hotel ready to rest their feet, and relax before meeting Scott and Ellie for a little post-processing tutorial before a much-deserved dinner. They both commented on how nice the images they had seen on the students computers. I know I had seen some really nice work on the group I had worked with in the narrows. Overall, I think everyone came away with more than a few shots they were proud of and excited to process…and best of all everyone had a great time doing it!
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, Ellie, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.