Besides being home to one of the worlds most famous and spectacular hikes (the narrows), Zion National Park is rich with breath taking scenery, making it an adventure photographers paradise.
This is the reason we have been doing our Aperture Academy Zion Extreme Photography Workshop for the past 4 years. Stephen and I met up with 12 students in Springdale, Utah, who were all eager to check this Bucket Lister experience off. Hiking the Narrows is not for the faint of heart, and our group was not only up for the experience, but super excited about it. After we got to know everyone, over a brief orientation, Stephen and I sent them off for good nights sleep.
Our first day started fairly early, as we wanted to be in place before sunrise, at the Court of the Patriarchs. The Mormon settlers named a lot of the areas within the park. The Court of the Patriarchs is named for the biblical figures, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We arrived with plenty of time to set up before the golden sun rose and illuminated the patriarchs. Stephen and I hopped around and made sure everyone was comfortable with their settings and composition. After shooting down by the rivers edge, we moved around to the beautiful waterfall and footbridge. With the fall color around the river, it was a stunning scene. The morning hours were flying by and we had more places to go and cool things to see.
Making our way up towards checkerboard mesa required traveling through the Mount Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel is an amazing feet of engineering and hard work from the early 1900’s. Traveling through the side of a mountain for about 1 mile, you pop out the other end are immediately surrounded by beautiful sandstone formations, literally everywhere. On our way to a favorite Pinion pine, we spotted some Big Horn Sheep on a cliff edge. This made for an awesome environmental wildlife shot. As Stephen and I helped with settings and compelling compositions, we were excited to see the fantastic shots that all the students had been capturing.
After some great wildlife shots, we made our way to a picturesque and popular little pinion pine that grows out of an isolated rock formation. There are different and compelling compositions. We worked with the students and encouraged them to explore different points of view. The light was ever changing, and it went from good to fantastic. Working with the light, we played around with some silhouettes, against the backlit red rocks. We stayed in the area and worked the last of the good light, before calling it a morning and heading back into Springdale for a midday siesta.
After refueling and recharging we hopped on the shuttle down to the Temple of Sinawava. The name Sinawava refers to the Coyote God of the Paiute Indians. This area is also where the Canyon walls start to narrow in, ever closer to the Virgin River. The next morning we would be starting our Narrows hike from this location. The perfect opportunity to get your feet wet and get a feel for what we would be shooting on Sunday. The golden falls colors speckled the riverside. Stephen and I helped the students, not only with compositions, but also achieving the desired shutter speed for capturing the flowing water. Time always seems to pass really fast when you’re in the shooting “zone”. It was already time to hop back on the shuttle, and it seemed like we had just arrived. Late day light and sunset was still on the day’s agenda. Our final location was right along the Virgin River. The students spread out quite a bit. Some decided to get a river level point of view, while other remained on the small bridge to have the classic river foreground with the iconic monolith, known as the Watchman, in the distance. We worked with graduated filters to balance out the brighter sky with the darker foreground. The late daylight illuminated the surrounding red rock, creating a gorgeous and iconic southwest scene. As the last of the light faded, we had one more stop to make, Zion Adventure Company.
The friendly folks at ZAC had all of our sizing information ahead of time, which made our Narrows gear pickup a breeze. We tried on our shoes to ensure a good fit and our dry pants were all ready to go. The excitement in the van was palpable, as everyone had his or her hiking sticks in hand. It looked like we were heading into battle, as we drove back to our home base, the Best Western Zion Park Inn. Sending everyone off for a much needed good nights sleep. Tomorrow was our big day.
Sunday morning, the big day has arrived, our Narrows hike. It’s difficult to convey the magnitude of this hike… it’s something one needs to experience first hand.
After we arrive at the Temple of Sinawava, there is a 1-mile walk down the riverside trail, to the mouth of the Narrows. Our journey for the day will start here. Before we split into smaller groups, I set up a quick group shot. A fun shot to have as a memento of the trip.
I led my group into the river first. Stephen would wait 10-15 minutes before heading in with his group. Shortly after we started our hike, there was a really nice little spot to stop and shoot. Water pours down the sandstone into the river. A dramatically beautiful scene and an excellent way to get used to shooting in the river. As an added safety precaution we have the students put their cameras and lenses in small dry bags, inside their packs. It’s better to be safe than sorry when you’re using your camera gear around a lot of water. Taking your gear in and out of your pack, along with your tripod, can get a little tiring, but it’s worth it. We spent the day in the river, hiking and shooting our way in and out of the canyon. Working with the students along the way to help them with different compositions, and the ever-changing light. For some a shutter speed that intensely smoothes the water is preferred. While others, like myself like some softness, while retaining a bit of detail as well. Whatever the preference we worked with the students to achieve the look they desired. Polarizers also played a big role, by reducing the glare on the water. Not only does decreased glare have a nicer look, but also properly polarized water will allow one to see the rocks beneath the surface. The multicolored rocks in the river are stunning, so the ability to seem them in your image is a huge bonus.
During our shooting stops we were sure to drink plenty of water and snack as well, to keep strong. The day was passing quickly, so we continued our hike out and once the sun was high in the sky, our shooting opportunities diminished. We enjoyed our hike out of the canyon, and were all pretty eager to get out of our wet shoes. It was interesting to see the folks who attempt to hike into the Narrows, without the proper preparation. Luckily these folks don’t make it too far up stream. We usually see them closer to the exit onto the River walk trail. One more mile down the river walk and we were ready to head back and return our gear. A quick stop at ZAC to leave our rental gear, and the exciting and extreme 2-day adventure had come to a close. Stephen and I said our fond farewells to our fantastic group of students.
Until next time,
Ellie, Stephen 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.