Zion National Park had its beginnings over 240 million years ago. The Virgin River carved out the canyon, and continues to do so. Hard to believe when you take a look at it meandering through the park. It is narrow with a brownish hue. Its cascades are mild and there are lots of rocks.
Some people look at the river and see just a thread of brown water. I look and see endless possibilities of photographs.
Before I arrived at Zion I had made a “mental” checklist of some of the shots I would like to take of the river. I wanted to capture it meandering through the canyon, a cascade, sunrise on the water, and fall colors by the river’s edge. I also wanted an abstract image that would leave the viewer clueless as to where and what I had photographed.
More specific ideas evolved as I walked and looked at the river and its environment and evaluated then-current circumstances. Coming with a checklist gave me direction when I first arrived at the park, and a general idea of how to scout locations. What I immediately realized was that photographing the river would be a challenge.
The river wasn’t particularly picturesque during my visit. The sky was boring—cloudless and at times just white. Some trees still boasted fall colors, although many leaves had fallen away leaving the trees with scrawny, twiggy branches. At times the wind kept blowing, moving everything it could. And there always seemed to be a big, bright boulder in the middle of the picture I wanted to take or a bunch of disorganized small rocks that cluttered the foreground and edges of the images I was framing.
By identifying my challenges, I was able to evaluate locations, limitations on framing and composition, and camera settings. For example, I needed locations that kept the sky out of the image unless I bracketed my shots with an intent to blend images. I also needed to find trees with fall colors that still had lots of leaves or minimum twiggy branches. To shoot water with a slow shutter speed I would have to keep anything that moved out of my photograph (unless I wanted it blurred for effect) or I needed to slightly limit depth of field with blowing trees a little out of focus in the background. I also had to find rocks and boulders that added to the framing of my composition and did not detract from it.
My first photographs were early, at sunrise. At my particular location in the park, where the sun was first hitting the water, all the trees were blowing hard in the wind, were not particularly pretty and had no fall colors. Since I preferred using a slow shutter speed to soften the water, I cut out most of the background of my image and just photographed the water at sunrise.
Next I shot a very abstract shot of the patterns formed by the sun’s rays on the water, with the rocks sharp and water soft. I found rocks that made a vertical line, leading the viewer from front to back.
As the sun moved and touched some trees with yellow leaves, I photographed the sun on the trees in the background of the river to show fall colors. I kept the river soft and the foreground rocks sharp.
My two images of a small cascade in the river required wearing waterproof pants and boots and walking in the river. The cascade had huge, ugly rocks that detracted from the scene. The key was to find a way to photograph the cascade and avoid the rocks. Also, when I shoot falling water, I always look for the part of the cascades or waterfall which to me will look the prettiest when I slow down the shutter speed and make the water soft. I like seeing strands of flowing water.
One subject, several perspectives. It doesn’t matter where you are shooting. You can be in your own backyard. Just think of the different ways you can creatively compose and photograph one subject, and then focus on the challenges you must consider. Photography is as much learning to problem-solve as it is about developing your “eye” as a photographer.