The Virgin River Narrows in Zion National Park is an incredible slot canyon carved out of the red rock sandstone that characterizes this part of Utah. One can walk upstream on the river bed from the Temple of Sinawava for several miles. I plan to return with my daughter next year. While this is not a difficult hike, my hunch is that it would feel like an adventurous outing to a youngster (perhaps akin to hiking the Mist Trail in Yosemite when the Merced River is at peak flow). We walked as far as the “Wall Street” section of the Virgin River Narrows before turning around. The return hike back downstream was definitely easier, with the flow of the Virgin River gently pushing us back to the parking lot. We timed our visit for what we hoped would be the peak of fall color in Zion National Park and we were not disappointed. The cottonwood trees were blazing yellow, while maples were typically turning red. Below is one of my favorite sections of the Virgin River Narrows, with a large shore along the river providing habitat for a group of cottonwoods to grow.
Archangel Falls is located a few hundred yards before and below the Subway, in Zion National Park, Utah. Our hike to the Subway took us past a number of small cascades. Most of them would be hard to categorize as waterfalls, but Archangel Falls (or is it Arch Angel Falls?) is large enough that I’ll call it a waterfall. Beautiful red rock slabs, with autumn trees and colorful falling leaves, all surrounded by the distinctive towering cliffs of one of Zion National Park’s narrow canyons.
On the approach to The Subway in Zion National Park is this intriguing erosion slot, about 4″ wide. Water rushes through it, blurred in this photograph. The maples and cottonwoods were in their full fall color and their fallen leaves were everywhere.
I recently made a couple of fantastic hikes in Zion National Park: the Subway and the Virgin River Narrows. I am editing photographs now, but here is a short rough video I shot on our hikes. The highlights were Archangel Falls near the Subway, and the Wall Street section of the Virgin River Narrows. Oh, and the fall colors in Zion National Park were awesome!
Here is one image from the Subway. Those yellow cottonwood trees were in raging color all over Kolob Terrace and in the Zion Canyon. Just wonderful!
Thanks Garry and Don for your great company!
I recently discovered a great plugin for Lightroom: LR/Enfuse. (Yup, I may be a little late to the game, but given that I have only been using Lightroom since January it is to be expected.) LR/Enfuse blends multiple images to produce HDR (high dynamic range) images or focus-stacked images. It works within the Lightroom workflow, resulting in a 16-bit TIF file that is automatically imported into the Lightroom catalog alongside the source images. It seems very fast, and given how well it is integrated into Lightroom I find it incredibly easy to use. For me, the most important characteristic of LR/Enfuse is that the images generally look much more natural than what I have achieved using tone mapping techniques and do not, to my eye, have much or any of the “HDR Look”.
What is the “HDR Look“? Justice Potter Stewart, when describing obscenity in a legal case with historic ramifications, famously intoned “… I know it when I see it…”. The notion applies equally well to the HDR Look. Photographers are familiar with the highly processed look that HDR can produce and, while many use the HDR Look to good advantage in Flickr galleries or on websites with a few even making a career out of HDR imagery, I try to avoid overdoing it. HDR software is fun yet I liken its use in the hands of some photographers to handing a 16-year-old the keys to my Porsche Panamera — it is often a recipe for disaster unless considerable restraint is involved. (OK, that last part was a total lie, I don’t have a Porsche.)
Yet there are situations in which the contrast range of a scene is too great for today’s best cameras to accomodate, even using graduated ND filters, in which cases HDR techniques may help solve exposure challenges. I have used Photomatix for years to blend HDR images but have never really been satisfied with the results. In my experience, Photomatix processing often introduces localized color shifts or changes in saturation that appear obvious and unnatural, and the final results of the blending typically do not match the quick preview that Photomatix offers, which means I am never really certain exactly how the HDR image will look until after the time-consuming Photomatix process is complete. Now, to be fair, there are many photographers using Photomatix with incredible results. The Photomatix workflow, even employing the Lightroom plugin version of Photomatix, seems slow and often requires that I cycle through several blending variations before I obtain a result that I can use as a starting point from which further blending and masking in Photoshop can be done. My poor results are probably due to my lack of experience or unwillingness to develop sufficient expertise more than any flaw in the Photomatix software. Nevertheless, I have never really been pleased with the results of HDR blending using Photomatix, nor with the amount of time that is required to produce a good final result.
On the other hand, I am very happy (so far) with the speed, ease of use, results and cost of LR/Enfuse. The LR/Enfuse plugin is “donationware” which means you make a donation to the software project and receive an code by email that unlocks all the features of the software. Don’t be fooled by the donationware business model of this software enterprise. The algorithms behind LR/Enfuse arise from some brilliant minds in the imaging field, and the 64-bit executable that is employed to process the images is bloody fast on my quad-core iMac. I made a donation, installed and licensed the software on my Mac, and made a few trial HDR blends on recent coast redwood images I shot. But I needed something with greater dynamic range to really test it out, so I recalled some very harsh images I shot in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks a few years ago. I was on a tight schedule and did not have the ability to wait for the sweet light of sunrise and sunset at all locations, often shooting in harsh light. I shot bracketed sequences hoping that later I could solve the exposure problems with software. At the time I used Photomatix and did manage to produce some blends, but the results (as you will see below) are not the best. In the course of an hour I made new versions of 12 different HDR series using the LR/Enfuse plugin in Lightroom, and am generally very happy with the results. The colors seem more honest, not exhibiting the shifts in hue and saturation that I have observed often using Photomatix. In the three examples below the only processing I did was to set saturation to +10 in Lightroom, then run the LR/Enfuse plugin using its default settings, wait for the blended image to be created and automatically imported back into Lightroom (usually about 10-15 seconds) and then apply a curve adjustment, generally to pull down the mid-darks. That’s it! As I said, I processed 12 complete HDR sets in one hour, including the time it took to install and learn the program, and even using just the default settings I am quite happy with the results. Furthermore, the LR/Enfuse versions appear to me to be exceptionally sharp when viewed at 100%, with no ghosting of any kind, whereas Photomatix produces, for me at least, images that are quite soft and must be sharpened quite a bit before presenting online or to clients.
Example 1: Wilson Arch
Blending example #1 is Wilson Arch, shot with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens and Canon 1Ds Mark II camera. Bracketing was accomplished by varying the shutter speed (constant aperture, very important) one and two-third stops for each exposure step. LR/Enfuse does have an optional image-align-stacking step, but it does slow the process down. I found that the alignment step could be omitted for my images since they had been taken while the camera was locked down on a very heavy tripod.
Example 2: Mesa Arch
The second example is of Mesa Arch, a very commonly photographed arch in Canyonlands National Park, again shot with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens, Canon 1Ds Mark II camera and using one and two-third stop brackets.
Example 3: Pine Tree Arch
The last example is of Pine Tree Arch in Arches National Park, with the same equipment and bracketing. In these images I applied some lens distortion correction. Lightroom’s lens profiles must be great since the results after “defishing” are sharp corner to corner.
Are these new images made with LR/Enfuse better than the previous ones I made with Photomatix? I’ll need to consider them for a while, along with the other 20-30 HDR images I have in my files. I can say the LR/Enfuse is so quick and easy to use that I won’t hesitate to shoot a bracketed tripod-mounted sequence when shooting landscapes and the dynamic range suggests HDR might have promise. With the bracket series imported into Lightroom, it literally takes a minute or less to apply basic raw processing adjustments (such as baseline saturation, contrast, brightness, etc. ) to the middle image in the sequence, sync those settings to the other images in the sequence, blend the images using LR/Enfuse into a 16-bit TIF and then perform any final adjustments to the blended image in Lightroom.
As a final word I will mention that I consider my photography to be “natural history photography“. The clients who license my images are primarily publishers and editors for whom truthfulness and realism in imagery is very important. I do not limit myself to images that are made only “in camera”, nor do I limit myself to images made only from a single frame if the limitations of the camera get in the way of achieving the final result. However, when combining or blending frames, either in panoramic images, in “handmade” masked images or in HDR images made with software tools, honesty and a straightforward depiction of the subject are driving forces for me.
The National Wildlife photo contest is the only one of the “big three”** in which I have not had any luck — until now. After taking a hiatus from contests for about 8 years, something possessed me to enter this year. Lo-and-behold the image below caught the judges’ notice and won first place in the professional division of “Connecting People and Nature”, and is featured along with 17 other super images in the December/January 2010 issue of National Wildlife magazine.
This is a self portrait. I was alone this morning at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. It was a cold but clear January morning with some snow on the ground. I used a Canon 1Ds Mark II camera and 15mm fisheye lens. I put the camera on timer, quickly walked up on the arch, raised my hands the way I do when my daughter scores a goal, and click. The view from atop the arch, looking down the wall to the canyon below, was exhilirating.
**The “big three” photo contests, at least for wildlife, outdoor and nature photographers, are the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the Nature’s Best photography contest and the National Wildlife photo contest. For ocean-oriented photographers, Nature’s Best also sponsors the Ocean Views contest.
Note: Performed by a trained professional stunt photographer. Do not try this at home. Photography is an inherently dangerous and frustrating pursuit. You can and will die photographing landscapes.
I have been fortunate to visit and photograph a few of the iconic locations around Page, Arizona: The Wave, Antelope Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley. Recently, I shared some correspondance about these places with UK photographer David Sharp, whom I originally met at Brooks River a few years ago. Since I receive emails from other photographers about the Wave every few weeks, I decided to edit my comments to David and post them here for others to consider. Note that I am not what a true landscape photographer would call a true landscape photographer! I know what I am doing with a camera but do not have the dedication or time that is required to photograph landscapes, and these Southwestern landscapes in particular, properly. However, I do have clear impressions of these places and, not being shy, I am putting them out there. Furthermore, this website currently gets about 5000 visitors a day, so I am reasonably certain at least a few people would read this even if it was composed by a monkey at a typewriter which, in a sense, it is. On all of my trips through the American Southwest, visiting the places mentioned above plus Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Arches, I was pedal to the metal, flying, booking, jamming, screaming, etc. In other words, I had too little time and too far to drive, was all hopped up on caffeine, and tried to see it all. Naturally, that is not the best way to visit such special and serene places but it is how I, and many others, approach such a trip, especially those coming from far away to see the American Southwest for perhaps the only time in their lives. To photograph and experience these locations properly requires a more relaxed, contemplative and deliberate pace, one that I shall be sure to adopt when I turn 80.
Note that virtually all of photos on this website have GPS coordinates as well as links to Google Earth, taking you to the exact spot where they were taken, so there is no mystery where to go.
Rental Car: Assuming you are arriving in Las Vegas (NV) or Salt Lake City (UT), you will probably rent a car. Although none of these destinations requires one, I suggest that you rent a nice cushy SUV (the kind Americans love) when you arrive. It will make the little bit of off-roading you do more comfortable. Since some of the drives are quite long, having room in the back for your kids to spread out is helpful. Yes, you will burn gas — a lot of it. I realize that I am politically incorrect just mentioning the word “SUV”. Note that House Rock Valley Road, which is the dirt road that takes you to the Wave and Buckskin Gulch, can be a bit rough (but should not actually require 4WD) and having a larger SUV-type vehicle, with high clearance, makes the drive more pleasant. If there are long or deep muddy parts on the road, an SUV might actually make it possible to get to the trailhead whereas in a passenger (sedan) vehicle it could be more dicey. It all depends on the road conditions when you get there, there is no predicting those. If the conditions are truly bad, the road may simply be closed. Opting for the satellite radio on your rental SUV is important, since the variety of radio stations in this part of the country is quite slim with country/western and western/country being the only two choices.
Hiker in Buckskin Gulch. A hiker considers the towering walls and narrow passageway of Buckskin Gulch, a dramatic slot canyon forged by centuries of erosion through sandstone. Buckskin Gulch is the worlds longest accessible slot canyon, running from the Paria River toward the Colorado River. Flash flooding is a serious danger in the narrows where there is no escape.
Image ID: 20716
Location: Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA
Buckskin Gulch: Buckskin Gulch is easily accessed from the same trailhead that one uses to hike to the Wave: the “Wire Pass trailhead”. For this reason, if you are in the area to visit the Wave it makes perfect sense to visit Buckskin the day before or the day after you visit the Wave. Consider staying in Kanab, and just drive out to the Wire Pass trailhead each day for the two hikes. Kanab is quiet, simple and has a few good restaurants and plenty of hotels and motels. Watch your speed driving through Kanab or Officer Dummy may catch you in his speed trap. Camping at the Wire Pass trailhead is an option. However, since I do not like dirt and do not camp, I cannot advise about the camping there from personal experience. The drive from Kanab to Wire Pass trailhead, via Hwy 89 and House Rock Valley Road is, as I recall, about 30-45 minutes or so, quite easy except for perhaps a bit of the dirt House Rock Valley Road which may be muddy or a bit rough in some places. A half day, especially if you get started reasonably early (7am comes to mind) is enough for you to hike into the “upper reaches” of Buckskin Gulch, get into a few deep and really fun sections, and then return back out the way you came. A full day gives you further reach into the gulch. The alternative is to make a one-way trip down through Buckskin and Paria Canyon, but that requires overnights, permits, and arranging a pick up at the far end, and so the time investment is considerably more. Note that flash floods in Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass Narrows are a real danger, and it is good to know where the exits to the gulch are as well as the weather forecast for the wider area (flash floods can be created by rain many miles away). It is possible to visit both Buckskin and the Wave in the same day. I did it last May. It was about a 15-17 mile day and tiring but I was in good shape and able to do it without problems. I even had time to catch a one-hour nap at the Second Wave waiting for sunset light. Do not underestimate the need for hydration on a day such as this. I drank about 10 liters of fluids and sweated out all of it (I think I peed only twice all day). Buckskin Gulch blog posts, Buckskin Gulch stock photos.
The Wave, an area of fantastic eroded sandstone featuring beautiful swirls, wild colors, countless striations, and bizarre shapes set amidst the dramatic surrounding North Coyote Buttes of Arizona and Utah. The sandstone formations of the North Coyote Buttes, including the Wave, date from the Jurassic period. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wave is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness and is accessible on foot by permit only.
Image ID: 20608
Location: North Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona, USA
The Wave: There is no denying the appeal of a sunrise hike to the Wave. At that hour the air is cool with perhaps a hint of dew, the surrounding hills and canyons are quiet and still, and within minutes of setting out one is alone. However, while you may be eager to get to the Wave early in the day, the photography at the Wave formation itself seems to me to be best in mid- to late-morning. By that time the sun has risen enough to fill the deeper parts around the main Wave formation for evenly lit photos. That said, during late spring, summer and fall, the cooler it is walking out to the Wave, the more comfortable you will be. The hike is about 3 miles one way, so plan on two hours at a easy but constant pace. The last part going up a sand hill is the most tiring. There is little shade once you are there, so be prepared for sun! Do not forget the Second Wave, which is only about a 5-10 minute walk from the main wave. You do not actually see the Second Wave until you round a knob of rock at which point you suddenly realize you are are practically on top of it. Although the spot is no secret, the GPS coordinates and Google Earth links alongside my photos will put you right on it. The light on the Second Wave is best just before the sun goes down at the end of the day, so if you stay for that photo it makes for a long day. In that instance you will hike out as the sky is growing dark but that’s ok, there is still plenty of light and, if you feel unsure of how to return, you can use your GPS to revisit your waypoints in reverse on the way back out. I should mention that both times I visited the Wave, I stayed until dark. As the day went on, there were fewer people around so that by 3pm I was alone, which was very nice. Blog posts about The Wave. Stock Photos of the Wave.
A hiker admiring the striated walls and dramatic light within Antelope Canyon, a deep narrow slot canyon formed by water and wind erosion.
Image ID: 18009
Location: Navajo Tribal Lands, Page, Arizona, USA
Antelope Canyon Slots: These are just outside the town of Page and require virtually no effort to visit. They are on Navaho tribal lands, so accessing these slot canyons requires that you be on a tour or with a guide. The Upper Antelope canyon, which is the most iconic and photogenic, is the one that gets most crowded. If it is crowded when you are there just be patient and wait for the chamber(s) that you are photographing to clear out and then bang out your exposures before someone else walks in front of you. It can help to carry an electric cattle prod or pocket Taser to ensure the area where you are photographing remains clear of New Yorkers and Nikon photographers. OK, my bad on that last part. I highly recommend that you do not change lenses, there is simply too much dust. In fact, do not be surprised if you encounter another photographer tossing dust in the air to better define the light beams in his composition. If his forward technique does not balance harmoniously with your chi, you can rebalance the moment by tossing sand into his eyes to better define your opinion of his method. If I had to choose one lens to use to use at Antelope Canyon, it would be 16-35 (or either of Nikon’s 14-24 or 17-35) on a full-frame camera. On a second body I carry a 24-70 or similar. Those two should cover 95% of my needs in terms of focal lengths at Antelope. The LOWER canyon is, I hear, far less crowded and has very good photography as well. There are two types of “tours” to visit Upper Antelope Canyon: a normal tour (about 30-60 minutes) and “photo” or extended tour, the latter being more suitable for photographers who feel a need for more time in the slot. I went on an “extended” tour and had about 90 minutes at the canyon, with a 15 minute ride in a van from Page (we met the tour at a small storefront in Page). That was in winter. I understand that during much of the year the Navaho Indian tribe offers guide services (for a fee) right at the entrance to the Antelope Canyon area on the main highway, in which case you might save a little money over the tours that are arranged in the town of Page itself. However, all visits require some Navaho guide presence. If you are coming from far away I suggest that you just reserve a photo tour ahead of time to ensure that you have the time you need. It may cost a little more but at least you know you will be in the canyon at the right time of day, with enough time to relax and take photos. The only unknowns are weather and how crowded it will be on the day of your visit. Kids might get bored after half hour, so families might arrange for the shorter tour while the lone photographer in the family goes on a longer tour. I went to the Upper Antelope Canyon with Antelope Canyon Tours when I was there in Jan 2007. At that time we literally had the entire Upper Canyon to ourselves (a group of 5 people) for 90 minutes, with one 20 minute exception when another small group came by for a brief visit. However, in the winter the dramatic light shafts do not reach the floor of the slots. Those appear in summer, principally June and July, coincidental with the crowds. So if you want solitude in Antelope Canyon (or something approaching it), try it winter. If you want the cool beams, battle the crowds.
Horseshoe Bend. The Colorado River makes a 180-degree turn at Horseshoe Bend. Here the river has eroded the Navajo sandstone for eons, digging a canyon 1100-feet deep.
Image ID: 26602
Location: Horseshoe Bend, Page, Arizona, USA
Horseshoe Bend: If you are in Page, Arizona, you must find a bit of time for Horseshoe Bend. From a pulloff on the side of the highway just a few minutes outside town, an easy 10 minute walk takes one to the edge of the chasm that is Horseshoe Bend. It is so easy it would be a shame to miss it. Just be careful that Fido and the kids are paying attention since there are no rails or anything keeping you from falling in. (Give the personal injury lawyers time, I am sure there will be a fence and a “viewing area” that we are required to use eventually). If you stay in Page for the night, you might want to go photograph Horseshoe Bend at sunset, late morning and/or sunrise to see what you can get. I took this the above shot with a 16-35 at its widest.
Monument Valley: OK, in spite of how little experience I have in Monument Valley, I will add some words about it, since it is likely others travelling to Page will visit Monument Valley the same way that I did. I blew through there one day by myself on my way to Page, spending about 1 hour at one of the main viewpoints (where I think I paid $5 to the Navaho tribe at the gate and then drove my own car about 2-3 miles on an easy dirt road into the area and then back out, looking for view points, until I found the one above). The timing was good, I was there in the final hour of light, although having clouds would have helped. If you want to just make a quick stop in Monument Valley and visit only one of the easily-accessed viewpoints, I suggest you make it sunrise or sunset. (If you want to spend a full day at Monument Valley, you can arrange private guides that will take you deep into the area and show you views that are better and different, but I believe it will require most of a day to accomplish.)
Tech: For any of these locations, my photography equipment is quite simple and light, no need for any heavy stuff. Landscape shooting is simple compared to all the gear needed for underwater and/or wildlife shooting!
- Two full-frame bodies (currently Canon 1DsII & 1DsIII)
- Canon 16-35 II f/2.8 lens
- Canon 24-70 f/2.8 lens
- Canon 70-200 f/4 lens
- Tripod with ball head, cable release, polarizers
If you found this information useful, please post the link to it and let others know. Cheers!
While passing through beautiful Kanab, Utah, on my way to hike Wire Pass, Buckskin Gulch and the North Coyote Buttes, I spotted a cop on the side of the road, presumably speed-gunning people as they entered town. Last time I blew through Kanab I noticed it was crawling with cops, or rather, with speed traps: cops parked on the side of the road just out of sight until you were too close to slow down in time. This time I slowed down figuring if this guy was lurking there must be other cops around too. As I passed by Officer Man in his poh-leece cruiser, I noticed he had a strange complexion, sort of green and sick looking, and he had a weird pencil neck. I slowed down to shoot him a little Whachoo looking at, badge buddy? glare. He had his windows rolled up but, since his engine was off, he had no A/C so it must have been 300 freaking degrees inside his car, and yet this guy is not even sweating. Eventually my road-weary pea-brain figured it out: the cop was inflatable, a mannikin, a dummy. I guess the real cop on duty — one of Kanab’s Finest — was off somewhere taking a little afternoon siesta with his honey and propped up this doppleganger as a placeholder until he got back. I just had to stop and introduce myself, never having had a chance to say “Officer, I suggest you use your night stick” to an inflatable adult novelty doll sporting a police costume and KMart shades before. He let me take his photo but wouldn’t comment on whether he got his training at the academy or came straight from the factory. Check out his bizarre little Hitler mustache, what’s up with that?
Of course the blow-up cop did what he was supposed to — I slowed down. I’m guessing Kanab probably has the most cost-effective police force in the nation.
P.S. A Kanab resident who spotted my little blog posting kindly emailed me to say that Officer Man’s real name is Latex Larry. A search on the internet reveals that Latex Larry has worked assignments in Fredonia as well. Seems the guy works 24/7 and all over the place.
Mesa Arch stands at the edge of Island in the Sky mesa in Canyonlands National Park. It juts out and over a 600-foot drop into Buck Canyon. While small by Utah standards, Mesa Arch lies in a dramatic setting and easy access make it a destination for most visitors to the park. At sunrise, if the horizon is clear, light reflecting off the walls below illuminate the underside of Mesa Arch, setting it afire with a rich golden glow.
Mesa Arch spans 90 feet and stands at the edge of a mesa precipice thousands of feet above the Colorado River gorge. For a few moments at sunrise the underside of the arch glows dramatically red and orange.
Image ID: 18037
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
More Mesa Arch photos.