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Shooting Zion & Bryce

By Bob Krist - March 5th, 2004

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As the sky fades to royal blue in Bryce Canyon National Park, I am hustling up the Queen's Garden Trail to catch the afterglow over the cliffs. Straining to see the path, I make out a figure up ahead. By the heavy tripod and view camera he's carrying, I can tell he is a serious photographer. We walk along together, making small talk. He is a frequent visitor to Bryce Canyon and its neighbor in southern Utah, Zion National Park. "I think of these parks as symphonies in stone," he tells me. "Bryce is a Mozart piece, ethereal and otherworldly. Zion is like Beethoven, all power and majesty." (The landscape here seems to bring out the poet in everyone.)

The western sky is now a blaze of red clouds, and the reflected rays bathe the canyon in an amber glow. We both shoot quickly in the waning light. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my fellow photographer bent over his tripod, with his head under a focusing cloth and arms snaking out to adjust the lens and shutter. His earlier musings seem particularly apt, because he looks like a crazed conductor trying to bring all the sections of his orchestra - light, landscape, camera and film - into one harmonious whole. The afterglow disappears abruptly and we fold our tripods in silence, both aware that we have just witnessed - and, we hope, captured on film - one of nature's great performances.

Similar experiences filled my visit to these two Utah parks last fall, resulting in the photographs that follow. Perhaps some of my techniques will help you make beautiful photographic music on your next visit to a national park.

Use Your Lenses

There's nothing moderate about the landscapes of Bryce and Zion - they're nature pushed to geologic extremes. So feel free to use a radical approach in photographing these fantastic formations: Shoot with the widest and the longest optics you have, matching their special properties to the scenery to create dynamic pictures. I chose a 20mm ultra-wide-angle lens to exploit these sandstone layers (right) near the eastern entrance of Zion. Since a wide-angle lens exaggerates the foreground, it's a natural choice for a composition with an interesting pattern or object up front. To further emphasize the foreground, I shot vertically.

I went to the opposite extreme for this sunset scene (left) of hoodoos near the Silent City formation in Bryce Canyon. I shot with a 300mm lens, using its apparent perspective compression to stack the lines of hoodoos one atop the other.

When the Light is Good, Turn Around

There are several advantages to shooting in early morning and late afternoon. First of all, that's when the light is most beautiful. If you're serious about photography, you'll adjust your schedule - whatever the sacrifices - to take advantage of this fact. And in the national parks there is an added incentive to working in the off-hours: You'll beat the crowds. Trails and overlooks that are jammed in the middle of the day are all but deserted at dawn and dusk. These photographs of Bryce Canyon were shot within a few feet and a few minutes of each other on the Queen's Garden Trail at dusk. I was first drawn to the fantastic cloud formations in the western sky (C). It was only after a few minutes of shooting these that I turned around and saw the afterglow in the canyon (D).

A Part can be Greater than the Sum of the Whole

When confronted with a panorama of magnificent mountain scenery, we have a natural tendency to want to show it all. To do this, most of us reach for a wide-angle lens, which does get it all in. But because of the wide-angle's "exploded" perspective - it makes everything that's not in the immediate foreground seem smaller - the feel of those peaks will be diminished in your photograph. The very mountains that dominated the landscape will look like so many molehills on film. To solve this problem, use a telephoto lens to isolate one mountain, or even just part of a mountain. The len's compressed perspective and frame-filling magnification help convey the strength and majesty of the scene. Near Bridge Mountain in Zion, I tried using a 20mm lens to show it all (E). But by moving about 100 yards to the left (so I could see the moon rising behind the peak) and shooting just a portion of the mountain (F) with a 300mm lens, I made a much stronger photograph.

Try Shadow as Well as Light

It's not just light that creates a picture, but also the absence of light. The warm, low-angled illumination of early morning and late afternoon is so desirable for photography because of the many shadows it produces - shadows that add depth and drama to your compositions. I tried to capitalize on such natural chiaroscuro in these four photographs.

The Aquarius Plateau (or Pink Mountain), on Bryce's eastern boundary, catches the sun's last rays when the rest of the landscape has already been plunged into darkness (G). The moon goes down by Lady Mountain in Zion, coinciding with dawn's first light (H). Early rays pick out rich detail in the rock. The shadow cast by Zion's East Temple adds interest to the shape of the Streaked Wall in this sunrise view (I). Delicate tints of a dusk sky contrast with the warm red shades of the rock in Mount Spry and the East Temple (J).

Include People for Scale

Even if you visit in the off-season and shoot in the off-hours, you will still find yourself sharing these beautiful parks with others of our species. For a landscape purist, the presence of people in the frame can be annoying. But I find that a person or animal (even, in some cases, a building, car or helicopter) can actually enhance a landscape by giving it a sense of scale. This is especially true in a place like Bryce, where the hoodoos and other formations are so unusual in shape and size that most people who see your pictures will have no frame of reference unless they've been there. But viewers seeing a photograph of a human form overshadowed by a huge rock fissure, as in this shot (right) of the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce, or hikers dwarfed by canyon walls (left) as they wade along Zion's Virgin River, can immediately appreciate the size of the surroundings.

Zion & Bryce at Their Best

Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks hold some of Utah's greatest natural treasures: amphitheaters of red-rock pinnacles, walls and spires; canyons and mesas created by centuries of erosion. If you've come to photograph the parks, don't rush through them merely to mark another notch on your lens barrel. Good pictures take time - time to get the lay of the land and the feel of the light, to make the most of storm clouds, rainbows and the like. For the best results, plan on spending at least a few days here.

Both Zion and Bryce are in southwestern Utah. Zion, just 20 miles east of Interstate 15, is easier to get to (hence somewhat busier); Bryce is an 83-mile drive from Zion's east entrance.

The nearest major airports are in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. It's about a 3 hour drive from Vegas to Zion, about five hours from Salt Lake City to Bryce. Smaller airports at St. George and Cedar City, much closer to the parks, are served by Sky West, a Delta affiliate.

To avoid hot weather and crowds, visit during the off-season, October through May. In Zion, the heat drops off in October; snow is not widespread; wildflowers start blooming in March and by May are at their peak. Bryce Canyon's higher altitude brings cooler weather and more frequent snow in the winter, which only accentuates the beauty of the landscape. Be prepared for changeable weather: Carry water, rain gear and warm outerwear.

If you're at the parks during a busy time, adjust your schedule to take advantage of the great light and absence of visitors at sunrise and sunset. Then you can stay off the trails during "rush hours," resting while the sun is high.

Many park visitor centers, including those at Bryce and Zion, distribute pamphlets with advice on what, where and when to photograph. These can be valuable for planning your day. Concessionaires sell film in around the parks, but the choice is very limited and prices are high. Always bring more film than you think you'll need.

If you'd like the advice and company of fellow photographers, consider a photo tour. Itineraries are planned to hit the right spots at the right time, which removes some of the guesswork. (Unfortunately, though, when you travel with a group there's little flexibility to adjust the schedule in case of bad weather.) Two companies that organize tours in the Southwest are Photo Adventure Tours (2035 Park Street, Atlantic Beach, NY 11509; telephone 516-371-0067) and Sierra Photographic Workshops (3201 Lassen Way, Sacramento, CA 95821; 800-925-2596).

For information on the parks, contact the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association (Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon, UT 847171; 435-834-5322) and the Zion Natural History Association (Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767; 435-772-3256).

The work of Bob Krist, the award-winning traveling photographer, appears regularly in National Geographic Traveler, Smithsonian, Islands, Endless Vacation and Smithsonian. His photos have won awards in Pictures of the Year, Communication Arts and World Press Photo competitions. In 1994, Krist was named "Travel Photographer of the Year" by the Society of American Travel Writers. Recently, his work was featured on the cover and in a 10-page portfolio in an issue of the prestigious Communication Arts. His books include: West Point: the US Military Academy, Caribbean, and Secrets of Lighting on Location. His newest book, Spirit of Place: The Art of Professional Travel Photography will be published by Amphoto in the winter of 1999/2000.

An accomplished writer as well as a photographer, Krist served for seven years as contributing editor and photography columnist at Travel & Leisure magazine. Currently, he is a contributing editor at both National Geographic Traveler and Popular Photography, where he writes photography columns. He also writes and photographs how-to and feature articles for several other national publications, including National Wildlife, International Wildlife, Outdoor and Nature Photography, Caribbean Travel & Life, and Outside.

A recent lecturer for the National Geographic "Masters of Photography" series, Krist has also been the keynote speaker at the national convention of the Society of American Travel Writers and at regional meetings of the American Society of Media Photographers.

A former professional actor, Krist hosted the premiere season of "Nature's Best Photography", a 13 part series on the Outdoor Life Network. He appears periodically as a photography correspondent on CBS This Morning and teaches travel photography workshops for Maine Photo Workshops (http://www.MeWorkshops.com), Santa Fe Photographic Workshops (http://www.sfworkshop.com) and Toscana Photographic Workshops (http://www.tpw.it). Visit his personal website at www.BOBKRIST.com.

Krist lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with his wife Peggy and their three sons, Matthew, Brian and Jonathan.


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