I'm back from two weeks in Yosemite and Southern Utah (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, and Zion National Parks). Since the end of September I've done five workshops, starting with my Yosemite and Eastern Sierra workshops (two each) and wrapping up last week with Don Smith's Arches/Canyonlands workshop.
I love everything about conducting photo workshops--the great people I meet, the world-class locations I visit, and teaching and guiding enthusiastic photographers--but I'm afraid I'm not a terribly productive photographer on these trips. My focus is on the group, not my own photography, and while I usually come home with images that please me, I don't really get to shoot what makes me happiest. So after saying goodbye to Don's group Sunday morning, Don and I headed out for a couple of days of personal shooting in Bryce and Zion National Parks. Despite the fact that I was approaching two weeks on the road (first Yosemite, then straight to Utah), I was really looking forward to having my own quality photography time.
Happy photography for me is not duplicating scenes others have already captured, it's chasing the light, uncovering the essence of a scene, and trying to find a way to make it uniquely mine. Achieving this requires something I call being in "the zone," a place where it's just me, my camera, and Mother Nature. I don't necessarily need to be alone (on this trip there simply wasn't enough time on this detour to get very far off the beaten path), but I do need to be able to focus entirely on my world, take my time, and shut out all distractions.
After days of sunrise to sunset (and sometimes longer) workshop shooting and many miles on the road, Don and I were pretty exhausted when we rolled into Zion on the penultimate day of our trip. Our exhaustion quickly faded when we realized we'd hit peak of this year's fall color in the park. The deep red canyon walls, enriched by a light rain, were decorated with a variety of glistening yellow trees and shrubs emphatically punctuated by vivid crimson maples.
Our plan was to walk up the Virgin River to the Narrows. Driving up Zion Canyon, we found it impossible not to photograph at virtually every bend; we finally pulled into the trailhead parking lot with about four hours of quality light remaining (courtesy of the rain and persistent overcast). There, beneath the colorful canopy, the forest floor was carpeted with color, while ephemeral splashes of red and yellow darted among the rapids.
After agreeing to meet back at the car at 5:30, Don and I parted to seek our own images. For a few minutes I played with compositions near the parking area, then set off up the trail, still trying to get in synch with this beautiful and unique location. The overcast sky, tangled branches overhead, and narrow sandstones walls made the canyon very dark and I was grateful that the wind ranged from gentle to calm. It didn't take long for the zone to settle in, and with it an energizing euphoria that erased the remaining vestiges of fatigue. It seemed as if every step revealed something new and it took me three hours to cover one mile (which was just as well, as the rain had swollen the river, making it impossible to advance up the Narrows). I congratulated myself for having the foresight to bring an extra CF card, something I almost never need.
I won't pretend that this image breaks new ground, but I'm relatively confident that I'm the only person with this shot. It's the kind of composition that usually eludes me when I'm working with a workshop group. I found these leaves resting on a rock 30 vertical feet above the river and was particularly drawn to the juxtaposition of the resting leaves against the rushing river. Incongruous relationships like this convey a tension that's important in the inherently static world of a photograph. Strong diagonals like the rock boundary separating the leaves from the river generate a sense of visual motion. With my camera off my tripod I scanned the scene for the composition that best combined these elements, finally arriving at this vertical orientation that broke the frame into thirds (rock/leaves, tree, river), cutting it diagonally into a foreground of leaves on the rock against a background of rushing rapids and colorful tree.
Returning my camera to the tripod, I refined the composition, taking care not to merge the frame's three components. It took a while to position myself and tweak the focal length to avoid cutting off the leaves and river rocks, and to eliminate distractions (extraneous objects that pull the eye) at the edge of the frame. I stopped down to f16 to ensure that all the foreground leaves would be sharp from front to back, focusing on the most distant edge of the rock to maximize background sharpness. The leaves on the tree swayed unpredictably, so I bumped up to ISO 400 to increase my shutter speed. A polarizer cut color-robbing glare on the leaves and water.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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