Once again, the underwater photographer finds himself on an expedition through the high desert…..there must be water here somewhere…….right?
Flying into Phoenix is always easy & uneventful. Rental car (little Kia with 40mpg – perfect for this 2200 mile trip), cheap motel, up early the next morn, and on the way to see the iconic Horseshoe Bend (from above – no diving in The Colorado this time). Then to the first shooting destination of Zion National Park.
Our American National Parks are a really special place for me. I’ve been to all 50 states, but it still feels like every time I enter one of these protected places, I step into a place so magical, it must be a sci-fi movie. Driving into Zion NP at night, the first thing I noticed was that all the pretty stars and constellations I was ogling out the car windshield suddenly disappeared – I was surrounded by towering cliffs that blocked out all the stars, save those in a 10-degree arc straight above me – and no, my economy Kia did not have a sunroof. A herd of bighorn sheep were crossing the road, causing me to slam on the brakes, and in sort of an evasive maneuver, I pulled off into a dirt patch, which coincidentally was a trailhead, sooooo……must be a sign – time for a night hike!
After a quick sleep, it was time to go for the first planned shoot to add an image to my upcoming Americana Collection – I wanted to nail a split shot (half underwater, half showing the iconic landscape) within Zion’s “The Narrows”, but as expected, April was producing too much snowmelt to go up The Narrows. Fortunately, we had planned a backup location that some of the locals called “Mini-Narrows”, which was reported to have a similar environment but with manageable water volume. Hiking a few miles got us to the spot, but it took crossing the river several times, so I’d like to describe that experience before we proceed. When snow melts at 32-degrees, it produces a river that’s about 33-degrees. The first step in, it’s like “oh, no big deal – I got this”, then at second 2 or 3, the feeling of 1000 needles digging into your feet and calves takes over and you want to leap back to shore so freggin bad, but there’s no turning back……and after 2-3 minutes, it’s all good again, as you’re totally numb, and you forget that you even have legs. But I digress….. the shot…… mid-day light is usually the enemy of a photographer, but inside a slot canyon, it barely makes a difference. I hiked my big camera, Nauticam housing, two strobes, the Nauticam tripod, a bunch of arms and accessories, etc, in, so I might as well use it. I put on my waders (not good for hiking – just for walking a few feet and standing) and found a dry rock to assemble the rig from my backpack (a 20-minute task in ideal conditions – a 30-minute task when standing in a river trying not to drop electronics into the flowing 33-degree waters). This shot was achieved by using a very long exposure to get enough light. Most photographers would probably just jack up the camera’s ISO for a brighter shot, but since I’m in the business of producing BIG art prints, that’s not an option because of the noise (grain) which results, and it becomes uglier as I print bigger. Those who shoot for Instagram of Facebook can get away with it, but I can’t, so I have to brace and use loooooong exposures. The main problem is always the same – all those little splashes leaving droplets on my port – again, shooting for a iPhone’s screen on social media – no problem – just clone stamp them out in Photoshop – but if I do that on your 200-inch wall art, you’ll see the “artifacts”, and while you don’t normally look at 200-inch art with a magnifying glass, with my prints, I think you should be able to. So through years of trial and error, I’ve come up with some very creative techniques to keep those annoying little drops from messing up the top half of my image. Suffice to say, there’s waaaaay more prep-time involved than there is actually “shooting” a shot like this.
The next day in Zion NP, we did what is quite possibly, the single coolest hike I’ve ever done. Of course, not carrying an extra 60 lbs of underwater camera gear, dive gear, lighting, etc., adds significantly to the “cool factor”, and this time, I only had a 20-lb backpack of above-water camera gear (and a Go Pro, juuuuust in case I found a puddle to crawl in). This trail is called, “Angel’s Landing”, and while there was no falls, nor any angels, there was a large percentage of the climb that required pulling ourselves hand-over-hand by chains. And then, there’s the view…..hubba hubba the view. Like anything in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it, and it takes a lot to get to the top of the trail.
Being the gluttons for punishment that we are, the only trail in Zion longer than Angel’s Landing, is Observation Point. Sore legs & blisters be damned! But the funny thing happened as soon as we reached the top of observation point, which looks down on the end of Angel’s Landing. My cell phone regained reception, along with a few dozen other hikers, and I felt like I was in a Miami Starbucks (minus the frappucino) instead of at the rewarding end of a challenging hike to the world’s best vantage point. Bling, ding, poing, and every other stupid ringtone pierced the quiet air, and of course, rather than just taking quite yoga-pose duck-lipped selfie-stick photos, everyone was having FaceTime conversations and doing the Tweeters. I’ll admit, it sucked the magic out of it for me. And then I did an Instagram MyStory.
Early to bed, early to rise, and with an alarm set for 4:00am, we were at the spot for THE sunrise. Tripod, check! Timelapse, rolling! Light…… light….. light???? Oh, yeah, it’s coming, I forgot that when there are 6000′ mountains to the east, it takes a while longer. Timelapse proved 2 hours of work for mediocre results, as did the sunrise photos, but I’ll take a morning in crisp 37-degree alpine air with no other humans, over an an alarm clock before getting to the office, any day of the week! The rest of the day was spent doing a little basic canyoneering, and planning the trip to the greatest National Park you’ve never heard of – Capitol Reef NP.
While not nearly as big as Zion, Capitol Reef NP makes up for it with stunning stratified sedimentary rock formations, a crazy scenic drive, and a complete lack of people (awesome!). Here, we met up with our RV-ing friends Jim & Susan, who kindly offered to let us stay with them for a few nights. Susan is a great U/W photographer herself, but had been using this trip to master the art of nighttime MilkyWay astrophotography, and Jim, a talented U/W videographer, had been practicing his drone work, and also working on some interesting b-roll with a GoPro suction-cupped to the car. After learning the basics from them, I’m now addicted to MilkyWay shooting, and now have to blow another few thousand on a new drone….thanks guys. Susan also scouted a great spot for me to get in a river where wheat was growing all over the riverbanks. Turned out to be a nice split-shot. Aside from that, we conquered the most challenging hikes in the Park, and like all of the other NP’s I’ve shot in, I completely fell in love with the place.
On to Moab, which is flanked by Arches NP and Canyonlands NP. Jim & Susan were just a few hours ahead of us, so we met them after the AMAZINGLY scenic few hour drive, and made plans to wake up at 1:45am for a MilkyWay shoot! Shooting the MW really puts the quality of a camera to the test. How high can you push that ISO before the noise gets too unacceptable? And just how unacceptable is unacceptable to you? She introduced me to the Rokinon 1.4 lens – cha-ching….. its only $, right? But I did okay for a first try with my Nikon 14-24 2.8 lens. Not too shabby.
Well before the sun rose, we were on our way back to Canyonlands to shoot the sunrise through the iconic Mesa Arch. I figured there would be a few photographers, maybe 3 or 4, who might show up after me, but since I was arriving at 5am, I’d get my choice position. Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh, why is the parking lot full???? After the short hike, my dreams were dashed, and my fears confirmed – crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, tripod-to-tripod, was a gaggle of photogs. Turns out, since it was a new moon, an entire photo club from AZ had staked their claim to the vantage point, and under the tutelage of workshop leader, had been shooting the night sky there since 11:00pm. Normally, I’m the one putting in the most work at the craziest hours, but this time, dozens of people had beat me to it.
So after moping for 30-40 minutes or so…..a moment of genius struck! And this is going to get all camera-techie here – fair warning…. There was no way to get a tripod in – totally blocked. Needed to get on a tripod to bracket for an HDR merge. Also needed that tripod to get a small aperture and long shutter speed and low ISO, but it wasn’t going to happen. I tried hand-holding with a higher ISO, shorter SS, and wider corresponding aperture, but even my Wookie arms weren’t long enough. And then it hit me! Extend all the tripod legs…..mount the camera on the tripod with a crazy angle, and hold it out like a boom arm over the shoulders of the blockade of kneeling photogs with interlocked tripods, and use live-view to compose. But how do I hit the shutter????? I set it on a 5-second delay, and set it to shoot a series of 5 shots per click with one second between each shot!!!!! Voila!!!!! See, sometimes it pays to RTFM and know what all those 5000 menu settings do! So what a ridiculous sight – the blockade of camping photogs, and me standing behind them and extending a 6’ long tripod horizontally over their shoulders, and putting my lens right between two of their cameras (yes, literally, a camera 1” to my left, and 1” to my right). So I got the shot – it might not have had the benefit of the tripoded HDR I had envisioned, it may have been shot at ISO 400 instead of 64, and it may have been shot at f11, instead of my previsualized f22, but hey…..I still dig it.
A final observation….. I love taking risks. I love doing things that might kill me. “Fear is a liar”, so says the wise Suzanne. Anything that can spike my adrenaline is a-okay with me. But when we witnessed an event unfold in Zion NP, it gave me the chance to be on the flip-side of the coin, and for once, I was the one saying, “what an idiot – how stupid”. And really, they were just probably trying to be dare-devil adrenaline junkies. However, when I do it, I’m prepared. I plan. I think. I push my limits frequently, but incrementally. And I’ve never needed rescuing. So when I see two geniuses completely ignore the multitude of signs put up by the Zion NP stating that The Narrows was closed due to high water flow, I don’t know what I can do except photograph them. Now I didn’t see them get swept away the 1/10 mile downstream and not be able to get to the right shorebank. What I saw was the Search & Rescue team speeding towards the scene. There was no opportunity for me to help – more qualified people were already on the scene when I arrived. So I shoot images. Over about an hour, I watched a team of NP S&R expertly coordinate a crossing, and successfully rescue these people, while putting their own safety at risk, and using up valuable NPS resources. Why would they ignore all the signs, and verbal warnings, break through a barrier, and then be completely unprepared and swept away? And to make matters worse, whereas I think they should be fined for the entire cost of the rescue operation (plus a stupidity fine), I heard from a member of the NPS that they were only fined a $500 ticket, and that they then whined and complained about it (and likely will never pay it), instead of humbly thanking each and every one of the rescuers. I have the greatest respect for all the staff at our National Parks, from the armed Rangers, to the S&R team, to the retiree volunteers, right down to the people who clean the primitive pit toilets. All of them are essential in giving you and me access to the most amazing spots in the USA. Whether you’re a US Citizen, a tourist to America, a pro photographer, an avid hiker, or just someone who never tires of being awed, give a little respect to the staff at out NP’s – take time to thank them for making these places accessible to us. And while we’re at it, lets make sure our NP’s stay protected and remain amazing – forever.