Situated near the southern tip of Bryce Canyon National Park, Agua Canyon is a jaw-dropping collection of colors, shapes and textures. It’s less iconic than the typical amphitheater shots, but no less gorgeous. Perhaps it’s this lesser known status that draws me back time and time again to this glorious location. More than anything else, Agua Canyon is a challenge in composition and “getting it all” in the frame. It’s tall, and can be challenging to fit into the frame of capture. Other than that, Mother Nature does 99% of the work. Scout your location. Be there a the right time. And click away.
On a near daily basis I receive emails from aspiring photographers, curious as to how I made it to where I am and if I have any advice that may help them in their quest. It is both humbling and gratifying to know that others think my thoughts have enough merit to better them as a budding photographer and business person. Let me be clear that I feel I am by no means “there” as a photographer, but I feel that I’m certainly somewhere on the way to “there”. I know I’m much closer to “there” than I was two or three years ago.
The truth of the matter is this: if you’re reading this blog post, we are very much alike. We have far more in common than you could likely imagine. I am still very much clawing my way to greatness, but I can recall, when I was just taking my first steps into the unknown that defines a green photographer’s career, wondering what went through the brain of one more seasoned than I. For those of you perhaps in that same situation now, here’s a glimpse into my psyche as a person and a photographer. Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or a newbie to this fine medium, I’d love for you to add your own confession in the comments field if you like.
1. I sometimes wonder if I can do this for the rest of my life, and continue producing exceptional imagery.
2. My 3-yr old son knows I’m a photographer, and I love it.
3. I dream of shooting large format film one day–just for fun.
4. I hate the “look at me” part of showing my work to potential clients and friends.
5. But I have figured out the difference between arrogant ego-padding, and proper self promotion.
6. There is no better motivator to work hard than knowing I have to provide for my family.
7. There is no better motivator to push my photography than knowing I’m surrounded (everywhere) by exceptional photographers.
8. I am ridiculously anal about having tack sharp images. I throw away most anything that isn’t tack when it’s supposed to be.
9. I, too, have an equipment wish list a mile long.
10. I love to teach photography. Someday I hope to make that a more significant part of my job.
11. My favorite time to shoot is sunrise, when everything is quiet and Mother Nature is the one doing the talking.
12. I am constantly wondering if I’m good enough. I have learned to deal with this in a positive way, and I hope this sentiment never leaves me.
13. I use gear I believe in, not just gear I get for free. That doesn’t mean I don’t love free stuff.
14. I am screwed without my Grad ND filters. Really.
15. My office is a freakin’ mess.
16. One of my greatest inspirations has always been David Muench.
17. The day goes by so much quicker when I’m working for myself. That’s not always a good thing.
18. I am afraid of flash photography.
19. My workflow is a freakin’ mess.
20. I think my favorite places to shoot are National Parks. They are so beautiful and grand. I wish I could have been around when they weren’t quite so crowded, but it’s great to see people out there enjoying them.
I’ve been thinking lately about all of the millions (billions?) of images out there lately and what separates the cream of the crop from the rest. More than anything else, I think it’s about creating an image with impact. Regardless of the type of imagery you shoot, if you can create an image that touches someone in any meaningful way, you can’t help but leave your mark. The best part is that with all the billions of people in this world having all of their billions of experiences each and every day, it is inevitable that you will connect with someone if you shoot with impact in mind. Impact, for me, occurs in the grandiose and the minute. The spectacular, and even the mundane. If you can evoke an emotion, you can have an impact on people. Nuff said.
Conditions last week looked primo for a visit to one of America’s most intriguing national parks. Declared a National Park in 1924, Bryce Canyon is best known for its unique, brightly colored hoodoo formations, created over thousands of years by frost-wedging and rain water. The weather forecast looked promising, calling for fresh snow, and then partly cloudy skies throughout the week. The stage was set for what I hoped to be “all time” conditions for a Bryce Canyon shoot. I had visions of intense pink sunrises, endless spotty clouds and fresh powder.
We arrived instead to…howling winds, frigid temps and…not a flake of new snow. Were it any place but Bryce Canyon, I might have been a bit more disappointed, but the truth is, you’d have to be crazy not to be able to do something with this canvas that Mother Nature was certainly inspired to create–regardless of the weather.
Having only been to Bryce Canyon once previously, I had a number of traditional images in mind that I hope to come home with. As usual, however, I was equally interested in finding my own piece of Bryce that perhaps had not been captured by any other lens. Sure, it may have been glossed over by other eyes, but had it really been seen?
The first evening was cold and relativey clear. Having just arrived in the park, we hurriedly set up at and around Sunset Point. I was really focusing on the big picture here, and the dusk glow was terrific.
With the mercury reading a balmy 10 degrees F, we bundled up for sunrise the next morning, again heading to different spots around the canyon rim near Sunset Point. The skies were crystal clear, which meant I would just look for compositions that included less sky. One of the most spectacular things about Bryce Canyon is the way the landscape changes as the sun rises. Hoodoos glow as if lit on fire by the hand of a higher power. The bounce light is insanely beautiful and warm. Typically, I wrap up my morning shoots about an hour or at the very most, two hours after sunrise. We shot well into the morning, taking a hike on the Navajo Loop trail and exploring new photo opportunities around every bend. Winter is a wonderful time to visit Bryce as foot traffic is at a relative crawl compared to other times of the year. Much to our delight, spots that typically would have been a veritable tripod gathering were empty.
Late afternoon was spent exploring some of the lesser visited spots in the Park like Agua Canyon and Rainbow Point. The light in Agua Canyon was a tad harsh, but the colors were amazing. My Singh Ray LB Color Combo polarizer was absolutely key in cutting glare, saturating the colors and deepening the sky. Seriously–if you aren’t familiar with a polarizing filter, it is amazing to watch how it transforms the landscape when used correctly. Remember that the best angle for polarization is when the sun is at a 90 degree angle to what you are shooting.
Sunset that evening was windy and cold at Bryce Point. The view is simply mind blowing. Spotty clouds made for some classic 3D lighting, but we were just a bit late in arriving to capture the best light on the hoodoos. I don’t think I’ve ever shot in wind like that before–it was a huge challenge to handhold my grad NDs while keeping my tripod steady for the longer exposures.
Sunrise the next morning was spent at one of my new favorite places on earth. Agua Canyon is peppered with interesting, colorful rock creations–all surrounded by towering cliffs offering super cool and engaging angles from which to shoot. Perched on top of an 800 foot cliff, I couldn’t help but pinch myself as I took in the sights and sounds of a truly unique and inspiring place. Movements were slow and steady–one wrong move meant either myself, or my gear taking a life-ending tumble.
All in all, I’d say the trip was a great success. I find the longer I shoot, the harder it is for me to come away from places with images that impress and inspire. I feel that, especially given the brief nature of the visit, I came away with some memorable imagery. I’ve listed just a few tips that may help you in your next visit to photograph Bryce Canyon National Park.
1. Arrive early. Stay late. This is generally true for any photo location, but even moreso for Bryce. Popular photo spots can get extremely crowded very quickly–you want to secure your dream spot without stepping on anyone else’s toes. Be sure to stay late for that dusk glow. The hoodoos reflect an inordinate amount of light not really seen by the human eye, but readily picked up by your camera’s sensor. Exposure times will certainly be on the longer end, but these images will be void of any harsh highlights or shadows, focusing mainly on the warm colors of the redrock and the indigo sky.
2. Take a polarizer. Be familiar with its performance and where/when/how you can use it best. You can really deepen the sky and allow the hoodoos and canyon walls to pop against an azure background with the help of a polarizer. It will also help to saturate the color just a tad bit more.
3. Search for bounce light. As the sun rises higher in the sky, get down in the canyon trails and explore Bryce Canyon in a more intimate manner. While the broader vistas may appear washed out and harsh, there are countless opportunities to shoot bounce (or reflected light) down in the canyon.
4. Take a wide assortment of lenses. I used everything from my widest to my longest lenses, and everything in between. One of my favorite practices is to throw on a long lens and “hunt” for that engaging piece of the broader landscape. This is especially applicable in Bryce Canyon as certain hoodoos or areas light up at different times. Make sure you have a sturdy tripod!
5. Don’t forget your graduated neutral density filters–a must for any serious landscape photographer!
6. Look for opportunities to include a human element in your images to help give scale to the landscape.
7. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Seems so many times we are so consumed with coming away with that wall hanger that we forget to simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings in which we find ourselves. Take a step back from the tripod, and enjoy a moment for yourself.