Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Locations for photography: Zion National Park, Utah

Cottonwood congregation

I spent four nights in Zion and made not a single ‘big landscape’ image

Perhaps that sounds odd, in that Zion is a vast canyon with soaring, near-vertical rock walls and a generous helping of overall magnificence. It was our last stop on the long trip around the desert south-west of the US though, and by that time I was reacting against big pictures and literally focusing on detail everywhere. Fortunately, Zion has an abundance of excellent detail!

As with the other locations we visited, Zion has already been heavily documented and photographed, so this is a short piece about my overall impressions of, and reaction to, the place.

Zion cleftIn summary, and to be slightly contentious: it’s a US version of the English Lake District. I realise that anyone who’s been to both places will recognise that, in isolation, that’s a radically misleading statement. What I mean is that it feels like the Lake District; it’s atmosphere is strangely similar. It’s not the landscape itself that has this feel; it’s the way the landscape is used by people.

  1. It’s on a small scale – in fact, the principal canyon is not a great deal larger than Langdale, in terms of area, though it’s a winding, 10Km long, 500-700m. deep canyon cut into the surrounding desert.
  2. It feels very tame, compared to other national parks in the US south-west. Feels is the important word there: the Lakes don’t have cougars, rattlesnakes or bears, but then again, for most practical purposes, nor does Zion. The main areas are so populous with humans that the potentially aggressive wildlife stays well away. Conversely, the deer living on the canyon floor are so used to humans that they’re verging on tame and can be approached to within a couple of metres!
  3. Zion zig zagsIt’s manicured – not quite literally, though it is very neat. The owners of Zion Lodge (the only place to stay actually in the park) are currently converting most of the lawns around the buildings back to natural vegetation, yet the nature of the terrain means that the paths (sorry, trails in US-speak) are often the only option. Straying from them is sometimes forbidden, often impractical, and most are paved for the mile or so from the parking area which the average visitor will manage.
  4. StreamEven in the off-season, and mid-December is about as ‘off’ as it gets, we saw more people in Zion than anywhere else on our circuit. That’s not to say that it was anything approaching crowded, it was perfectly comfortable, but it certainly was relatively busy. I dread to think what summer is like, when the road up the canyon is closed to private vehicles and access is via what is apparently an excellent, multi-stop shuttle-bus service.

All those characteristics just kept making me think of Lakeland…. but a restricted Lakeland, one with:

  • less variety in its colours (a completely different palette in fact, but a more restricted one, at least in December);
  • Still deathless potential for choosing your own route from A to B;
  • and less space, both in real terms and in the naturally imposing nature of very high rock faces and a flat, narrow canyon floor littered with very neat, very well-maintained stopping places and viewpoints.

But hey, I like the Lake District – subject to the normal caveats of going there when it’s less crowded than it can often be – and I liked Zion. In particular, it was a great place to relax for a few days at the end of a long trip and many miles of driving.

Photographically, I found it excellent for the type of image I was, by then, making

It’s true that the rock which makes up most vertical and horizontal surfaces does tend to be the same red/yellow sandstone throughout the park, but it consists of numerous layers, and those layers vary in their thickness, degree of erosion, and pattern. If you want to look for abstraction in rock, this is a fabulous place to visit. One rather pleasing feature is that semi-abstract compositions can be made wherein the scale is very hard to determine: some of the rock images above are tens of metres across, though they could appear to be an order of magnitude or two smaller, at a glance (they often do to me, and I took them!). For example, if you examine the top right of the zig-zag rock image above, at the large size, there’s a bush there. That bush is about the size of a medium-sized dog, whereas I keep thinking the whole image is a small area!

Frozen in amberIn early winter, there are also frequent pockets of ice to be found, held in the curves of small watercourses, often with decaying vegetation, both encased in the ice and lying on the surface. I used these to add some different colours to what was otherwise becoming something of a ‘red and granular’ series of images.

Zion ice creamWould I go there again? Yes, though I wouldn’t wish to go out of my way too much to do so, and if I did it certainly wouldn’t be in summer. Further, I’d be looking to concentrate on similar subjects to those I found this first time. A search on images of Zion will bring up many shots of the sheer grandiosity of the canyon itself, but examine those carefully and there are relatively few significantly different compositions – the nature of the place is that it has a number of viewpoints,and the sheer scale of the rock walls means that varying a composition from the norm is decidedly tricky. Moving away from those viewpoints very much, certainly in a direction which would enhance the composition, tends to require the power of flight!

I do strongly recommend a visit there if you have the opportunity, I’m certainly very pleased indeed to have gone; but set your expectations appropriately in terms of the type of photography it’s possible to practise, and enjoy it also for simply being a rather wonderful place with great drama, easy access and, if you’re vaguely fit and can follow steep, but well-trodden trails up to 700m. from the valley floor and back down again, some superb viewpoints.
Winter colour

All of the above is, of course, very generalised

It’s entirely possible to go to Zion and make some superb ‘big landscape’ images, as proven by the number of great photographs that exist showing it looking truly majestic. My approach was somewhat dictated by the equipment I had with me, but, as I said above, it had more to do with simply having had a near-surfeit of ‘big landscapes’ by the time I arrived there. That said, in this particular case, I do think that the wealth of small scale, detail / abstraction / texture / colour images are the most interesting subjects Zion has to offer…
Zion waves

Thumbnail links to gallery for this article

5 Responses to “Locations for photography: Zion National Park, Utah”

  1. Pete Hyde

    Hi Mike, a very interesting ‘take’ on Zion. Like you I would happily go back and spend a few days there, perhaps exploring some of the areas away from the main canyon. I think you have come away with a wonderful set of images and wonder what you might achieve on a second visit with this prior experience.
    Cheers, Pete

    • Mike Green

      Hi Pete, Thanks,really just how I felt about it after a few days! I certainly do have ideas on how I would treat it if I went back – and I may well one day. Glad you enjoyed the images.

  2. Anonymous

    Wonderful article, Mike – and outstanding photographs. As well as ‘Cottonwood Congregation’, I really like ‘Zion Cleft’ – both are absolutely stunning images.
    When I was there (August 1996) I was very much still at the ‘point and shoot stage’ and my 35mm transparencies reflect that. I would absolutely love to return there now, all the more so after reading this. :-)

    • Mike Green

      That’s very kind of you, Doug; thanks! ‘Zion Cleft’ is amongst my favourites from Zion, and possibly from the whole trip – glad you like it. I hope you get to go back there – it’s certainly a very good place indeed. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Zion National Park

    Hey Mike thanks for these amazing photos. Zion National Park is more or less a Pilgrim ground for photographers, adventurers and nature lovers. The thousands of visitors who flock into Zion’s premises.


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: