Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Posts tagged ‘Utah’

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

Musings on: not being eaten whilst photographing landscapes

We’re lucky with our wildlife in the UK. We don’t have:

  • Bears: black, brown, grizzly or polar
  • Big cats: OK, there may be a few on the loose, but they’re at best very elusive!
  • Snakes: yes, there are a few, but they don’t have fatal, or terribly serious, venom.
  • Spiders: not the deadly sort at least, with a few airline stowaways being very much the exception.
  • Coyotes: though there are some wolves in Scotland now I believe.

We have no need, in Britain, for signs like this one:

Of course, if you’re out trying to photograph any of these animals, the UK’s sadly lacking and clearly not an ideal choice, but, if your interest is landscape photography, the absence of assorted, powerful carnivores and venomous biting things is a major benefit!
'Snakes warning sign'

This item was originally conceived as entirely light-hearted, but I’ve been thinking about it some more and there is a serious point too: making landscape images, which usually involves considerable time standing around, concentrating on the camera and the subject, is a great deal more relaxed in an environment where nothing either predatory or venomous is out to get you.

What made me think about this was spending a few weeks in the US south-west, an area where all of the above may be seen or, potentially, not seen until it’s too late. As I said in my previous article, this wasn’t a photographic trip and I therefore didn’t spend much time immobile, awaiting the arrival of a hungry something, but if I do go out to the region again, with intent to photograph landscapes, I suspect that being out in the wilds alone could well be considerably less relaxing than it is here.

It’s not as if there’s an easy rule to follow :-\

Quite apart from anything else, remembering how to respond to any given encounter is a bit of a challenge. The variations in whether or not to look at an animal, whether to make a noise, whether to be aggressive or passive, are considerable! (Broadly, though: looking at bears is a bad idea, whilst anything feline really doesn’t like being stared at one little bit. As to snakes… well, don’t step on them and don’t get within about three metres, especially if they rattle!)

'Bears warning sign'

Naturally, weather is something we have to contend with in Britain, but it’s not actively malevolent and out to get you. Weather can kill, and I’m sure it does so to a far greater degree than all of the wildlife above put together, but it’s passive and, to a reasonable degree, predictable (or so the met office claim at least). It’s most emphatically not worrying in quite the same way!

The real risk isn’t the issue; it’s a question of concentration

I genuinely think that landscape photography in the UK has many advantages over what might appear to be more dramatic landscapes elsewhere (colour palette, variety, accessibility, to list a few), and this is just an additional factor – but perhaps a very significant one. I’m not at all sure how well I could concentrate on producing the best composition I’m capable of, and waiting for the light to be optimum, if I was worrying about being eaten or poisoned! OK – I do know: not very well at all. For example, the rattlesnake warning sign at the top was vaguely amusing at first, but less so when we were standing on a lookout and noticing all the suspiciously circular, snake-sized holes in the desert surrounding us.

I don’t want to get the real risk out of proportion here: the number of fatalities attributed to the entirety of the above list of animals, per year, in the whole of the US, is measured in tens, so the risk is trivial. What I’m talking about here is the – to me – undeniable nervousness produced by these dangers existing at all, and the effect that would have on my photography. i.e. This is really a musing on how the potentially dangerous wildlife which may be nearby at a location affects [my] ability to make photographs. Much as the factors I discussed in my general article on photographing this area – time, equipment and over-familiarity – had a profound effect on my images, I think that this feature of the less-benign environments of the US south-west could also have a considerable, detrimental effect, purely through psychology :-(

'Lions warning sign'

I’d be interested in whether anyone who’s been out making landscape images – especially solo – either in this area or in others where potentially threatening animals are present – has had similar thoughts, or been affected by the simple concern about this, in reality trifling, risk?

Musings on: bonsai landscapes in the US south-west

For my first article about the western desert of the US, a few thoughts about how preconceptions of landscapes, as well as the circumstances in which we visit them, can affect our approach to photography – well, my approach at least, but I’m daring to assume that I’m not unique in this!

No, ‘Bonsai landscape’ is not the most usual description of the south western desert area of the US! My alternative title to this piece was:

‘Musings on: how over-familiarity, equipment availability, and travelling style affect the way we view landscapes’

…. but that was a teeny bit verbose; not to mention that I like the term ‘bonsai landscape’ to describe the very small areas, often with tiny bushes in them, which I seem to have photographed predominantly whilst there.

I’ll step back here and provide a bit of context.

I’ve just returned from a road-trip touring around various ‘big ticket’ sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, centred around Las Vegas as a convenient and pleasingly bizarre place to enter and exit the US. The thing is, it wasn’t a photographic tour, it was a non-solo, driving holiday, and the point was to ‘see the sights’, which meant Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Antelope Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and all sorts of less well-known things en route. I’ve written before about the incompatibility of ‘serious’ landscape photography and non-photographer companions, so I reluctantly chose to take just a camera body, two small, light lenses and one [polarising] filter. My graduated filters, the two lenses I use for most of my images, and my tripod all stayed at home.

The effect of this was interesting.

  • Firstly, and not surprisingly, it avoided all the problems I’d imagined, had I taken all the normal kit and gone with ‘intent to photograph’: no issues with anyone else having to wait around whilst I set up shots and waited for changes in light, and the big benefit of not having much to carry around either!
  • Secondly – and this is the more interesting result, and the subject of this musing – I ended up making very different images, in general, from those I’d expected to concentrate on.

Tiny elements of a vast landscape

The south-western desert area of the United States is a huge landscape, characterised by vast skies, monoliths, and deep canyons – the sort of thing which lends itself to big vistas. That impression is reinforced by a quick on-line search, where the photographic results which come back are predominantly ‘big stuff’ with ‘impressive skies’. I have very few of those shots. Yes, I do have some, but I have considerably more detail shots. And it’s not even medium level detail, the type of thing I generally find myself capturing; they’re real detail of landscape elements measured in single digit metres across the frame – not something I’ve done much of before. Whether I shall again is another question…. I like the results, but I think I prefer my normal work, such as ‘Plateau’, below.


At the time, I didn’t notice what I was doing….

I recognised this concentration on detail for the first time whilst doing initial processing on the captures I made during the trip. Prior to that, I’d not been at all aware that I was behaving differently, in terms of what I photographed, from normal.

I think there are three reason for this – temporary! – change in subject matter:

Equipment availability
I had no wide angle lens: my widest was 35mm on Nikon DX format, or about 50mm full frame equivalent; not exactly wide. I had no tilt-shift lens, no tripod, and no graduated filters: all these things are essential to how I normally take photographs, so, inevitably, I couldn’t do what I would typically do. Instead, I gave up on real front-to-back sharpness, any idea of including sky, and any exposure longer than about a 30th of a second. OK, so the sky aspect was no great change – I often exclude it, as discussed before – but the other two things were!
Time availability
Generally, I’ll hang around at a site for at least an hour, and more often two or three, making a single capture. Doing that sort of thing at every location on a long road trip would have been…. let’s say ‘not sociable’, nor productive in terms of the primary objective of ‘seeing lots of things’. As a consequence, most of my images took a matter of a minute or less to see, compose and shoot – a bit of a difference from my usual approach.
Over-familiarity with the landscape
I think this is the most significant factor. The two above are both strong, practical arguments for a different approach, and consequently for a different set of take-home images, but this is the one which, I can see now, really drove the change.

I don’t mean that I’d been to these places before; I hadn’t. Yet, with these iconic and stunning locations being both heavily photographed and included in innumerable feature films, I found myself acutely and accurately aware of what I was going to see before I arrived in most places. It’s great, for example, to have seen Monument Valley in the real stone (and the real snow, and the real ice, and the real, very bitter, wind), but I didn’t exactly learn anything new, visually, from being there. It looks as it does in the films, and many people have made excellent images of the mesas through a combination of familiarity and repeated visits. I wouldn’t seek, or be able, to emulate those. Essentially, in one day, I didn’t feel that I could add anything on the vista scale.

'Antelope waves'

These three things conspired to make me concentrate, unknowingly at the time, on small elements of the overall photographic possibilities in each place

Lack of time and kit meant that compositions were necessarily simple and quickly made, and my reluctance to try and capture the vast vistas in a manner which was new, or improved upon, existing work, led to abstract and detailed shots. These will, I’m sure, remind me of the trip very well indeed, despite the fact that relatively few of them could be placed on a map with any certainty. Given that ‘making memories’ was the main point of my photography on this trip, that’s fine!


In retrospect, perhaps all of the above was obvious: perhaps I could have predicted the type of capture I’d make? Maybe so, but I didn’t, and discovering this after the fact is quite enlightening – it’s another new thing to add to my gradually increasing understanding of the photographic process as a whole.

It does, of course, mean that, in future, I shall be more aware of the possibilities of different styles – or at least of different choices of subject matter – emerging when I travel in different circumstances, with different equipment, and with overall different objectives from ‘serious photography’. Personally, I think that’s great: change and new revelation in any pursuit is, I strongly believe, a good thing, and it maintains interest :-)

'Bonsai bush - Zion'

I’m sure much of the above is painfully obvious to many people reading this….. If so, thanks for reading this far! This journal is, as I’ve said before, aimed at recording my progress as a newcomer to landscape photography, and this really was quite a major revelation to me, whether it should have been or not!