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The magnificence of Zion National Park can't be truly described with words. It has to be experienced and seen with ones eye, or better yet, with a camera in order to fully appreciate. Surrounded by mammoth red-rocked cliffs, Zion is the Southwest's answer to Yosemite National Park. Zion does not boast the iconic peaks of Yosemite like Half-Dome or El Capitan, what it offers is often more subtle and best seen when immersed inside of the park, looking at the subtle shifts in color and tone amongst the rocks and in the changing fall foliage.
A group of twelve photographers joined the Aperture Academy and pro instructors Brian Rueb, Scott Davis, and Ellie Stone for a weekend of photography, fun, and adventure in Zion National Park in hopes of truly experiencing the beauty of this park firsthand and coming away with the photographs that help showcase that experience.
Class begins with an orientation to discuss the weekend, and give all of our photographers a chance to get to know one another better. It also allows our instructors a chance to learn more about the skill level and equipment of the students so that they can tailor their instruction to best suit them. Our classes are always a nice mix of new students as well as long time friends and returning students.
This workshop is unlike others in that there is a bit more "adventure" to the class, so it's imperative that our instructors go over all the safety issues to make sure everyone has an enjoyable and fun time throughout our class. By the end of the orientation the class was excited and ready to begin, so it was time to send them off for a good nights' sleep so they would be ready for the full day ahead.
:: DAY ONE ::
The first day begins with our class working the river banks of the Virgin River along the Court of the Patriarchs. Scott, Brian, and Ellie help the class find a good spot and then set up a nice composition. They are also on hand to answer questions on aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and all those other questions that can overwhelm some of the newer photographers.
Our classes tailor to shooters of all experience levels, so for some getting a spring board to bounce off all of those questions is really helpful. For more advanced shooters, it's about compositions and sometimes utilizing filters to help really balance an exposure and get the most out of each image. Filter wise we really push the use of polarizers and graduated neutral density filters to help balance image exposure.
The Court of the Patriarchs is rich with opportunities to grab impressive images, all along the river bend are numerous spots to set up and photograph the immense red rock cliffs as they reflect their warm glow in the green waters of the Virgin River.
When the sun had risen and the cliffs were bathed in light the instructors helped the students work on more intimate shots of the reflections in the water, and leaves caught (or placed) in the current. Sometimes in such grand landscapes it's easy to get lost in the big picture and fail to see the beauty in the little things. Our instructors are all skilled in helping the class stop to look low and find the little details.
The next stop of the morning was high on the Checkerboard Mesa area of the park. A small tree pokes out of a red rock dome and makes for some really nice shots in the early morning light. White streaking clouds behind the tree made for some added drama to the image. The polarizing filter was a big help here giving some added depth to the image and color intensity in the sky.
When the tree had been shot from all angles, it was down the hill a short walk to where Ellie worked with the class on shooting some abstract-esque shots of yellow fall leaves mixed with swirls of reds and brown sandstone. Again, it's the little things that can give a more intimate and well rounded look to images and really give variety to your portfolio.
The two morning stops took us almost to noon and it was time for a brief break so students could charge batteries, eat lunch, and get rested up for an afternoon of shooting.
When we regrouped it was off to Zion Adventure Company to get fitted in our water gear for our hike into the Virgin River Narrows the next day. Safety gear is key to making sure our experience is comfortable and our class can spend all their time focusing on the photos and not being cold and miserable. Watching the safety video and seeing everyone get dressed up in their water proof MC Hammer pants is a fun and entertaining experience. Everyone shares a few laughs at the funny video, and at one another as they shuffle around in their puffy black water pants.
The afternoon for photography is spent in the Temple of Sinawava, where the reds and golds of fall foliage is at its peak. The class spreads out again along the river and works on compositions to utilize the green river and fall color. Longer shutter speeds are perfect here to give some movement to the water, and allow motion to be the guiding line in the images.
While we shoot, a large buck meanders to the river edge and sips from the cool water. Those with longer lenses try to grab some "wildlife" shots as he and his doe move along the river looking for food.
The stop is brief, but enjoyable and many students get some images they're happy with. One of the most iconic shots in Zion is the view of the Watchman from the river bridge. The curve of the Virgin River turns perfectly in images and guides the eye to the mountain as it's lit by the setting sun. The cottonwood trees along the river are a vibrant yellow, and add blasts of color to this image. The good thing about this shot is that it's stunning in any condition, the bad is that EVERYONE wants their own version, so the bridge fills quickly with classes and other photographers looking to get their own version.
We arrive and secure spots for our class and then begin the wait for the sun to set. While we wait Brian crack open a few bottles of wine to give our class something to drink while they wait, and Ellie walks around with cheese and crackers to give them something to snack on. It's little things like this that make the Aperture Academy the premiere photography workshop leader.
Sunset was pretty and the class got some really nice images of this classic Zion view. The day flew by, and it was time for a group dinner at a nearby restaurant where everyone could continue the photography dialogue and eat some great food prepared by the Spotted Dog restaurant. While dinner was had, it was clear to see everyone was excited and anticipating the morning hike into the Narrows, and once we'd paid our tabs it was time to get everyone back to rest up for a long and exciting second day.
:: DAY TWO ::
The Narrows has been carved by years of river flow and wind, and now sits as a narrow canyon filled with the Virgin River and flanked on both sides by the mighty red cliffs of the mountains. The only way to see this beautiful section of the park is to walk in the river...and that's why our class all showed up to the van in the morning wearing their puffy black water pants. Everyone looked a bit funny in their gear, but it was necessary to make sure everyone was set and comfortable during the day.
The hike starts with a mile paved river trail through the warm fall foliage...it's dark at this point in the adventure so the true beauty of the walk won' t be appreciated until the walk out, but it's important we start early to get into the canyon and to the best spots before the sun rises high enough to warm the canyon walls and give all our photographs that beautiful warm canyon glow.
Once to the river, it's time for a group shot of our adventurous crew before they break into smaller pods and set off up the river with the instructors in search of beautiful images.
While we hike everyone is having a hard time trying to focus on staying up right while navigating the river, because their necks keep bending to look up at the sheer canyon walls. It's easy to feel so small in a place like this.
A mile into the canyon the pods begin to stop and set up images, instructors work to help the class find the best approach to the scenes, and make sure they stay upright while photographing. Polarizers are very important here to help cut glare and bring out the green tones in the water that contrast nicely with the red rock canyon walls. Back in the canyon the trees are bright yellow and give blast of color to the scene. It's amazing that even in this canyon life finds a way to thrive on small sand bars and rocky outcroppings.
The goal of the hike is to work our way up river to the narrowest section known as, Wall Street. In Wall Street, the canyon is at its narrowest, and the cliffs their tallest. The class loves to set up here, get low, and grab really nice images of the river snaking its way down, while glowing halls of red rock loom over.
Even though our students are submerged within the river and trying to manage their camera gear in a rushing river, its spots like this that make them temporarily focus on making art as opposed to being in the river with thousands of dollars of gear, and walking on wet, uneven surfaces.
For many, this whole experience of navigating the narrows is one they will never forget. It's truly one of the most spectacular hikes on the planet, and when you combine the beauty with the new found knowledge of being able to capture it perfectly with a camera, well, it makes it a perfect experience.
When all is said and done, the group spends almost eight hours in the river creating photos before finally reaching the trail head again. Feet soaked, and tired from a long day in the river.
Cameras safe, and memory cards full it was another successful run in the narrows. One that everyone will surely remember for a long time to come, and when they look at those magnificent images printed out, they will always remember the day the hiked the Virgin River Narrows, and that wonderful weekend they spent with the Aperture Academy.
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, Ellie, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.