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The lure of the American Southwest has long drawn adventurers from all over the world to explore the brilliant red rock formations and river canyons. Perhaps the best known place for both of these is Zion National Park. Often referred to as the Yosemite of the Southwest, this park draws in visitors by the millions each and every year; rock climbers, backpackers, campers, and of course, photographers all come to see the park and witness its allure firsthand. No time of year is better than the fall when golden yellow cottonwood trees mix with the reds of the canyon walls to create some of the most visually stunning landscapes in the US.
A group of sixteen photographers met Aperture Academy instructors Brian Rueb, Scott Davis, Ellie Stone, and Jean Day for a weekend of adventure and photography during the peak of fall in Zion National Park. Friday night, over a glass of wine, the class met to discuss all of the logistics for the weekend. The Zion workshop is more extreme than most of our other workshops and requires many special instructions to ensure the class is safe throughout. Most of the class had been with our team before, so in addition to the information shared, it was a family reunion of sorts where students and instructors could catch up with one another and share some of their recent photographic adventures.
The class assembled bright and early Saturday morning and loaded up into the Aperture Academy starship, also known as the ApCab, and set off for the park and the Court of the Patriarchs.
The court boasts some of the park's highest and most stunning red cliffs. These rocks also get some of the best morning light as well. Their location right on the banks of the Virgin River gives even more chance for dramatic images.
We arrived early, and like the army of the walking dead, we emerged from the foliage and took up prime spots along the river. Scott, Bria and Ellie worked with the group to find the best spots compositionally that showcased the brilliant red rocks and moving green waters of the river. When everyone was set up, and their cameras at the ready, it was time to wait for the sun.
The color was quick, but for a few moments the pinks popped and the reds rocked. The shooting was fast and furious as the clouds moved into the valley and the light shot to and fro from peak to peak. While the light was being indecisive as to which peak it wanted to sit on, some of the class switched to larger glass to get close up comps of the interestingly shaped rocks as they were bathed in the early golden light.
The whole morning was spent exploring the curves of the river in this area. Some students led by Scott and Brian took up spots near a bridge and used some of the rocks and rushing river to create stunning views as the storm clouds unveiled the towering peaks. The options were endless! In addition to composition, we also spent a lot of time using polarizing filters and graduated filters to help balance the scene, which changed constantly with stormy light.
The work the students were getting was truly inspiring. Many of the students had a lot of experience behind the lens and really worked hard with the instructors to get new and original compositions of this dramatic scene as it played out before us. The light show changed constantly, and was a rush to photograph while we could.
Since we had gear to rent for our big adventure Sunday morning in the Zion River Narrows, the group packed up and set off for the Zion Adventure Company to be outfitted in dry suits, and get everything they would need for a 3-5 mile trek up the narrow slot canyon the following morning.
The gear rental proved to be quite entertaining as the class watched a informative, but hilarious, instructional safety video and then proceeded to all try to find the right gear to fit their body size. The workers were very helpful and within an hour everyone had their own brightly colored dry suit and gear necessary for a cold walk up a river.
When lunch break was finished the group assembled once again and set off for the park to shoot some of the wonderful color along the Virgin River near the Temple of Sinawava. This area of the park has some of the most brilliant reds, yellows and oranges in the park. The textures and variety are great.
The class spread out and worked on images that included the river and its curves in the shot, as well as more detailed, texture-orientated images that gave a more intimate view of Zion's beauty.
We weren't able to stay there too long because our sunset destination was one of the park's most iconic and popular spots — the view of the watchman from the bridge over the Virgin River. Conditions had been changing all day and looked very promising for a nice sunset, which would mean the crowds would come out in droves to try and capture this scene. So we needed to get to our vantage points.
We arrived about 3:30pm, a whole three hours before sunset, to get prime spots on the bridge. Once we had the spots locked down and the settings dialed in it was a matter of waiting and braving the icy cold wind blowing through the canyon. Hours passed, the class joked and bundled up tight to brave the weather, which with wind chill was well below freezing.
Luckily the sunset didn't let us down and we had quite a nice show. The watchman lit up with a warm glow and the river reflected some of the light from above as it twisted past the golden leafed cottonwood trees that lined it. The frames flew hot and heavy as the class combined filters with precise settings to get some amazing images of this iconic view. Everyone left happy with the outcomes and glad to be heading towards the warmth of their hotel rooms. They knew the next day would bring about a challenge in the form of the Virgin River Narrows, and a good night's rest would be essential.
The hike up the Virgin River Narrows is one of the best hikes on the planet. A mile long walk down a path ends abruptly at the river. The only way to continue to see the canyon is to get in the water, which hovers around 35-38 degrees this time of year, and walk up. The class giggled and tromped around the river as we arrived at the entrance to the canyon. Each student seeing if his/her gear was really going to keep them dry. When a class shot was taken, and everyone was mentally ready for the journey, we broke up into three smaller instructor-led groups and set off into the towering canyon.
During most times of the year the water flow is around 60-70 cubic feet per second in flow. Due to some recent weather, and pressure release from a local dam, the water was flowing much higher this day, at around 103 cubic feet per second. This made the hike upstream tougher on the body, and the water levels much deeper in places. Spots that a week prior only came to someone's knees now hovered at their waist. Waist deep water could be chest deep in places. Guiding up, and paying attention to where you stepped, was essential. Wooden poles helped to keep balance as we navigated the dark waters, walking upstream to search for images.
The hike is amazing. Towering walls, striped with shades of red and brown from waterflow, scrape the sky. Despite the towering walls and river that takes up the majority of space in the canyon, life thrives here. Trees glowing with fall color converge on small islands and sand bars throughout the canyon creating added drama to an already spectacular scene. Compositions are literally at every turn. The groups took different approaches to capturing images. Some walked to the end and shot their way out, while others shot as often as they could when they weren't quite as far into the canyon.
For an added degree of difficulty, it began to snow while we were in the canyon depths. This meant that the air temperature was in the 30s outside, all the more reason proper preparation was vital to making a trek like this. Even though the current was swift, and a few people took a spill or two into the river, our gear was properly protected by dry bags and nobody was injured or lost any equipment while in the canyon.
The instructors couldn't have been more proud of the class in terms of what they accomplished, from tackling the river hike, which for some was unlike anything they'd ever done before, to the amazing images they were capturing in their cameras. Some areas were very crowded and everyone worked together well to move safely about the compositions and grab some stunning pictures. Many students really got submerged in the water, and used their dry suits to the maximum. The best way to capture this type of scene is to GET IN AND DO IT! And all the students did so with gusto!
When it was time for us to head out and finish our long hard day, the group witnessed a grim reminder of why the hike requires so much safety and planning. One poor photographer (not with our group) had gone into the cold canyon without the proper clothing and gone hypothermic. Luckily our resident lifesaver, Scott Davis, was on hand to help with the scene, and all of the class helped chip in any foot or hand warmers they had to help warm the man back up. One student was even prepared with a camp stove that was used to heat some water to help bring the core temperature of the victim back to a reasonable level. Combined with an emergency blanket that two hikers from another group had with them, we were able to stabilize the man until help arrived to transport him for proper medical care. Not only does the Aperture Academy help make photographers better, we save lives, too! Way to go, Scotty!
When we all finally made it out of the canyon, it was time to disrobe from our teletubby-colored dry suits and slip on dry socks and real shoes. It was a long, successful day and everyone made it out happy and with cards full of spectacular images. The general feel of the group upon returning their gear was that a warm shower, a good meal, and a cold beverage was in order.
Back at the hotel the class said their goodbyes to the students and instructors that were heading home, and the rest enjoyed a festive last meal together to talk about the victories of the weekend and recap what turned out to be a grand adventure in the red rocked canyons of Zion National Park.
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, Ellie, Jean 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.