Shooting Camps in Southern Utah (Part One)

Bryce Canyon National Park

The hiking trails in Bryce Canyon National Park wind down and around the hoodoos, so that walkers are right up close and personal with the geology. This photo was made from the Rim Trail during the middle of the afternoon in late May, as it takes a long time for the sun to rise high enough to light this area.

The alarm clock wakes us thirty minutes before dawn, the bright stars just beginning to fade from the clear sky. We throw on lots of warm layers (sunrise at ten thousand feet is always cold!), lace up our hiking boots, and grab tripods and cameras. Five minutes later, we’re looking out over Bryce Canyon.

A good holiday needs lots of planning. If it involves visits to desirable photographic locations, we want to schedule around the “sweet light” of dawn and dusk. Being close to the action is very important. Some photographers camp in their cars. However, many of us are visiting with wives, girl friends, and/or kids who may have little interest in making images at sunrise. Their needs must be met, or the holiday is bound to be a disaster. Sleeping in the car, in this case, is out of the question.

We’ve chosen to stay at the Bryce Canyon Lodge (make your reservations yesterday), the only accommodations available at the rim. Our cabin is comfortable and quiet, and the lodge food is great. When the light is high and harsh, we can take a trail ride or a bus tour, enjoy a variety of wonderful hiking trails, or tour the scenic drive of the rim with its various overlooks.

We make a few exposures of the Canyon hoodoos before the sun hits them, hoping the film will respond to the salmon colors of the subdued light. (We’re shooting Fuji Velvia and have been amazed in the past at how this film reacts to dawn conditions.) The sun peeps above the horizon as we walk the Rim Trail. We come upon another early-riser, hunched over his tripod, his telephoto lens aimed out across the canyon, his silhouette outlined with rim lighting. (Galen Rowell would have approved.)

Sunrise images made in Bryce Canyon National Park are most effective when made while walking toward the sun, and using the reflected light from adjacent rock surfaces to light the subject. The technique is most useful in the spring and summer, when the sun rises in the east. This photo represents the quintessential Bryce Canyon photograph.

 In autumn and winter, when the sun is far to the south, walking toward the sun is a bad idea, as you really only get to take one step, and then there is a rapid decrease of elevation from the shooting position.

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon is unique in that most of the good light is reflected from rock surfaces adjacent to those we’re shooting. It’s like bouncing the sunlight from a huge pink reflector. This causes the pink-and-white rocks to take on a fluorescent quality, as though constructed of alabaster. The effect is most noticeable in spring and summer when the morning sun is far to the east. Walk toward the sun, instead of away from it, and keep the sun out of your compositions. The effect is magical. (The colored rocks at Bryce Canyon, with their eye-catching bands of pink and white, are Tertiary lake deposits of the Claron formation and are not unique to Bryce Canyon. Descriptions of these and other geological structures can be found in the Roadside Geology of Utah, a publication that will enhance your visit.)

Plan to carry your camera down among the hoodoos. Hiking in Bryce Canyon is a marvelous experience. You can frame other hikers with arches, and position trees and rock hoodoos against the sky. Be sure to consider a scale reference when shooting the towering formations. The trails are steep, so carry your lighter carbon-fiber tripod, and take lots of water. Try using a blue/yellow Cokin polarizing filter (P057) to enhance the glowing effect of the rocks against the blue sky. Rotate the filter slowly until the rocks just begin to glow, and the color of the blue sky lightens. Sometimes the effect is gaudy, but at other times, it makes for an eye – popping image.

(Note: During our shoots in Utah, we often refer to The Photo Traveler’s Guides to Southeast and Southwest Utah. They offer maps, photo op locations, directions, and–in at least one case–instructions on where not to go.)

Coral Pink Sands State Park

This image was made using a 500mm mirror lens (small, and easily packed!), from the viewing stand by the parking lot, at Coral Pink Sands State Park. The human figure provides a good sense of scale, and is placed at an intersection of thirds to catch the eye.

No filters were used on the lens. The image was made in the last light of the day, with two thunderstorms bracketing the Park while we were shooting.

Driving south from Bryce Canyon on Highway 89, we stop in Mt. Carmel Junction. This is a good place to gas up and have an air-conditioned lunch, complete with homemade pie. The Thunderbird Resort, with its large swimming pool, is almost equidistant in time from Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and perhaps the best steaks in Utah at Houston’s Trail’s End Restaurant in Kanab. If you decide to stay closer to Houston’s and the Coral Pink Sands State Park (great sunset photography), the Best Western Red Hills Inn is just down the street.

One effective trick in shooting sand dunes is to position a human figure in your composition and use a telephoto lens, filling the frame with the figure and the dune. You must have some method of indicating scale, or nobody can tell how large the dune is. You can shoot dunes from the viewing area adjacent to the parking lot of Coral Pink Sands State Park. A 500mm lens is ideal. Whenever we’ve been to this park, it seems to be bracketed by thunderstorms or rain showers, making for some awesome sunset effects.

Zion National Park

Court of the Patriarchs is one of the many viewpoints found along the “shuttle trail”, the main road that winds through Zion National Park. The three “patriarchs” rear up against the sky, providing a wonderful “bumpy horizon”. If you photograph close to the road at the shuttle station, you can place the roadside trees up against this horizon, providing a silhouetted foreground for your background mountains.

Exploring Zion National Park’s chief attractions can be done without a car. A free shuttle bus service runs up and down the park all day and can be used in the neighboring town of Springdale, where we found good shopping. We picked up the shuttle across the street from Flanigan’s Inn, a pearl in the desert. Their Spotted Dog Café and Pub serves gourmet breakfasts and dinners, while the large swimming pool and hot tub soothed our aching muscles after a day’s hiking. (If you like dark ale, try a Polygamy Porter.) Flanigan’s has its own small mountain on the property, from which you can shoot the dawn on the surrounding peaks. The secret attraction of Flanigan’s, however, is the ability to photograph those same peaks as they turn a glowing pink in the sunset from the motel verandah,

While visiting Zion, we drove the winding road that leads back toward Highway 9 in both early morning and late afternoon. The play of low lighting on a wide variety of geological shapes and structures kept us shooting for hours.

The geological formations in Bryce Canyon National Park have the most unusual colors, often with a strong “salmon” hue. Low-angle light bouncing from adjacent surfaces can produce the strange results on film that are evident here. In this case, a Singh-Ray enhancing filter was used, to emphasize this effect.


At least one sunset at Zion National Park should be spent on the veranda of your motel room at Flanigan’s, watching the play of light on the peaks that overlook the town of Springdale.

The rock formations glow gold or pink in the last light of the day, depending on the quality of the sunset. In this case, a heavy thunderstorm was moving off, while the sky had cleared in front of the setting sun. The effect of the glowing rock had far more impact against the glowering black sky, then would have been the case had the sky been blue.

This image was made with a 300mm telephoto lens, using a polarizing filter and a Cokin P028 warming coloured filter.

We were lucky to find this photographer, happily working away at dawn, on the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park. The rising sun has outlined him beautifully with rim lighting, a phenomenon not often encountered. Use of a 300mm telephoto lens allowed his image to fill the frame, isolating him from the background, while not disturbing his photography. If he doesn’t read this article, he may never know we were there.

The various arches, found while hiking in the canyon at Bryce Canyon National Park, can often be used as frames for photographing fellow walkers, or the background scenery. It’s generally not necessary to use fill flash to light the interior of the arch, as bounced light seems to fill the shadows very nicely.

A wide-angle lens, such as a 28mm or a 24mm, is usually necessary to include the full arch as part of the composition. Be sure to have the framed person(s) looking toward the camera (a nicely timed shout often works!), as “tushy shots” are not so effective.

The late – May afternoon hike to the double – arch alcove, in the Kolob Canyon section of Zion National Park, was the only time that humidity and bugs made hiking in Utah less than fun. Perhaps it was the contrast with the morning’s activities, when we had been standing in snow at Cedar Breaks National Monument, at ten thousand feet! In any event, the round trip of more than five miles emptied most of our water bottles.

A very wide – angle lens is necessary for photography here. A 24mm lens still did not allow the entire double arch to be recorded. The other photographer, located in the bottom right intersection of thirds, provides a scale reference to the size of the arches.

Where are we? A group of weary hikers enjoy the shade at Scout’s Lookout, a major stopping point one thousand feet above the valley of the Virgin river, on the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park. Only twenty feet away, an unfenced drop-off provides a good view down to the main road and the passing shuttles, all looking very tiny from this height.


It was not difficult to find patterns in the rocks, along the main road that comes from the east into Zion National Park. The trick was to break the pattern, and the small green bush does that quite admirably. Placing it at an intersection of thirds draws the eye to it, making one wonder how such a bush could possibly survive in such a hostile environment – hence, the title of the photograph.

No trip to Zion National Park is complete without a trip to the Park’s Visitor Centre. Here, you’ll find pictures, posters, and paintings of the Park, which can provide compositional motivation, as well as ideas on photo opportunities.

These hoodoos were photographed in Bryce Canyon National Park at sunrise, just after the sun rose above the horizon, just adjacent to the Bryce Canyon Lodge. The hoodoos are edge lit, as the photo was taken in late September, when the sun rises far to the south. Later in the day, these same hoodoos will appear quite flat and dull, without the low lighting to bring out texture in the rocks.

The high country of southern Utah is home to forests of aspen trees, which glow golden in the late autumn sunshine. Photographing the backlit leaves, by aiming a wide – angle lens upwards along the tree trunks, is an effective way to produce an unusual composition.

A polarizing filter will saturate the color of the leaves, while use of a warming filter will often produce just that extra bit of glow.

Shooting Utah in autumn brings the added benefit of colorful aspens, found in the higher elevations, that turn yellow or red in fall. The trick is to find yellow trees, red rocks, and blue sky, all in the same place at the same time, and it doesn’t happen often. Using a polarizing filter ensures that the colors of sky and trees will be well saturated.

This image was made in the late afternoon, south and east of Strawberry Point. Allison was carefully placed so that her bright blue shirt, which picks up the color of the sky, would be against a dark background. She is located exactly at an intersection of thirds, and makes a perfect scale reference, to show the height of the cliffs in the background.

by Michael and Allison Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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