Photography in Zion   2 comments

A very wide angle view of the Subway, a canyon in Zion National Park, Utah.

I should start this post by telling you how I research locations to practice my photography.  No, I don’t go online to look at endless (mostly boring) photos on stock sites.  Yeah I might drop by a postcard stand in the area, if I pass one on my way to coffee.  You can get a surprising number of ideas of what to shoot this way, and the merchant or somebody in the store often has good local knowledge when you ask where something is.  Also, I occasionally get ideas when perusing the work of nature photographers that I admire.

But the only way I’ve found that is foolproof-valid to check out an area to photograph is to (go figure) just go and photograph it.  I know this doesn’t seem efficient, but it works for me.  I end up discovering places that aren’t on many people’s radar, while admittedly missing out on some obvious places.  But these places are often over-photographed anyway.

The Left Fork canyon in Zion National Park, Utah, fills with sunset light on a late November afternoon.


  • I think the east side of Zion, beyond the Mt Carmel Tunnel, is the best place to photograph wildlife, and also it contains some great off-trail canyon hikes.  Just head north or south from the road, and the closer to the first tunnel (the short one) you are, the more steep and spectacular the canyons.  This could be a problem though, because most of us don’t have Spiderman powers.  Desert bighorn sheep are a virtual certainty, and the area outside the park to the east has some huge buck deer.
  • The Virgin River, all along its length through the canyon, offers limitless possibilities for shooting long exposures of water and rapids.  You will deal with major contrast when you try to include sunlit rocks + shadow, but if you stay within either of the above it’s very simple exposure.  Bring a pair of rubber boots or hip waders to increase your options greatly.
  • When you approach Zion from the west, around the town of Rockville, if you climb above the road, or alternatively wander right of the road, near the ranch fences, you’ll get nice compositions when the sun is very low in the west.  Don’t go all the way into Springdale; stay between the two towns.
  • Any walk along the Virgin River, from near the western entrance all the way to the Narrows, is chock full of photo opportunities.
  • The roads and bridges within Zion are made from reddish aggregate, so they match the cliff colors.  Definitely include the roads and bridges in your compositions.
  • Get close to the canyon bottoms with a wide-angle lens, in good light.  You can’t go wrong.  Also, there are some interesting macro options along the canyon bottoms.
  • Get very high on the canyon rim, in good light, and include some of the interesting vegetation in your foreground.
  • Although Zion is desert, because it’s well watered by springs and streams you will often have trees and other plants in your compositions.  This can be a good thing, but you often can get clutter – unusual for the desert.
  • On the bright side, fall colors are gorgeous, happening along about mid-October to mid-November (or even later for cottonwood).  It’s not just the usual yellows of aspen and cottonwood either; there’s red Rocky Mountain maple (a smallish tree) as well.
  • As always, check the direction of the setting and rising sun.  Zion’s cliffs are so high they can block the sun for long enough that the light is harsh once the sun appears over the rim.  On the plus side, if the canyon faces the rising or setting sun, the reddish walls tend to focus that gorgeous light inward, subtly infusing even shaded areas in the canyon bottoms with a nice color.  Check out the Photographers Ephemeris.
  • Speaking of canyon direction, the Left Fork (where the Subway is) faces nicely toward the setting sun in fall.  Zi0n Canyon is better situated in Spring, but its walls are so high that you’ll always see shadows on the rocks when the sun is low.
  • Make sure to pay attention to smaller scale landscapes in canyons.  For example, the Subway is a photogenic spot, but with the tough hike to get there, you might as well take the time to photo the canyon on the way too.  Try to do the Subway before the end of October.  Short days will definitely cramp your style on this longish hike.  Better yet, get with a canyoneering guide and do the Left Fork/Subway from the top down.  Though its technical this way,you’ll also have more fun per effort that way.

The Subway in Zion National Park, in black and white.

A Rocky Mountain maple leaf shows its late fall color in Zion National Park, Utah.

The Virgin River, which flows through Zion National Park, Utah, is lined with cottonwood trees.

The waters of Left Fork in Zion National Park reflect the purplish colors of a November sunset.

The Kolob Plateau section of Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy sunrise.

2 responses to “Photography in Zion

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  1. Thanks a bunch!

  2. You must travel around – a lot. Your work is hyperbole – words aren’t good enough.

Please don't be shy; your words are what makes my day!

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