Archive for January 2016

Friday Foto Talk – Using a Circular Polarizer, Part III   11 comments

Lizard tracks from the previous night in Death Valley, California.

This is the final of three parts on the circular polarizer.  In Part II we looked at how you can use the filter in order to maximize its benefits while handling most of its drawbacks.  There is more of that kind of advice in this post, along with some practical tips that apply to any screw-on filter.


  • A circular polarizer appears to change the colors in some images.  Mostly it’s the blues you’ll notice, but it can also saturate and brighten the warm tones.  A good CPL will not cause much of a color shift per se.  It’s more of an apparent effect and doesn’t happen in all images.  But in any case if you’re shooting RAW it’s easy to warm (or cool) things a bit using the white balance sliders in your editing program.  You can also get a polarizer with built-in warming.
Dramatic skies plus a polarizer make for a nice chance to shoot from a low point of view in the Nevada desert.

Dramatic skies plus a polarizer make for a nice chance to shoot from a low point of view in the Nevada desert.

  • You may end up with uneven-looking blues in the sky when using a polarizer.  It’s one of the main problems I run into when shooting landscapes with this filter.  Patches of darker and paler blues, while they do occur naturally in parts of the sky, can be exaggerated with a CPL, making things look unnatural.  If you’re using a wide-angle lens this effect is pretty obvious and hard to avoid.  All you can do is rotate the CPL less and/or change composition.  Try pointing the lens at a different angle to the sun and include less sky overall.  If you’re using a lens with a longer focal length, pointing at right angles to the sun should give you an even effect no matter how much you rotate the CPL.
In this shot at Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, you can see the obvious effect in the sky from using a CPL.

In this shot at Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, you can see the obvious effect in the sky from using a CPL with a wide-angle lens (18 mm.).  It’s a hard thing to correct on the computer.

  • Although a CPL often amps up your colors just the right amount, it can also hinder natural color saturation in some instances.  For example, I’ve found in frontlight (sun is behind you shining on the subject), and with fall colors, using a polarizer will often take away a little vibrance.  If it’s cloudy and the leaves are wet it may do the opposite, blocking reflections and allowing colors to come through as described in Part II.  But be careful about using the CPL when shooting colorful subjects, especially in frontlight.
The Colorado Rockies.

The Colorado Rockies.


  • Last but not least, let’s not forget about your threads.  No, I’m not talking about clothes!  It’s quite easy to tighten the filter too much on your lens.  Then you can’t get it back off!  A CPL is worse than other filters because you’re always rotating the filter element to adjust it, maybe tightening it even more.


  • Prevention is the key.  Getting a good filter with brass instead of aluminum threads will help.  And of course, try not to tighten it too much.  When you rotate the outer ring to adjust filter strength, occasionally go the opposite way (left).  Just don’t do this much or you may rotate the filter right off your lens and drop it.  Mostly rotate the same way you screw the filter on, to the right.
I avoided using a CPL here because it wouldn't do much except increase the possibility of flaring.

I avoided using a CPL on this blooming desert gold in Death Valley because it wouldn’t do much except increase the possibility of flaring.

  •  More prevention:  Keep your filter clean and lubricate.   Use a hand-blower to get rid of little pieces of grit that try to get in between the rings.  Also, occasionally lube the filter threads with silicone spray.  Go outside away from your gear and spray the silicone into a small cup or bottle cap.  Then use a Q-tip to carefully apply the lube to the threads and along the seam where the CPL rotates, avoiding the glass.  Don’t use too much!  Then screw the filter on and off your lens, rotating it back and forth a few times to spread the silicone evenly.


  • If you get a filter stuck you can try a couple things.  One or two fat rubber bands, like the kind on broccoli at the grocery, allow you to better grip the filter and perhaps the lens.  Try not to pinch.  Spread your fingers and use even pressure all around the filter.  If a filter is really stuck, try this:  Get some of that tacky rubber material made for lining drawers & shelves.  Cut a couple flat squares and on a table lay your filter flat on one of the squares.  Spread the other square flat and tightly onto the filter’s outer ring.  Using your palm or fingers evenly spaced around the rim, gently and evenly press down while twisting to the left.

Thanks for reading.  Enjoy your weekend!

No polarizer required for this image of the desert mountains near Beatty, Nevada.

No polarizer was necessary for this image of desert mountains near Beatty, Nevada.

Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part II   11 comments

Recently-flooded wash in Death Valley, California.

Recently-flooded wash in Death Valley, California.

Last week I got all technical about how circular polarizers (CPLs) work.  Of course you don’t necessarily need to know all that to shoot with them.  But it certainly doesn’t hurt.  The more you know about how CPLs work the better able you are to extend the situations in which you use them.  You can more competently go beyond landscape photography, which is where they’re primarily used (and where I’ll focus this tutorial).

Now let’s get into the meat of things and learn how to employ these great filters in your photography.  As usual it’s a good news/bad news story.  We’ll start with the bad.

Staying in Death Valley, this dramatic side-light didn't really need a CPL.  I used one but dialed down the strength a bit.

Staying in Death Valley, this dramatic side-light didn’t really need a CPL. I used one but dialed down the strength a bit.


  • First off, it’s a filter, the kind you screw on to the end of the lens.  This adds another layer of glass between your subject and your sensor or film.  That introduces a chance for flaws in the way light is transmitted, at least in theory.


  • But as long as the filter isn’t cheap and you keep it fairly clean, it should yield perfectly sharp images just as when you’re not using a filter.  I’m not the type of photographer who puts a lot of stock in the idea of an imperfect image.  If I can’t detect any fall-off in quality then it’s simple: the benefits of using the filter outweigh any theoretical considerations.

Arches National Park, Utah. I used a CPL, maximizing “punch”, mostly in the sky.

  • Again because it’s a filter, a CPL will increase the possibility of flaring: those often annoying but sometimes interesting bright colorful spots that show up in your pictures when you shoot toward a strong light source like the sun.  But you can control flares by keeping your filter and lens clean, by using a hood, and of course by not pointing directly toward the light source.


  • Sometimes you have no choice, your photo demands pointing it toward the sun.  Then you simply roll the dice and keep shooting until you get flares that are easy enough to remove on the computer.
Washington's Olympic Peninsula at Lake Quinalt. These are the kinds of flares that aren't too hard to clone out on the computer.

Washington’s Olympic Peninsula at Lake Quinalt. These are the kinds of flares that aren’t too hard to clone out on the computer.


  • So you know a CPL filter reduces reflections.  But this may or may not be what you want.  In the case of mountains reflected in a lake, you’ll want to be careful to rotate it just the right amount to maximize the color and light in your reflection.  If you rotate it fully you’ll begin to see what is underneath the water, if it’s shallow enough.  In the case of wet rocks or plants, you may want to use it fully to help bring out the color of the rocks or greenery.
For this hot spring, I wanted to see the subtle colors of the algae growing along the little falls, plus I wanted smooth water. Cutting reflections and lengthening exposures is a great two for one when using a CPL.

For this hot spring, I wanted to see the subtle colors of the algae growing along the little falls, plus I wanted smooth water. Cutting reflections and lengthening exposures is a great two for one when using a CPL.


  • A CPL also reduces the total amount of light reaching your lens.  Some models reduce the light only slightly (called “high-transmission” CPLs), but most block between one and two stops of light.  In a way this is a downside because it can hurt you when you’re hand-holding the camera and need a fast shutter speed.  You may need to raise ISO.  But it can help too.  For example when you’re on a tripod and want to lengthen shutter speed, say to blur a waterfall (see above photo), a CPL can provide just the right light-blocking strength.



Without a circular polarizer.

Without a circular polarizer.

  • A circular polarizer will darken and tend to saturate colors a little, especially the blues in a sky.  When there are white clouds it increases the contrast between blue sky and cloud, quite a lot if you’re shooting at a right angle to the sun.  A typical landscape shot with a CPL has more “punch”, or mid-tone contrast.  The photos above and below, which are deliberately sort of “average”, show the difference.
Same scene as above with a CPL.

Same scene as above with a CPL.

  • As the pair of shots above show, a CPL can do nice things for colors, especially when you consider that when shooting RAW your images often come out looking flatter and more washed out than the real scene was.  But as you can also see, contrast is increased over the RAW image as well.  That’s why a CPL can often be used to great effect when you’re shooting for black and white.  Try it.


A polarizer can lend black and white images a little more drama: Panamint Valley dune field, Death Valley N.P., California.

Okay that’s it for now.  Next time we’ll conclude with more guidance on using CPLs, along with tips on maintaining them.  Happy weekend everyone!


Wordless Wednesday: Catfish Paradise   4 comments


Friday Foto Talk: Using a Circular Polarizer, Part I   2 comments

Soap-tree yucca growing on the dunes of White Sands National Monument, New Mexico glow in the bright morning sun

The circular polarizer (or CPL) is a must-have for any landscape photographer.  This handy filter can be used in many different situations, but like any piece of photo gear it helps greatly to know exactly what it does and what its benefits and downsides are.  This is the first of two parts.


  • A circular polarizer is a filter that screws on to the threaded front end of your lens.  It has two pieces of glass sandwiched together.  So it also has two rings for you to grip.  If you grip the ring closest to the threads you will be able to screw the filter on and back off your lens.
  • Once it’s on (not too tight!), grasp the ring furthest from the threads to rotate the front piece of glass relative to the other (now fixed in place).  This is the way you adjust the filter’s strength.  It goes from minimum to maximum effect with 90 degrees of rotation, then back to minimum if you continue rotating all the way to 180 degrees.
I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of the side-light and show the texture in the land.

I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of side-light to show the texture in this awesome alluvial fan, visible in the lower part of the image.


  • The CPL filter works by polarizing light in a couple different ways.  When light is reflected it becomes polarized to one degree or another.  Light rays can be thought of as vibrating waves.  When emitted by some source (like the sun), the light waves vibrate in all directions.  When light hits a reflective surface and bounces off it, the waves vibrate mostly in one direction, parallel to the reflecting surface.  The light has become linearly (or plane-) polarized.



Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.

Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.


  • A circular polarizer works by first polarizing the light linearly, then turning it into circularly polarized light.  In the case of the plane-polarized reflected light above, the front glass element of the CPL acts as if it has slits, either allowing the polarized rays through or (partly or fully) blocking them.
  • The rear glass element, the 2nd one the light passes through, takes that linearly polarized light and polarizes it further, but this time circularly.  If you think of the linearly polarized light as a line on a graph, with both horizontal and vertical (X and Y) components, the CPL is blocking one component (vertical, for example) more than the other.  It turns it into a vibrating wave that sort of spirals.  The light that finally reaches your lens is now circularly polarized!


Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.

  • As described above, you adjust a CPL by rotating the front glass element.  This increases or decreases the degree of circular polarization.  And if you have reflected light, off a lake or river for example, rotating the filter also changes how much of that plane-polarized light you’re blocking.  Again, think of that front glass element as having ‘slits’, which when crossed at an angle to reflected light will prevent some of that naturally polarized light from getting through.

Yellowstone’s Lone Star geyser erupts.

  • By the way, that crossing of the slits to plane-polarized light is called cross-polarization, and it’s how polarized sunglasses work.  Their “slits” are fixed in a vertical position, enabling them to block the plane-polarized light reflected off of water, roadways and other horizontal surfaces.  Look at the reflection off a vertical store window  with your sunglasses on and you’ll see they allow that light right on through.

I used a polarizing filter at this pool in Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Nevada in order to show some of the detail under the water.


  • Again the effect increases as you rotate the moveable (outer) ring.  In the case of light reflected off water or glass, rotating the filter to its max. position (90 degrees from minimum) will cut the reflection dramatically.
  • And for similar reasons, as you point the camera close to right angles (90 degrees) with the sun or other light source, the polarization effect increase dramatically as you rotate the filter to its max. position.

Those are just the two basic ways to use a circular polarizer in the field.  There are quite a number of other, more subtle ways to use a CPL in photography.  And next time we’ll look at using the filter to improve your images, all the while emphasizing its strengths and dodging the inevitable drawbacks.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

The barren, channeled nature of a Death Valley alluvial fan is highlighted by strong side-light. I used a CPL but not set to its max setting.

Wordless Wednesday: Steelhead Stream   4 comments


How to saw a log   1 comment

I can count on one hand the number of re-blogs I’ve done. But this reminded me of the kind of travel photography I really have been missing lately. And of course it reminded me of that wonderful country Malawi.

Africa far and wide

We had an old log at the back of our garden. Old logWhile it added an element of charm, I thought I’d enjoy it more on my verandah, as a table! And so I began to enquire about ‘Sawmen in the Nchalo area.’  It would be an easy job no doubt. Just one log. Switch on the machine and slice it up like piece of paper.

I was given a number for a Sawmen by the name of Jofrey. I called him and he said he’d be there at 6am the next day. He gave me a daily rate and we agreed. He’d bring his friend too, Luca.

It was going to be another scorcher. We were in our 3rd week of temperatures reaching the mid forties. The rains were late and Al Nino was in full force; sucking the countryside dry of all moisture. Plants drooped, baked alive by…

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Posted January 11, 2016 by MJF Images in Uncategorized

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VII: Photography   6 comments

The Kolob Terrace part of Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy sunrise.

Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy dawn.

I’m finally concluding this series with tips on photography at Zion National Park.  Believe it or not I will get back to regular Friday Foto Talk posts next week, promise!

Actually, there is one extra topic for Zion that I’ve been avoiding, at least until I get back there for more shots that match the theme.   That’s life and biodiversity at Zion.  With the great variation in elevation and available water in the park, there is an amazing diversity of plants and animals.

For example it’s relatively easy to see desert bighorn sheep but much tougher to find the Zion snail, or to notice other interesting plant and animal species.  But it’s certainly a worthwhile topic to learn about, especially if you’re a nature photographer.  Here’s a good website for that.

A family of bighorn sheep survey their realm in East Zion.

A family of bighorn sheep survey their realm in East Zion.

I feel the same way about telling you what and where to shoot as I do recommending specific places to go.  I don’t want to be like that tour guide who leads you to some viewpoint where he looks expectantly at you and your camera.  Then he’s slightly annoyed if instead of taking a picture where everybody else does you stop and shoot in odd places, throwing a wrench in his agenda.  But I do want to provide some guidance.  It’s a fine line, so please consider the following as suggestions only.

The road in Zion Canyon is lined with beautiful cottonwoods.


East Zion is my favorite area to shoot at sunrise.  Hiking up the slickrock where it’s not too steep will get you the necessary elevation above the road.  Tip: you can walk very steep sandstone slickrock without slipping because it offers amazing friction, belying its name.  You’ll see most people shooting from near the road, but that follows a canyon, often putting you just a little too low.

A full waterpocket reflects the light of sunset at Zion National Park.

Waterpockets are pools of water that hang around on the sandstone bedrock well after rains.  Do some exploring during the day and try to find some of these at Zion.  You’ll have much more luck in East Zion than elsewhere, but anywhere high up, like Kolob Terrace or up on one of the rims of Zion Canyon, offers good waterpocket hunting.  Of course if you’re there off-season, by next morning you could find your pool frozen.  But so much the better!

Canyon Hiking in the early morning can offer very nice image possibilities.  Most canyons face generally west, but in the right light, shooting in canyon bottoms at Zion is perfect (and uncrowded!) at sunrise.

A walk in any wet canyon bottom can reward with simple pleasures like this swirling eddy.


Zion Canyon faces southwest, so late afternoon light tends to flood up the canyon in fall when the sun is to the south.  When the sun sets more directly west in spring and summer the sun sets behind mountains.  But you’ll still have good shooting if some clouds are around reflecting and sweetening the light.

The Virgin River at sunset is a nice low-energy thing to try.  Walk anywhere along its length from the entrance on up to the Narrows.  Even with the sun itself obscured you may get that special glow seeping down into the canyon bottom.

Hike high up on Zion Canyon’s sides, as high as energy and terrain allow.  Then you can either shoot up-canyon in front-light or down-canyon in back-light.  I have several spots like this that I’m fond of.  I gave away one in the last post (whinny!), so I’ll keep the rest to myself and let you find your own.

I found this view of the Patriarchs while stumbling around up on the sides of Zion Canyon

I found this view of the Patriarchs while stumbling around up on the sides of Zion Canyon

Kolob Terrace is great at sunset, or sunrise if clouds are kicking around.  Drive up the road from Virgin early so you can do some exploring to find unique perspectives.

The Kolob Canyons area also faces west, so going up there for sunset, then heading back down to camp at Red Cliffs Campground is a good plan.  It’s at the mouth of a lovely wet canyon that faces east for sunrise photos.

Ranch Land on the western approach to the park offers nice front-light in late afternoon.  Fall colors here linger a bit longer than higher in the canyons.  You can find peaceful pastures to shoot with Eagle Crags in the background (Eagle Crags is a good off-beat place to hike to as well).

Horses and Eagle Crags near Rockdale, not far outside Zion National Park.


Anywhere:  If you’re lucky enough to have stormy weather at Zion, or the daytime light is otherwise spectacular, try any of the above ideas, or just wander around with your eyes open.

The Canyon Overlook Trail near the east tunnel entrance, while it’s best at sunrise, offers a spectacular view of Pine Creek Canyon at any time.

I got lucky with stormy weather one early morning from Canyon Overlook.

Riparian Zones are plant-filled riverside canyon bottoms.  They’re a challenge to shoot because of all the “stuff”.  But they are nonetheless worthwhile places to look for intimate landscapes.  Try walking Pine Creek either up or downstream from the bridge.

The Aeries of Angel’s Landing and Observation Point are sublime spots for overview shots of the canyon.

There are plenty of other places to shoot at Zion if you do some wandering around.  And I haven’t even spoken of all the places outside the park.  So use your imagination and don’t follow the crowd.

That’s it, we’re done!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and the pictures as well.  I was surprised I had so many that were worthy of posting.  But would you think me greedy if I said I wanted more?  Have a great time at Zion National Park!

Hiking up on the steep slickrock of East Zion at sunset I found this unique sunset shot with the crescent moon.

Hiking up on the steep slickrock of East Zion at sunset I found this image with the crescent moon.  Worth a dark hike back down.

Visiting Zion National Park – Part VI   8 comments

A soggy-sneakers shot of the Virgin River, upper Zion Canyon.

We’re almost finished with Zion National Park!  I’ve gone into a bit more detail than I expected I would.  Last post was a guide for first-timers.  This post suggests places to go if you’re planning a return trip.  But even first-timers will find the following useful if planning a little more time for in-depth exploration of the park.


Do the Narrows:  A return trip is the time to get off the beaten track by visiting one of the northern areas and/or hiking into the backcountry.  The Narrows is the most famous back-country hike at Zion (closely followed by the Subway below).  You’ll need a permit and car shuttle to do the usual one-night backpack trip, but it can be done as an out and back from the end of the road in Zion Canyon. 

Do some research and planning for the Narrows, starting of course at NPS’s site.  And for any back-country exploration a great website is Canyoneering USA.  Tom Jones (no not that Tom Jones!) writes for this site, and he also has a classic guidebook for Zion.

Hike the Subway:  Situated in the Left Fork of North Creek off of Kolob Terrace Road, the 9+ mile hike to the Subway has become extremely popular in recent years.  In fact, so popular that the NPS has a lottery permit system in place if you’re doing it from March through October.  Check the NPS site for details.  Another popular slot canyon with a lottery system is Mystery Canyon.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

A hike along Left Fork offers image possibilities galore.

Of course your pictures of the Subway itself are not exactly going to be breaking new ground.  But it’s a fantastic canyon filled with photo opportunities.  It’s also a great challenge if you’re trying to “up your game” in terms of canyoneering.  If you plan to do an overnighter here, you’ll need a permit from the Park Service.  You can hike the Subway from the bottom-up and back or as a top-down semi-technical descent (entering from above the Subway).  Either way plan to get your feet wet.

Almost posted my shot of the Subway itself, but I don’t want to ruin it for you in case you’re not looking at any photos before you go there. This is looking down-canyon in Left Fork at sunset.

Do an off-trail canyon adventure.  Several companies offer guided hikes in canyons where you’ll generally need a shuttle and knowledge to get to remote trailheads.  You can also descend one of the amazing technical canyons at Zion. 

Canyoneering here (called canyoning in Europe) is renowned far and wide.  It requires rope and other gear, plus experience if you’re not going to do a course with one of the outfitters.  For photography you’ll need to leave the DSLR behind or have a foolproof way to keep your gear dry.  One of the best sources of information on canyoning at Zion is Tom Jones and CUSA

Hike Kolob Canyons.  This is the separate part of the park to the north off I-15.  The Taylor Creek trail is wonderful and feels very uncrowded compared to Zion Canyon’s trails.  For a longer walk, Kolob Arch (one of the world’s largest arches) is amazing and even less peopled.  I did the roughly 14-mile round trip and saw no other people.  No campground exists at Kolob Canyons, but there is one to the south at Red Cliffs Recreation Area, at the mouth of a gorgeous canyon I strongly recommend exploring.

Red Cliffs Recreation Area, although it isn’t in the park, is nonetheless a marvelous place to go.

Drive to Lava Point.  The Kolob Terrace Road, which starts near the town of Virgin, is a beautiful drive up to Zion’s high country.  Go past the trail-head for the Subway and let your imagination be your guide.  You’ll pass large monoliths that beg to be explored off-trail (remember, don’t trample the biological crust).  Or hike one of the trails near Lava Point.  Sunset from this area offers the opportunity to shoot unique pictures of the park.  There’s a campground up here too!

Hike Zion Top-to-Bottom.  A memorable way to enter Zion Canyon is to do a long one-way hike from the high plateau to the canyon bottom.  For West Rim, you’ll leave your car in Springdale (outside of shuttle season leave it at the Grotto).   Then drive or get shuttled up to the Lava Point Trailhead.  Then it’s about 14 miles and 3700 feet down to the canyon.  Healthy knees required!

For East Rim, get shuttled or drive a second car to the trailhead near the east entrance and hike 11 miles one-way to Weeping Rock trailhead in the canyon.  At first you climb gently, then it’s rolling until the big descent to the canyon floor.  From there you take the shuttle or pick up the car you left outside of shuttle season.  You can also start from East Mesa Trailhead; local shuttle drivers know where this is.

If you’re cheap like me and don’t want to pay for the shuttle you just hike from the east entrance, descend to the canyon, then climb back out for a very exhausting 20-miler.  I did it in combination with my mountain bike, but that’s because I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed!  For West Rim without a shuttle, do it from the bottom up: a 2500-foot elevation gain and drop.  You don’t go all the way to Lava Point unless it’s an overnighter.  Instead turn around at West Rim Spring.

Both of these hikes can be done as overnight backpack trips (where you’ll need a permit) and both are fantastic.  The West Rim route is longer and more diverse while the East Rim trip accesses more side-trails for a backpack trip.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep prefer the higher country at Zion.

Ride a horse up on Sand Bench.  In season (March – October) you can ride horses at Zion.  Though you can do a short jaunt along the Virgin River, a better way to become one with your mount is on a longer ride on the enormous slump block (type of landslide, see Part I) that is Sand Bench.  Prices are fairly reasonable I believe, though I don’t pay for riding horses (spent too much feeding mine!). 

For photography, hiking the 3-mile Sand Bench loop at sunset is a winner.  Pack a good flashlight for the hike down.  I personally resist the temptation to join all those other photogs. on the bridge over the Virgin River in the lower canyon.  I don’t want the same exact picture as everybody else has.  Which brings me to the topic for my final post in this series: Photography at Zion.

That’s it for now.  Enjoy ‘going deep’ at Zion, and have a wonderful week.

Prickly pear cactus growing up on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Prickly pear cactus growing high above the Virgin on the Sentinel Slide (aka Sand Bench).

Visiting Zion National Park – Part V   2 comments

Fall hikes in Zion’s side-canyons can bring you to splashes of color like this.

Let’s continue the series on Zion National Park with specific recommendations on places to go.  I’m not really one to try and “guide” people on their travels.  Sure, I’ll have to get used to it if I decide to hang out a shingle and start leading photo trips.  But I believe once you have a general feel for an area, and as long as you have an adventurous spirit, you can do just fine on your own.  The key is having the time and desire to fumble around on your initial visit.  So to avoid some of that read on.

Sandstone detail on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.

Detail of fractured cross-bedded sandstone on Checkerboard Mesa, East Zion.


Zion Canyon is a must-see.  So considering its popularity it’s a good idea to plan your first trip for a less-busy time. Try early spring, say mid-Feb. to early March.  The front or tail ends of fall color are good too.  Forests of tripods sprout at Zion during peak fall color in late October & early November.  The NPS actually publishes visitor numbers by month, so by all means check that page out when planning a trip. 

In springtime of course you’ll have longer days than in late autumn.  Plan at least two and probably three days for the main part of Zion.  That’s one full day for the canyon and a day each for East Zion and a longer hike.  The 3rd day could also be spent driving up Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons.

Walk along the Riverside:  Do an easy stroll along the Virgin River.  Or better yet two walks: in the lower canyon from the visitor center, and at the upper canyon’s Riverside Walk.  Both the Pa’rus Trail from the visitor center and the Riverside Walk up-canyon are wheelchair-accessible.  

At sunset there are many photo opportunities along the canyon bottom, especially with fall colors.  For the upper Riverside Walk, if you’re willing to get your feet wet, your photos will be better for it.  Photographers more prepared and more averse to wet feet than I am use hip-waders.  If you continue up into the Narrows, make sure you’re prepared by talking it over with a ranger.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Dusk along the Virgin River in the lower canyon near Springdale.

Short Hike to Emerald Pools or Hidden Canyon:  If it isn’t too busy (go early morning), Emerald Pools is definitely worthwhile.  The trailhead leaves from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and it’s about 3 miles round-trip.  Up-canyon from Emerald is the trailhead for Weeping Rock.  Do the short walk to the crybaby rock then take the trail on up to Hidden Canyon.  It’s a fairly short but steep hike.  For more strenuous hikes, read on…

Climb to a Canyon Viewpoint:  If you have the energy and time, do a longer hike in the Canyon.  The same trail to Hidden Canyon climbs steeply beyond to an amazing bird’s-eye view at Observation Point.  It’s 8 miles round-trip with a 2100-foot elevation gain.  There is another way to get to this outstanding viewpoint, but it requires driving to East Mesa trailhead over a rutted road.  Any vehicle with decent clearance should have no problem, though if it’s wet or snowy up there forget it.  

On my first day in the canyon back in the early ’90s I hiked to Observation Pt. then got lost coming back down off-trail.  Got cliffed-out, had to turn around, saw big cat tracks, and hiked back in the dark.  In other words a typical hike for me at the time.  But it was such a great intro. to the area.  

Zion Canyon from a high viewpoint along a sheep trail.

Angel’s Landing, despite its harrowing reputation, is quite a popular hike.  So do it early.  From the Grotto shuttle stop, you ascend the west (left) canyon wall 2.4 miles and 1500 feet to a jaw-dropping view.  The last 1/2 mile is true mountain-goat territory, so no small kids and no fear of heights allowed!

Explore East Zion:  East Zion is a spectacular area of the park, and is also your best chance to see bighorn sheep.  Don’t miss it.  Head past the turnoff for the main canyon and drive up the switchbacks, through the tunnels and into a land of slickrock and pinyon pine.  Park wherever you see an interesting side-canyon and simply walk up it, turning around as you please.  If you keep going you’ll be stopped sooner or later anyway by intimidating cliff walls. 


Canyon Overlook is a wonderful little trail that begins at the first (longer) tunnel’s east entrance.  The trail is quite popular and parking is limited.  So I recommend doing this at dawn for the great photo opportunities at trail’s end.  Except for this trail and the long one near the park’s east entrance, no other marked trails exist in East Zion.  But don’t let that stop you from exploring the area on foot.  

About Foot Travel at Zion:  

  • Be kind to the environment and if you’re off-trail walk on sandy canyon-bottoms or on bare sandstone slickrock.  Avoid the crusty and fragile soil at Zion and throughout the Southwest.  It’s actually alive!
  • At Zion you have quite a lot of choice, anything from simple hikes (on- or off-trail) to technical canyoneering descents.
  • Not to discourage you from exploring off-trail, but use good judgment.  If you head up (or worse, down) some random canyon on your own, realize it’s quite easy to get in over your head.  You may end up wondering when your simple canyon walk turned into technical canyoning without a rope (which I can say from cruel experience is not a very good feeling!).
  • Putting all the above together, think about signing up with one of the specialty outfitters for a guided canyon adventure.  I’m sorry I can’t make personal recommendations since I haven’t used any guides at Zion.  To research the park’s guides, Google away!

Next time we’ll go deeper with some lesser known places to explore at Zion.  Perfect for repeat visitors or people who have more time on a first visit.  Have a wonderful week everyone!

This spectacularly cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone could be mistaken for being at Zion, but it’s not far away in Snow Canyon State Park.


Visiting Zion National Park – Part IV   6 comments

A fall scene along the Pine Creek canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

A fall scene along Pine Creek’s canyon bottom, Zion N.P.

Happy New Year!  Friday Foto Talk will return next week.  Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S.  More than 3 million people visited last year alone!  What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon.  The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times. 

Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular!  By all means plan a visit.  This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time.  I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors.  For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.

One of Zion’s best-known landmarks, the Great White Thrown rises far above the Virgin River.


Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails.  I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon. 

One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains.  This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon.  Just be careful.  Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.

Spring is a great time to come to Zion.  The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring.  Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring. 

The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon.  If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible.  In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.

Spring is the time of blooming cactus!

Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park.  Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November.  Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon.  Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded. 

The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion.  The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends.  Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.    

Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion.  Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down.  In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather. 

Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January.  But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings.  Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons.  Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion's Kolob Canyons area.

A hike through the snow along Taylor Creek in Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.


Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah.  The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either.  St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town.  It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.    

Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car.  You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase.  But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.

And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc.  Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip.  Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks!  If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.   

There are two entrances to the main part of Zion.  One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest.  The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon.  There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.

The magnificence of East Zion in black and white.


The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences.  Either is perfectly suitable for Zion.  By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season.  Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace. 

For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time.  A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground.  Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter.  Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally.  Check the NPS site for details on camping.

If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park.  But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”.  For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible.  Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays.  Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object.  If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.

You don't even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

You don’t even have to leave Springdale and enter the park for views like this.

The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit.  A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please.  The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m.  You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons. 

Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park.  It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing.  A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes.  Let’s face it.  Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local.  So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about. 

That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph.  And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit.  Have a wonderful 2016!

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.

View across to Mountain of the Sun from atop the Sentinel Slide, Zion N.P.


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