Authors Note: This essay is excerpted and modified from my article which first appeared in Fuji X Passion, Inspirational Photography Magazine, Volume II, published in November 2016. This essay includes additional images that were not published in the magazine.
Part 1 • Prologue
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In September of 2014, Tropical Storm Norbert rolled across southern Nevada and Utah, unleashing a torrent of heavy rainfall in the desert. Flash floods caused significant damage in the area, washing away portions of Interstate 15 north of Las Vegas, and cutting off access to Salt Lake City, Utah. The flooding stranded vehicles and closed 30 miles of the interstate in both directions. This was the situation as I flew into Las Vegas to begin a landscape photography trip with my pal Bill Ratcliffe. Our itinerary included locations in Zion National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
As I landed my phone chimed with a message from Bill. The Virgin River was spiking well over 4800 cubic feet per second with massive amounts of water was pouring down the sandstone towers of Zion. The Emerald Pools, a lush oasis in a tall alcove of Navajo sandstone, was a complete wall of water as it poured off the cliffs to join with the Virgin River. Bill’s text was emphatic, “You need to get to Zion now!”
But I was stuck. My access to Zion was cut off due to the I-15 closure. My only route was to go around through Arizona and up to Kanab, Utah, a drive that took over 5 hours. I arrived in Kanab after an exhausting 15 hour day of travel to find that all of the roads into the Escalante were closed effectively forcing us to reassess our trip itinerary. Worse yet, I had missed one of the most epic waterfall events in recent Zion National Park history.
A New Trip and New Gear
Two years later, nearly to the date of the storm event, I landed in Las Vegas to much calmer weather. Bill and I discussed the places we might photograph but set no specific itinerary. As a planner I found this a bit disconcerting, as I typically research my shooting locations, timeframes, sunrise/sunset, and other details prior to a trip. We had agreed that Zion National Park would be the primary location and we would watch the weather and move to it’s rhythm.
The trip was interesting for another reason. It was my first serious landscape shoot since switching my camera systems from Nikon and Sony to Fuji. The move to Fuji was gradual at first but quickly gathered speed . . . like a flash flood. The transition began with the Fuji X-Pro 2 and a 35mm f2.0 lens. I quickly fell in love with this camera finding joy in the simplicity of its controls, the way it felt in my hands, and the change it brought about in my photography. This was a camera that just got out of the way of making images and opened up other genres of photography for me beyond my landscape work. I still questioned whether I could use the Fuji as a serious landscape camera, a worry that was soon put to rest. The fact is no camera can serve every purpose; or so I thought. After a landscape shoot with the X-Pro 2, I began to question that premise. It performed flawlessly in a difficult environment where I was photographing waterfalls. So here was a system that might actually allow me to continue my landscape work but also expand my vision to street photography, portraits, and architecture.
That one camera body and lens soon turned into the X-T1 and a host of lenses including the 16-55mm f2.8 WR, the 10-24mm f3.5 and the 55-200mm f3.5. All of these are fine zoom lenses, and in fact the 16-55mm is one of the best I have ever shot with. But I love prime lenses and Fuji certainly had the answer as my initial zoom lens purchase soon expanded to include the 14mm f2.8, the 16mm f1.4, and the 23mm f1.4. And if that was not enough, right before the start of this landscape trip the X-T2 arrived and my kit was complete.
My equipment choices for the trip included the Fuji X-T2, the Fui X-Pro 2, and all of the aforementioned lenses. I also carried some landscape specific accessories including a Singh-Ray 105mm Circular Polarizer and Singh-Ray 3-Stop, 5-Stop, and 10-Stop Solid Neutral Density Filters. I use these filters to help manage specular highlights for waterfall photography or to increase shutter time for longer exposures. And lastly one of the most important items is my Induro CT214 Carbon Tripod. All of this gear, other than the tripod of course, fits easily in my fStop Gear Anja camera bag, which is airplane compliant. During long landscape trips I will carry the whole kit with me, although I typically pare down the camera bag based on where, and what I am photographing. For example, in a narrow slot canyon, I carry a smaller selection of lenses like the the Fujinon XF10-24mm R OIS, the XF16-55mm R WR, and I might carry the prime XF14mm R. Changing out the gear keeps things simple and the bag lighter, a benefit on difficult hikes or while clambering through slot canyons.
A Mindful Place
On my second day in Zion, well before sunrise, I found myself on an expanse of striated slick rock looking south into the cross-bedded buttes of the White Cliffs. From this perch the sky above was just turning blue with just a hint of magenta along the horizon. This is nautical twilight, a favorite time for me to be in the landscape, when the light begins to reveal itself. It is a time when it is not quite dark, and not quite light, where ghostly shapes begin to reveal themselves. Below my position I could just make out the layers of the pine-studded terraces laced with yellow Snakeweed, prickly pear, desert sage, and Pinon. Two my left was the familiar shape of Checkerboard Mesa. The setting moon softly illuminated the world below me. Somewhere overhead I could hear the distinctive car-r-ruck, car-r-ruck call of a circling raven. In such stillness I breathed in this splendor and thought about the geologic forces that could fashion such beauty. Several miles west of my location the Virgin River, a collection source for the run-off of hundreds of ravines and slot canyons winds through Zion Canyon. The Virgin River begins at over 9,000 feet and flows through the Narrows, one of the worlds biggest slot canyons before emptying into Zion Canyon. To the North the land climbs upward over 8,000 feet above sea level to the hoodoos of Bryce and the vast expanse of the Escalante.
Zion's landscape has always drawn me to its wonders. It is a vast expanse full of big skies, mountain vistas, buttes, red rocks, hoodoos, and spectacular light. It is a landscape of geology, carved slowly over time by the forces of wind and water. It is also a photographer’s playground offering a varied palette of photographic opportunities. I spent some time alone on the Eastern side of Zion, walking the slick rock and winding through a long drainage between buttes filled with maples. The trees were just beginning to turn colors but fall was still weeks away. There is a humble feeling to walk among the giant peaks and yet enjoy the intimacy present within a slot canyon. Here nature is close and reveals itself slowly, turn by twisting turn, the further you go. Light bounces inside these drainage's, illuminating vertical faces of stone or the wind kissed leaves of a cottonwood tree. My casual walk among the stone giants soon turned into a 6-mile hike and by the next morning I was feeling my age and lack of condition.
My apparent lack of conditioning aside, this trip had several agendas. One was just to get back out and shoot with Bill and Holly, Bill's wife. The other was to put my Fuji XT-2 through its paces and prepare and article for Fuji X Passion Magazine. The trip proved to be an apt test for the Fuji X-T2. Deserts can be a harsh environment in which to photograph. Daily, Bill, and Holly when she got away from work, faced heat, dusty wind, and sometimes rain. After all it cannot be considered a proper shooting trip without some rain. Shooting in and around some of the bigger waterfalls we were sprayed by a fine watery mist mixed with dust. The X-T2 was up for the challenge. On several occasions the camera received a complete soaking with all parts of the camera covered in water droplets, from the lens to the live view screen, and it never stopped working. I kept several micro-fiber cloths handy to soak up the water and clear the polarizer, and though it was annoying, I was able to keep making images. It is these kinds of experiences that help you begin to trust your equipment and allow the camera to become an extension of your vision. In a matter of days you enter a groove, no longer worried about the placement of the buttons and dials, finding instead, an easy comfort in the simplicity of the controls and the mindful attention of the place, the process, and the equipment.
Bill and I began one morning at the iconic Court of the Patriarchs in Zion. Up early and fueled by coffee and energy drinks-a pattern that would repeat itself over the week-we made the 35-minute drive from Bill’s house to the park. The Virgin River winds through this location where the towering peaks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob rise above the canyon floor. It is a short walk to the site which does not require much of the photographer except to be present in a beautiful place, as the sun light first strikes the peaks. The Cottonwood trees along the Virgin River were just beginning to shed their summer greens. The vibrant yellows of Fall, so characteristic of these trees, was just beginning to show and glowed subtly against towering canyon walls. The reflected light that illuminates the sandstone accentuates the beautiful orange glow of the sandstone and the almost iridescent blues of the desert varnish. The wind however, was fierce that morning and made photography very difficult.
Our day also included a visit to the Grafton Ghost Town. In my many trips to Zion I had not been to this abandoned town, founded in 1859. by a group of settlers from Virgin, Utah. The town once extended nearly half a mile to the West, but those original building are long gone and only five historic structures remain. The town's most iconic building is the combination church and school house dating to 1886. I really enjoyed the old barns and the fences intertwined with huge mounds of Sacred Datura and all set against a dramatic backdrop of red cliffs.
Subsequent days proved to be quite challenging with the weather which can change in a moment from sunny and warm to chilly with rain. One such day began with beautiful weather in Zion and the valley floor, only to turn quickly turned into a cold drizzle and pea-soup thick fog at the higher elevations of Bryce Canyon. There was nothing discernible from the canyon rim and the entire valley of hoodoos and spires was enveloped in a white mist. Seeking other photographic opportunities we headed down the switchbacks on the Navajo Trail to a section called Wall Street. The muddy trail was slippery and our boots became caked with a heavy orange muck. Down below the tall hoodoos were enveloped by the foggy mist.
We managed a few compositions before making our way back to Zion through Red Canyon State Park. The rain was falling consistently now and by the late afternoon impromptu waterfalls were springing to life and spilling down the sandstone walls. We suspected the Emerald Pools might be flowing well with all of the rain but once we reached the valley floor the Virgin River was running at a low volume. From that clue we knew the waterfalls at the Emerald Pools would not be flowing strongly and so we decided to call it a day.
To Be Continued: Stay tuned for Part II of this tale which features images from the Narrows and a big rain event at the Emerald Pools.