My favorite autumn location is usually “the last place I shot” which for fall colors is Zion National Park. Shooting here in early November evokes feelings of having saved the best for last as the peak of autumn colors occurs after the aspens have fully shed and snow is flying in the high country. Fall photography in Zion is no secret. Just drive over the Canyon Junction Bridge during the last week of October into the first week of November late in the day and you will usually see dozens of landscape photographers lined up on the bridge trying to capture a cliché shot of the Virgin River below the Watchman. You won’t find me there. I will search out my own favorite places for adventure and landscape photography. I will share a few of these locations below.
There are three things that draw me to Zion in fall. First is the Virgin River. Water is my favorite landscape subject. I love the blue green hues of the Virgin in low water and its complimentary contrast to the warm sandstone cliffs. Opportunities abound for capturing reflections of fall colors on the water’s surface. Second is the canyon or bigtooth maples that are abundant here. Cottonwoods are nice too but the maples are the star tree for me as they turn yellow, orange and red. I love getting into groves of them when their colorful leaves on the ground mix with lichen colored sandstone and green grasses that create a colorful tapestry. The main attraction though is the signature light of the Southwest, warm reflected light. This is the light that creates the ethereal glow famously seen in many slot canyon photos and in images of the Narrows. Sunlit vertical sandstone walls can “bounce” reflected light onto nearby shaded trees and shaded sandstone walls.
This scenario abounds in Zion both on a small and large scale. The best example of reflected light on a large scale is evident right from the Temple of Sinewava parking lot. Go there in mid-day and look toward the river into the sun. The enormous parabolic sunlit wall behind you as you are facing the river reflects an amazing amount of light on the shaded side of the Pulpit. You just need to train your eyes to look for this reflected warm soft light. It makes for many photo opportunities during mid-day when sunlight is too harsh for panoramic style landscape images. The key to shooting subjects in reflected light is to completely eliminate any sunlit surface or open sky in your frame.
So where will you find me on a typical day of digital landscape photography in Zion? For sunrise I prefer the East end. If you start at the entrance gate you can see the low angle morning light hitting Checkerboard Mesa and other high buttes as you travel west toward Zion Canyon. If you don’t mind a short hike at dawn, try Canyon Overlook (photo 1) and watch the sun light up the West Temple. For a hardier sunrise shoot, try hiking out to Northgate Peaks off Kolob Terrace Road for a sunrise panoramic. After the sun washes out about an hour after sunrise I begin looking for tighter landscapes with reflected light. Walk in upper Pine Creek or any side drainage off East End road and you will find maples and sandstone patterns in reflected light. In mid-day, I really like the Riverside Walk. This mile plus paved trail has many river access points and usually lots of maples and again it is easy to find shaded reflected light (photo 2).
On a separate day, hike the Narrows up to “Wall Street” making sure you are there in late morning to mid-day. The Narrows is just fantastic for unlimited reflected light photography even if you miss the peak of fall colors. Be sure to stop by Zion Guru for a complete orientation, hiking guide and river hiking outfitting if needed. For sunset, especially after a clearing storm I like to head out of the park to get a bigger sky and more of a pulled back view. My favorite place is to head toward Grafton. There are several points en route to Grafton to photograph the golden cottonwoods along the Virgin and last rays of light, alpenglow and even colorful clouds on Mount Kinesava (photo 3), Bridge Mountain and the East Temple and other prominent points in the park.
There are also many other good vantage points if you head up toward Eagle Craggs or Smisthsonian Butte. Just remember wherever you go, finding and waiting for good light, using a tripod and other solid photographic technique will result in better photos than just having a super duper pro camera with many megapixels.
Zion fall photo 1: Photographer Terry Thompson (High Mesa Productions) from Taos, New Mexico, photographing sunrise from Canyon Overlook. Shot with Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105, Terry lit with a 580 EX II fired wirelessly with ½ cut CTO gel and Honl 1/8 grid.
Zion fall photo 2a: Canyon maples below the north face of Angel’s Landing along the Virgin River. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 17-40 lens, polarizer
Zion fall photo 2b: Gold leaves reflecting in the Virgin River along Riverside Walk. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 70-200 lens with polarizer
Zion fall photo 3: Cottonwood trees below Mt. Kinesava at sunset along Grafton Road. Canon 1Ds, Mark 3, 24-105 lens, 3 stop graduated neutral density filter