Zion National Park Days 4 & 5: The Virgin River Narrows

Thanks again to Tommy Botello for taking some time out of his own trip to take some behind-the-scenes images and video.  Very much appreciated!

At this point you've probably noticed that I'm a fan of writing long(ish) blog posts.  I enjoy being able to provide more details in the blog than I'm able to in the videos.  This blog will be on the longer side (even for my writing style) as I'm combining days four and five of my trip.  I realize reading all of this is not everyone's cup of tea, so here are the Cliff's Notes.  I spent both days in the Narrows, shot a 14 minute exposure with the dark slide still in place, ruined two sheets of film, had a gear failure that made me question the entire trip and sanity, and came away with a total of five images...4 good, 1 not so much.  And now, the rest of the story...

Day 4

Another early alarm started the day, but at this point in the trip I was starting to hit the snooze button once or twice before getting off the sofa bed!  My entire body was very much aware of the previous day's trip to Angel's Landing.  I gradually got going and the three of us packed up the car and headed into Zion.  Today would be something different for me, actually getting to drive in Zion Canyon.  My previous trip here was all during shuttle bus season.  It was a new experience  driving down the canyon.  I had to always be on the lookout for deer and the even more dangerous cars who stop to look at deer!  Seriously, they are just deer.  It was fun to make the drive myself, but I did miss the bus narrator.  "This IS The Court of the Patriarchs..."

I wanted to make sure and have an early start, not just for photographic reasons but to also make sure we had a parking spot at the entrance to the Narrows.  We arrived to a mostly empty parking lot, loaded up our gear, and set out.  Today was going to be a busy day.  There were three shots I hoped to get, and this meant I had to be quick loading and unloading my pack.  My first shot was one that was in a particularly dark bend of the Narrows.  I had scouted out a horizontal image that, at least in my mind, would be dark and mysterious.

As we rounded the last bend before my shot, someone was already set up almost EXACTLY in the spot I had scouted.  What are the odds?!  As I got closer, I could tell it was someone shooting a beautiful wooden 4x5 camera.  Another large format guy!  Turns out it was a photographer named Justin Nambiar (Justin's fantastic work can be seen on his blog at https://jnambiar.wordpress.com)  I stopped and we talked a bit about film and camera stuff.  I told him I had actually planned to take the same shot he was taking.  He graciously told me to feel free to set up beside him; however, I didn't want to be "that guy" so I decided to move on and let him shoot in peace.  I've got to be earlier next time; shouldn't have hit that snooze button!

Of course now I needed a new plan.  I continued further up the Narrows into an area I had never been to.  A bit past the previous spot was an even darker corridor with a series of "fins" on one side of the wall.  These rock outcroppings were being lit by a pretty intense (but still dim) glow that was causing a huge contrast between the light and dark areas.  This was definitely going to be my shot.  I spent about 10 minutes looking around for a composition.  At one point, there was a series of rocks that formed a relatively straight line with whitewater cascading toward the lit wall.  I composed so that this line of rocks would anchor the lower part of my image, and the whitewater would draw the eye toward the wall which traveled left to right across the composition.

Now there was the matter of exposure calculation.  Because it was such a contrasty scene, I immediately thought to load up some Kodak Ektar which would be able to handle the contrast with no problems.  After factoring in my polarizer and reciprocity, my exposure time was 7 minutes!  It was VERY dark.  I shot two sheets of Ektar, giving the second one some more exposure time...just in case.  Then I had a wild thought; I wonder what Velvia 50 would do with this scene.  Just for fun, and mostly just to see how the transparency would turn out, I loaded up some Velvia 50 and metered at a whopping 14 minutes!  Well, there's only one way to find out.  I tripped the shutter and waited.

And waited and waited and waited.  After standing by my camera for about 7 minutes, I got bored and hiked a bit up river to where my buddy Marc had set up.  I found that he was waiting for me to finish and pack up so he could take a shot.  I told him I was now about 10 minutes into a 14 minute exposure and would soon be out of his way.  As I hiked back to my camera, the thought occurred to me...I have NO IDEA where my dark slide is!!!

Normally I pull it and kind of stick it under my left arm while I'm exposing.  Had I raised my arm up at some point and let it fall in the river?  That seemed a bit careless even by my standards.  As my exposure ended, I closed the shutter and pulled my tripod to the side, out of Marc's way.  I frantically searched my gear, but it was nowhere to be found.  As long as the shutter was closed on my lens, the film was safe.  Eventually though, I would have to break down my camera.  Should I pull the dark slide on another sheet of film to sacrifice it and save this one?  What do I do?!

As I was considering my options, I looked at the back of the camera and noticed my film holder...with two perfectly good dark slides still in place.  I had just spent nearly a quarter of an hour exposing a scene and had forgot to pull the dark slide out before I tripped the shutter!  To make matters infinitely worse, it was at this EXACT moment that Justin just happened to be walking by.  I had just finished telling him that I couldn't find my dark slide.  Once I discovered what I had done, I did my best to hide away my camera from view, but he had to have seen it.  Oh well, if you're going to do something stupid, you might as well have an audience!

I sheepishly returned my camera to its position, recomposed, and refocused.  One pulled slide and 14 minutes later I had my image.  I'm really glad I took this experimental image too!  As it turned out, I didn't give enough exposure to the shadows in my Ektar shots.  The Velvia turned out much better.  I'm so glad that Justin had set up at "my" first location that day.  If he hadn't, I never would have taken what turned out to be one of my absolute favorite images from the trip.  Funny how things work out sometimes.  I named this image "Through a Mirror Darkly" because first, it was VERY dark.  Second, it is looking back from the opposite side of the original image I had intended to take, a mirror image of what I had originally intended to take.  "And now we see but through a mirror darkly..."

"Through a Mirror Darkly"  Shot on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 90mm, f/45, 14:00 (!!!), polarizer

With my first image in the books, I started to make my way back down river.  Marc and Tommy had opted to explore further up river.  My shenanigans with the Velvia had put me arriving at my second location a bit later than I wanted to.  I quickly set up my composition, annoyed with myself for once again having to rush.  It was another scene with high contrast, another dark corridor, so I loaded up my two remaining sheets of Ektar.  The first exposure went off fine.  Everything on my second sheet started fine, but as I went to replace the dark slide it wouldn't go back in.  I tried to angle it every direction to no avail.  Finally, defeated, I forced it back in and heard the film pop out.  Upon examination, I discovered the slide had a crack along the bottom edge.  This crack was causing the slide to catch on the film every time I tried to reinsert it.  Time for a new one!  It was not complete loss as I discovered some valuable information about the light and made some to-the-minute notes about when it arrives and how it moves.

I really, and I mean REALLY loved this composition so I didn't want to chance only having one sheet on it.  I decided then to return the following day to make sure I had it.  Once again I packed everything up and headed down river to my third and final location.  I had debated even shooting it though.  The ruined Ektar had kind of left me feeling a bit deflated (apologies to all you Patriot fans out there).  I arrived at this final location and just stood there staring at it for about 5 minutes before I eventually decided to take my pack off.  I had decided that I would regret not shooting it.  From previous scouting I knew exactly where to set up and what to shoot it with.

"Avalon"  Shot on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 180mm, f/45, 3:32, polarizer

Man am I glad I decided to shoot this!  I named this image "Avalon" after the island in Arthurian legend.  To me, it has a very paradise feeling to it with the water leading back to the trees and the bright orange wall.  However, there is still an air of mystery to it as the massive boulders are hiding the trunks of the trees.  This is my favorite image of the trip.  Again, REALLY glad I decided to shoot it!  (A quick note about those boulders...it's all fun and games to hike past those things until you look up and start wondering where they came from!)

For the third time today I meticulously repacked my gear and headed out.  Later I would be joined by Marc and Tommy, who it turns out hiked all the way to the turnaround point for bottom-up hikers.  Way to go guys!  I've never been that far.  We stocked up on dinner supplies once again at Sol Foods and had the nightly ritual of dinner, hot tub, and me complaining about but eventually loading my film holders.

Intermission.  If you're still reading, feel free to grab a snack.  There's still one more day to go!

Day 5

The missed shot and ruined film in the dark corridor from the day before haunted me.  Despite the fact that I had already taken what I knew to be several good shots already (if everything turned out) it was now as if the success or failure of the entire trip hinged on whether or not I was able to get this one particular shot.  Getting this one shot became all I focused on.  Even though it was an afternoon shot, as usual we headed out early.  I wanted plenty of time to set up and check over my gear.

The plan was to start deep within the Narrows and gradually work our way back down river following the glows.  I had scouted out three locations with glows all spaced about two hours apart, so hiking and setting up could all be done at a relatively leisurely pace.  It was beautifully planned out if I do say so myself!  What was not so beautiful was the near excruciating pain coming from my left knee.  I am very familiar with just being sore from hiking, and I could tell that this was something a bit more.  At 32, was I starting to get old?!  I SLOWLY made my way upriver with the current seeming to fight my every step.

As we had time to spare, I came across an early morning glow that I hadn't noticed before.  I had plenty of Velvia 50 for the day, so I decided to set up a composition.  Besides, my knee could use a break.  I worked a bit for a composition and eventually settled on one with a group of cascades in the foreground and a large wall bathed in reflected light in the background.  I metered off the brightest white water, placing that value at +2 and took two sheets.

Well, they can't all be winners... 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 90mm, f/45, polarizer, unrecorded time...probably somewhere around 3-4 minutes.

By watching previous videos, I have noticed an alarming trend of me being quite negative toward my own work.  I will definitely work on that in the future as I usually try to be a quite positive person.  With that being said, wow, does this image not do it for me!  I am a sucker for using rocks as leading lines, but the lower right tends to jut out and disrupt the scene more than lead the eye.  Furthermore, I have no sense of continuity between the foreground and background; they're kind of just there.  If you are reading this, I would love some feedback in the comments below.  Sometimes I get too close to my own work and can't really tell.  Love it or hate it, let me know how you feel.

I will definitely return to this location this year as I feel there is tremendous potential here, but I need to spend quite a bit of time nailing down a composition.  I packed up and continued onward.  As we passed the confluence of Orderville Canyon, Marc and Tommy decided to do a little exploring.  Since I took written notes the day before, I told them down to the minute when the glow would arrive...super proud of myself!  I went ahead and set up my gear.  I do want to explore Orderville Canyon this year though.  I don't know if there are any photo opportunities, but it looks like a cool little slot canyon.

Here is where the trip got weird for me.  Having already set up, I watched the back wall of the corridor illuminate.  It's a really cool scene to watch unfold.  As the glow is getting good, direct sunlight hits the right wall.  You think the shot is over, but after about 10 minutes it disappears and shooting conditions are perfect again for another 10 minutes.  The light repeats this entire process one more time but the second shooting window is much shorter...maybe 5 minutes.  After that, the direct light spills onto the canyon floor and that's when it's time to pack up.  Man, the Narrows are so cool!!!  

When all else fails, at least the iPhone pic turned out. :)

The scene is absolutely stunning.  A perfectly placed set of cascades and fault lines in the lefthand wall draw the eye through the dark corridor to a brilliantly lit narrow back wall.  I was really excited about getting this shot!  As the first glow arrived, I exposed two sheets of Ektar.  Just before packing up, I've developed a habit of rechecking focus and composition just to give myself a second look and put my mind at ease.  I stepped under the dark cloth and to my abject horror, the entire image was blurry on the ground glass!  I had absolutely no clue what had happened.  Had focus shifted?  I was using my 90mm lens so even a slight shift would not have led to the degree of blurriness I was seeing.  I gently pushed down on my tripod, but it was stable.  Besides, even a downward shift in the tripod would not have caused missed focus.  Despite my best efforts, I could not trouble shoot the situation.

I refocused and was only able to get in one more shot.  Again to my horror, upon a second check the scene was blurry.  What if my entire trip had resulted in out of focus images?  I hadn't double checked every image I had taken.  And what on earth was causing this?  With the wind completely taken out of my sails, I very slowly packed up.  We moved on to our next shot.

Arriving about an hour and a half before the light, I pulled out the video kit and tried to articulate what had happened, but I was nearly at a loss as to how to describe it.  I wasn't certain that everything was ruined, but I had a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  As I was recording, Tommy was snapping some pics.  My mind was racing too fast to notice though.  When I finished, I pulled out my audio recorder and kind of absent-mindedly listened to what I had just said.  I love this image Tommy got of that.  Through my facial expression and body language you can really tell what I was going through.

Down but not quite out.  (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello)

Alright, time to think about this logically.  I've made tons of perfectly sharp images with this setup and nothing appeared wrong.  I unpacked everything and composed and focused well before the light arrived.  Every five minutes or so I would recheck my focus and everything was tack sharp each time.  My confidence definitely built from this.  As the light arrived, I made the decision to shoot Fuji Velvia 50.  The scene would definitely test its limited range, but I wanted Velvia's rendering of the intense glow.

And what a cool glow!  Really, really intense but short lived, this glow doesn't fade away...it just completely stops with no warning.  It's literally the same as if someone shut off an orange light switch.  Have I mentioned that the Narrows are amazing?  :)  Metering off the white water again, I got an exposure time of around 6:30.  Of course during this long amount of time, lots of people walked through the image.  Never really a concern unless they stand still or walk straight toward or away from the camera.  As long as they are not constantly occupying the same plane on the sheet of film, I'm good.

What I'm not good with is a flash, and that's exactly what happened about halfway through my exposure.  I was concentrating so hard on watching people walk through that I didn't notice the couple just beside me setting up for a selfie.  I DID notice the flash from their point and shoot though.  Tommy said the look on my face was priceless...as if I had just seen a ghost.  I quickly closed the shutter and stopped my timer.  Still almost three minutes to go and it looked as if, upon review, their first selfie was not satisfactory!  Eventually they left and I did my best to recall my past Zach Arias training...  P&S flash is only good to about 10 feet, aperture controls the amount of flash and I was stopped down to f/45, and my sheet of Velvia 50 had been already exposed to light for 3 minutes thus reducing its already low light sensitivity.  I eventually decided I shouldn't expect to see any ghosting and reopened the shutter.

"Unmoved" Shot on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 90mm, f/45, 6:30, polarizer.  Double exposure...:)

I'm just now discovering that my dry pants have a hole around the left knee... (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello)

I named this image "Unmoved" because, to me, floating rock here kind of looks like a fist sticking up...a sign of strength.  Despite how the Virgin River can rage, over the years this stronghold of a rock remains unmoved.  After exposing, I held my breath upon rechecking focus.  Once again it was tack sharp; my confidence returned!

After repacking, we made the leisurely stroll to our final location.  Again arriving well ahead of the light, I had plenty of time to compose.  This last scene contains a long-lasting glow.  I found it quite difficult to judge whether the light was coming, going, or remaining the same.  I shot my last two sheets of Velvia and packed up.  Before packing up though, I again rechecked focus.  Spot on again!  This completely took away all of the worry I had earlier.  Who knows what happened in the dark corridor...perhaps the shot was just cursed.  Yeah, we'll go with that.  Of course as soon as I had everything broken down, the light appeared to get stronger.  Just my imagination?  I named the image "Inspiration Alcove."  Several years ago, it was an image from this location by one of my favorite photographers that inspired me to visit Zion in the first place.  I definitely had to have an image of this massive alcove.

"Inspiration Alcove"  Shot on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, 90mm, f/45, 2:30, polarizer

Despite the focus issue on the one shot, this remains the best day of shooting large format that I've ever had.  Again leaving out the period of time where I doubted everything I had ever done...ever, overall it was such a relaxing day.  At each spot I arrived well before the light and took my time setting up and composing; at no point in the day did I feel rushed or like I was chasing the light.  I will not soon forget this experience!  

I had my usual dinner from Sol Foods that night...a sandwich and junk food.  Back at the hotel, I once again complained about loading film, and once again I loaded it anyway.  Marc and Tommy were busy uploading their images from the day.  When it's all said and done, for personal reasons I find all of the work involved in large format to be more rewarding than shooting digital.  I would absolutely be lying though If I said I wasn't jealous of the instant feedback they  had...knowing immediately that they got their shots!  Oh well, uncertainty comes with the territory.  It was early to bed this night as the next day would be a big one.  We were making the trip to the legendary Subway!