Zion National Park is gem in the rough southwest desert. It is a popular destination for tourists as well as photographers. I have visited the park many times. What made me to go back to Zion National Park again and again was not its towering mountains, it was the Virgin River that cuts through the valley kept my creativity flowing. The valley is very narrow, the water flows rapidly and the cliffs on both sides are nearly vertical. When the sun shines on the red rock cliffs, their reflection on the river creates interesting colors and patterns. I could walk along the river bank an entire day to search for inspiration and never got bored. The texture of water and the color of reflection change rapidly every moment. I often spent half an hour just to stare at the water in front of me.
I always try to arrive at the scene at least half an hour before sunrise. At Zion National Park, it means getting up early to catch the first bus into Zion Valley. My plan was to photograph the mountain at sunrise. I took some pictures at sunrise. But I was disappointed because there is no cloud in the sky. The sunrise was not spectacular. But I did not leave.
Shortly after sunrise, the sun lit up the red rock cliff like a fire. Because there is no cloud, the light was extremely intense and the color of red cliff reflected on the river was so rich that the river in front of me looked as if it was painted in red. My attention was immediately attracted to the reflection on water. After stared at the reflection for a while, I suddenly visualized the hair of a beautiful woman floating in front of me.
I quickly acted upon my new found inspiration. I put my telephoto lens on the camera， mounted camera on my tripod and started to experiment with different shutter speed. My experience told me I should use a fraction of a second shutter speed in this situation. The water would look too milky with long shutter speed, and too static with short shutter speed. After some test shots, I finally settled at 1/4 second, where the texture of water started to look like hairs. Once the shutter speed was decided, the choice of other exposure parameters became simple. I had to maintain a large depth of field to keep the image sharp throughout, so I set the aperture at f/13. At this point, light was very intense that I had to lower ISO to 50 to get proper exposure. I would add a neutral density filter in front of the lens if ISO50 were still not low enough.
The river runs fast that the texture in the water changed rapidly. Every photograph looked different. I kept chasing after the reflection on water and photographed until the color faded away.
Back at home, I chose this picture out of nearly one hundred pictures I took at the scene because I like the white water stream that created contrast red reflection and its position in the frame. The post processing started with some general adjustments to contrast and brightness.
One difficulty I ran into immediately was the bright areas on water that made color looked washed out. Here I created a dodge and burn layer, then used Tony Kuyper Luminosity Mask Actions to create luminosity masks over light areas. I chose a brush tool with about 10% luminosity and then darkened bright areas by brushing black color on the dodge and burn layer. This helped me to recover details in highlight region to enhance the smooth texture in the water.
- Always pay attentions to details. In an iconic place where grand landscape is dominate; study the surround in great details will lead you to pleasant surprises.
- Any light is good light for a specific purpose. Don’t give up when you think the light is not as good as you expected.
- Use shutter speed as a creative tool. When photographing moving subject, always experiment with various shutter speed to achieve different effects.
- Never stop imagine. Imagination is the source of creativity.