Thomas Heaton heads off the beaten track and embarks on his own landscape photography adventure in Zion National Park
Watch Thomas' stunning video on the Wex Photo Video YouTube channel.
Zion National Park is a beautiful part of the world. It’s very accessible and incredibly varied. You can climb up high and shoot grand vistas looking down into the canyon or you can explore the valley floor in search of intimate landscapes. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Zion’s beauty makes the landscape photographer’s job easy…
I spent a couple of days in Zion, and during that short period, must have hiked in excess of 20 miles. You see, Zion has a tendency to mislead you. It’s chaotic, and isolating subjects into clean compositions is incredibly difficult. I found time and again that my subjects were getting lost in the surrounding chaos, with so many elements competing for attention. As soon as I thought I had a subject framed, something else would creep into the shot. No matter how I positioned myself or how many lenses I changed, I simply couldn’t make it work. For me, this challenge is exactly why I chose to visit Zion. The park forced me to look harder and consider images that I might not have photographed, otherwise.
Zion is rarely a sunrise or sunset location, unless you visit a popular viewpoint such as Observation Point or the famous Watchman Bridge. These locations offer a great image, but leave me feeling empty as the photograph is laid out on a plate. On this trip, I didn’t want to shoot the iconic views; I wanted to find my own little piece of Zion.
The best time to shoot on the canyon floor is around midday, as the bright sunlight reflects off the orange sandstone walls. The result is a beautiful, warm and soft reflected light that’s always on the move. This is why having time to scout and observe can be so valuable.
My first image – a small grove of trees backlit by the late morning sunlight – was a challenge and one that I didn’t anticipate. Again, because Zion is so chaotic, I was very limited as to where I could stand in order to frame the trees. I couldn’t move further left, right, up or down and to do so would have introduced unwanted elements, such as sky or other dominant trees.
As the sun broke over the canyon walls, it streamed directly into my lens. I had hoped it would rise a little further south, but I was wrong, not that it mattered – I couldn’t move if I wanted to. But as the video shows, perhaps I could have been better prepared for shielding the lens. That said, I'm pleased with the final photograph, and the use of the graduated filter worked well in controlling the highlights in the foreground.
Later that afternoon, I ventured into the small washes that run through the east side of the park. These areas are natural funnels for flood water caused by heavy rain and snowmelt, as it runs off the canyon walls. The washes are a network of small canyons and passages, which constantly change as flood waters rush through and clean the floors of footprints and debris. The washes are perfect for honing your intimate landscape skills. Most of the images to be found are by your feet or hidden, tucked away in narrow corridors.
This photograph of golden seeds was not one that I expected to photograph, but it caught my eye at the end of a long day of exploration. I was drawn to the perfectly even distribution of seeds and the beautiful contrast between the cool blue branches and warm, golden pods. I looked at this scene for some time and eventually decided it would be best to fill the frame with the seeds, rather than shooting wider to include the entire tree. I came to this decision in the same way that I always do, by asking myself: “What is it that drew me to this subject in the first place?”
The light wasn’t suitable when I found the tree. However, I knew that if I returned a little earlier the next day, it would be bathed in that beautiful light – reflected from the canyon walls – that would really make those golden colours shine. Finding the correct subject was the difficult part, executing the image was really simple. I used a large aperture of ƒ/5.6 and focused on the seeds at the front of the tree, rather than those at the back or middle. The result was a very shallow depth of field. I made sure that I chose an area of the tree with a good, even distribution of colour and fewer distracting branches. This is basic composition work; looking through the viewfinder and taking a moment to really analyse your framing, as you search for the slightest improvements.
Landscape photography is as much about connecting with the environment and being out in nature as it is about capturing those awe-inspiring images. Of course, we want the latter, but it is important not to lose sight of the very thing that drew us to landscape photography in the first place.
About the Author
Thomas Heaton is a landscape and travel photographer, filmmaker and YouTuber. He started taking photography seriously at the age of 16 and hasn't looked back since. Find out more about Thomas' adventures via his website.