The genesis of this trip is that in preparing to travel to South America, I decided to get Global Entry passes for my wife and myself. This requires an interview at a customs office in an international airport. Since the customs offices in Los Angeles area, San Diego and San Bernadino were booked more than 3 months ahead, I decided look further afield. Las Vegas is only 5 hours drive and they had appointments available!
Well, I thought, Las Vegas is only two and a half hours from Zion, and Bryce is only another couple of hours beyond that. Sounds like a fun trip.
So we spent a night far from the strip in a non-smoking, non-gambling Best Western Plus in West Las Vegas (https://www.bestwestern.com/en_US/book/hotel-details.29084.html). The next morning we were at the airport for our 9:00 AM appointment and 20 minutes later, we were on the road.
Our first stop was in Springdale (the entrance to Zion) at a family run, Mexican restaurant called Casa de Amigos. From there, we headed up through Zion to the East exit.
East Zion road
What works in the shot above is the leading line of the road converging with the line of the red rock on the other side of the canyon. I like shots that make you want to go around the next corner and see what's there. The sky also provides a place for the eye to rest, making a nice contrast with the colors and textures of the rocks.
While preparing for this trip, I had talked with my wife about the difficulty in getting really good shots at Bryce. You wouldn't think it would be a problem because anywhere you look are hundreds of red rock pinnacles called hoodoos. Bryce has the largest collection of hoodoos anywhere on Earth. It is a unique geological formation that is the result of fracture lines in the sandstone caused by earthquakes at right angles to each other. This broke the stone into square vertical columns that over time, eroded into the canyon we see today.
This amazing landscape suffers from being overwhelming, much like the Grand Canyon. The temptation is to shoot the big landscape because it is just so incredible, but the wider the angle of your lens, the smaller and less grand it looks.
When I was in Bryce previously (October two years ago), I couldn't stop clicking but wasn't getting anything I really liked. t felt like a kid on Halloween night, having eaten too much candy but still running from house to house to get more. That's when I realized that in general, Bryce (like the Grand Canyon) suffers from a lack of foreground. Without a strong compositional element in the foreground, it is hard for the viewer to feel the connection or find a relatable story in the image.
One way to meet this challenge is to narrow the field of view to a single strong design element. In this regard, one of the best (and most commonly taken) shots in Bryce is of Thor's Hammer. It can be isolated against the sky for greater contrast.
Hoodoos and blue sky.
The predominant color is the red sandstone. There are pines down in the canyon, which give some green contrast. Blue sky makes the red pop. There are variations in the color of sandstone as well, but with so many hoodoos, photos can easily look like a confusing jumble.
My best previous shot at Bryce was of the sunrise after a storm. It just happened to have Bryce as a foreground. Don't get me wrong. I love that shot and have printed it at 45 by 30 inches. It looks great. It's just that the view would be nothing without the storm clouds and dramatic light.
Sunrise after storm over Bryce Canyon.
With these thoughts in mind as we drove up East Zion road, my wife pointed down into the canyon beside the road and said, "I think I see a frozen stream down there." What we found by hiking down there turned out to be some of my favorite images from the trip.
Stream with ice over sand.
Abstract of ice over sand
Rainbow in the ice
Leaf print in sand with ice
Stream bed where the ice was found.
Pine cone and rocks in ice.
Ice rays on rock.
Abstract of water drop on underside of ice.
Just another mile up the road, we encountered borregos. We have seen these bighorn sheep in this area multiple times in the last few years. They have been somewhere along this section of road every time we have passed in four trips during April and October. We keep a lookout for them now and were delighted to find them again.
Borregos high on the hill above - shot with 400 mm.
Here's looking at you.
I had to change from a 400mm to a 200mm as they came down the hill and jumped onto the road!
Coming downhill. They have amazing traction on the rock.
The first one prepares to jump.
The others follow.
A little farther up the road, we stopped at a frozen waterfall. Despite all the ice features, we were comfortable in full sunlight and temperatures in the upper 60's.
A little further on, we stopped at the parking lot by Checkerboard Mesa.
Tiny waterfall by parking lot for Checkerboard Mesa.
Checkerboard Mesa outlined in snow.
After spending so much time on East Zion road, we were not likely to make it to Bryce for sunset.
Despite being in a hurry to get to Bryce, we did stop briefly at Red Canyon. While not so famous, Red Canyon looks a lot like Bryce but it faces West, giving it front light at sunset. Bryce faces East, making it primarily a sunrise location. Bryce and Red Canyon are two parts of the same sandstone formation (Charon), on the plateau East of the Sevier river.
Red Canyon near sunset.
I'd like to go back some time and try it at night front lit by the moon.
When we arrived at Bryce, I raced out to Sunset Point to try and get the sunset even though it was clearly too late. To my surprise and pleasure, I found the light of the sky and foreground to be perfectly balanced and the purple penumbra (Earth's shadow in the sky) to be a beautiful counterpoint to the red rock below.
Sunset Point at dusk.
Snow by the trail at Sunset Point.
Compared to Red Canyon, the rim of Bryce Canyon is considerably higher. All of the viewpoints are above 8,000 feet elevation. Rainbow Point (at the South end of the road) is above 9,000. This allowed snow to be present in early March and of course was the reason for coming at this time of year. The white snow outlines and highlights the red rock.
Of course, that also means it was really cold the next morning when I went out to get the sunrise. I didn't take a picture of my car's temperature display the first morning, but I can tell you, it read 7 degrees F. Ouch! That is really cold, especially as I had to have my hands out of my gloves to work the camera. The following morning, I decided to photograph the temperature display.
10 degrees Fahrenheit (not the coldest morning).
Starburst sunrise over Bryce Canyon.
To get a starburst effect, use a small aperture. I used f16 on this shot. The other challenge is balancing the light of the sky with the dark of the canyon. Next time, I will bring a graduated neutral density filter.
Snow by the rim in the morning.
Trails are pretty icy.
What makes these photos work is having some kind of focal point or story. The first photo focuses on the sunrise. Snow in the foreground places the viewer in the image in a way that a shot off the rim would not. In the third photo, leading lines of the snowy trail invite you to enter the scene.
In the photo that follows, a small section of hoodoos catches light and shadow in a way that guides the eye.
Nice light on a section of hoodoos.
This next shot is my attempt to give the grand view and still keep it interesting. What works for me is the light on the white hoodoos at several distances, allowing the eye to enter the frame. It still lacks for any negative space where the eye can rest and have contrast from the busyness of the rest of the image.
Light on white hoodoos.
Blue Jay by the rim
This is an example of finding something interesting to use as a foreground and not worrying about capturing any detail in the canyon. The viewer will want to see more. This is a good thing.
Solitary hoodoo at Aqua Canyon
Bryce is much longer than many visitors realize. Away from the main viewing areas near the entrance, you can travel South towards Rainbow Point, stopping at many other viewpoints along the way. The image above is from the viewpoint called Aqua Canyon. It is still part of the same plateau and national park.
Another view from Aqua Canyon
The most interesting formation is called Natural Bridge Arch. This shot is about 3:00 in the afternoon. As you can see, it goes into shadow pretty early. It would be more interesting fully lit around 1:30 PM but with dark storm clouds in the background to give it some contrast. Another option would be if it were front lit by the moon.
I did go back and try it at night, but the light from the town of Cannonville in the distance marred the effect.
Natural Bridge Arch
Outhouse in Paradise - Rainbow Point
I regularly take photos of outhouses in beautiful locations and use them when I lecture to indicate when it is time to take a break. This one shows just how cold it gets at over 9,000 feet. We were comfortable in windbreakers though because the air temperature was in the 60's and the sun was shining.
On the way back from snowshoeing Rainbow Point, we stopped beside the road and I photographed delicate structures in the melting ice. It reminded me again that a good composition can be found in the smallest details.
Beauty is in the details
Of course, that night I had to go out and get some night shots.
Sunset Point at night
Being obsessive, I had to drive the half hour back out to Natural Bridge Arch and try my luck there. I used my headlamp to front light it.
Natural Bridge Arch at night.
After a long day and part of the night shooting, there is nothing like a hot tub under the stars, with a crescent moon above. Few pleasures are greater than soaking in hot water under the stars. The contrast with the nearby frozen swimming pool only added to my delight. I took a shots of the pool and hot tub in the morning.
By the way, one of the attractions of Bryce at this time of year is that the Best Western Plus Grand Hotel has rooms for available for a fraction of their Summer rates. If you go, plan on bringing your own food as dining options are very limited in the Winter.
Frozen swimming pool
Sunrise our last morning was truly awesome. I couldn't fully capture it on film. It was so huge, the dynamic range so large, I couldn't do it justice. Here is a little video clip.
Sunrise from Bryce Point
After leaving Bryce, we headed over to Red Canyon and did some hiking. We had the place nearly to ourselves (that's my car in the parking lot). Another advantage of Winter travel.
Parking lot at Red Canyon
View from a trail in Red Canyon
In the final analysis, I got some good grand vistas but some of my favorite shots were of the smallest details. It just proves that the fundamentals of composition make a great shot, not the subject.
It was certainly a fun trip. We are planning to go again next year.
See you there,