How to Take Unique Photos of the Zion Narrows

Over the last few years of working as a landscape photographer, I’ve developed a bit of a rhythm for my process. When something catches my eye instead of immediately reaching for my camera and thinking about what settings to use I like to take a step back. I ask myself why this particular subject caught my attention and how can I best capture it to share with others?

In this article I’ll walk you through my process for visualizing and capturing one of my photographs from the Zion Narrows in Zion National Park. This process is not specific to one particular image. You can use it any time you take out your camera to capture something you want to share.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

The Narrows

If you have ever had the chance to visit Zion National Park, then you have likely visited an area called The Narrows. 

The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. This gorge, with walls a thousand feet tall and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide, is one of the most popular areas in Zion National Park.

National Park Website – Zion National Park

The Plan

Map of the Zion Narrows section of Zion National Park

The idea for this hike started out as just a “gee this will be fun, but we should take our camera gear in case we see something neat.” However, these days I like to have a little more of a plan.

To start, when you are considering spending time in the Narrows in February, you need to rent waterproof waders and special shoes with neoprene socks to keep warm in the icy waters. Next, if you are planning to take camera equipment you need to keep it dry, hence a dry bag. The good news is you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to buy all the gear, there are many outfitters near the park who can help you find the right equipment for your needs.

While getting our waders, shoes, socks, hiking sticks, and dry bags we also asked the guides for recommendations for photo ops. The consensus was to make our way up to the area known as “Wall Street”. Known for being one of the narrowest sections of the canyon, the folks we talked to suggested it would be one of the more photogenic sections.

Now, with a map and at least one goal in mind, we set off into the Narrows.

The Photograph

Hiker kneeling in the water of Zion Narrows looking at the orange canyon walls in the distance.

Define the Subject

If you have had a chance to visit a slot canyon before, you know that the light dances off the walls of the canyon in unexpected, and beautiful, ways. However, it is the somewhat randomness of the light that makes photographing in canyons difficult. You just need to be patient and keep exploring.

On our walk I was captivated by the trees growing from the tiny ledges high up on the canyon walls. I kept thinking how cool and indomitable nature can be. Here were these trees growing in what seemed like thin air when you consider the lack of soil. I made a note that no matter what I wanted to capture at least one image of a tree hanging on to a sheer rock wall.

As we approached one particularly narrow section of the canyon I saw these two little trees on the light rock right down the middle of the slot. Here was something.

Picture of trees clinging to canyon walls within Zion Narrows - Zion National Park

There were a couple of things I found interesting about this particular area. The first was the trees growing out of a sheer rock slab. The second was how the hikers added a sense of scale to the scene. I started to consider these two elements as the subject of my photograph.

Picture of hikers making their way through the Zion Narrows - Zion National Park

Compose the Frame

After defining the subject, I turned my attention to the composition. The composition of the photograph is just as important as knowing the subject. How you compose your photo depends on what story you want to tell. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I settled on a vertical (portrait) orientation to show the height of the canyon walls, the tree perched precariously on the rock wall, and people hiking to portray the scale of the landscape.

From the following bts photo you can see that the trees are lost to the rest of the frame. But that’s ok, because in order to find a good vantage point, you need to walk around a bit.

Stream flowing through Zion Narrows. Zion National Park.

The next part of the composition was finding a location from which to bring my concept to life. As you can see from the following photo, I found a nice boulder upon which to sit my tripod to dial in the composition and figure out camera settings. 

Photographer kneeling behind boulder in a stream photographing a section of Zion Narrows in Zion National Park.

Take your photo

This is where the camera settings come into play. Here is the photo straight from the camera.

Final composition, straight from camera, featuring hikers walking through the stream amid the towering walls of Zion Narrows.

Edit to Match Your Vision

Final composition, and edit, featuring hikers walking through the stream amid the towering walls of Zion Narrows.

Editing your photo is the final piece of the puzzle. Editing allows you to tell the story of that moment. For my workflow, I like to start by remembering the subject of the photo and working to highlight that to the audience.

Starting with the image as recorded in the camera you’ll notice that it looks flat and dull. Nothing stands out about this scene. By lightening and darkening areas I set out to create some contrast, which tends to help draw audience attention.

Comparing the final version to the original you’ll notice a few changes:

  • The final image is brighter and has more contrast. Therefore it is not as flat.
  • I lightened the river, people, and background wall to highlight those areas of the photograph.
  • Bright sections of photographs are the areas your eyes are first drawn. This is an effective technique to use when highlighting your subject.
  • Finally, the finished version is more vibrant. This reflects the actual tones in the rock wall more accurately than the flat look from the camera.

In Closing

I know I skipped steps in the editing process, but that is because editing is a matter of personal taste. Also, the purpose of this article was to walk you through my process from seeing something interesting to capturing it to share with others.

In closing I hope you enjoyed this article on photographing the Zion Narrows and it encouraged you to think about the process you use to capture your next image.

Thank you so much for visiting. Until next time, I’ll see you on the trail.

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