Terra Galleria Photography

Five ways to photograph the Zion Narrows (and other places) without people

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The Zion Narrows are amongst the most unique hikes in America. For details, refer to my post: National Parks Photo Spot #10: Zion Narrows (whole series here).

The downside of accessibility and awesomeness is popularity. Compared to the canyons mentioned in the previous posts, the Zion Narrows can feel downright crowded. For photography, this is a problem, because the canyon is the “trail”. Yet, on a summer visit, I was able to make photographs without people in them, and even find some measure of solitude. Here are five ways to do so.

1. Hike further

If you want to see fewer people, hiking further always works. The Narrows are no exception. There, the threshold appears to be the Orderville Junction, which is only about 1.5 miles from the end of Riverside Walk. Most people turn around here, so if you continue, you’ll find considerably fewer people. Even at the Imlay Rock, only about 0.5 miles from the Orderville Junction, hiking traffic was sporadic.

2. Start early or stay late

During the summer, you cannot drive your car into Zion Canyon, but instead you must use the park’s free shuttle. The system has been great for relieving traffic congestion, but limits the day hike window. In the summer, the first shuttle starts at 6:00am from the visitor center. The last one leaves from the Temple of Sinawava at 9:15pm (schedule here). When traveling up canyon, I’ve noticed that the shuttles before 7:30am are quite empty.

The last shuttles are quite full, but it doesn’t mean that day hikers stay late in the Narrows, as the setting is more intimidating than regular trails. Hiking back from the Imlay Rock at around 6:45pm, I was rewarded by the experience of having the whole Narrows by myself. I didn’t see a single other person until the trailhead at the bus stop. I certainly had to work fast, but I still had enough time to make long-exposure photographs at several spots, and catch the 9:00pm bus – leaving myself a bit of a margin.

3. Photograph close-ups

Even when there is an almost continuous stream of hikers in the middle of the stream, if you photograph only one side of the canyon, you will find that most will have the courtesy to walk behind you.

4. Use a very long exposure

Sometimes, the light dictates you to photograph at a particular time of the day. If people in the scene are moving, they will not register in an exposure which is much longer than the time they stayed in the scene.

5. Blend multiple exposures

If you cannot use a shutter speed slow enough (for instance because it is quite bright and you forgot your ND filter) and waiting for all people to clear out from your picture takes forever, you can turn to Photoshop. It’s my last resort option, but at least, there is a way which doesn’t require too much work.

Erasing people from a single frame with the clone tool can be extremely time-consuming because you have to re-draw the background behind them. My preferred technique consists of using multiple exposures with the camera on a tripod and then blend the images. You just need to take enough pictures that each spot is free of people in at least one picture.

This example uses three pictures, and combines the right of picture 1, the middle of picture 2, and the left of picture 3. In Photoshop, layer the pictures, align them, then use the eraser tool on the people in relevant layers. It works like magic! You can also try File > Scripts > Statistics > Median (Photoshop Extended or CC required) to do the same automatically, but in my experience this works well only if you have at least a dozen pictures.

Although the examples in this post are from the Narrows, where it is more difficult to exclude people from the landscape than on regular trails, the ideas are applicable to other locations as well.

Zion Canyons: Part 5 of 5. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

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