I just spent ten days photographing Zion National Park, and I saw something that has become increasingly common in the past few year—photographers wandering around with pages of photographs printed off the Internet. Presumably, they were on the hunt to recreate images they had seen taken by other photographers.
I know that some photographers might view this as creative thievery. Personally, I don't buy into this notion. Some people simply want to get the "classic" shots, and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with this. It happens to be a great way for beginning photographers to learn the ropes. Besides, we've all done it, to some extent or another—how many of us have photographed the same view of Delicate Arch or Half Dome in Yosemite, all made famous by previous generations of photographers?
But at some point you need to find your own vision, and break free of the ghosts of the past. Photograph what inspires you, and learn to put your own personal stamp on your work. As your vision emerges, your work will achieve a coherence that will become increasingly clear to your viewers.
I spent two days wandering the famous Virgin River Narrows, doing my best to follow my vision. I didn't try to be at the "right place at the right time" to get the classic shots, which have been photographed more times than any of us care to imagine. Instead, I reacted to convergences of light and spatial flow. Certain things catch my eye—shapes and curves, reflected light, a progression of compositional elements leading the eye into a scene—so I let these things guide my photography.
I've been eyeing the image above for two years now. It's no real surprise why—the simple, unifying shape of the curving river attracted me like a moth to flame. Last year, the cottonwoods hadn't turned enough to make the shot work. This year, they were ablaze with full autumn color. I scouted this location on my first day into the Narrows, and determined the best time to be there to get optimal lighting conditions. On my second trip I returned, ready to capture the scene while it was bathed in beautiful light reflected off of parts of the canyon walls that were in the sunlight. A wide-angle perspective allowed me to capture the full sweep of the glowing curve, but I was careful to exclude any sunlit parts of the canyon, as they would create too much contrast in the scene. I used a polarizer filter to remove some glare from wet surfaces, but I turned the filter only partially because I wanted to retain the reflections in the water. An ISO setting of 400 allowed me to select a shutter speed that would blur the water, but not to the point where I lost detail in the white rapids altogether. Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 24-104mm lens (@24mm), polarizer filter, ISO 400, f/16, 1 second.
In the end, I created images that, although they may not cause people to catch their breath the way many of the classic shots do, are a product of my vision and no one else's. I doubt that anyone will ever walk around the Narrows with printouts of these images, but I guess that's a good thing!