From time to time, you may find yourself with a rare opportunity to do some photography under unique circumstances. Taking advantage of the opportunity may require some special equipment and/or preparation. By doing your homework in advance you can be sure that you do what’s needed to make it all pay off.
I can best illustrate what I’m talking about by citing an example.
In the first half of May, I spent a week-and-a-half in the American southwest, including parts of six days at Zion National Park in Utah. I was last at Zion in 1998 and one thing I was committed to doing on this return trip was hike—and photograph—at least part of the Virgin River Narrows. I’d never hiked the Narrows before, but I’d heard a good deal about it over the years and seen plenty of images and I knew that this was something I wanted to do. Among the tidbits of information I’d heard about the hike was that it involved a considerable amount of river hiking. While I’ve done more than my share of photography in and around waterways, I’d never dealt with water above knee-level. I was certain to face higher water than that in the Narrows; this would not be an ordinary photo excursion and that’s why advance preparation was necessary.
The first thing I did was attempt to determine whether the hike was viable at the time of the year—early May—that corresponded with my planned trip. I engaged a number of on-line (and traditional) sources and determined that it probably would be doable, but that it was no slam dunk. The Virgin River runs highest—due to the snowmelt fed nature of the waterway—in springtime. If the snowmelt is particularly large or if there’s been a heavy rain, water levels and current strength might make the hike impossible. Several sources confirmed that, if the hike was possible, some kind of dry suit, and undergarment insulation, would be recommended as the water temperature could be expected to be in the neighborhood of 45 degrees F. When hiking the Narrows from the bottom up, as a day hike (as I was planning to do), I learned that one can expect to be in the river at least 60% of the time and much of that time would involve dealing with water above knee high during a typical day in the first half of May. Based on several sources I consulted, I fully anticipated being in the Narrows for six or seven hours. Being unable to remain dry would mean a miserable experience at best and, depending on the specific weather conditions, downright dangerous. So I knew in advance that this was an issue that I would have to address.
The photographic-specific considerations were equally compelling. Everyone I spoke to strongly recommended dry bagging all delicate photographic equipment (i.e. camera, lenses, accessories) to protect them in case the ever present river water proved to be a complication. Further, ambient light levels during good shooting times would all but necessitate a tripod—not that I ever shoot landscapes without a tripod anyway—to obtain decent images. That presented another issue, since the potential for dealing with an equipment-carrying system that would support the tripod was a problem in and of itself, given the potential for dealing with water well above waist-level. Furthermore, a walking stick was highly recommended by all of my sources for retaining balance when dealing with strong currents and probing water depth. Having an arm free to deal with the stick meant that the tripod couldn’t be carried by hand.
All in all, based on my inquiries, there were a lot of important considerations to deal with. I then went about trying to deal with all of the issues.
About two months before the start of the trip, based on an on-line recommendation, I contacted an outfitter in Springdale, Utah, just outside the park and explained my concerns, asking for advice. They recommended reserving a full dry suit, given how high the water level was likely to be. If it turned out that water levels were lower than expected and would definitely not reach waist levels, my reservation would be changed to dry pants only. Either way, it would be imperative to stay dry, I was told, given the temperature that could be expected. A dry bag for my equipment was imperative and they would be able to supply that as well. They couldn’t help much when it came to my tripod concerns, but they were sure that we could figure something out when the time came. I also concluded that I needed to rent the gear for two days because I wanted to be in the river as close to dawn as possible (sunrise was at 6:30 when I would be there). It was also suggested to me that I plan the hike for a weekday, not a weekend. The Narrows is one of the most, if not the single most, popular hikes at Zion and the park is more crowded on the weekends. Given that I wanted to do a lot of photography it was suggested that I avoid crowds as much as possible. Besides, sunlight would penetrate the canyon walls by late morning and would be a constant presence until late afternoon. I needed to have the gear back to the outfitter no later than 7 PM on the evening of the hike, so I needed to maximize the even light of the morning to the extent possible. Given the difficulty of dealing with the logistics of picture taking in the Narrows (the constant removing and stowing of gear in dry bags in a pack, with the need to secure the tripod, etc.) the going would be very sluggish. Again, I had to hit the river as early in the day as possible. Besides, I’d never worn a dry suit before. It would be helpful to go through the process of trying on all of the components of the dry gear on the day before, as a kind of practice run. That way, the morning of the hike, I’d be able to hit the ground running…so to speak. Finally, based on the recommendations of the outfitters, I purchased two layers of non-cotton undergarments to wear below the dry suit from an REI outlet in the Chicago area. The undergarments would allow me to stay warm despite the river water temperatures. The dry suit, the outfitter informed me, would keep me dry but wasn’t insulated. The undergarments would be critical to my staying warm in the cold water.
Finally, I was given links to Websites that tracked the river current and height, according to U.S. Geological Service gauges. In the three or four weeks before my departure I tracked the daily measurements. About a week before my trip, the water level rose markedly and the National Park Service closed the Narrows to hikers for several days. But the water levels began to fall, even more steeply than they had risen, and the Narrows was re-opened four days before I arrived in Zion and about a week before my planned hike. I called the outfitter five days before my planned hike date and was told that there was still water that had to be traversed that would be nearly neck-high on me. There were some reports of people having to swim through deep pools in certain areas. I was concerned, not about myself, but—of course—about my photo gear. I was particularly worried about taking my photo backpack—which has a dedicated tripod carrying system as part of its construction—on the hike. If I had to wade through deep water, the contents of the pack would be protected in dry bags, but the pack itself would probably be ruined and the tripod might be compromised. I had no idea what I would do about this, but was determined to find a solution that would deal with the very high water contingency.
These were all my considerations going into the hike and it ended up playing out pretty much to script. Early on the afternoon of the day before the hike I went to the outfitter and picked up the dry gear. I was given a very brief demonstration of how to put it all on. I also selected some dry bags and, with the permission of the staff at the outfitter, I was able to try to see if my photo gear—including the tripod—could be accommodated by one of their backpacks. It took some adaptation on my part, but I was able to rig up a system that would allow me to secure the tripod in a rented pack. I wrapped the tripod in a heavy trash bag and devised a way to lash it securely to the pack. It wasn’t quite ideal, but it was pretty close and it was definitely the best possible solution available since it would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about destroying my own pack. Further, I got word that the water levels were continuing to fall and I probably wouldn’t have to deal with anything much deeper than waist level. I began to think that this all might work out pretty well. Unless I took a header in the river—a distinct possibility, I was told, because footing was always iffy and the current remained very strong in some places where the river had to be forded—my gear, the backpack and my tripod—would probably remain dry.
That turned out to be pretty much the case. You can see some of the photos I managed to take during the hike (I was in the river for roughly seven hours all told that day). The deepest water I encountered was slightly above waist-level. My gear—including the pack and the tripod—remained dry (except when I set up the tripod in the river itself—when I knew that the tripod feet would get a bit wet, as they had many times before). I never fell. I did have to deal with some extremely fast moving water, but I came through it just fine. Despite some bone-chilling water temperatures, I was never cold due to the rented dry suit and my decision to wear several layers of thermal undergarments, the neoprene socks that I rented, and the special canyoneering shoes that were part of the rental package. The walking stick was, it turned out, a must.
While the special aspects of taking (technically) high quality photos in the Narrows made the experience occasionally difficult, I couldn’t be happier that I had experienced the wonders of the hike. And the only reason that it went as well as I possibly could have hoped under the circumstances is that I had thoroughly planned for a variety of contingencies…and because I admittedly caught some breaks.
Don’t let great photo opportunities pass you by because you weren’t ready for unorthodox circumstances. Taking advantage of these occasions demands advanced preparation. Be prepared and give yourself—and your photography—a chance to bathe in the fountain of opportunity.
(If you’re interested in reading/seeing more from my trip to Utah and Nevada, please visit my blog.)
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.