On my last trip to Las Vegas I wanted to get out and shoot. I’ve been to many of the places around Vegas and I really wanted to shoot something cool. I knew that Zion National Park was about a 2.5 hour drive, so I made plans to spend a night there. I figured I could work in Vegas during the day, make it out to Zion in time for sunset, spend the night and shoot sunrise the next morning. Then make it back to Vegas in time for work that day. It was a lot of driving, but being from Florida, it’s hard to pass up if I’m out west. Plus, Sony had sent an Alpha a99 DSLR to the office for us to try out and I wanted to put it through it’s paces.
Arriving in Zion
In case you didn’t know, there’s actually only 1 hotel in Zion National Park. It’s tough to get a reservation there, so most people stay just outside the park in the town of Springdale. Personally, I’d rather stay in Springdale anyway. That’s where all of the restaurants and art galleries are. I stayed at the Hampton Inn Springdale/Zion which is perfectly located. It’s right near the shuttle stops and walking distance to some of the best places to eat and check out local galleries. Also, it’s good to know that during the peak tourist months, you can’t take your car in to the park. To help cut down on the impact we have on the area, you can only take the (free) shuttle in to the park.
Picking the Location
I knew I’d only have 1 evening to shoot in Zion so I went for one the most popular typical/touristy spots you’ll find in Zion – the iconic view of the Watchman and the Virgin River. It’s typically taken from on top of a bridge that you cross just as you enter the park. Having read about this location, I expected it to be full of photographers with tripods, but surprisingly I was the only one. A few tourists stopped by to snap a couple of point-n-shoot photos but that was about it. At first, it looked like it was going to be a dud of a sunset. Too many clouds and it appeared any magic light wasn’t happening. But right as I was about to leave, things changed and I got a nice little light show for about 3-4 minutes.
(make sure you click the photo to see it larger)
Testing Out The Sony a99
As I mentioned earlier, Sony sent an a99 to our office to test out and I’ve been wanting to get out there and shoot it. Lately, I’ve heard so many great things about the a99 so I thought it was time to see for myself. So much so, that I totally committed to it and left my D800 at home.
For starters, Sony makes the chips that go in to many of the Nikon cameras I use. So I knew the quality was going to be there. From there, it comes down to features, and that’s what’s really intrigued me about the Sony cameras. I like to get my tripod into some awkward places for shooting landscapes. Either down low, or in other areas that are hard to manipulate the rest of my body to look through the viewfinder, or even see the LCD. So the tiltable LCD definitely helped.
The electronic viewfinder is another one. Shooting outdoors wreaks havoc on your exposure. Balancing the bright sky with dark foregrounds is always something we battle. Because of the limitations in the range of highlights and shadows that our cameras capture, the image rarely looks exactly like it did when you look through the viewfinder. So, to me, the electronic viewfinder made total sense. I figure, it would save me the trouble of taking the photo, looking at the highlight clipping warnings, making adjustments, and then retaking the photo. With the electronic viewfinder, you see exactly what exposure problems you’re going to have before you take the photo and you can make adjustments right then. It’s definitely different and took some getting used to, but after shooting with it once, I’m now a fan.
The other week, I wrote about using live view to focus manually and how it’s become one of the most important features for me. I also mentioned how my D800 was, well, kinda lacking in the live view area. Every time I shoot next to a Canon shooter I’m always a little jealous of their live view, because it’s just so much more crisp and clear than mine. Well, the Sony’s live view is just as crisp as the Canon’s I’ve seen. Even zoomed in to larger magnifications, it looked sharp and was really easy to focus manually with. That’s huge for me.
And there’s lots of other little features that I thought were great. It’s definitely lighter than the other cameras I’ve held in it’s class. It’s also got built-in GPS which, in this this day and age, I can’t believe every camera doesn’t have.
What About the Zeiss Glass
Ah! The magic question. Sony and Carl Zeiss develop Lenses for Sonys digital cameras together. Zeiss glass is known to be some of the sharpest and highest quality lenses out there. Being a Nikon guy, I’ve always bought Nikon glass (except my Tamron 24-70 which I love). But I have to be honest in saying I’ve always wondered about Zeiss glass, so I thought this was a perfect chance to test it out. I mean, after all the bells & whistles, sensor size, and other features, I think most photographers are really concerned with sharpness. After shooting with them (mostly the 16-35mm), I definitely think the lenses lived up to their reputation. Were they sharp? Yes. Were they noticeably sharper than any other lenses I used? A bit, but you really had to do some pixel-peeping to see it. From a look and feel standpoint though, the lenses are awesome. They just feel better and more strongly made than any other lens I’ve held.
Sunrise The Next Day?
Earlier I mentioned my plan to shoot sunset and then sunrise the next day, and then make my way back to Vegas early enough to finish working for the day. I even had a plan for sunrise. I knew I’d shot from the bridge the night before, so I thought I’d get down lower on the water for sunrise. There were some rocks in the water I could use as foreground elements, and even use a longer shutter speed to get some movement in the water. Well, I did get up in time to shoot and it looked like it might be a great sunrise. I could see some nice cloud formations starting to happen. I made my way down to the river and was in place right when I needed to be. Sadly, there must have been a bank of clouds behind the mountains and near the horizon though, because the sun never really did it’s “thing” and was mostly flat for the entire hour around sunrise. I was pretty happy with my photo from the evening before so all is good, but I would have loved to see some better light happening with this different view.
I even took my shoes off, and made my way out into the water so I could really get a nice foreground without any obstructions. But all I got was a cool iPhone photo showing $5000 of camera gear only a couple feet away from getting soaked 😉
I Love Zion!
I absolutely love Zion! If you’ve never been you need to go. Not just for photography either. I think overall it’s a great place to see and experience. I’ve been there twice now, and each time only for 1 day. After this past trip, I made up my mind that within the next couple of years, I’m going to get out there and actually spend a few days in the area. I want to hike the Narrows, maybe even make it out to the Subway, and hopefully take one of the other many hikes that are around there. I’m tellin’ ya – if you have the opportunity, make a trip to Zion. You’ll love it!
Thanks for stopping by today. Have a good one!
Hey Matt.. Thanks for that informative post. I was wondering if the a99 suffers from the same long exposure “white spots” as the D800. With my long exposures on my D800 I’ve had to turn on the NR feature which is really annoying especially if I’m shooting a 30min exposure (plus 30min of NR for which my camera is out of commission).
If you still have the a99 can you fire off some long exposure night shots? Or if you have more info on the D800 “white spots” I’d love to hear about it.
Hey Jeff. I’ve actually never heard of or seen the problem. I never shoot anything close to 30 minutes. Any long exposure water stuff is usually 60-120 second max. Any night stuff I do, I want the starts to be pinpoint sharp so they’re not typically over 20-30 seconds.
So, unfortunately I can’t talk to the issue as this is the first I’ve heard about it.
I love Zion! Unfortunately, I’ve been there 6 days and I still don’t have a shot of the Watchman that I’m happy with. I’m flying out 5 days before Photoshop World and I’m spending 4 nights at Zion. A few days in the Narrows, the Subway if I can secure a last minute permit, and maybe Kanarra Creek Canyon if I have any time left over. Then off to Vegas for PSW!
Good luck! Show me some photos at PSW! 🙂
Matt, just wondering how you think the Sony compares with the Nikon D800. I’ve always been a Nikon girl and I’ve been looking at the Nikon D800e as something for me someday in the future. But I know the file sizes are huge and I’ve been hearing good things about the Sony. And I am interested in the good focusing with the Live View. This is probably too large a question in the comments section, but maybe you could do a post sometime in the future just sharing your thoughts on this. I’d love to know what you think about the Sony since you used it exclusively there in Zion. Amazing and beautiful sunset. Just totally love what you captured there. Love Zion. Wonderful memories of the workshop last year with Bill Fortney!
Hey there! Yeah, I wish I got to spend more time in Zion with you guys last year. Anyway, I like the Sony a lot. If you’re not too invested in Nikon, I’d definitely consider it. The a99 is probably more on par with the D600. The D800 is a beast. I love it. I love the detail and size I’m able to work with. However, that all comes at a price. I’ve absolutely decimated my hard drive space over the last year. I’m always low on disk space now and I find I need to buy larger hard drives to accommodate.
As for the image quality, well Sony makes the chips for Nikon so they’re pretty much the same. Live View kicks Nikons ass though. It’s like a mini HD screen on the back of the Sony, while Nikons is a pixelated mess, especially in lower light around sunrise/sunsets.
So… if you’ve already got Nikon lenses that may be your best bet. If you’re willing to sell your stuff or not very invested in Nikon, I’d definitely consider the Sony. I’m really happy with it and I’ll continue to shoot with it until Sony asks for it back 😉
Good luck! Hope to see you at another workshop soon!
Thanks Matt. Great info about the Sony. I’m thinking on all of it. I loved reading your post here. And I totally remember such great fun shooting Bryce at sunrise back in the fall 2012 with Bill, RC, you & everyone else – so much fun – amazing sunrise. I want a full frame for my next camera most definitely so I’m exploring all these possibilities. And I totally love what I learned from you here on your blog about the Live View and focusing. Love your landscape photography – it’s magnificent and beautiful.
Gorgeous sunset, Matt! Your landscapes are always beautiful! See you in Vegas…
If you ever do a Photoshop World in LV in the spring, the tourist season hasn’t started and you can use your own vehicle. I did that a while back.
Our spring show is always on the East coast, but you’re right. It’s definitely nice to be there on the off season and drive right in. That shuttle can take a while 😉 Thanks!
Loved your account. We just came back from a trip of the “grand circle” of parks in Utah, Arizona and Nevada, including Zion. Take the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava and walk the Riverside trail to the end along the Virgin River. Then you can continue through the river if you dare. Took this photo right at the end of the Riverside trail. (http://smu.gs/18tlwQF)
Great story Matt! (As always). Like that you share details about the place too, and not just technicalities. It gives the whole “picture”. Thank you for sharing.
Next time you go, just after you hit the tunnel heading east on the Zion/Mt Carmel highway, you can hike the canyon overlook trail. At .5 miles, it’s an easy walk to a great view! When you’re done with that, go into Pine Creek Canyon. It’s a short (permit-required) slot canyon with 5-6 rappels, sometimes into standing pools of water (a dry-bag is a must!) and ends at the switchbacks. For wildlife, the eastern section of the park is great for desert bighorns. I was there with my family in June, and went for my own evening walk on the same Pa’Rus trail. I also made a point of shooting the hoodoo that Scott Kelby used in his first “Digital Photograhy” book. ZNP is an incredible place that deserves at least a week’s worth of exploring.
Awesome! Thanks Eric!
Great story, thanks for sharing! Next time you go, check out The Desert Pearl in Springdale. We stay there every time we go to Zion, it’s an awesome hotel.
I will. I tried this past time but they were booked.
Thanks for sharing those Great Photos! I really like the sunset photo. I agree with you on get out to Zion. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, but never made it down to Zion. Shame on me! My wife and I have decided we need to get out there and spend some time. We’re only a 12 hour drive away. Thanks again for sharing the photos and the camera critique! I had a Sony D-717. It wasn’t a dSLR, but I got fantastic pictures with it and it had the electronic viewfinder … I loved it. However, in taking a photo in a crowed area someone smacked my arm and the camera went flying. It was never the same after that. That’s when I got my first dSLR.
Have a great week!
You too Dennis!
Does the water flowing around your tripod cause any sort of vibration issues when shooting with longer shutter times? Was wondering about that and ocean waves/tripod on sand. Thanks, great pics.
Hey Dave. The water didn’t seem to make a difference. It wasn’t a very strong current so that probably helped. Plus, I made sure I dug the tripod legs into the ground pretty good.
That said, ocean waves and having your tripod on the sand on the beach has definitely ruined photos for me. It all depends on how powerful the wave is, how sturdy your tripod is, etc…