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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)
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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.

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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 😉

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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!

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