How to Take Great Photos of Zion National Park

The Watchman2MelMartinA mobile device is a must-have when visiting Zion National Park: not only should you load your phone or tablet with the free Chimani Zion app to navigate around the park, but you are also going to want to have your device along to take photos of all the amazing sights you are about to see (better yet, bring a SLR camera, too).

Writer and photojournalist Mel Martin, a self-professed Chimani fan and contributor to the LifeInLoFi iPhone photography blog, is a frequent visitor to Zion who graciously shared with us these great tips on capturing the best images of this remarkably scenic park. You can read his advice below and, if you need a refresher while in Zion, we’ve added it to our Zion app, as well:

Insiders Guide to Photography at Zion National Park

You’re going to see some spectacular things at Zion, from the rivers to the rock formations. If you’re like most visitors, you’ll have your camera or smartphone with you, so let’s go over things you need to know, and places you will want to go.

First of all, Zion is a bit more restrictive than many of the National Parks. Due to the heavy load of visitors, Zion uses a tram system in the busiest months of the year to get tourists around the park. Although you can drive through the park on State Route 9, you won’t be near the most scenic places. That’s not to say Route 9 isn’t scenic. It is. Places like Checkerboard Mesa and the various canyon overlooks will thrill you. Still, the trams go to all the best spots and you’ll find the schedule in this Chimani app. The trams run from March through October, and they are free.

MelMartin1OK, let’s talk picture taking. Zion has deep canyons surrounded by high mountains. To get the deepest part of the canyons in good sunlight, you’ll want to take pictures mid-day. But there’s a problem: generally the best time for taking landscape photos is what the pros call Golden Time, sometimes it’s called Magic Hour or the Golden Hour. Lots of movies are shot during this time, just about 45 minutes before and just after sunset, and just before and about 45 minutes after sunrise.

We’ve computed Golden Time for you right in this app, along with sunset and sunrise times, moonset and moonrise, and when dusk ends and it starts to get really dark. So the midday rule should generally be broken here. Try and time your tram rides to be near Golden Time, and you’ll be much happier with your photos.

To get better lighting in deep shadow areas, consider using the HDR settings on your smartphone, or get one of the dedicated HDR apps that run on the iPhone, Android and Windows phones. If you have a DSLR, you can use the bracketing feature to take the individual exposures and combine with with software like Photomatix on your home computer.

The main canyon area is where the trams run. You can get great pictures as soon as you exit the tram, and you can walk a little or hike a bit if you prefer. Detailed maps are available in this app, of course.

From the second tram stop, check out the Towers of the Virgin. It’s just behind the Human History Museum. It photographs very well at sunrise or sunset.

My favorite view in Zion is of The Watchman, a soaring peak with the Virgin River in the foreground. This is the place I visit each time I go to Zion. Every visit is different, because the lighting and the skies are never the same.

One of the best views, and easiest spots to get to it is the bridge near Canyon Junction. It’s the third tram stop. Most people come during the day, but they are missing the spectacular lighting. At sunset the view is breathtaking. I often have the bridge to myself due to the late hour. If you’re a hiker, there’s a two mile roundtrip hike along the Watchman Trail. You don’t want to walk back in the dark, so check the tram schedules and start early enough that you’ll be at a good spot just as the light turns perfect. Maps and details are here in the Chimani app.

The fourth tram stop leads you to the Three Patriarchs,  a formation named for Jacob, Isaac and Abraham from the Old Testament. There are good views quite near the tram stop, but you’ll do better wandering around.

The ninth and last tram stop takes you to the Riverside Walk near the Temple of Sinawava. There’s a one-mile trail, but the rocks make further hiking impossible. The Virgin River is lovely here, and you can get great pictures almost any time of day because shadows are everpresent.

The Chimani Zion app details lots of viewpoints with spectacular views. For photographers, remember that lighting is about 80 percent of what makes an image memorable. It can make the difference between a good photo and one you’ll be thrilled to share with friends and family, or maybe print and hang on your walls. Get the morning or late afternoon light, and your photos will absolutely glow.

Also check some of the photo tip websites and learn about composition, and holding your camera steady.

We’ve only scratched the surface of the many places to get great photos in Zion. There’s something compelling at almost every turn. Your Chimani app has dozens of view recommendations and detailed maps.

Zion is one of the most beautiful places on earth. With your DSLR or smartphone, and some planning using this Chimani app, you can capture photos you’ll be proud of.

(Photos © Mel Martin)