Variations of the photo above have probably been captured more times than any one spot in the entire Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And for good reason. Together the ribbons of water, the tarnish on the cliff and the colorful leaves of fall have all the elements of a dream photograph. But each time I return home and begin editing, my mind starts spinning and I think, “I could have done more. Maybe if I moved an inch to the left I could have made the composition more balanced… Moved back and given the tree more breathing room… Opened the shutter for another 2 seconds…”.
This last trip through Coyote Gulch I thought I nailed it. I composed three different angles, shot my favorite 2-second exposure length, and as I said before, I had the brilliant color of the tree. How could anything possibly go wrong?
Well, technically speaking, nothing did go wrong. It’s just… well, this location is just too damn perfect! And the thing with photography is it’s all about perfection. You see a shot, think about it, plan it and then execute it. Sure, there’s lots of shooting-on-the-fly that goes on, but I can guarantee more than 80 percent of all the magical shots that you see in Outdoor Photographer have been thoroughly thought out. Now I’m not saying that every last detail has to be sussed out in order for a shot to be made – of course with photography, adaptability is key – but keeping a watchful eye on the weather, knowing the time of year the colors change, etc. can greatly improve your odds of making that once-in-a-lifetime shot. And doing it again and again and again.
The shot above is far from a once-in-a-lifetime shot, but it has all the elements of a solid image – great lines, smooth motion and amazing color! Now I didn’t necessarily pre-visualize this shot, but I did make a conscious decision to go into Coyote Gulch when the colors were changing.
Although I have absolutely no qualms with backpacking alone, I still prefer to explore with friends. And that’s when Coyote popped up. I had two choices; either take Shane, James, Jacqui and Will rappelling into the Egypt slots and explore Llewellyn Canyon, or head into Coyote Gulch where I knew the colors would be firing! Because none of these four had ever been to Escalante before, I decided to go with the “color-firing” trip instead of the 300-foot-rappel trip.
I have been in Coyote Gulch five times – the first time was when I was 10 – but it has only been the last two times that I have been through the canyon as a professional photographer. The first time I shot the falls above was in the middle of the day. There was a harsh highlight on the right flank that I had to avoid and being the impatient, fledgling photojournalist that I was, I only gave it my 2-minute best go. But when I came home and started editing, I immediately regretted my haste. The image by many standards was “gorgeous,” but by mine, it was far from perfect!
Going back again, this time with the knowledge of the mistakes made before, I planned ahead. I knew the colors were going to be golden and I had the low light of late fall and evening going for me too. I just knew it all the elements were aligning. All I had to do was press the shutter and wait…