How The West Was Won

The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers them from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest and filling out my portfolio in those areas of the state.
My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun, one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.
The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!

The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region, as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth, burdened by the weight of time, was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that does justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.

Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.

No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.

The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Arizona workshops you can find complete details at this link. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my workshop groups and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Award Winning Bird Photography

Chronicles of Nature

Nathaniel Smalley speaking at Audubon Arizona in Phoenix on the topic of Award Winning Bird Photography.

Recently I was requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.

Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), and others.

Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:

– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –

Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.

Great Blue Heron – This bird in flight image utilizes action. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-5.6 | 1/1600 sec. @ 400mm

To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.

  •  -This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
  •  -It has been shared to every corner of the world.
  •  -Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
  •  -Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked models.

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – Iso 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link)I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise!

Songs Of Spring | American Redstart

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

  Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.

Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally . This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.

Brown Pelican - This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens - Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in describing it:

  • 1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
  • 2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
  • 3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.

Sunset Salute | Great Blue Heron

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron on the right and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.

That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.

Sunset Magic | Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm

Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.

Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves  that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler – This image utilizes habitat & light (soft). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 800 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 850mm

Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.

American Robin – This image utilizes nostalgia & habitat. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/200 sec. @ 600mm

This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image below is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your father when he’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.

Sea Lion & Cormorant – This image utilizes friendship & habitat. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

The Height Of Audacity | Elk and Magpie

Elk & Magpie – This image utilizes friendship & humor. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 400 | f-4| 1/350 sec. @ 600mm

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.

The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This image is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did in 2012, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.

Sandhill Crane -

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image.  After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Review: Naneu Adventure K5-v2 Hiking/Photo Pack

Chronicles of Nature

Field Test of Naneu’s Adventure K5-II at White Sands, New Mexico

I recently took my Naneu Adventure K5-v2 hiking pack out on the road for a field test. My destination? New Mexico’s White Sand Dunes under a full moon. In this particular Park you have two options to access the Park outside of normal hours of operation;

1). Pay the Park Rangers to access the Park after or before its normal hours of operation at the rate of $50 per hour.

2). Pack your gear in to one of their remote campsites and spend the night in the Dunes to experience sunset, the night sky and sunrise.

I chose option two as I wanted to take full advantage of my time in the Park and get away from the casual tourists on the main road. In packing my gear I need to be prepared for a 50 degree temperature swing with highs in the 80’s during the day, and lows dropping all the way down to the 30’s at the coolest point of the night. I also had to consider the possibility of rain in the forecast. Unfortunately the weather was uncooperative on this trip, but I was still able to enjoy the versatility of my new pack. Heavy rain showers blew in one of the days I was there, but the Adventure K5-v2’s rain cover kept all my gear dry. Besides my camera equipment I was also carrying a 2-man backpacking tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, rain jacket, change of clothes, water and food for two or three days. Fully loaded my pack weighed over 50lbs, and distributed the weight exceptionally well. While it certainly isn’t weightless, I easily could have carried more gear if needed.

The 80 liter capacity the Adventure K5-v2 offers more space than any other technical, hiking camera pack available. I was pleased to find that its internal frame and ventilated, padded back support was designed with photographers in mind. The spacious main compartment can be accessed from both sides, as well as the top and the bottom. The numerous external pouches and pockets afforded me plenty of additional space to stow a wide variety of items and keep them readily accessible. I like to always have a designated location to store my wallet, keys and smart phone on these trips, the waist straps pockets were perfect for this. An interior pouch on the left side of the pack is designed to hold a large volume water bladder and one elastic pouch on either side perfectly accommodated two Nalgene bottles allowing me to transport plenty of water even in a desert climate. There is a built in system that secured my tripod and didn’t allow it to shift around or hit me in the head.

Wanderlust | New Mexico

There were a few features that really sold me on this pack, but perhaps the most notable was the removable camera pod. The Adventure K5-v2 has a dedicated center compartment that fits a separate camera pod for storage of all your fragile camera equipment on long treks. This center compartment is accessible from either side of the pack and is fully collapsible once the camera pod is removed. The pod’s padded interior easily provides storage for my pro DSLR with my 70-200mm lens attached, spare batteries/memory cards, filters, cable release, flash and three additional lenses. The pod’s shoulder straps allowed me to use it as a day pack for shorter hikes and leave the main body of the Adventure K5-v2 behind at my base camp. The pod also clips to the front of the Adventure K5-v2 allowing it to be transported attached on your chest and quickly accessed without having to remove the hiking pack from your back for shooting on the go.

My initial response to this pack is nearly all positive. I will say that if you are not going on an extended, multiple day trek this bag may be more than you need, however that is not to say the Adventure K5-v2 couldn’t be used on single day trips as well. I advised Naneu that I’d like to see the hydration bladder pouch be designed in future production to be a zippered compartment as opposed to a sleeve style pocket. They have taken that feedback and are researching what can be done to address that request. I noticed some shift of the chest strap at times, but have experienced that with other packs as well, so that might just be the nature of life on the trail with 50lbs of gear on your back.

Naneu Adventure K5-II Camera Pod

One of the common complaints made by photographers looking for a good hiking pack is that there are few technical, hiking packs designed to properly carry camera equipment, and camera backpacks are certainly not designed to offer balanced weight distribution for your body over long distances, much less transport camping gear. Naneu left no stone unturned in the design of this pack and the result is an intelligently crafted pack in a class by itself. The Adventure K5-v2 is the perfect fusion of a top of the line camera bag and a technical hiking pack in one. If you’re in the market for a new, large volume, hiking pack and looking to transport your camera gear in a safe, secure way this pack is the answer. If you choose to order one be sure to mention my name at checkout to receive 15% off your order and free shipping.

Visit Naneu’s website  for more info.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.


Shoot When The Light Is Right

Chronicles of Nature

One of the things that draws me back to Zion National Park time and again is its famed 9 mile round trip hike in to ‘The Subway’. Not for the faint of heart, this trek has no actual trail… the stream bed is your guide. It is better described as ‘bouldering’ in my mind, as you spend more time picking your path scrambling over rocks, boulders and trees than you do walking on anything that resembles a ‘trail’ in the literal sense of the word. If you’ve never done this hike before you may end up about half way through the journey beginning to doubt yourself, thinking that you must have lost your way. I believe the National Park Service advised a six to eight hour hike time, even if you move at a good pace and are physically fit. Though it takes a lot of commitment, the scenery along the way and the destination are well worth every step. I began this particular trip in the pre-dawn light. In rather a hasty manner I set off, eager to get there before the sun got up too high. My goal was to get in to ‘The Subway’ early enough to shoot in the morning light as well as making use of the afternoon reflective sun. As I made my way I was continually struck by the beauty surrounding me on all sides. There were three shots in the first mile or so that I really wanted to set up for and shoot, but in my haste I passed them up. By the time I was into the second mile of my journey the sun was starting to play off the canyon walls and I was seeing the sweetest bounce light on the pools of water in my path. I paused in thought for a moment and realized that there was no way I could ignore the images I was seeing, despite my former ambitions. I resolved that even if it meant that I missed shooting ‘The Subway’ in the light I had hoped for, that I could not miss the opportunities that were staring me straight in the face.

Taking advantage of my iphone to document the occasion…

I didn’t make it real far before I saw another pool with flaming orange reflections lighting up the surface of the water from the sunlight bouncing off the canyon’s red rock walls. Out came my gear and I was rewarded with a stunning image.  This pattern continued for the remaining three and a half miles of my hike, each time I saw a setting where the light was right I took my time to capture the scene. Finally I reached Archangel Falls and knew my destination was very close. Just around the bend from Archangel Falls there is a channel in the rock of the stream bed where the water rushes through, and just beyond that is ‘The Subway’. Seeing this rock channel I decided to capture an image of it. I set up my camera on the tripod and took a few steps away towards the river bank to set down my hiking pack. No sooner had I moved away than I heard a horrifying ‘SMACK’ sound. I turned around to see that my tripod had fallen over, my camera was in the water and my 24-70mm lens completely snapped in half! At first I just stood there in utter disbelief. I soon collected myself and quickly ran to retrieve my damaged gear from the river. Waves of disbelief continued to crash over me as I stared at the broken pieces in my hands, and then it hit me… What if I hadn’t stopped to shoot all those images along the way in when the light was perfect? I would have had nothing to show for my journey! Just as suddenly as the feelings of frustration had overtaken me, a sudden deep feeling of thankfulness replaced it. Contemplating all this with a grateful heart, I took the memory card out of the camera body and slowly returned my broken equipment to the hiking pack. I comforted myself with the fact that I’ve always carried insurance on my gear so replacing it was not a problem. I stood up and walked the last couple hundred feet into ‘The Subway’, thinking as I went that on the bright side it meant I would need to come back in the fall to do it again an that is exactly what I plan to do. Was I sad as I stood inside ‘The Subway’ without my real camera equipment to capture this iconic location, of course I was, to say anything else would be an outright lie… but even more so I was thankful that I had taken the time to shoot when the light was right. I encourage you to do the same.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel Smalley

Sanctuary | Zion National Park

Archangel Falls, just one of the many scenes that make it all worth it in the end…

Thoughts From Zion

Chronicles of Nature


May 1st of this year found me on the road traversing the canyons of Zion National Park.  Of all the National Parks in the Southwestern United States this is certainly one of my personal favorites. At nearly every turn there is another view as breathtaking as the one before, if not even more spectacular. I spent a total of five days in the park, with the first two days spent shooting from a number of different locations. Ultimately what I wanted to do was hike ‘The Narrows’ however warmer spring temperatures caused increased snow melt in the higher elevations and therefore more flow in the Virgin River below. Each day I would check to see whether or not the Park Rangers were allowing people in, only to be disappointed when I learned the water level was still above 150 cubic feet per second (considered too dangerous to allow even the brave hikers to attempt the raging waters). Finally on my third day the water volume in ‘The Narrows’ receded just below the cut off point to 149 cubic feet per second and I was able to embark on what I can honestly call one of the most incredible experiences of my life.   While this trek straight up the Virgin River into the canyon tends to be more popular in the later months when the water level is diminished, I relished the opportunity to see it during a season that few get to experience. The water was a frigid 40 degrees that day and most of the way I found myself working against powerful currents in water up to my waist (and even higher in a few spots). I pushed onward, enthralled by the majesty of the canyon walls that enclosed me on either side and rose towering into the sky. The sound of the river, as loud as it was, had a certain silence to it, and oddly enough a very calming effect. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I encountered anyone else and I felt incredibly privileged to enjoy this experience with only the American Dippers for company, who were busy bobbing under the water in search of their next meal. I spent the entire day up in The Narrows and only the encroaching darkness forced me to turn around and ignore the canyon calling out to me and beckoning me to walk around just one more bend… If you have the opportunity to hike The Narrows in the early spring months (April through May and even into June) I strongly advise a wet suit to keep yourself completely dry as well as a waterproof camera bag for your gear. One spill on this trek and your dripping camera will let you know that your expedition has been cut short and all those treasured files lost!

Be safe and get off the beaten path, you’ll be glad you did!

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel Smalley

One of the many breathtaking sights inside the vast recesses of the canyon.