Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hades Canyon

Canyoneering is a great, wonderful, beautiful, adventurous kind of sport. Well, I call it a sport. It's athletic, at the very least, and requires a certain nerve. After all, you hang from a rope over lots of air a dozen or more times during a trip, making your way down and over all sorts of unpredictable obstacles. There are sometimes gushing waterfalls, slippery cliffs and deep pools that add extra elements of risk and surprise, not to mention beauty. 

And, actually, it's that last item that makes me want to return again and again to the canyons here in Southern California or Death Valley or Utah. And because you're in a remote place, otherwise inaccessible without ropes and rappelling gear, that beauty starts to feel a little proprietary. In other words, no crowds to share it with. It's all yours for the day.

Trouble is, photographing a canyoneering trip can be really, really challenging. I'll be surrounded by a lovely landscape and amazing action, but to get that stored away on a camera isn't easy. Some of it's technical. Usually I'm working with impossible contrasts in light—the canyon is usually pretty dark and shady, while the upper reaches of the rock and the sky are bright. Can't squeeze both into the same picture without under-exposing or over-exposing one. Often, I can tighten up the composition so I'm just shooting in the shade, but not always. And the shade itself is so dark, I have to crank up the ISO to noise-producing heights. (Not that I care too much about the noise; a sharp picture at ISO 6400 is worth more to me than a blurry one at ISO 400.)

There are other considerations besides the mechanical ones. My friends and I are not ones to rush through a canyon, but in order to finish before it gets dark requires a fluid coordination of setting anchors, rappelling, pulling down ropes, down-climbing, setting up the next anchor and so on. I can't always ask for even 10 minutes to get into position for a shot. When I have that kind of time, decent angles are hard to find. I discovered when I first got into canyoneering that all I shot was either from the top of a rappel looking down at the person on the rope, or up at them from the bottom. That's because most of the rappels are in narrow gouges in the rock formed by running water and it's physically impossible to get any other angle but down or up. Occasionally, I've been able to set up a second rope on a stout anchor, go down, say, five feet, lock off on the rope and shoot but that's rare.

This brings me to my last trip, which was Hades Canyon in Death Valley National Park (the canyons there are almost all named to bring out demonic, hellish images: Coffin Canyon, Purgatory Canyon, Styx Canyon). This was our first trip through Hades, so I didn't know exactly what to expect (it turned out to be a rugged landscape), but I knew that I wanted  pictures that were more than just my buds on a rope. And because I figured we would finish this one after dark, I had in mind a picture of someone rappelling at night, headlight on, with a deep blue, twilight sky above. This meant bringing a tripod so I could hold the camera long enough to record the sky while popping off a flash to illuminate the person. 

I got lucky. On the second to last rappel (we were, strangely enough, approaching a point as well where we would descend below sea level), the nearly full moon had risen high enough to show above the canyon walls. I went down first, set up my tripod and asked Rich, who came down next, to hold a flash about 20 feet away from me and pointed at Jerri as she came down (the flash was triggered with a Pocket Wizard wireless device). You can click on the image to make it larger which I highly recommend.

(I also used the remote flash on the first picture on this post so I could expose for the bright rock in the background and still see Jerri on the rope.) 

Another goal I had was to show what it's like going down the canyon as it gets darker.

In this shot, I bracketed five different exposures to get the brighter, sunset sky along with the much darker foreground. I then blended two of the best exposures into one for the final.

Lastly, the one I had in mind all along. It didn't turn out quite as well as I had envisioned, but not bad. If you look closely you can see stars in the sky. This definitely wouldn't have been possible without a tripod.

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