Technical Canyon Hike in Zion National Park’s “The Subway”

by New Mexico adventure photographer Michael DeYoung

I’m also always searching for the ultimate lightweight adventure photographer outfit that gets me into hard to reach places without sacrificing professional results. I haven’t found it yet but I’ll keep trying. An all day hike in Zion National Park’s Subway from the top down put my “bare bones” outfit to the test.

The top-down Subway trip is a 9 mile hike that involves cross country route finding, steep down climbing, rappelling, jewel numbing swims, a brutal nearly continuously wet 6 mile hike out, ending with a punishing 1000 foot ascent to the bottom trail head. In addition to photo gear we packed a wetsuit, canyoneering shoes, harness, rope and rappelling hardware, and all the normal day hiking gear of extra dry clothes, food, water, etc. Though we have most of our own gear, you can get all the top quality gear you need for this hike, including the wetsuits, shoes, rappelling gear, canyoneering pack, good advice, and directions – and even a shuttle – from Zion Adventure Company in Springdale.

Young couple play around on the slickrock while heading toward the entrance to the Subway hike decent, Zion National Park

Youthful energy early in the day. Hiking cross country on slickrock heading toward the entrance of the Subway

Because this was a shoot and I took two hikers that had never done this before, the day took 13 hours. In mid-October that meant all available daylight with a crack of dawn departure starting at 8000 feet at a chilly 28 degrees.


The lightest one body and lens outfit I have is a Canon 50D with the 10-22 EF-S. Remember that not sacrificing quality thing? The quality of this outfit just doesn’t hold a candle to the pro full-frame bodies and L lenses. So, it stays home.

The best body for this shoot would have been a 5D Mark II. Problem is I don’t have a 5D Mark II so I hauled the much heavier and trusty 1Ds Mark III. Canyon shooting is wide angle country so a full frame body is the only option for me. Canyons are a brutal environment for cameras too. There’s a constant threat of getting wet, exposed to windblown sand, and falling and banging around. This may not sound like the smartest place to bring a $6,000 camera. But the 1Ds is made for putting up with this kind of punishment. In retrospect, I’m glad I brought it.

Young couple check the topo map at the beginning of the Subway hike ,Zion National Park

Above the entrance to the Subway from the top. Checking the map for our position. Following visual clues from the guidebook instructions proved to be more useful than the map and GPS for route finding. The “old fashion” way worked better!

I went with only one lens my 17-40 mm and 2 580EX II flashes. The strobes were outfitted with the indispensable and lightweight Radio Poppers which let me place a light with wireless TTL almost anywhere I want. Completing the strobe accessories were a Honl 1/8” grid and some warming gels. Instead of a second lens, I would rather have the lighting capability of the 2 strobes. Unfortunately, one of the strobes went down early in the day so I only had one light that I could fire wirelessly from the Canon ST-E2 transmitter.

Young couple hike around deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

After downclimbing into the canyon this was our last pool we were able to skirt around before donning wetsuits and canyoneering shoes.

For support I brought my Gitzo backpack carbon fiber tripod with the Really Right Stuff B-25 ball head. The whole thing is 2.3 pounds. I love that little ball head and it’s amazing how well it holds the 1Ds with 17-40 attached. I wouldn’t use it for general purpose shooting but in tight spots where weight and size is an issue, this tripod and head combo get the job done. All the gear gets packed in a Watershed dry bag. Because we had to keep all the gear waterproof for the 2 mile technical section, every time I stopped to shoot it was 10-15 minutes just unpacking and repacking gear.

Image of male hiker holding day pack over his head while crossing a waist deep pool of cold water in the Subway hike, Zion National Park

Brigham wades an icy pool without a wetsuit.

It’s good that you easily forget about sore backs and aging aching joints after a pizza and a good brew. Already hit the reset button in my brain. I’ll be back for another punishing Subway adventure photography hike in a heartbeat.

Young couple swimming through deep pool in the Subway hike, Zion National Park, canyoneering

Brigham and Madison swimming an over the head deep pool in the upper Subway.

Female canyoneer rappelling in the uppoer portion of the Subway, Zion National Park

Madison rappelling in the upper Subway. The drops are short and easy but this one put us into a chest deep pool.

Young couple hold their backpacks over their heads while walking through deep pool in their wetsuits in the Subway, Zion National Park

Wading in wetsuits in the upper Subway.

Young couple walk through shallow water in one of Zion National Park's Subway hike pools

The Subway gets deeper and more interesting as you descend past the second rappel.

Male wading in a narrow pool in Zion National Park's Subway hike

Brigham wading in a narrow pool in the Subway.

Young couple of hikers hiking in Zion National Park's Subway

Brigham and Madison standing at the entrance of the Subway after changing into dry clothes. You can reach as far as this point from a round trip hike from the bottom up.

How Following Three Basic Photography Principles led to a Successful Assignment

As a working professional who has taught a few workshops with plans to teach more, I try to do is make sure that I practice what I preach. Some of the things I try to emphasize in a workshop aren’t just things that sound profound but are fundamentals that are used regularly, work well and lead to good photography. So I thought I’d write about an assignment I received last spring that put some basic principles I’ve taught in workshops to the test.

The assignment was from a good client who wanted me to produce to a catalog cover with a Christmas holiday theme. The shot was essentially a landscape that involved a human element. The theme would be a cozy cabin decorated with holiday lights in a gorgeous mountain setting with a fresh snow look. The ideal lighting would be dawn or dusk where the lights of the cabin would balance with the ambient light. This was not that unusual except it was the middle of March, winter was waning, Christmas decorations were in the attic, and the client needed it soon with a limited budget. Without a big travel budget the client was fortunate that I could do this in my home region. Knowing the local area reduced location-scouting fees since I could do that myself and not outsource it. The Southern Rockies would be clad in snow for a few more months but getting that fresh winter wonderland look would be a longshot and getting any decorations we didn’t have especially at stores in a rural area would be challenging.

Rustic cabin with Christmas holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Cabin with holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Shot on assignment for a catalog.

As I hung up the phone, a mild panic set in thinking about how I was going to pull this off in the next week. Time to step back and think about why they hired me. I believe they trusted me to deliver their visual message regardless of what challenges I would face. Location shoots call for problem solving – a critical skill for photographic success especially when many environmental elements would be beyond my control. My production plan was based on among other things three basic tried and true principles that I’ve emphasized in my workshops.

The first principle is recognizing that 80% of the success of the shot occurs before you take the camera out of the bag. In fact I think it is closer to 90% in many cases. Our problem solving would begin here as the biggest challenge was finding a suitable cabin that lined up with great San Juan Mountain scenery. Since this was a commercial shoot that involved decorating and lighting and securing permission and a property release, this meant simply driving around and shooting something pretty we found from the road was not feasible. Many hours were spent that week doing Internet searches, contacting lodges, b &b’s, real estate agents and a production company to locate a suitable location that would be affordable. Fortunately, Lauri’s diligent research paid off. Time to make a mad dash to the chosen location.

The second principle involved taking advantage of what was already in place. This principle is demonstrating you can make compelling imagery close to home before traveling to places far away. Become an expert in photographing your “backyard.” Learn the geography, seasons, lighting patterns, and keep notes on interesting locations. (There is an excellent article about shooting close to home in the February, 2011 issue of Digital Photo by Mark Edward Harris.) I admit it is hard sometimes but I always try not to become jaded at my familiar surroundings. The “I’ve seen this a thousand times” and “been there, done that” attitudes do not serve your creative vision well at all. The client was paying in part for my local area expertise and I was not about to let them down.

The third principle was knowing how to use artificial lighting. Lighting skills aren’t just for portraits and interior photography. Learning to creatively mix natural and artificial light sources is applicable even to landscape subjects. In a less than ideal sunset or sunrise, creative lighting skills can save the day. In this instance, the cabin had rather dark wood and was somewhat nestled in a tall stand of ponderosa pines. The light from the decorations and interior lights simply wasn’t enough to make the cabin “pop” from its surroundings. Fortunately a little used mono-light that packed more power than a hot shoe flash with a portable battery pack saved the day. We used RadioPopper slaves that gave me the freedom to place lights in hidden places and fire them from a fairly long distance. For this shoot the lights were hidden behind the front porch and fired wirelessly over a hundred feet away in winter conditions.

Woman building and decorating a snowman

Lauri DeYoung building a snowman during some assignment downtime to be photographed at dusk. San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Snowman bearing presents in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado at dusk

Snowman bearing gift shot as stock after a catalog assignment shoot at the same location.

The total time committed for this shoot roughly broke down to: countless hours on the internet and communicating by email and phone, 10 hours travel time, 4 hours scavenger hunting, 3 hours setting up (including Lauri building a great snowman) and one hour taking things down and packing the truck. Shoot time for the client was about an hour. Our host let us stay and shoot other things which we did the next morning.