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If you’ve been following this blog for really any reasonable number of years you’ll know that I absolutely love Zion National Park in Utah (even enough to visit it when it was partially closed during a pandemic).  It features extreme landscapes and textures that are hard to find anywhere else in the world and has hikes that even this old codger can do without too much effort.  So it seemed like Zion National Park, a place I know and love, would be a great location for an Epic Photography Battle.  Ok, Epic Photography Experiment might be a better title.  Ok honestly this trip wasn’t about photography at all.  It was about…my Tesla.

I’ve had my Tesla Model 3 for nearly a year (don’t worry, full review finally coming soon) and a good buddy of mine, famed architectural photographer Mike Kelley, recently got one as well.  When a buddy gets a cool car that you also have it really means only one thing: road trip.

Mike lives in LA, I live in Dallas.  Bearing that my tolerance for extreme road trips is a little bit higher than his, we settled on a place that was at least somewhat between us: Zion National Park.  It was an easy 8 hours for Mike, for me it was around 23.  It was a long drive, but I really didn’t care too much, the Tesla does most of the driving anyway and it had been too long since I had seen my friend.

Angel’s Landing Camera Battle

I’ve done Zion’s most famed hike, Angel’s Landing, quite a few times, and it’s my favorite hike in the world.  Mike had never done it, so it was an easy pick.

We both agreed this was more of a fun hiking trip than it was a photography trip, so he didn’t even bring his camera with him.  I had just picked up the new iPhone 12 Pro and thought about just using that to see how it would compare with the previous trips I’d taken up Angel’s Landing.  Just to be safe, though, I packed an incredible camera kit: my Sony a7rIV and the Sony 12-24mm f2.8 G Master lens.  It’s hard to find a better landscape photography kit, honestly.

Ok lets put this camera battle in perspective

We’re not blowing these pictures up to 30×40-inch prints and comparing things with a microscope.  Most of you are reading this post on a phone or on your desktop.  An iPhone 12 Pro has a 12-megapixel camera, my Sony has a 64-megapixel sensor.  My Sony can simply do things that the iPhone cannot.  I have my Sony camera set to take pictures in a raw format, meaning I have to edit every picture I take.  My iPhone just takes pictures and edits them automagically for me.

The point isn’t to be clinical or to peep closely pixel-by-pixel.  The point is, honestly, to ask the question: can the average consumer tell which pictures were taken with my Sony camera versus my iPhone?  I kinda knew what the answer would be already but pushed forward to make a point: with the holidays coming up, many will be tempted to get a new camera for themselves or their loved ones.  With how good phones are getting, should you even bother if your pictures are just going to be viewed on Instagram or Facebook?

Let the battle commence.

The hike

We were staying at the Zion Lodge, located inside the park.  It was overpriced but the room was comfortable enough, it had charging spots for our Teslas, and, most importantly, staying inside the park meant we didn’t have to rely on the Zion National Park shuttles to get back and forth within the park, which was absolutely critical due to their reduced capacity as part of the ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts.  Basically, staying at Zion Lodge meant that we could walk to the Angels Landing trailhead, only a half-mile away.

The hike to Angels Landing begins by crossing the Virgin River on a small bridge and turning right.  Mike and I were there just as the morning light was starting to illuminate the river valley.  The trail along the river valley is very easy, with small undulating hills that eventually give way to long switchbacks that begin your climb up the canyon walls.  I turned back and brought up my _______ and snapped a picture.  Loved seeing the sky and the morning light start to illuminate the mountaintops.

[note: yes, the EXIF data is listed in the images if you click through, don’t cheat!]

 

When you’re heading up the trail at Angels Landing the incline of the trail kind of hits you all at once.  It’s palpable and you’ll start to feel it in your emotions calves.  Fortunately the landscape is absolutely epic, so you have the natural excuse of saying “hey let’s stop for a picture” instead of “hey it feels my calves are gonna ‘splode”.  I took out my ______ for a snap of the morning light revealing the river valley below.

 

We had been nervous about the weather, as the forecast had a bit of rain in it, but we absolutely lucked out.  It was cool, not cold, and the rain wasn’t coming until later that morning.  Literally the best hiking weather I’ve ever had.

After some long and winding switchbacks, the trail leads to Refrigerator Canyon, a brief respite from both the altitude and the typical heat of the hike.  Since Refrigerator Canyon is in the shade, it’s usually about 10 degrees cooler than the merciless heat of the Utah sun, but since the weather was already perfect we didn’t really notice.  What we did notice was the amazing texture on the canyon walls so I pulled out my _______ and grabbed a picture.

 

At the end of Refrigerator Canyon you arrive at what seems like a vertical wall with a bunch of switchbacks carved into it.  It seems like this because that’s exactly what it is.  You’ve arrived at Walter’s Wiggles.  My advice for the Wiggles is to Just Keep Going.  Your calves will burn a bit but you’ll be fine and have a really nice landing at the top to rest at the end.  At the top, I turned my ______ around to grab a picture of the Wiggles.

 

At the top of Walter’s Wiggles you’ve finally arrived!…at Scout Lookout.  What seems like a pretty angelic landing is not, in fact, Angel’s Landing.  You still have a little ways to go.  And, while the distance you have left isn’t very far, emotionally you’ve only done about half of the Angels Landing hike, as the rest of it is pretty intense.  From Scout Lookout to Angels Landing is only about a half-mile walk, but it gets a little dicey in places, especially if you’re kinda heights-y.

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at the Chain Part.  I used my _______ to get a picture of Mike climbing the first ascent using the chains.

 

You’re going to be tempted to only look at what’s ahead of you but make sure to look behind you as well!  The sun illuminates the canyon walls and makes some absolutely incredible colors, especially with little pops of fall colors in the valley below, as you can see in this picture taken with my _______.

 

You need the chains for two main reasons: it gets steep and it’s really exposed.  My advice is to always take your time and have a good foothold before grabbing onto the chain, it’s just safer that way.  The adrenaline of the views on either side of you can be disorienting so just take your time and you’ll be fine.  You’ll see a few mountain ridges ahead, and yes you’re going to climb up and over them.  For example, this ridge, taken with my ________.

 

When you’re transitioning from ridge to ridge, you’ll at times be reminded that this can be a very dangerous hike.  People have died.  I don’t say that to intimidate you, just saying it so you take the Chain Part seriously.  Take this ridge, for example.  On one side, a 1500-drop.  On the other side?  Only a 1200-foot drop.  Be careful, take your time, and you’ll be fine.  Oh, and be sure to take this picture with your _____ camera for all the social medias.

 

I just love this part.  We got a very early start so we wouldn’t have to worry about crowds around the chains and our strategy was perfect: we had all the time we needed.  As we neared the final ridge, I took out my ______ for a quick picture before we made the summit.  Mike, ever the social media influencer, was Content Creating.

 

Just before we arrived at the summit I stopped and pulled out my _______ for one last picture of what we had just scaled (if you look closely, you can see a blue tarp in the middle of the big ridge, that’s the pretty nasty emergency restroom at Scout Lookout.

 

We finally made it.  The summit of Angels Landing and one of my favorite views on earth.  After a high-five with Mike I pulled out my _______ to take one of my favorite pictures.

 

I love the summit view into Zion Canyon but also turned back and took a picture of the epic landscape below.  I loved seeing the river carving its way through the canyon and reminded myself that it was the combination of that little river and a lot of time that created the epic mountain I was about to summit.  I went for an ultra-wide angle shot with my ________ to capture the epic scene.

 

We spent some time on the summit and had some other people grab a picture of us with Mike’s iPhone.

I made sure to get one more Social Media Influencer Shot of Mike with my ________ (who is in no way a social media influencer, he and I are both really cynical about social media)

 

By then we could see clouds starting to roll in so we decided to roll out (I’m way too proud of that sentence).  As we started heading back down the Chain Part we couldn’t have been happier with our decision to stay at Zion Lodge and get an early start to the hike.  Even at that early hour there were still hordes of people coming up the trail.

As we stopped to wait for another group of people to pass, we got to appreciate just how beautiful the fall colors were in the valley below.  When we made our way back through Refrigerator Canyon, not only was Mike annoyed by how hyper-extroverted I get on the downhill portion of hikes (I say hello to everyone), the colors were vibrant and wonderful, as captured by my ______ camera.

 

We continued down the lazy switchbacks alongside the valley as our hike drew to a close.  I stopped once more for a final valley picture with my ________.  I love how the trail cuts its way through the valley below on the right.

 

We finally arrived back at the trailhead.  It was simply the best hike of my life and Mike is now spoiled forever.  It was literally the perfect Angels Landing hike.  We walked back to Zion Lodge, content and happy, but not before grabbing one last shot of the fall colors over the road in front of us with my _______.

 

Camera Battle Thoughts

So…what are the answers?  Well, I want to wait to see if I can get a few good votes on each picture and I’ll do a follow-up post with the answers.  I think generally, though, you have to be impressed with the image quality from the iPhone 12 Pro.  For Typical Landscape Shots it did a fine job.  Sure there are some edge cases where it just can’t stand up to an interchangeable lens camera like the a7rIV but if you want to take quick pictures that will generally be Really Good, just stick with your phone!  What you’re basically doing, in the case of the iPhone, is saying “Apple, edit my photo instantly” and they do it, pretty dang well, in an instant.  Using my Sony camera puts more control in my hands.  I know my way around photo editing software and enjoy that process.  It’s kind of the same thing as driving a car with an automatic transmission versus a manual.  You’ll end up close to the same destination but it’s about how you get there.

There are some definite exceptions to what I said above.  There are shots that I can take with my Sony equipment that I could never take with my iPhone.  And that’s why I spend thousands of dollars on camera equipment, to take those photos or take landscape photos that I can blow up to poster size with no loss in resolution.

Ultimately, don’t feel like you need to spend thousands this holiday season if you don’t want to commit to lugging around camera bodies and lenses on all of your trips.   You probably already own a very capable camera system that fits in your pocket!  The best camera is always the one that you have with you, so be encouraged that you can go out right now and take some amazing images!

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