When I travel to shoot I need to research an area to get an idea for what to explore perhaps, and find other things along the way of course, but in doing so I try to extremely limit my exposure to other people’s photographs. Never do I want to be at a location and have a shot to replicate. Of course there are very oft photographed areas that I am sure to overlap, however if similarities occur this would most likely be by chance. Which I am ok with as my intention was pure.
Arriving at this southern Utah location I knew very little about what to find here, other than bizarre rock formations. Which could be said about much of southern UT 🙂 I took the late afternoon to wander around and explore what the area had to offer. Rock monoliths standing like goblins or some otherworldly creatures. As I came across this arch section the challenge became how would I photograph this place. And I moved on to find other rocks to photograph at sunset. The clearish skies did not lend themselves to good color but my default then becomes stars. Making my way back to this spot I moved back and forth trying to best compose the shapes in front of me and then the waiting game for the night sky to make it’s full appearance. During this course of events I took out my phone and checked the Sky Walk app to see what kind of sky I would be looking at. Fast forwarding to the morning I saw that the Milky Way would actually cross in to the gap! Well that settled it. I was going to set my alarm for 5am and come back here. Knowing it would be almost impossible to compose this shot in the dark, even with my headlamp, I marked the sand where the tripod legs were to be able to place it back at the weeee hours of the morn.
Dinner in the car and sleeping in the back of the truck…5am comes. I head out to my spot and set up. There’s the tail end of the Milky Way as expected though not the super vibrant section that was over my right shoulder. I ran around for about 30-45 min light-painting and shooting. Then finally deciding to try and capture other shots while the stars were still blazing (see: There Be Goblins). For whatever reason I decided to head back to the spot of the arch to just capture it one more time. Just in case. The faint light of dawn already starting to rub out the stars I ran around even faster. Finally settling on the fact the stars were gone to the daylight and off to find other compositions.
Weeks later, while going through the photographs it was clear. My choice to go back and reshoot the original idea was a good one. While the sky was not the blazing Milky Way I wanted the cool blue tones of twilight combined with the warmer light from my headlamp created a surreal scene. And even still, the Milky Way can be seen through the arching rocks. When it all comes together, even if different than planned, it makes all the early mornings worth while 🙂
One of my main goals for this trip was to finally get to explore some slot canyons first hand. Having seen pictures over the years of various shapes and colors this part of the expedition was what got me most excited. After a dissapointing first day in which I was thwarted by mother nature and water that was deeper than my dry pants (read; <40F degrees and NARROW), my second attempt at different slots was much more of a success.
But of course success doesn’t come with some errors. After hiking up the first slot of the day I encountered some rangers who just better marked a trail over the top between the 2 canyons so that the second could be down-climbed instead of the more traditional way. Well, what I didnt expect was to spend an additional 1.5hrs wandering around a random wash in Escalante trying to find it. Finally I back tracked and came to rest from the sun under a tree and well would you believe it there was the trail heading up to the left. Doh!
Finally getting to the top enterance there was a rockfall that had blocked an easy entry soooooo….down climbing. First squeezing my way on to one of the rocks before the 7′ drop to the canyon floor. Too far to slide with my 25lb pack on so on to my belly, sliding to the edge, lower the bag as far as I could and ‘poof’, on to the floor. Now for me.
Gaining entry to this slot was interesting however I do not think I was mentally prepared for how narrow this actually was. For a majority of the time I was not able to carry my backpack but had to hold it by the strap and turn my body sideways and drag this ‘not so light’ pack behind me. Every now and then stopping of course as the texture, lines and light were just amazing. Besides the extremely narrow rock walls, because I was descending instead I would encounter people coming up! Uh oh. Then it was finding a spot were we could all slide by each other. Entertaining for sure. Admittedly, about half way down there was a point where the never-ending narrow walls started to etch its way in to my consciousness and had to talk myself down to calm. Never a dull moment!
This particular section of rock wall had these amazing knobs on the sides, as most of this one did, and the reflected light was glowing perfectly. Setting up a very awkward tripod position I was able to catch this ephemeral light and unique landscape. There is one thing I know is that I could come back here for days and experience different light every day and capture something new here. Truly a magnificent experience!
After not returning back to my car from the previous night’s shooting until after 11pm I knew the morning was going to arrive too quickly. Packed my car and headed off for the 45 min drive to my next location, Arches National Park. For whatever reason I knew I should photograph Arches but internally I wasn’t overly excited. Of course this changed when I woke up in the parking lot about an hour before sunrise and saw the landscape before me. In a serendipitous offering the entire Milky Way was arching over the exact landscape I was walking toward. Brilliant! I got about 30ft from the car before my camera bag was already on the ground and camera being prepared for the first photograph of the day. While the sky still felt dark the slight glow of dawn was already apparent through the camera’s sensitive settings. With sunrise still over 45 min away I was amazed at what could be seen. Over on the far right was the distant glow from the town of Moab. I made a number of panoramas of the scene before me and then off to my intended destination for the morning. Now if every day could start like this… 🙂
The Death Valley trip was an exciting one for me. A place I have seen so much of but had yet to actually experience with my own eyes (and lens). Having 4 full days allowed me to casually plan out places to capture depending on conditions. This flexibility meant leaving the Racetrack til last. The main reason being that I happened to visit during the coldest stretch of the season. Camping below freezing every night with daytime highs barely out of the 40s (til the last day). My thought process meant it would gradually warm up toward the end of the week and the Racetrack is at 3700ft, which means colder.
Arriving at the Racetrack is no easy feat. 26 miles of washboard road. 4wd and high clearance recommended. After rattling my way for an hour the playa (dried ancient lake bed) appears as a white dish amongst the encompassing mountains. My heart beats a little faster and my right foot gets heavier.
As I pull up to the parking area and hop out the sun is warm but there is already a chill in the air. It’s late afternoon and the best evening light is yet to come but it’s about a mile from the car to the best rocks. These rocks, the reason I made this bone-jarring drive, move. On their own. And no one’s ever seen it. As they do they leave patterns in the playa. It’s speculated that a mix of wet playa and STRONG winds create this unique phenomenon (some rocks are upwards of 100lbs). So off I go, camera bag packed, extra clothes a must. Gloves, hats, long underwear….
As I trek across this overwhelming unique landscape I start to encounter the rocks. Different shapes, sizes, patterns. I have a couple of shots in the back of my mind to try and capture so finding the right rocks and patterns is essential. The first pair of rocks that catches my eye has me put a note in my head…ok…this is the shot. And I continue. Not 10 minutes later, as I explore further I come across the rocks you see below. Ah ha! Not the first one…THIS was my shot. Ok. Note. Off I go to keep shooting. The sun setting lower, about to disappear below the mountains for the evening. A group of 3 who was out in the corner packs up as the sun goes and they’re gone in to the twilight. I’m alone. Very very alone. It’s quiet. More quiet than one could possibly imagine. So quiet in fact that my ears are ringing. I find this quite confusing with my only explanation being that with modern life we have so much entering our ears constantly that the absence of which creates its own noise. Pretty amazing.
I head back to the pair of rocks as the light is almost faded and the moonlight is taking over. Just a quarter moon but at a location like this it’s bright enough to see without using my headlamp. As I set up the shot I realize that the photograph would be much more powerful if the moon was a bit lower and casting a better shadow on the rocks. Well, the decision was made. I set up the camera and tripod, took the battery out and kept it in my pocket (batteries hate cold weather) and went back to the car for dinner. Let the moon set a bit and then attempt the shot.
Funny thing about leaving a black camera and tripod in the middle of a place like the Racetrack. Not so easy to find! Luckily my way points combined with my phone made the process not as scary as it could have been. However, by the time I left the car the temperature was already in the upper 20’s. 2 pairs of socks. 2 layers on the legs. 4 layers on the body. 2 hoods and a winter hat plus my gloves. Yes. I looked quite hilarious. Now for the photograph. A 1 hour (yes, 60min) exposure of the sky. Calculating my settings and clicking the shutter I knew the only thing left was to wait. And wait. And wait. I walked laps around the playa. Laid on my back and watched the stars (shooting and still). Played some card games. And finally….that comforting click. I could pack up and finally warm up back at the car.
With the current technology my camera processes the photograph for another hour, so I set my alarm to remind me, headed to warmth and waited. As soon as the beep went off I dove across the car to the trunk to pull out the camera and peep at the back. Even with the moon out I nailed the exposure. This huge sigh of relief goes through the body that all that time and effort (and cold!) was not for waste. Of course when the car read 14F the next morning I knew the sunrise shots were going to be just as cold…
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There is something special about traveling by oneself. Of course there can be times of loneliness and solitude but the freedom to do/go/feel whatever one wants at that time is truly freeing. On my 4th full day I photographed sunrise in Arches National Park and then started my journey across the southern part of the state. Through Cedar Mesa and over toward Escalante. The remoteness and dramatic landscape is not to be underestimated. Truly spectacular country. Amazing spires and rock formations around every corner. Roads winding through canyons, bending around corners to reveal another infinite expanse to explore.
As I came around yet another bend, after crossing the Glen Canyon area I noticed these rocky spires in the distance. Speeding by there was some interesting, undulating rock just off the road that caught my eye and thought to myself there must be a good photograph in there somewhere, so on the the brakes I went, pulling over in to one of the few primitive camping areas that dotted the side of the road. Getting out to explore, then driving down the road back a ways and repeating. Wandering around I found this ravine, with amazing undulating and textured rock pointing right at the spires that had made me pull over in the first place. Looking down the rock suddenly jumped out at me. Light from the other side of the ravine was being reflected back on to the rock below me creating this incredible glow. Taking out my phone I snapped a quick photo to see what was going on. Boom! Next thing I knew I was hurrying back to the car to grab my camera bag. I spent the next 3-4hrs exploring this 100 yard stretch of rock. Studying the textures, lines, nuances. Playing with the light as it changed. As the shadow from the large canyon wall towering over me to the west finally encompassed the scene I had that familiar joyful feeling. The kind one can only get by having that serendipitous, ephemeral experiences that come from pulling off the side of road spontaneously in the middle of nowhere 🙂
Settling in to my Utah adventure I had still yet to have that light that photographer’s chase. And knowing that desert country can be fickle with clouds I knew I would have to be patient. On this particular day I started out by shooting sunrise here, at Arches, under mostly clear skies. A few high cirrus but nothing to write home about. As I met up with a local photog, we palled around for the day talking story and catching up (we had been in contact for a while). After a midday break to kill some time (read: check out local brewpub), it was time to scout for sunset. And looking up the sky had now filled with all sorts of high clouds. A good sign. But then again any clouds are better than nothing!
After driving around for over an hour, checking locations, thinking about light, hiking around, I made the decision for two spots. I thought facing back to the east was a good decision as hopefully the setting sun would illuminate the La Sal Mountains and high clouds. Then we’d try and hurry to another spot to capture Balanced Rock more intimately (that shot at another time).
As the sun dipped, and the last rays of light cast upon the rocky landscape, first exiting the arches and hoodoos, then up the mountainside in the background, then finally the clouds slowly gained color. And of course this is where the little boy comes out and yips of glee start coming out. I never get tired of seeing a great sunrise or sunset and to be able to capture this moment over such an amazing landscape was truly special.
P.S. To see a section of the detail in this photo see sample at bottom!
We start in the middle…which is a perfectly good place to start really. The middle of a 6 day road-trip through Southern Utah.
This particular image was a side effect of an idea I had during sunset just a few hours before. Setting my alarm for 515am, the mission was to capture the Milky Way under a rocky arch (an image I will share another time). Walking out to my location the stars were incredible. It’s called the Milky Way for a reason and the chalky streak across the sky sure held the name. I quickly went to capture the original image, which was preplanned, and then went back to explore other possibilities. These amazing hoodoos scattered the landscape giving this valley it’s namesake, Devil’s Garden. Seeing the blazing Milky Way behind I took two photographs, this one in particular illuminating the rocky statues. The touches of dawn beginning to be visible on the horizon. What a sight!
This image was made on my first major photography trip in Aug ’12. There are LOTS of images waiting for me to get to and this was a particularly nice morning. I had wanted to get shots of reflections, of which I’m a huge fan, while in Yosemite. This particular morning I had picked out a spot I saw on the map that I thought might lead to an interesting composition. Getting down to the trail a bit later than I wanted (that never happens of course :p) the clouds were already looking amazingly promising. And in August in California any clouds are a blessing! I hurried a bit more and then as I was wondering if I picked the right area the trail bent around the corner and there was the river pointing right at the direction of half dome. Perfect! The clouds were already doing their thing and worked quickly on a number of compositions. This one in particular requiring me to be thigh deep in the river. The stillness in the morning was truly special. The air felt cool, no rushing of cars in the valley floor, just the meandering river and myself. Great way to start the day 🙂
Having seen photographs of this mysterious place, I was excited to make my maiden voyage out to this remote stretch of playa or ancient, dried lake bed. While no one has ever seen the rocks move it is believed a combination of water and wind is needed to move these rocks, some up to 100lbs, across the surface. And in turn, they leave us their tracks. Some straight. Some curved. Some just mind boggling confusing. I spent a night, a very very cold night, and a morning out shooting this magical place. Wondering around by myself in the quietest place one could possibly imagine, surrounded by one of nature’s wonders was a real treat. As the sun crested the nearby mountain (the playa is at approximately 3700 ft above sea level), the strong backlight made for some wonderful textures in the playa and really accentuated the tracks of some of the rocks. I explored for quite some time letting my mind play with the abstract shapes and textures. This one in particular I found quite interesting. Enjoy!
Day 3 of my Death Valley excursion. Badwater. Aptly named as this is the lowest point in North America, at the hottest spot on earth, and there’s actually a small pool of water at this point! Of course the amount of salt in the water makes it completely undrinkable…hence the name. An ancient lake bed, this amazing place collects all the minerals and salt from the surrounding land that drain in to the basin during floods. These minerals then form amazing shapes and polygons out on this seemingly endless stretch of salt. As luck would have it this was my one good sunset with clouds…and it was super promising. As I scouted the area I eventually set off on a trek out to find the best examples of this phenomenon that I could. While doing so I came across this particular formation that really caught me. With the late afternoon light it seems as if it were a tree of salt. I snapped this photo and then moved on as I was constantly looking for unique shapes. Of course little did I realize that I would try, without success, to find this spot again once sunset took hold. Glad I stopped when I did 🙂