Tag Archives: Ruins

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips: Burning Down the House!

I can’t remember when I saw my first image of the Anasazi ruins called “House on Fire” (HOF).  Maybe it was in the near-legendary “Photographing the Southwest” books by Laurent Martres or perhaps the famous David Muensch photo…but no matter what the source, what I do remember is being awestruck by the image of an ancient cliff dwelling seemingly being engulfed by fire.   Not only was it an incredible visual but it also appealed to my life-long interest in ancient history and American Indians.  Well, a few weeks ago I had the chance to visit this iconic site and I’d like to share with you my House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips:  Burning Down the House!  (My compliments to the “Talking Heads”)

My first impression when I stood before the ruin was that, yes, by God…it really does look like the ruin has fire roaring out of its roof!  I had to take a few moments and ponder about the ancient Anasazi who choose this spot to build…was it simply because this was a south facing alcove that would be cool in the summer and warmed by the sun in winter?  Or did that builder appreciate the incredible way the light reflected off the roof of the alcove and decided that this would be his home.  How many generations lived here over the centuries…how many hours did they spend gazing at the ceiling enjoying the spectacle?

The " Classic Shot"

The ” Classic Shot”

After a few minutes of sitting with my son in front of the ruin taking it all in, I finally started to concentrate on photography.  Once I did so, it didn’t take me long to realize why all the shots I’d seen before of House on Fire are so darn similar.  It’s because that the perception of fire shooting out of the roof of the house is really only apparent from a very limited location…even moving a couple feet from the ‘sweet spot’ degrades the illusion.  I took hundreds of shots from different locations around the site but after reviewing them, there are only a few that I thought were outstanding…and yes, everyone of them turned out to be taken from that same specific spot…like the shot above.

So as a photographer, well… this location is a ‘one-trick-pony’.   Don’t get me wrong, you can get an incredible shot here…you would swear that the stone ruins are blazing when the reflective light hits it just right.  However, you will be hard-pressed to come up with a stunning image that is significantly different from the ‘standard’ shot…but don’t let that stop you, the ‘standard’ shot is amazing and what photographer wouldn’t want it in their portfolio?!

Directions to the site and photo tips for my fellow photographers:

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

A bit of experimentation with your contrast and adjusting the saturation/exposure of your reds and yellows will quickly coax the ember in your image into a full throated blaze.

  1. The most important thing is to be here at the right time. The perception of ‘fire’ is the result of sunlight reflecting off of the wall on the opposite side of the wash.  This reflected light only occurs in late morning.  If you get there too early, the light won’t yet be on the opposite wall and if you are too late the site will be in direct sunlight, which will ‘wash-out’ the fire effect.
    • In July, the light is perfect about 11am and it lasts about an hour.
  2. The second pre-requisite is that the weather has to be clear.  If clouds are obstructing the sun, you will loose the reflected light which is critical for the shot.
  3. My third tip would be to photograph the nearby “Fallen House Ruin” first in the morning and then drive to House on Fire (26 miles/30 minutes travel time from trailhead to trailhead).  You should be able to do so and still be at HOF before 11am.
  4. If you haven’t made this hike before and you aren’t on a tour with a guide, then I would suggest that have GPS with you.
  5. The closest town is Blanding (about 25 miles away).  There are a couple of hotels here you could stay at.  The next nearest town is Mexican Hat, about 40 miles away.
  6. House on Fireis located just off of UT 95 about halfwaybetweenBlanding and Natural Bridges National Monument on County Road 263.  When driving on UT 95, look for CR263 just east of mile marker 102 on the north side of the road.
    • Don’t be tricked by a sign for ‘Mule Canyon Ruins‘- this is NOT the right spot.
  7. Turn north ontoCR263 (it is a dirt road) and you will immediately see a BLM sign and kiosk on the left.
    • Stop and pay your fee ($2/person as of July 2013).
  8. There is a small car parking area less than 3/10 of a mile down CR263 on the right.  You can park here or you can continue a few hundred yards to the bottom of the hill where there is parallel parking available for a couple vehicles.
  9. At the bottom of the hill, you will find a small trailhead marker (on your left).
    • Geographic coordinates at the trailhead: N37.53739 – W109.73203
    • Here is a link to the trailhead on Google Maps.
  10. Start your hike by descending into the wash (on the left/west side of the road) and walk west along the stream bed.  The trail meanders to the west/northwest.
    • House on Fire is about one mile from the trailhead (about 40 minutes) just before the canyon turns due north.  It is located on a ledge to your right (north) about 60 feet above the floor of the wash.  It can be hard to see from the bottom, so just keep looking up and to your right.
    • You have to scramble a bit up some slickrock to reach the ledge but there are some rock cairns to show you the way.
  11. So, where exactly is the ‘sweet spot’ that I’m talking about?  The photo below shows where to set up.
    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

    “X” marks the spot! This shot is from the far left (west) of the ledge. You can see the photographers aiming at the structure to the FAR right.

    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

    View from the eastern side of the ledge. The window on the far right in this shot is part of the ruin you will photograph.

    I’d suggest taking a copy of a HOF photo with you…then walk around the site with the picture in front of you until you find where you need to set your tripod.

    • There are actually three or so structures under the ledge, but the one on the far right has the best “flames” over it
    • Personally, I think a vertical orientation for your composition is the best way to emphasize the ‘flames’ in the sandstone ceiling
  12. Lenses:  A fisheye can be fun to use here.  I also used 16-35mm zoom (most shots were taken at about 21mm).  Note..these lenses were used on a full frame sensor DSLR…you will need to account for the crop factor if you are using a camera with a smaller sensor.
  13. HDR is useful here to fully capture the highlights and shadows.  Even with HDR, it will be difficult to include the sky in your shot and frankly, I think the shot is best with it excluded.
  14. Take your time and use your camera’s Live View feature to ensure that your focus is sharp from front to back.
  15. There are some handprints painted on the wall in a small alcove to the left of the ruins…worth a look.
  16. A green rectangular metal register box (actually a surplus Army ammo box) is chained to a tree near the ledge’s edge.  It is interesting to look thru it and see what other hikers have written and see how many countries they had come from.  Don’t forget to jot a note down yourself!
  17. If you have time after photographing HOF, there are at least 5 more ruins I know of within the next 3 miles further down the wash.  None of them are necessarily photogenic, but they are interesting nonetheless.
  18. Post-processing:  If you catch the reflected light on a cloudless day, you will likely be pretty happy with the colors and saturation.  However, by increasing the contrast and adjusting the brightness/darkness of your color palette, you can easily enhance the ‘fire.’  Have fun with it!

As I was packing up to leave, a local guide,  Jon Fuller of  Moab Photo Tours and two clients also arrived at the site.  Jon was very friendly and readily shared some tips and stories.  I think my son enjoyed listening to Jon more than he did exploring the site, but then again, photography should be about much more than just pictures, right?

Have fun and keep shooting!

House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

One last perspective…



 House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips


Posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged |

Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide

My wife loves to cruise.  I love my wife.  So I go on a fair number of cruises:)

Tourists climbing the High Temple at Lamani Belize

High Temple at Lamani

But, as a photographer, I find cruising can be a bit frustrating.  I mean, you get to travel to some beautiful, exotic and incredibly photogenic locations, BUT…you rarely have much time in port, you miss the best light (arrive after sunrise, depart before sunset) and the standard shore excursions are rarely oriented toward the photographer. To make things even more challenging, there is precious little info available to help you plan how to make most of the limited photographic potential you do have.  For example, go ahead and Google:  “Yosemite Photo Tips”.    Instantly you are rewarded with PAGES of hits that can help you plan a photo trip.  However, when you Google: “Jamaica photo tips”, or “Cozumel photo guide” or “Mayan Ruins at Lamanai photo hints” you won’t find a lot of help out there….

So if you happen to be a photographer on a cruise boat that is going to stop in Belize City, then I hope you will find this article to helpful.  Your ship will likely have a shore excursion to the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai.  Now you could go on a city tour, snorkel, zip-line or drive ATVs…but you can do those things at any of the other stops.  As a photographer, trust me, you want to book the Lamanai tour.  Even if you aren’t a photographer, the Lamanai ruins are unique because you are actually allowed to climb them…which hasn’t been the case at any of the other ruins I’ve visited over the years.  C’mon…this is one of those “bucket list” memories that you really need to experience!

History and Location


HDR of the Jaguar Temple

Tour Overview & Helpful Hints:

  1. The cost for a cruise-line sponsored tour (in March 2013 on Norwegian Cruise Lines) was $109 per person…you can get a similar non-cruise line sponsored tour for about $75 (keep in mind, however, if you are on a non cruise-line sponsored tour and it is late getting back to the dock, the ship will leave without you.  If you book your tour thru the cruise line, they guarantee that the boat will wait for you…easily worth $35 to me!)
  2. From start to finish, the tour takes about 6 hours.
    • The trip to the ruins takes about two hours (split between an hour on a bus and an hour on a river taxi).
      • The bus ride is pretty boring and the landscape is not photogenic.  The guide will talk for about 45 minutes and share details about Belize…it was interesting, but bring a book, he doesn’t talk much on the way back and you will get bored.
      • You won’t need your book on the New River water taxi.  There is 26 miles of wildlife…crocs, bats, howler monkeys, iguana, herons, etc.
        • You even pass by John McAfee’s compound and a Mennonite community.
  3. You get only about one hour actually atLamanai.
    • Our guide was very knowledgeable and maintained a running monologue about the Maya.  In fact, he had been one of the laborers employed by  Dr. Pendergast during the excavations back in the 1970s!
    • The guide takes you to three separate temples:  The Jaguar Temple (N10-9 Complex), the High Temple (N10-43)  and the Mask  Temple (Structure N9-56)
    • You also pass thru an excavated Mayan Ball Court between the Jaguar and High Temple.
    • None of the Temples are more than a five minute hike from each other.
  4. The High Temple is the one the guides usuallyencourage you to climb.  It is the tallest of the three (99′ tall) and there is a rope installed down the center of the stairs to give the tourists something to hold on to.  The view from the top is mesmerizing.  Nothing but green jungle as far as the eye can see and a killer view of the New River to the east.
    • WARNING:  This is not something you want to do if you are not fit.
      • Let me be clear:  You are not in the States…OSHA would totally freak out at this place.
        • There are no handrails, no safety equipment of any kind.
      • The steps are tall and they are STEEP.  Really steep!  It is more like climbing a ladder than stairs.
      • This isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ve done acrobatics in warbirds, ran class 5 rapids, scuba’d around sharks…but this climb (and the trek back DOWN), really got my heart pumping.      Know your limits.

        View from atop the High Temple at Lemanai Belize Photo tips and photo guide

        This is your vista if you make it to the top! 180° three frame panorama merged in Photoshop.

  5. Bring some snacks…we didn’t get lunch until about 2pm, you will be hungry long before then
  6. Bring some water.  They do have drinks available, but not when you are actually at Lamanai.
  7. This is the tropics…
    • It is hot, even during the winter.  I’m a Florida boy…I’m used to heat, but Belize was a good 20 degrees warmer than Orlando during March when I visited! You will want a hat and cool clothes.
    • Wear hiking boots.  You will be walking over uneven terrain covered with roots and rocks.  I saw one lady trip and bang up her head.  This isn’t Disney.
    • If you come during the rainy season (June thru October) you should expect a shower in the afternoon, so bring raingear.
    • The rainy season also breeds mosquitos and other annoying pests, so pack your bugspray (get the good stuff with a high percentage of DEET).

Tips specifically for my fellow photographers:

  1. You will want a long zoom lens for wildlife.  300mm minimum.
  2. A wide angle lens is very helpful for the temples.
  3. I regretted that I didn’t bring a fisheye.  I think you could have fun with one here.
  4. Bring your polarizer filter.  It will allow you to maximize the rich blue sky…which will help give you contrast against the jungle and the temples.
  5. Once your water taxi gets to Lamanai and the guide leads your tour to the first temple, you need to break away from your group.  Everyone else will be staying within ten feet of the guide to hear his monologue…if you do the same you are going to severely limit the variety and quality of your shots.  Just keep them in sight as you work around the area.  It is also a good idea to tell the guide ahead of time what you are going to do and find out exactly when they plan to get back on the boat.  If you somehow loose track of your tour group, just make sure to make your way back to the boat on time.
  6. Make an effort to include people in some of your shots.  They can really add scale to the scene.
  7. Actually, the real problem is getting a shot without mobs of people around the pyramids.
    • The best way to accomplish this is to stay well in front of your group.  This way you get to the next temple before your tour does and hopefully just after the previous one has moved on.  If you talk to your guide ahead of time, he will gladly share with you details of the route he will take so you can anticipate their movements.
  8. I found a tripod to be critical.  Straight on shots of the temple are pretty unexciting.  My best shots were ones in which I positioned myself on the edge of the treeline and incorporated some of the native flora in the foreground.  To keep everything in focus, you need to use a really small aperture…which is going torequire a long shutter speed and that’s where the tripod will come in handy.
    • If you want to shoot a panorama from the top of a temple, then your tripod must be light and equipped with a strap that allows you to carry it on your back without throwing you off-balance.
    • Unlike Mexico, Belize has no restrictions about having a tripod at the ruins.
  9. If you do shoot from the edge of the jungle, the dynamic range will likely be too much for your sensor.  Try HDR to get the full dynamic range (you will thank yourself again for having  your tripod).
  10. Jaguar Temple
    • There is a wide, treeless field between this temple and the ball court.  You can get some dramatic shots by climbing the entrance to the ball court and getting a shot of the temple across the lawn
    • Try some shots from the jungle’s edge framing the temple with trees.
    • There are some spectacularly carved stelae (stone pillars) near the Jaguar Temple.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about them until I got home and was doing research for this article.  They are located near the base of the temple.
  11. Ball Court
    • I didn’t find the ball court to be very impressive or photogenic.  If you find an angle, perspective or technique that results in an impressive image, let me know so I can try it next time!
  12. The High Temple
    • If you climb this, then a panorama from the top is a must (see shot earlier in the article)
      • I didn’t take my tripod to the top of the temple…now I wish I had.  I had to hand hold my camera and the quality of the resulting panorama suffered as a result.
    • Take some photos of folks climbing the steps…this is impressive from both ground level and from the top.
    • Tourists climbing steps of the High Temple at Lamanai

      This gives you a perspective of how tall and steep these steps are!

  13. Mask Temple
    • My favorite.  This structure is flanked by two huge 12′ tall sculpted ‘Olmec’ heads!
    • Shoot from an angle to capture some side-lighting which will highlight the features
    • The head on the left (east) is damaged (the end of the nose is missing).  The one on the left is perfect (see below)
    • Of course, have someone snap a shot of you next to the head for your “I’ve been there” wall.Olmec Head detail on Mask Temple at Lamanai Belize
    • Incredible

Final Thoughts

Even if you don’t have a fascination with photography, archaeology or history, I’ll bet that a trip to Lamanai will be one that you remember long after you’ve forgotten those other typical shore excursions.  I found something haunting and deeply stirring as I strode about this site.  I think you will too.



 Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide
Posted in Buildings/Ruins, Caribbean/Central & South America, Historical Also tagged , , , , , , |

Old Sheldon Church Photo Tips and Guide

I’d never had the chance to really get to know Charleston but since it was on the way to a photo shoot in the Smokies, I decided to invest a couple of days and see what there was to see.

Now, before we talk about Charleston itself, let me tell you a few photo tips  about a killer location about an hour from the city that you really need to see:  The Ruins of Old Sheldon Church.

Old sheldon church photo tips

The Fire Within

photo tips for Old Sheldon Church

Sinking gravestone the field behind the church

This place is a dream for a photographer.  The skeleton of this church is hauntingly beautiful, especially near the end of the day when shadows stream thru the columns.  Shots early in the day with the site shrouded in fog would be worth the trip too. If you like black and white photography, you could have a field day here!   In addition, there are bits and pieces of an old graveyard around the church.  This particular tombstone caught my eye:

The church has an incredible history…burnt twice, once during the Revolution and then again by Sherman’s troops nearly a century later.  It sits on a nicely maintained site and is free to visit.  It is a peaceful place with very few visitors.

The address is 919 Old Sheldon Church Rd. Yemassee, SC 29945.  To get there from I-95 take Exit 33 (U.S. Highway 17 north) towards Beaufort.  Follow U.S. 17 north for about 3 miles (5 km).  Turn left onto Cotton Hall Road (S-7-48).  After 2.5 miles (4 km), the road will come to an angled intersection with Old Sheldon Church Road. Make a slight right turn onto Old Sheldon Church Road and follow it for just under one mile (1.5 km).  The ruins are located on the left. Parking is available along the curb of the road or in a small gravel lot across the street…just be careful of all the trees, I managed to back into one on my way out:(

32°37′6.7″N 80°46′49.7″W / 32.618528°N 80.780472°W / 32.618528; -80.780472:

I had done a lot of on-line research before this trip looking for photo sites in Charleston, but Old Sheldon Church wasn’t on my radar.  If it wasn’t for a great tour guide in Savannah (Bobby Davis http://www.exploresavannah.com/)  I would have driven right by it without a clue.  I think this is a truly unappreciated photo op that doesn’t seem to be well known to anyone but the locals.   Don’t miss it!

Next, on to Charleston.



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