Tag Archives: Southwest Photo locations

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This article was specifically written as a comprehensive guide for photographers visiting the Bisti Badlands to help them make that trip as productive and safe as possible.  If you are more interested in general information about Bisti, then please check out my earlier article which is intended for visitors who aren’t totally focused on photography. 

Note:  The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a huge area (45,000 acres) Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers  Bisti is the western section and De-Na-Zin is to the east but most maps (and signs) will just say ‘Bisti/De-Na-Zin…which can be a bit confusing. This blog only covers the popular western section (Bisti) which is about 36 miles south of Farmington, N.M. and includes locations like the ‘Alien Egg Nursery’ (aka “Cracked Eggs”),  the ‘Stone Wings,’ the ‘Conversing Hoodoos’ and others   This blog will not review the De-Na-Zin area which borders CR 7500 (this area includes the ‘Valley of Dreams’, ‘Alien Throne’ and the ‘King of Wings.’ )

 

Tip 1:  Get a GPS App:

There are no trails in Bisti, no boardwalks, no rangers, no consistent cell service.  Lots of folks don’t plan ahead and end up walking around for hours, getting lost and not seeing much. 

If you have your own GPS unit or you’re one of the old breed who knows about topographical maps and compasses, then you can get topo maps here and you will find GPS coordinates later in this article.   

But for most folks the best thing to do is buy a good GPS app for your smartphone.  Some of these apps are really excellent and with a bit of practice, you should be able to find your way around Bisti well.  Personally, I’d recommend the All Trails Pro ($29.99/yr) app.  Another highly regarded product is the Gaia App ($20)

  •  These apps do not need a cell signal to work…which is critical since cell service is poor in Bisti.  They work work right off of GPS satellites.
  • All Trails Pro includes ‘tracks’ by other people who have previously made this hike and it includes their photos.  For example, you can pull up a hike I did in Oct 2018 and see exactly where the photo locations are that I found.  When hiking with this app, it can indicate your location within ten feet or so (which makes it pretty darn hard to get lost).  Think of it as a ‘virtual guide.’  $30 might be a lot for an app, but its cheaper than buying  stand-alone GPS unit…plus if you are coming all the way to Bisti to photograph, $30 seems to be a small price to ensure that you make the most of the experience (BTW: I don’t get a kickback from All Trails…or any of the items I recommend in this blog). 
  • Don’t buy one of these apps and use it for the first time when you visit Bisti.  There is a learning curve involved when using these apps.  You really need to try them out first near home and be comfortable using them before hiking out into the desert at Bisti.  
  • Buy a portable backup battery for your smartphone.  GPS apps will drain your battery and if your phone is the only way of finding your way back to the car, you don’t want to run out of juice.  I bought one of these backups a few years ago.  It’s lightweight and will recharge my phone multiple times but I’m sure you can find better/cheaper ones out there now.

Tip 2:  Stay in Farmington:

You can camp in Bisti (at no cost) but you will have to drive back to Farmington (about 40 minutes) to find bathrooms, food or water.  So unless you have an RV or have experience in Wilderness Camping,  getting a room in Farmington will be your best bet.   FYI…there are plans to build a pit toilet at the main Bisti Parking lot, but work has not started as of this date (Nov 2018) 

Tip 3: Visit in the Fall or Spring: 

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is open year round 24/7/365.  Good images can be made any month of the year.  However, some months are definitely more hospitable than others.

  • Many consider September and October to be the prime months to visit.  Temperatures range between 49°-76° and you can stay out from sunrise to sunset with no problems.   
  • April/May are also very good but since this is the is windy season, you have to be careful of the fine dust/sand that can be blown about.  
  • Summers often have some great clouds because of the Monsoons, but the heat can be absolutely brutal:  Bisti is in the desert and there is no water and little shade.  Other than early mornings, it can be challenging to be out for more than a few hours even if you have experience hiking in high temperatures.   Night photography can still be a good option during these months (the Milky Way core is out and the full arch is visible).  
  • Bisti does get snow in the winter and it can used to great advantage in your photography if you can handle the chilly temperatures  (Bisti is at 6500 feet, so it really does get cold here).
Monthly Averages & Records –  °F 
Date Average
Low
Average
High
Record
Low
Record
High
Average
Precipitation
Average
Snow
January 19° 38° -21° (1963) 63° (1986) 0.64″ 6.3″
February 23° 45° -10° (1989) 68° (1976) 0.43″ 5.9″
March 28° 53° 3° (1966) 80° (2004) 0.68″ 5″
April 34° 62° 10° (1980) 86° (1981) 0.56″ 1.2″
May 42° 71° 19° (1967) 92° (2002) 0.65″ 0.5″
June 52° 82° 26° (1974) 99° (2007) 0.57″ 0″
July 57° 86° 45° (1995) 100° (2007) 1.46″ 0″
August 55° 83° 35° (2000) 94° (1996) 1.84″ 0″
September 49° 76° 25° (1971) 90° (2004) 1.04″ 0″
October 39° 64° 14° (1993) 81° (1963) 1.04″ 1″
November 27° 49° -6° (1976) 76° (1977) 0.79″ 3.1″
December 21° 40° -12° (1990) 63° (1999) 0.53″ 7″

Tip 4:  Think about your Safety:

A Personal Locator Beacon

When you hike in Bisti, you will often not see another soul all day.  Plus cell service is not good.  Occasionally you might get a signal when you climb a bluff but you can’t count on it.  If you get seriously lost or have a medical emergency, help could be a long time coming…if it comes at all

Hiking with a friend is a good idea. 

Another option is to have a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).  PLBs are smaller than a cell phone and weigh about the same as a couple granola bars.  They accurately relay your position to a worldwide network of search and rescue satellites in case of emergency.  My PLB set me back about $280 from Amazon, which isn’t cheap unless you consider the alternative. Plus it made my wife happy…and that is truly priceless.  

There aren’t many big critters here, so you don’t need bear spray.  There are rattlesnakes, so don’t go sticking your hand into dark holes, but short of stupidity of that magnitude, you don’t have to worry much about wildlife.

It is the desert.  Lots of sunshine, 12 months of the year.  Wear a hat and sunscreen and carry plenty of water.

Tip 5:  Rain makes Bisti a mess:

You wouldn’t think it rains here in the desert, but it does.  And even a little sprinkle of rain will turn the surface into a heavy, boot-sticking goo that makes hiking miserable (I learned this the hard way).  If rain is in the forecast, it might be a good day to check out other photo ops in the area (like Shiprock.

How do you to get to Bisti?

Nearly every photographer going to Bisti wants to go to the ‘Eggs’.  Whether you call them ‘Cracked Eggs,’ Alien Eggs,’ ”the Alien Egg Nursery’  or ‘the Egg Hatchery’ it is the certainly the most famous and desirable photo location in Bisti, so that’s where we will start:Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

  • To download a PDF of this map, click on Bisti Hiking photo map merged final.
    • From Farmington, take SR 371 south about 36 miles, turn left onto Country Road CR 7297.  It is between Mile Marker 71 and 70 (closer to 70).  CR 7297 is a well maintained gravel road (as of Oct 2018).  You don’t need FWD or high-ground clearance.  CR 7297 will dead-end into CR 7290 in about 2 miles.  Turn left on 7290 and go about a mile until you see the large ‘Bisti’ Sign on your right. 
      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      Sign at Parking Lot: #1 on the map

      This is the main parking lot for Bisti.  It is probably the location that will pop up if you search for ‘Bisti Parking’ on Google Maps, Waze or most other apps.  There are a lot of different names for this parking lot, but let’s call it the Main Bisti Parking Area at Alamo Wash (South). Bisti is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there is no fee to park or hike.   Lock up your car and hide your valuables then walk 100 yards to the cattle guard gate to your east that allows you through the barbed wire.

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      Cattle Guard: #2 on map

      From here you will see two low red hills nearly directly east.  Walk to them. 

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      The two ‘Red Hills’: #3 on map

      When you pass them, look further to the east for two distinctive black topped hills and head toward them. 

      Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

      The two Black Top Hills: #4 on map

       When you reach them, hike around the left (north) side of the two hills.  You should see black topped white cliffs in the distance to the east.  The “Alien Egg Hatchery” is right up against that white colored bluff/cliff that is part of the elevated ridge-line south of you that runs east/west.  The actual area is about half the size of a football field.  The “eggs” are about 3 to 4 feet long but can be hard to spot until you are nearly on top of them (I wandered around for 30 minutes the first time).   Use your smartphone app and it will take you right to them.  From the parking lot, it should take you about 35-45 minutes to reach the eggs (assuming you don’t stop or take any detours on the way). 

    • After checking out the eggs, there are a lot of other spots you can explore and photograph.  Below I’ll review a number of the most popular locations and provide photographic tips

Photo Tips for Bisti’s Top Attractions

South Bisti:

The Alien Egg Nursery (Cracked Eggs): #5 on maps

  • The Eggs look best right after sunrise or shortly before sunset when low angle direct sunlight emphasizes the shadows and textures on the eggs.  Of the two, sunset is often better because the bluff to the east of the Nursery blocks sunrise light until it is a bit higher in the sky. 
    • This is one of the few places (other than the parking lot) that you are likely to see other people.  You will often have other photographers keeping you company at sunset (but rarely any other time of day).
    • Get there early so you can scout out the eggs.  Some of them are much cooler than others.  Remember, the good light doesn’t last long and you don’t want to be stumbling about frantically trying to figure out where to shoot as the sun goes down…plan ahead and use that time productively.
  • Don’t only shoot from eye-level, try getting lower to the ground for a different and more intimate perspective.   Try to pick out a particularly nice ‘egg’ and get close so it fills up your foreground.
  • Night photography here is awesome with very little light pollution.  You can shoot the Milky Way to the south or flip around and shoot northward to capture star trails including the north star.
  • If you only have one day and you can’t be here at sunrise/sunset, then you should know that  the eggs just don’t photograph well during the middle of the day.  If that’s your only option then do yourself a favor and don’t spend too much time here, instead hit some other nearby locations that look great in direct light.  Most of them are only a 30 minute hike away and are detailed below in the section called ‘North Bisti’).
    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    Sunset at the Alien Egg Nursery. Check out the organic patterns on the surface of this egg.

    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    If the sky is clear on the horizon, you will be blessed with this dramatic low-angle warm sunlight.

    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Alien Egg Hatchery

    A subtle amount of Low Level Lighting on the foreground and across the desert floor in the background can make Milky Way Shots truly something out of this world.

The Bisti Arch: #6 on maps

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Bisti Arch. If my three year old granddaughter was in this shot she would look like Godzilla looming over Tokyo!

  • This spot is less than a 10 minute walk from the eggs and based on the number of references to it on the internet, it seems to be popular but I can’t for the life of me tell you why.
  • First off, it is really small…the ‘window’ is less than two feet tall.  Not exactly what you would see at Arches National Park!
  • If you set up your tripod very low to the ground, you can make it look larger (see photo) but even so, the results aren’t dramatic.  I’m sure someone, someday will take a great shot of the Bisti Arch, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be me.

Petrified Wood Logs: # 7 on maps

There is petrified wood all over Bisti, but the largest concentration might be just east of the eggs.  Some of these are full logs, many over 30′ in length.  I ran across 5 or 6 of them within 30 minutes.  I’ll admit that I’m fascinated by petrified wood but even if you don’t share my interest, this area is worth a look. 

From the ‘eggs’, walk east along the bluff/wall that overlooks the eggs.  There are a number of little alcoves, each with some photographic gems and oddities, like this hoodoo shown below with a chuck of petrified wood perched on top:

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

I’ve seen a lot of hoodoos in my time, but this was a first!

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This log weaves in and out of the cliffside…

The first log is east of the Nursery around two small outcrops of light colored rock projecting out from the bluff that borders the badlands to the south of you.  It’s a long, nearly black log that rests on a 5′ tall white rock pedestal. It’s pretty neat but I have always found it difficult to capture its appeal in a photograph.

Just behind the bluff behind this log is a large flat area surrounded by walls.  Just continue walking east about 500 feet and look for an opening through the wall to your right.  Once you get into this area, you will find a number of huge logs .   

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Check out the root ball on this petrified cypress tree. Bisti is one of the few places where you will be able to make an image that has BOTH a hoodoo and a petrified log!

 

Hoodoo City:  #8 on map

This is a dense concentration of hoodoos close to #7.  They are in a depressed ‘amphitheater-like’ setting.  It is best photographed after the sun rises over the surrounding walls..

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

“Welcome to Hoodoo City N.M.    Population Zero”

Rock Garden:  #9 on map

The Bisti Rock Garden is an area with lots of small rounded rocks that photograph well near sunrise/sunset when the low angle light accentuates long shadows  There are also some small (7′ tall or less) hoodoos a bit to the west but they are not particularly photogenic during the middle of the day.   

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The so-called ‘Elegant Hoodoo’ is about five minutes from the Rock Garden

Since there are much more photogenic places at Bisti for sunrises and sunsets, I never spend much time here.  Instead I start heading north where you will find the highest concentration of great photo ops.  Pull up your GPS app on your phone and follow it to the Beige Hoodoos. 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Bisti Rock Garden…

North Bisti

Beige Hoodoos:  #10 on map

As you hike out of the wide and flat Alamo Wash, your GPS will lead you through some increasingly narrow valleys as you hike in a northerly direction.  If you are heading here from the eggs, it will take you about 30 minutes or so.  The Beige Hoodoos cover a substantial area…think of one or football fields…packed with squat 6′ tall hoodoos jammed together.  Plan on spending some time here.  There are so many hoodoos that it can be overwhelming and you might have a tendency to take wide-angle shots in an effort to get them all in a single frame (like I did below).  However many of these hoodoos are fascinating by themselves so invest some effort into photographing them as individuals as well.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Beige Hoodoos are a large and enjoyable area for you to explore.

Manta Ray Wing:  #11 on map

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

This is the view of the Manta as you walk up to it from below…

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

…but from another perspective it looks totally different…

As you follow your GPS app and walk north and east from the Beige Hoodoos, the pathways become narrower and more constructed.  Take your time, watch your footing and you’ll be fine. 

The Manta Ray is one of the more attractive wings you will see while winding through the little dry creeks.  Stop every few minutes and check out the surrounding ridgelines so you don’t miss the photographic opportunities  that populate this area. 

The Manta can look dramatically different depending on what angle you photograph it from. 

Even though I thought I had examined it from every angle, I was wrong.  A photographer named Mike Jones captured this perspective that makes it look like a F117 fighter jet!

Vanilla Hoodoos:  #12 on map

As the name implies, these hoodoos are very light in color and look quite dramatic when photographed in front of a nice cerulean blue sky.  Not as large an area as the Beige Hoodoos, but perhaps even more photogenic. 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

The Vanilla Hoodoos are filled with fantastically shaped monuments that will fill quickly up your memory cards.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

I call this one the ‘Star Destroyer’…one of many the many delights awaiting you in the Vanilla Hoodoos.

There is also quite a bit of petrified wood in this area

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

A stump of petrified wood provides foreground for the Vanilla Hoodoos…

Stone Wings:  #13

As you are  hiking in from the south (from the Eggs or Beige Hoodoos), you will have to negotiate some uneven footing and narrow passages.  Again, just be careful and don’t rush.  Other than the Eggs, the Stone Wings are probably Bisti’s most famous photo op.   These large wings are perched on an easily accessible bluff and are truly magnificent…certainly among the most photogenic I’ve seen anywhere.  Wonderful at sunrise and sunset and easy to photograph from multiple angles and perspectives.  It is also an absolutely incredible location for night photography. 

Bisti Badlands: star trails Stone Wings night photography

If you position yourself south of the stone wings, you can shoot great star trails with the north star anchoring the image.

Bisti Badlands Milky Way Night Photography Stone Wings

If you walk up the bluff that the stone wings are perched on, you can shoot them with the Milky Way visible to the south.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Stone Wings

The warm, orange light of sunrise illuminates the Stone Wings in all their glory. The wing on the right reminds me of a Klingon Battle Cruiser but from other angles it looks like a seal. Either way it is likely to be one of the most uniquely sculpted and sensuous wings you will see anywhere.

Conversing Hoodoos:  #14

These tall, elegant Hoodoos are one of my favorite spots in Bisti…right up there with the ‘eggs’ and ‘stone wings.’  Unlike many hoodoos here, these suckers are tall…easily 15′ or so and they sit on the side of a bluff with a commanding view of the valley (Hunter Wash).  The best light here is during the morning because of a bluff behind them (to the west) that blocks sunlight in late afternoon, but good photos can be taken here all day.  Don’t be afraid to explore around them for better angles.  The shot below was taken hand-held while on my back wedged in a crevice trying to capture that elusive afternoon light.  Desperation can definitely inspire creativity!  FYI…some folks call these the “Talking Hoodoos” or the “Bonnet Hoodoos.”

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Tatooine? Altair IV? Vulcan? Nope…just another couple Hoodoos in Bisti!   I think the Conversing Hoodoos are particularly photographic and the surrounding vista and dramatic clouds are just icing on the cake.

There is a whole lot more to photograph in Bisti and I’m sure that there are wonderful locations that I’ve failed to include in this blog.  One great source to find other locations is the Bisti Facebook page.  Many of the members are locals who know the area far better than I and they post some amazing photos.  You can also check out this link to an interactive Google map that explores additional locations that may interest you.

Now that we’ve reviewed the photo locations, lets finish up by going over some final tips…

Tip 6:  Try Hunter Wash on your second day:

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers Map

Bisti North (Hunter Wash) Trailhead directions

As you may have already noticed, most of the really good photogenic stuff here is not around the Eggs….it is in the northern section of Bisti.   If you are going to visit for more than one day then you should concentrate on the northern area on your second day.  If so, then the Bisti Parking Area at Hunter Wash (North) is where you want to go. 

To download a PDF of this map click on Map North Parking lot.

This trail has a couple of big advantages:

  1. It it closer to the northern part of Bisti and will save you over an hour (round trip) of hiking (assuming you are not going to go to the Eggs again). 
  2. If you want to photograph the Stone Wings, Conversing Hoodoos, Beige Hoodoos or Vanilla Hoodoos at sunset, sunrise or after dark, this is a safer route for hiking than from the main parking area.  This is because it will allow you to avoid most of the awkward and difficult trails you would have to use if you try to hike in from the southern part of Bisti (from the main parking lot/eggs area.)

As noted on my graphic, there are some watch-outs:

  1. This parking area is a bit harder to find but with the directions on this map you shouldn’t have any problems during daylight hours. 
  2. Nighttime is another story.  As you get close to the parking area it can be hard to even see the road …if not careful, you could make wrong turn or mistake a ‘path’ for a road and end up getting stuck in loose sand.  If you are going to park here in the dark, scout it out during daylight first.
  3. These roads are not maintained as regularly as those leading to the Main Parking Area at Alamo Wash (South). 
    Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

    The cattle guard at the Hunter Wash trailhead. #15 on map above

    They are dirt, not gravel but a regular passenger car should have no problems (as of Oct 2018)

  4. This parking area can flood after rainfall.  Avoid parking here if rain is forecasted.

For details on how to hike to the ‘stone wings’ from the parking area check out a ‘track’ I recorded on All Trails for this hike, you can see it here.

Tip 7: Get out of the Gutter

Look for the white areas and then go check them out.

When hiking in Bisti, your natural tendency is to walk in the washes (flat valley areas).  Instead, occasionally climb up on the little hills and bluffs and scout around.  Although it is a bit more work, you will find that often some really interesting stuff is pretty close but you just couldn’t see it from down in the washes.   When you do get on top of a hill, look for white colored areas (as opposed to the regular darker coffee-colored landscape).  These lighter areas are usually the ones that have most photographic interest  (like hoodoos/wings).   

Tip 8: Don’t Believe in First Impressions

When you first walk up to a new hoodoo or wing, resist the temptation to just start taking photos.  Instead, walk completely around it.  Look at it from different angles and different elevations (low to the ground vs eye level).  Nearly always the best composition will NOT be the first one you see.  I have missed some great opportunities by not following my own advice here (like the Manta Ray I already mentioned).

Tip 9:  Walking on Sunshine

Stone Wings at Bisti Badlands Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Even at noon, you can capture wonderful images at Bisti.

Don’t shoot only at sunrise and sunset.  Certainly sunrises and sunsets at Bisti can be sublime but the landscape is so unique here that many locations photograph well during day.  Hoodoos and petrified wood, in particular, can be stunning, especially if you have a brilliant blue sky for contrast.  The only downside is that you won’t have anytime for sleep, especially if you hike out early for sunrise, shoot all day, capture the sunset and then stick around for some night photography….   But isn’t that a wonderful problem to have?

Tip 10:  Water is Good for more than Drinking

Spray some water on petrified wood before you photograph it.  The water can really make the color pop .

Tip 11:  Forget the Flip-Flops

Although the footing in most of Bisti is good, I’d recommend boots with good ankle support.  I stumbled a few times (especially when out in the dark)….you really don’t want to break an ankle here.

Tip 12:  Bring your Tripod and Polarizer

Even during bright sunshine,  I find that I often need my tripod because of the need to get a wide depth of field.  Obviously this requires smaller apertures and longer shutter speeds which make a tripod critical. 

A polarizer is great for intensifying the incredible blue skies.  

Tip 13:  Save weight on Lenses

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Monochrome Magic at Bisti: The Conversing Hoodoos

During daylight photography at Bisti, I use my 24mm-70mm zoom for over 80% of my shots (on a full frame camera).  You won’t have much need for a long lenses here.

You might want to bring a wide angle lens.  I used my 14.0-24.0 mm f/2.8 when photographing the eggs so I could get a frame filling egg in the foreground and still show the landscape behind it.  This was my go-to lens for night photography as well,

If you are into micro photography, you might be interested in the lichens that grow on the petrified wood, if so, bring that micro lens.

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Lichens live off of the minerals composing Bisti’s Petrified Wood

Tip 14:  Dust Control

The sand/dust in Bisti can be pretty pervasive.  Bring lots of Microfiber cloths and maybe a small can of compressed air.  Change lenses sparingly.  Also, bring a small towel to put down underneath your backpack when you take it off.  This will keep dust from sticking to your backpack and coating your gear inside.

One last tip:  Don’t forget about Black and White 

It is easy to get enamored with the incredibly blue skies and their contrast with the light-colored hoodoos and wings.  But that very contrast can make for dramatic black and white images, especially if you are blessed with some wicked clouds.  

But don’t despair if blue skies aren’t to be seen,  Overcast skies can really be used to great advantage in Black & White.  Actually, eliminating color can serve to draw attention to the bizarre shapes and textures that are unique to Bisti (see ‘Desert Dreadnaught’ below). 

“Desert Dreadnaught”

 

Wrapping up

If you do make it out to Bisti and you found this guide helpful, then I’d ask for a small favor in return.  Just pop me a brief email and tell me about one thing I left out…or got wrong.  I’d like to make this a living document that helps my fellow photographers in the future and I’d greatly appreciate your help!

Enjoy your time here: it is a landscape photographer’s wonderland.  But even more, I’m sure you will find Bisti a truly spiritual place that you will remember long after the photographs are forgotten.

Jeff

 

 

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer’s Nirvana

In a recent blog, I mentioned a couple of hikers who made the tough 10 mile hike to reach the Subway at Zion National Park.  They spent five minutes looking at it, then turned around and hiked back.  That got me to thinking (which is a dangerous thing)…would I have hiked to the Subway if I WASN’T a photographer?  It is an amazing place… but honestly… a full day of tough hiking for just a glance.  I don’t know…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

You’ve probably seen photos of this place…maybe you were as fascinated by it as I was!

So I wondered:  I’ve photographed a number of sites that were pretty challenging to reach…how many of them would I go back to, even if I didn’t  have a camera with me?   To be honest, that list is mighty short, but at the top of it would be Racetrack Playa.

I’ll bet you’ve seen photos of the Racetrack …even if you aren’t familiar with the name (see the image to the left).  The ‘sailing rocks’, some of them hundreds of pounds rest on a vast, flat mosaic of sun-cracked mud with trails stretched out behind them.   Folks have wondered for years how the heck boulders ‘sail’ across the high desert valley floor in a remote part of Death Valley.  Theories covered the spectrum from aliens (probably visiting from their nearby home at Area 51) to some other stuff that was really ridiculous.

Something about the Playa simply fascinated me.  The images of those sailing stones just fired my imagination.  And the Playa itself looks like an image taken from a Mars space probe.

Racetrack Play instantly went on my ‘bucket list’ and I finally I got my chance to photograph it this spring.

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, covering 5,262 square miles.  My son, Ryan, and I spent our first day doing our best to hit the park’s photographic high points, including:

2016-sw-death-valley-03-04-0044-b-crop

Artist’s Palette

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0290-pano-bw-brop

Zabriski’s Point

 

2016-sw-death-valley-03-05-0386-skew

Mesquite Dunes

But I was really there for the Playa and it was the only thing on our schedule for the next day and a half…but first we had to get there.   Now, Death Valley isn’t exactly difficult to visit, over a million folks do so every year.  Getting to the Playa, however,is ‘a whole nother matter.’  I doubt that more than 20 folks per day make it to the Playa and now I know why.  It’s isolated in the far western edge of the park and the only way to reach it is via a ROUGH 28 mile unpaved road. When I say rough, I mean this was by far the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life.  It’s not a simple dirt or gravel road, its a mixture of sand and sharp broken rocks.  The washboarding is incredible and much of the ‘road’ is wide enough for only a single vehicle. Put it this way, the road is only 28 miles long but it took us about 2 hours to reach the Playa…yup, I averaged about 15 mph (and I thought that was fast!)

Teakettle Junction Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

I remember when that kid was the size of a tea kettle!

We had read about the road beforehand and knew we shouldn’t try to get there in a regular rental sedan, so we rented a modified 4×4 Jeep.  It wasn’t cheap, but it had heavy duty tires, beefed up suspension and included an emergency GPS tracker you could activate if you got stuck (no cell service on that road…or most places in the park for that matter).

I thought maybe I was being over-cautious renting the jeep.  I mean how bad could it be?  Well, in the first couple miles we passed two regular sedans that had blown tires and another that had the bottom torn out of it (no wonder the Park Service recommends you take TWO full sized spares).  Apparently towing costs are outrageous …like $1500-$4000… so I started thinking the cost might not have been ridiculous after all!

After an hour and a half of being thrown around like ping pong balls in a lottery cage, we reached Teakettle Junction.  I don’t know how it originally got its name, but over the years folks have decorated the sign with, you got it…tea kettles!  It was worth a photo and the good news was that it meant we were only 6 miles from the Racetrack.

We finally made the last turn and saw the Playa…  As I soaked in the view it became apparent why they call it the racetrack..it really is a huge flat oval surrounded by mountains that look like bleachers…throw up some NASCAR banners and I would have thought I was at the Daytona 500.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The Playa is about two miles long, a mile wide and ringed by black mountains.

We parked when I first spotted some rocks out on the Playa.  They didn’t look that far out there so I grabbed my camera nearly ran out into the flats.   After about five minutes, the rocks didn’t look any closer…so I slowed to a trot…then a jog…and then I just plain walked.  It slowly dawned on me that the Playa is big…really BIG.   Plus the rocks were out a lot further out there than they appeared and of course they were all on the FAR side of the Playa.

But I didn’t care!  I was at the Playa and I had my camera.  I spent the next few hours gleefully snapping away running from one rock to another.  The weather was wonderful.  Temperatures were in the 70s…nice partly cloudy skies and a gentle breeze.  I’d hate to visit in the summer when temperatures top 100° but in March, it was ideal.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“The Long and Winding Road”…apologies to the Beatles!

The shadows lengthened as the afternoon passed and the photography just got better and better.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Finally the sun slipped below the mountains (the aptly named ‘Last Chance Range’) .  That seemed to spark an exodus as nearly all the other folks at the Playa got back in their vehicles and started back…probably hoping to make it before darkness made a difficult drive into a dangerous one.  But Ryan and stuck around.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

The entire Playa is covered by a polygons of hard, baked mud. When the sun hits it at a low angle, the dark cracks really pop.

We were going to spend the night:  I had my heart set on photographing the Playa at night…hopefully getting shots of the ‘sailing rocks’ with the Milky Way hanging above them.  Since the Playa looked like a scene from a different world, I figured that including the Milky Way would be just be icing on the cake!

The campsite was close…less than a mile away.  It was small, rugged and primitive. No water, no electricity, no bathrooms….no problem.  I had done my research, so we knew what to expect and we were prepared…well, we THOUGHT we were.   What we didn’t plan on was the wind. The mild breezes we enjoyed during the day intensified as it got dark…and then got worse.  We live in Florida so we know a thing or two about wind…heck, Hurricane Matthew just hit a couple weeks ago…but we had never camped in winds like these.  40-60 mph gusts blasted our tent with sand and rocks:  it sounded like we were inside a blender full of gravel.  Needless to say we didn’t sleep much…  After a few hours we gave up, jammed the tent in the back of the jeep and drove back to the Playa.

Clouds had accompanied the wind and the Milky Way wasn’t visible.  At least the jeep was quieter than the tent and Ryan managed to drift off to sleep.  I just stared out the window hoping to see stars.  Around 3am the gale died down and the skies started to clear.  I left my sleepy son in the jeep and headed out onto the flats with my tripod and camera.

There was no moon and it was truly pitch black.  The silence was absolute and profound.  The Playa seemed eerie, empty and endless.  It really should have been one of those moments when I stopped, took a deep breath and appreciated the moment…  But all I could think was: ‘Where the heck are those freakin’ rocks?!’  Spotting them during the day had been pretty easy but in the darkness it proved frustratingly difficult.

The Milky Way was beautiful and clearly visible but sunrise was coming and the skies would soon start to lighten.  I kept walking and the minutes kept rolling by.  My chances of getting a Milky Way shot with the ‘sailing rocks’  were slipping away.

And then I nearly tripped right over one!

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Alpha Centauri IV?    Vulcan?   Mars?       Nope…California!

I knew I had less than 30 minutes before the stars faded with the dawn.  That sounds like a lot of time to take a picture of a single rock..right?  Well, not really.  To get a high resolution shot of the rock in the darkness, some of my exposures had to be nearly 8 minutes long…so I didn’t have time to a lot of photos.  Plus I had to focus in the darkness (which isn’t fun)…then figure out the best way to light up the ‘sailing rock’…plus I had to take separate 30 second exposures of the faint Milky Way (later I’d merge the photos together in Photoshop).

Sometimes you imagine a shot in your head and wait years to get it but it doesn’t equal your expectations.  But the shot above didn’t disappoint me a bit.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Blue Planet

I would have loved to photograph more than one silly rock, but the sky had already started to lighten and the Playa slowly unveiled itself.  As details became visible, I started to faintly make out dozens lots of those silly rocks that had been so elusive in the dark.

The world shifted to shades of blue for twenty minutes or so, then the sunlight reached the clouds and briefly burned them red.

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Sun Run”

Once the sun broached the ridgeline, the floor of the Playa lit up;2016 SW Death Valley 03 06 0761_2

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Direct from the Source

By now Ryan had joined me and we darted around the Playa yelling to each other when we found a particularly photogenic rock.  Some of the trails were truly weird, sharply cutting and darting around like a running back caught behind the line of scrimmage.  Others were straight as an arrow or gently curving…the variety was puzzling and fascinating at the same time.  I caught my self a couple times just staring at the magical and bewitching scene before me…

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

“Take me to your Leader Earthling”

Racetrack Playa: A Photographer's Nirvana

Drag Racer!

We had about an hour before the light got harsh which brought an end to our visit.   Ryan and I looked at each other and grinned that smile that guys do when they are really happy but way too old-

“Time for you to leave”

school to actually hug each other.  We ambled back to the parking lot, ate a power bar, fired up the jeep and headed back to civilization.

I’m sure some will look at these photos and think  “OK…a bunch of rocks in the desert:  Big Deal”  But if you are like me, it will spark a sense of wonder and enchantment.  I found it totally surreal and bizarre….and starkly mesmerizing.  Despite the time, hardship and treasure it costs to get to the Racetrack, I’d go back in a minute…even without a camera.  There just isn’t another place like it…at least here on earth!

Jeff

 

PS:  If you are thinking about visiting Racetrack Playa, I’ve written another blog with maps and specific tips.  Use this link for a full report of all you need to know to photograph Racetrack Playa!

 

 

PSS:  The mystery of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ has been scientifically solved (see this link for the full report).  A group of researchers actually put small GPS trackers on some of the rocks and set up cameras to take time-lapse photos of them.  Basically, when a thin layer of ice forms on the Playa, the rocks will move if there is a high, sustained wind (yup…I know about THAT!)   It happens rarely, but they caught it on tape.  I guess someone was bound to have enough time and money on their hands to solve this mystery…but honestly, I kinda liked not knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racetrack Playa:  A Photographer’s Nirvana

 

 

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged |

A Photographer Commutes on Zion’s Subway: Photo Tips

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

This is pretty much straight out of the camera. I pulled the highlights down a bit, lightened the shadows and increased the vibrance a tad…that’s it!

If you are a photographer, then you know we live in challenging times.  The source of this concern is that there are a LOT of  talented and dedicated photographers out there and they are creating incredible images.  So why is that a problem?  Well, have you ever finally got to one of those locations on your ‘photographic bucket list’, set up your tripod, looked thru the viewfinder, and said to yourself….Crap, this doesn’t look at all like those pictures I’ve been looking at!

That’s the problem I’m talking about.

Heck, you get all excited, spend the money and time to travel to one of these photographic icons….and then the real thing just doesn’t look nearly as good as those images you saw on your computer back at home.

It’s happened to all of us…no matter how good our equipment or how talented (we think) we are.

So when I do get to a ‘bucket list’ spot and I look thru the viewfinder and what I see is there is as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the internet, well, then I know that I’m truly in the presence of something special.   A real Icon.

And I’m here to tell you that the Subway at Zion National Park is one of those Icons.  I don’t care how many photoshopped masterpieces you’ve seen taken by National Geographic Award Winning Photographers …the fact is that YOU can take a photo here that will compare well to the best of them and  make you shake your head in wonder.

Yeah, but here’s the hitch (there’s always a hitch).   It’s not easy to get to the subway.  Access is tightly restricted by a permit system plus you have to be willing and able to make a long hike.

Actually, there are two ways to get to the Subway.  One way involves rappelling and other mountain climbing type skills, so let’s forget about that one.  The second route is shorter and easier… its called the “Bottom-up” hike.  Although easier, it is still about a 10 miles roundtrip hike.  And it isn’t a smooth, easy trail.  The National Park Service calls this a strenuous hike.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was certainly the toughest 10 mile hike I’ve done.  None of it is smooth, straight, level or flat.  You are constantly scrambling up and down over rocks and boulders.  Maybe this explains why less than 1% of Zion visitors make it to the Subway.

My son, Ryan, and I are confident hikers but we still took about two hours (not counting stops) to reach the Subway.  Once you figure in some breaks as well as stops for photography, it would be difficult to do this whole hike in less than seven hours.

But it is worth it!

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

You start seeing these colorful pools as you approach the subway entrance

Ryan and were in Zion this March and the Subway was #1 on our list of hikes.  We got to the trailhead a couple of hours after dawn and started down the trail.   To be honest, compared to other hikes in Zion, this one isn’t particularly beautiful.  To be brutally honest it was a long, tiring slog.  But as we finally approached the subway entrance things started to get very interesting.

Carved out from the colorful sandstone by moving water, the subway is aptly named.   Actually it is a narrow canyon with a thin opening in the ceiling but it really does look like someone burrowed a curving, round tube right thru the rock.

We set up our tripods and took our first shot.  We glanced at the result and then looked up at each other with huge, dopey smiles on our faces.  Shook our heads and got to work.  We were bouncing ideas off of each other, suggesting different angles, perspectives, camera settings…I was almost giddy.  The place is truly magical for a photographer!

The subway was a lot larger than I had imagined, the ceiling was about 20′ tall.  And the colors are amazing!  The chilly water saturates the rock which results in robust reds, fluorescent greens and subtle yellows.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

“Subway Commuter”  My son’s silhouette helps you appreciate the size of the place.

Ryan thought it would be good to include people in some of the shots.  I’m kind of ‘old school’ and was taught to exclude people from my photographs.  But I’ve come to appreciate how much a human figure in an image provides a sense of proportion and fosters an emotional link to the image.  Looking thru my Subway shots now, the ones with people are among my favorites:  who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

It can be hard to come up with unique compositions at the Subway. In this shot, I used a Gorillapod tripod to set up my camera only inches over the water.

The Subway is fully shaded and surprisingly cold, especially when the wind whips thru the ‘tunnel.’  We had a ball, despite the chill and managed to stay on our feet the whole time although the swift current and slippery rocks resulted in a couple slips that certainly got the adrenaline flowing for a moment or two.

There is a waterfall in a chamber at the back of the Subway, but the water levels were too high for us to reach it due to the snowmelt.  Something for our next trip.

We enjoyed the Subway’s magic for nearly 90 minutes before we regretfully packed up to head home.

We decided to stop for a well earned lunch at Arch Angel Cascades.  As we were enjoying our extravagant meal (Cliff Bars) we noticed a young couple coming down the stream headed for the Subway.  We waved and said hi.  About ten minutes later we were putting our packs back on when we saw the same couple heading back.  I guess they weren’t photographers.  They had hiked for 2 hours, looked at the Subway for five minutes or so, then turned around started the 2 hour walk home. Ryan and I were amazed.  Sure, the Subway is beautiful, but I wonder if I would be willing to walk 4 hours to look at something for less than 300 seconds!

The hike back seemed to take forever…possibly because I was dreading the climb near the end of the trail where you have to climb 500′ over less than a tenth of a mile.  That is one steep climb.  Of course my 21 year old son bolted up the trail like some kind of crazed mountain goat.  My 57 year old knees weren’t quite as nubile so he got to wait quite a while at the top before I clawed my way up.

Now, four months later,  the sore muscles are (nearly) forgotten.  But whenever I look at the photos I took that day, I smile and think of a place where you don’t have to be Ansel Adams or Tom Till to take a breathtaking photograph.

‘ Subway Station’ A three frame composite panorama

Photo Tips and Guide for Photographers visiting Zion’s Subway:

Normally, what you would see now on my blog would be a full length article on “How-to photograph the Subway” …but that isn’t going to happen:  Because someone has already done it.  I ran across this guide  by fellow photographer Nico Debarmore when I was first planning my trip.  His article is through, detailed, accurate and I highly recommend it to any photographer considering making a hike to the Subway.

In addition to Nico’s information, let me add a few random thoughts of my own:

Find out about the water conditions  before you hike: 

  • The Left Fork of North Creek is the stream that runs thru the Subway and it is the single most important variable in your visit to the Subway.  The amount of flow and temperature will determine IF you can make the hike and what type of equipment (i.e. neoprene socks/boots/etc) you will need.
    • The best way to get this info is to ask one of the outfitters in Springdale (the little town at the southern entrance of Zion.)  They get daily updates on water conditions from their customers as they come back to return rented equipment.
      • Personally, I found the folks at the Zion Adventure Company to great sources of info…plus they have all the gear you will need to rent at decent prices (and no, they don’t give me a kickback for this endorsement, unfortunately.)
    • I originally tried asking Park Rangers at the desk that issues permits for the hike but they rarely seemed to have up-to-the minute and accurate info (or maybe liability concerns by the management has resulted in instructions for them to be vague?)

Don’t get lost

  • This isn’t a well maintained trail.  However, once you get down to the river you really can’t get lost…you just follow the river.  But the trail from the trailhead at the parking lot to the river can be difficult to follow.  I got lost for ten minutes when I thought a dry creek bed was the trail.  Thankfully I had a “AllTrails” GPS app on my phone and was able to get back to the right trail quickly (that alone was worth the $15 I spent on it!)

Don’t get distracted on the way to the Subway.

  • We stopped and photographed a number of neat little waterfalls and cascades on the way to the Subway…don’t do that.  Hit them on the way back.
  • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo TipsA Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips
    • Why?  Because there are 3 truly memorable photogenic subjects on this hike other than the Subway (Arch Angel Falls, the Cascade just above Arch Angel Falls and the Crack).  They are all clustered near the end close to the actual subway.  If you dawdle too long during your hike, then these 3 spots will likely be in direct sunlight by the time you get there.
      • So, don’t be a slowpoke and if any of these 3 spots are still in the shade when you reach them on your way to the Subway, stop and take a few minutes to capture some images.
    • A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

      I photographed Arch Angel Falls on the way back from the Subway…by then it was in direct sunlight. If I had taken this  photo while it was in the shade I would have been much happier with the result.

A Photographer Commutes on Zion's Subway: Photo Tips

The Cascade above Arch Angel Falls photographed in mid morning while still shaded by the canyon walls. This shot was taken in March and the snowmelt provided a nice waterflow. Later in the year (summertime) the current is much reduced and isn’t quite so photogenic.

  • You won’t find a photo of the famous Crack in this blog, because I was in a hurry to get to the Subway and didn’t stop and photograph while it was still in the shade.  I really should have.  Because by the time we returned on the hike back it was in direct, blinding and harsh sunlight.  It wasn’t even worth wasting a shot.  I’ll know better next time.

Avoid the Crowds.  The Park Service allows a maximum of 80 hikers per day to visit the Subway which doesn’t sound like a lot.  However, the Subway can’t really handle more than a handful of photographers without them getting in each other’s way.  You really don’t want to be here maneuvering your tripod here around 79 of your new, bestest friends.

  1. Start your hike at first light (before sunrise if you can).   It will mean leaving your room/campsite early, but you will avoid most of the crowd. Plus, you will be able to get to Arch Angel Falls and the Crack before they get hit by direct sunlight.  Also, if you are hiking in the winter months when there are only 12 hours of sunlight, you have to start early or you will be hiking home in the dark.
  2. Try to avoid April – October.  These are the busiest months.  If you visit during Nov-March you are very likely to get a permit (for example,  the day my son and I visited in March, there were only 11 other people who applied for a permit). However, during the busy April- October timeframe the 80 available permits are in such demand that they are actually doled out via a lottery…so there is NO guarantee that you will get one  (see Nico’s article for more details). .

Bracket your shots

The Subway is at the bottom of a tall, narrow canyon, so it doesn’t get much direct sunlight.  The light is subdued and my Nikon D800e was able to handle the dynamic range.  However, the D800 is known for its dynamic range abilities, so depending on your camera, it might be a great idea to bracket your shots just in case you have to use HDR software.

'Zion's Subway Photo Tips'

Ryan and I waving goodbye at the end of an epic photo shoot!

 

I’ve never seen a place like the Subway.  It is truly unique and for the photographer willing to make the hike, it is a place never to be forgotten.

I hope you get to experience the magic yourself someday soon!

Jeff

 

 

 

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

 

 

Posted in Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , |

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Last week I returned from an 8 day photo trip to the American Southwest with my son Ryan.  He was on Spring Break from college and wanted to get more experience with his new camera and try some of the area’s world-class hikes.  As for me, I never need an excuse to photograph the southwest and spending time with my son was just icing on the cake.

So now, after flying 4,000 miles, driving another 2,000 miles and hiking 40 miles…I’ve finally recovered enough to provide a quick trip report (with pictures of course)!

We flew into Vegas on a Saturday morning, got our rental jeep and were quickly on the road out of Sin City heading for Death Valley.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

First Sunlight on Manly Beacon at Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point

I was excited since I’d never visited Death Valley.  Even better, I was finally going to see one of the locations on my “Photographic Bucket List“:  Racetrack Playa.  Years ago I first saw photos of the ‘Sailing Rocks’ and their long trails on the flat Playa.   I’ve been fascinated ever since and this was my chance to finally visit.  I’ll be writing a full blog on this location in the near future, but I can tell you it is as strange, eerie  and alien as it looks in all those pictures you’ve seen.

Racetrack Playa Milky Way

Not of this Earth? The Racetrack is one of those places that sends a deep shiver down your spine!

After a couple of days living off of granola bars, Ryan decided to treat his old man to a nice breakfast on the way out of the park.   There aren’t a lot of dining choices in Death Valley, but the Inn at Furnace Creek looked nice.  They were serving brunch and we were so hungry that he didn’t even ask the price.  The meal was excellent leaving him both contented and smiling.  But when they presented a bill for $70, they managed to wipe away that smile along with a large portion of his Spring Break budget;)

Our next stop was Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada about an hour northeast of Vegas.  We only had 90 minutes to devote to this park but could have easily spent days there.  I had two goals here:

1) Find the mysterious “Windstone Arch” made famous by photographer David Muensch, and

2) Hike out to the “Fire Wave” and catch a sunset.

Fire Cave Windstone Arch Valley of Fire Nevada

Windstone Arch is a petite little treasure. Measuring about 3′ tall it might be a home for hobbits or elves…

Many folks have trouble finding Windstone (also known as Fire Cave) Even though it is only 150′ from the road, it isn’t marked in any way and is hard to see unless you know what you are looking for.  Luckily I had GPS coördinates and walked right up to it.  I was doubly lucky because it clouded up and even started to rain.  Why was that good luck?  Well, Windstone is a morning shot…usually the direct sun in the afternoon ruins the shot.  Overcast skies meant no direct sun and the diffuse light filled the small alcove nicely!

 

 

It was still overcast so my sunset shot of Fire Wave wasn’t looking promising but we drove to the trailhead and started hiking anyway…at least we could scout it out for our next trip.  Then, nearly at the end of the trail, the sun squinted thru an opening at the horizon.  We nearly ran the last few yards and I fell over myself setting up my tripod.  This was the scene:

"Sun Worshiper"

“Sun Worshiper”

It was magnificent…dramatic and brief!  Two minutes later, the sun was gone but I was still on a photographic high.  In fact, my son laughed at my giddy mood, but I was too happy to care. After the sun fell below the horizon, I took a look behind me:  This place just wouldn’t stop…a double rainbow!

End to a memorable day!

End to a memorable day!

The next few days were spent at one of my favorites, Zion National Park. We packed in full days of hiking.  Those miles on the trail were a bit less tiring for my 20 year old son than for my less youthful body, but the images I captured were worth every last single footfall.

We hiked up Angel’s Landing our first day…this was the trail I had the most pre-trip concerns about.  Reviews of this hike cited it as one of the most dangerous in the country (six folks have fallen to their deaths on the hike) and critics warned that anyone who didn’t like heights would be sorry.

Angels Landing Summit

View up toward the head of the valley…

Zion's Angels Landing Summit

The view down the valley toward Springdale..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frankly, it wasn’t all that bad.   It WAS steep and I have no idea how many switchbacks were on that silly trail but the views at the end were breathtaking.

But then, just as we reached the summit, the weather Gods (who had smiled upon us the day before) turned downright nasty. The sun and blue skies vanished.  And then it actually started to snow. Ryan and I looked at each other thinking about how the way back down wouldn’t be all that fun or safe if the trail back got wet or iced-up.  We called it a day.

We checked off another “bucket list” location the next day:  the famous Subway.  Since it was so early in the year, we had no problem snagging two of the 20 daily permits allowed for this hike.

It was a long, rough hike.   Despite a ‘trail’ that looked like a Delta Force obstacle course,  we managed to have some fun on the way:

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

“Samson at the Temple or Stamer at the Subway?”

When we finally reached the Subway, it was everything we could have hoped for.  In fact, when I took my first shot and looked at the LCD on the back of the camera, it was one of those few moments when what I saw looked better than all of those perfectly photoshopped pictures I had admired for years on the internet:

Zion Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Iconic Subway: Living up to the hype.

And then, the long hike back…including a challenging ‘scramble’ that involved a 1500′ elevation gain right at the end.  I was a tired puppy and it was a long day…over 9 hours from the start of the hike until we got back to the jeep.  We ate like pigs that night…I figured I had burned off my share of calories!

Our final day in Zion we hiked up the Narrows.

Zion Virgin River Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

The Narrows

A big part of the attraction of this hike (even for photographers) is that you actually hike in the Virgin River.  However, since it was March and water temps were in the 30s, we actually had to rent full dry-suits to avoid turning into human Popsicles!  The good news was that the cold water kept most of the ‘fair-weather hikers’ in their nice warm beds so we had the river nearly to ourselves…which made it a totally different and far more peaceful experience than my previous summer visits.

Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Ryan looks down Orderville Canyon as it flows into the Narrows

After the hike we drove up to Escalante (near the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.)  We scouted the ‘Hole in the Rock Road’ before dusk (and nearly plowed into a herd of mule deer).

Devil's Garden Escalante Milky Way

Ryan contemplates infinity…

We got up at 3:30 so we could reach Devil’s Garden by 4am when the  Milky Way would be high enough to photograph.  As you can see above, it didn’t disappoint.  Escalante is so isolated and far from big cities that the view of the heavens is simply incredible.   We shot for an hour and hit the road again.

Ryan noticed that Bryce Canyon was on our way, so less than 2 hours later we were there for sunrise.  I had been checking the webcams and knew that Bryce still had snow…I had long wanted to photograph the hoodoos with snow!

Bryce sunrise with snow

Bryce’s hoodoos are unique and expansive….nothing else like this view anywhere…

Two more hours in the Jeep and we decided to stop in Kanab to try our luck in the daily lottery for at a permit to visit ‘the Wave.’  Well, that was an experience!…Over 150 potential people packed in a little room hoping to be one of 10 hikers who would get permits.  We didn’t win, but ‘nothing ventured….”  We actually drove back the next day to try again but it wasn’t to be.  Afterwards, during a ‘consolation breakfast’ at McDonalds we chuckled about the lottery and decided that next year would be our year to photograph this Icon!

We hiked out to Wirepass Slot on the way back from Kanab and then toured Lower Antelope Canyon.  We finished the day at Horseshoe Bend near Page Arizona.  Five photo locations in 17 hours…we certainly packed everything we could into that day!

Lower Antelope Canyon sunbeam

I’d heard that Lower Antelope doesn’t get sunbeams…I was dead wrong.

Lower Antelope Canyon Spring Southwest Photo Trip Recap: 2016

Sand Avalanche

The next morning we decided to try Horseshoe again…I really liked the soft morning light but my favorite shot was a self-portrait from the night before:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Wish I had this view from my back porch…

 

For some reason, I really wanted to see ‘Balanced Rock’  which was a bit out of our way (near Lee’s Ferry).  It is a cool hoodoo, but I can’t honestly say it is remarkably photogenic.  Something about it just appeals to me, maybe just my odd sense of humor:

2016 SW Balanced Rock 03 11 2385

Yup… a big rock

This was our last full day and we drove down to the Grand Canyon.  It would be Ryan’s first time seeing this wonder.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 11 2515 Raven

This Raven joined us for lunch. It wasn’t shy and was the size of my dog Shadow. Truly an “Apex Scavenger”!

Unfortunately, the afternoon was overcast and the light was flat.  The canyon was still impressive of course, but as photographers, the dismal skies left us a bit disappointed.

Sunset was a bust so after it got dark we splurged on pizza (SO much better than Cliff Bars)!  When we came out of the restaurant, the skies had started to clear, so we headed back to the rim.  I shot until the clouds came back and completely hid the sky.

Grand Canyon by moonlight

Grand Canyon by moonlight

We headed back to the room and I set my alarm for 4 am just so I could check to see if the weather might break for sunrise.  Maybe we could get a few decent shots before we had to head to the airport for the flight home.

Four am came quickly.  I grabbed my beeping phone and my weather app told me it was still overcast, in fact, it was snowing!  So, it was our last day and the weather looked like crap.  The bed, on the other hand, looked wonderful to my sore, sleep-deprived body.  I figured that the chance of a decent sunrise was about nil…so, of course I got dressed and headed to Mather Point anyway.

Glad I did.  I found a spot, got set up and prepared to spend a cold morning shuffling my feet without taking a shot.  But then, somehow, right at daybreak the sun managed to poke thru a clear slot in the overcast skies. It revealed a wonderland of snow, red rock and hoar-frost covered trees.  Shutters started clicking and the tourists at the viewpoint gave up a cheer (I might have joined in)…

Sometimes you do win the lottery...

Sometimes you do win the lottery…

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3206

 

I could never have asked for a better morning to be at the Canyon…it was a photographer’s dream.

2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3237

A photographer’s life doesn’t get much better than this…

To make the day even better, I crushed my son in a our first ever snowball fight (hey, we don’t get much snow in Florida!)2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3241 2

Killer trip.  Great photos.  Fun with my boy.2016 SW Grand Canyon 03 12 3441

Does it get better than this?  If so, bring it on, I’m ready!
Jeff

 

Posted in Milky Way Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Roadtrips, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The Cubs of Cades Cove

I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of bears.  Well, black bears anyway…I don’t think I will ever take a Grizzly for granted!  I live near a state park and see black bears walking thru my yard all the time.  So last week when I was photographing a sunset in the Smokies and the guy next to me insisted I see the bear photos he had taken the day before, I took a deep breath, hid my lack of enthusiasm and glanced over at his smartphone.  And what I saw took my breath away.  He didn’t have your garden-variety photos of bears…he had photos of bear cubs!

Keep reading to find out how I got this adorable shot.

Keep reading to find out how I met this cute little fella…

I had lived around bears for twenty years but realized in that moment that I had never seen a cub.  And Lord…they were so incredibly cute!   Although I had made my trip to the Smokies intent on photographing landscapes and spring wildflowers, that focus suddenly shifted.

Black Bear Cub Photography

I was lucky to find some Mountain Laurel which anchored this image.

A couple days later, I was taking a sunrise shot from the Foothills Parkway when a lady pulls into the overlook and sets up her tripod.  I couldn’t help notice that she was still in her PJs…and that started a conversation.  It turns out she was a local (she had rushed out of her nearby home to photograph the sunrise and didn’t have time to change, which explained the PJs).  As we talked, I realized that I had seen her photography on Facebook.   Her name is Kellie Walls Sharpe and a friendlier person doesn’t exist on this earth.  As we worked the sunrise, I mentioned the bear cubs.  Kellie knew all about them and told me exactly where they could be found (her local knowledge of wildlife and photography locations was amazing). Well, as soon as the sunrise had faded, I thanked Kellie and headed off to the spot in Cades Cove she had told me about.  About an hour later I was hiking across a field and sure enough, spotted a bear.  But it was just a yearling…kinda scrawny and not terribly photogenic. So I kept walking and looking.  Ten minutes later movement caught my eye near the base of a hill.  I ambled up and saw a pair of cubs…and a big mama bear about 20 feet beyond them.

Now, let me say that the Park regulations require you to keep a 50 yard distance from bears.  And although black bears are not usually aggressive, only a fool would get between a mother and her cubs.  Fortunately, I had brought my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter, so I was able to keep my distance and still get tack-sharp images.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Twins: Up they go!

The twins immediately scrambled up a tree.  Mama took a hard look at me, decided I was just another fool photographer and then promptly and totally ignored me for the rest of the day.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama checking me out…’

I lifted all seven plus pounds of the 200-400 for the first time and started shooting.

Black Bear Cub Photography

These little guys could really climb.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Well, now I really understand what inspired the first ‘Teddy Bear’

The cubs were delightful.  They played like a couple kittens…taking swipes at each other, rolling around in the grass, tripping over their own feet…just adorable.

Black Bear Cub Photography

It’s time to go kids!

Soon I noticed that the bears had a system.  Mama bear would look up at the tree…make a series of short grunts and the cubs would climb down.  Then she would rumble about a hundred feet away to a new patch of the forest and start scavenging for food.  The cubs would tag right along behind her and as soon as she stopped, they would head right up the nearest tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Snacktime for the cubs

Being youngsters, they had big appetites.  They nursed at least twice over the next few hours.    Afterwards, I think mama needed a break, so she took a good stretch and rubbed her back against a tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Nothing like a good scratch in the right place.

By late morning the cubs were getting tired.  They climbed a big walnut tree, settled in a comfy fork between two branches, stretched, took a good look around, snuggled together and started to snooze.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama tucks in her cubs for their nap.

 

Black Bear Cub Photography

Getting settled in for naptime

Black Bear Cub Photography

One last peek!

I hung around for another 20 minutes but the cubs didn’t move an inch.  And frankly, by then I had been following them for three hours and had lifted that darn 200-400 what felt like a million times.  No, I hadn’t brought my monopod.  I had figured that if I did see bears, it would be for only a few minutes, so why bother bringing another piece of equipment?  I’ll never make that mistake again…my arms were jelly…heck, my elbows still hurt now and it’s a full week later!

Anyway,  I figured the 1500 frames I had were plenty, so I left mama and babies in peace and hiked by to the old Subaru. As I walked back I counted my lucky stars.  It had been a blessing to spend the morning with my little ‘Bruin’ family observing their antics.  I knew that I had captured some nice images and even if I drove home right then, my trip would have been a success.

But little did I know that the best was yet to be. With that teaser, I’ll conclude this story.  You’ll just have to wait till next week for the rest!

Till then,

Jeff

Black Bear Cub Photography

If you don’t have floss, you just make do with what you can find.

 

Posted in Southeast U.S.A., Wildlife Also tagged , , |

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

You may not of heard of Cathedral Rock, but I’ll bet you’ve seen pictures of it.  Sunset shots of Cathedral Rock are one of the iconic images of the Southwest and it is on the ‘bucket list’ of many a photographer.  Situated near the beautiful and quaint little town of Sedona Arizona, it is in the heart of the famous “Red Rock” landscape that has captivated so many of us.  If you plan to make a trip to the area, then read on and let me help make the most of your visit to Cathedral Rock:  Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op.

Cathedral Rock perspective from Buddah Beach (location #2 on the map below)

I thought I had done a solid job researching Cathedral Rock before my first trip.  I had read How to Photograph the Southwest by Laurent Martres (a great series of books for any landscape photographer) as well as a number of other books and internet articles.  For some reason, I had gotten the mistaken impression that I could just drive up a half hour before sunset, walk five minutes down a nice little path, set up my tripod and be good to go. Well, as it turns out….you can’t.  I didn’t get a decent shot until my third trip here.  Here is what I wish I had known:

First of all, you have to find the place:

  • Cathedral Rock is located in a park about 7 miles from ‘downtown’ Sedona.  If you look online you might easily get confused about exactly where the park is and what it is actually called  (I certainly did).  Sometimes it is referred to as Red Rock Crossing Park…other times as the Crescent Moon Picnic Area Park
  •  This website provides a map and good directions.  If you are using GPS, be careful that it selects the right place.  You specifically want the Crescent Moon picnic area in Red Rock Crossing Park.  Again, leave early and give yourself plenty of time.
  • From the “Y” (intersection of US89A and 179) in downdown Sedona, drive west on US 89A.   Just outside of town, turn south on FR 216 (Upper Red Rock Loop Road). Drive about 1.5 miles and follow the signs to Red Rock Crossing. All roads except the short segment leading from Red Rock Crossing Road to the picnic area are paved
  • GPS: N34° 49′ 33.78″, W-111° 48′ 26.7114″

Plan to be at the park at least an hour and a half before sunset:

  • Why so early?  Well the first reason is because sunset will actually be 30 minutes before the “official” time because mountains to the east will block light on Cathedral Rock.  I didn’t know this my first trip and as I pulled into the park, I was greeted by an incredible sunset…but Cathedral Rock was dark: completely in shadow.  I didn’t get a shot worth keeping.
  • Second, traffic in Sedona can be challenging.  It’s one of the few places I’ve photographed in the Southwest where you have to add extra travel-time to your schedule because of traffic.
  • Third, you will need time to scout the area (see below).
  • As of June 2018, you can’t enter the park after dusk but they don’t ask you to leave if you are already there.  However, you are not allowed to stay in the park overnight (no Milky Way shots).

My favorite vantage points:

  • I wasted my second trip to the site by rushing from one end of the park to the other trying to find the ‘classic’ views I had seen in all those photographs.  The park is pretty big and if you don’t know the best vantage points you should expect to invest a lot of time scouting locations.
  • Let me save you some effort by sharing a map with my top 4 favorite spots to set up and photograph Cathedral Rock:
  • Cathedral Rock Photo Guide_0002
  • The map below covers a wider area and lets you see where Cathedral Rock is located in comparison to Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing Park:
Photographer's Map of Cathedral Rock

This map shows you the orientation of Cathedral Rock from the Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing Park

A word to the wise:

  • Don’t try to cross the river unless you have a waterproof bag for your camera.  Although parts of the river are shallow (there are even ‘stepping stones’ at one location), the rocks are very slippery.  I have seen a couple of photographers fall in the river and I’m sure it ruined their day.  Frankly, all my favorite locations are on the north side of the river, so I haven’t had an overpowering urge to tempt fate.

Details:

  • There are a slew of different passes and tickets for the multiple photo ops around Sedona.  I found it throughly confusing and expensive.  The one-day entrance fee (Day Pass) is $10 per car at Crescent Moon/Red Rock Crossing .  A better option if you are going to be in the area for a couple of days is to buy a Red Rock Annual Pass for $40.  It will allow you access to all the Red Rock areas including Crescent Moon and it also serves as a parking pass for all the scenic parking areas around town (otherwise, you will pay repeatedly for parking and it will likely add up to more than $40).  This link will take you to a website with details about the ticket options.

    Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

    View from location #4. This is near the far western edge of the park

  • Although photography is best near the end of the day when the setting sun shifts the color of Cathedral Rock into wonderful red hues, there is plenty you could do here if you have interests other than photography (God forbid!)

Equipment

  • Cathedral Rock is off in the distance a bit, so you won’t need an extremely wide-angle lens.  Most of my shots were taken between 35 and 50mm on a full frame camera (22-31mm on a crop-frame APS-C camera).
  • You will need a tripod to take the long exposures necessary to give the water that entrancing ‘silky’ look.  A tripod will also come in handy since you will likely want to use HDR to capture the full dynamic range…especially as the light begins to fade.
  • Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

    I took this shot as an afterthought, but it ended up being one of my favorites. Look for location #3 on the above map)

 

  • HDR can be really helpful here.  As a mentioned, Cathedral Rock will be shaded as sunset approaches, so the dynamic range can be quite extreme.
  • There are a number of other stellar locations near Sedona, including Devil’s Bridge, Bell Rock (covered in a previous post), Airport Mesa, Soldier Arch and the incredible Oak Creek Canyon that runs north of town.  If you like to hike, you will be in heaven.  There are an incredible number of trails that run thru some of the world’s best vistas.

Hope you get a chance to visit Sedona soon!
Jeff

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona's Best Photo Op

The ‘classic’ view from the western border of the park along Oak Creek (Location #1). This is near the ‘stepping stones’ down a dirt path about 150′ or so beyond the end of the park’s concrete walkway. When you see a small house along the river, stop at the park’s fence line, walk down to the river and you are at the spot.

 

Cathedral Rock: Tips for Sedona’s Best Photo Op

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , |

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Beach sunrise & sunset photos aren’t exactly a rarity in Florida.  Heck, with 1,350 miles of coastline, I doubt if there is a Floridian that lives more than an hour from a beach.  But from a photographer’s perspective, what might originally seem like a golden bonanza tends to tarnish a bit when you come to realize that many of the beaches look pretty much the same.  Nice sand, dunes, sea oats….and that’s about it.  Great if you are out to get a tan and enjoy the ocean, but as a photographer, I’d prefer to have some waves smashing against boulders, mountains dropping off into the surf…something other than just sand, ocean and sky.  Don’t get me wrong, a simple beach sunrise shot can be beautiful, but when I’m scouting beach locations, I’m always looking for something more.

I found myself on Amelia Island last week and I found one of those beach locations with a bit more. What do you think?:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

One of those sunrises that make you very happy you dragged yourself out of bed! Click on the photo to see a full resolution image.

I really think this is the best sunrise location on the Island.  Even better, this wood pier is easy to get to and very accessible. Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location It is located just a couple hundred feet south of Public Beach Access #31..which includes a small public parking lot (even better, the parking is free).  This is located right off of South Fletcher Ave. (A1A) at Hutchins Ave (look for the blue and white Beach Access sign marked #31…see photo to the right ).  You should be able to get here in 30 minutes or less from any point on Amelia Island. Click here for a google map with directions to this spot  Don’t confuse this pier with the large concrete one a bit north in Ft. Clinch State Park (the park doesn’t open until after sunrise).

The great thing about sunrise shots that incorporate a fishing pier is that you can just walk a few hundred yards down the beach and now get a shot sans pier:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

I liked how the foam on the bottom right mirrored the clouds above…

Of  course, once the sun is up you can hang around the pier and play with long exposures that turn the surf into that silky look:

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

A few sunrise/sunset tips for my fellow photographers:

  • Be early!  Color is usually best before the actual sunrise…often 30 minutes or more before.  I learned this lesson the hard way last year in Charleston when I walked out of my hotel room twenty minutes before sunrise and looked up to behold one of the most glorious sunrises I’ve ever seen.  By the time I got to my pre-scouted sunrise location (despite running the ENTIRE *&$^@} way), the sunrise had faded to one that was nothing special.
  • Another frustration to be avoided is when you get to the beach just in time to capture the sunrise’s peak…and then notice that your lens has fogged over.  With humidity close to 100% during the summer, condensation on your lens is a common occurrence in Florida. You can avoid this by just driving to the  beach with your windows down and AC off…your camera/lens will acclimatize in ten minutes or less.
  • Bracket your shots.  The dynamic range of sunrises/sunsets is pretty, well, dynamic!  A range of exposures will ensure that you get at least one shot that you can work with.  It also gives you the option to use HDR.
  • Bring your tripod.  Some of your shots may take several seconds.
  • Wear watershoes.  You will likely need to get your feet wet.  Otherwise you will end up running back and forth like a sandpiper.
  • If you set you tripod up in the surf, be aware that receding waves will dig sand out from under your tripod…which can result in blurred shots.
  • Move around.  Some folks scout out a location, pick the best spot and never move.  I would have missed many of my best shots on this beach if I had set up my tripod and kept it there.
  • Bring your wide angle lens to allow you to get the whole scene.  A wide angle zoom is even better since you can change your perspective without actually moving.
  • If your camera has a Live View feature, use it to get your focus perfect.  Limited light can make it difficult for autofocus to work properly.

Once the sunrise burns itself out, there are a number of other photogenic locations on Amelia Island:

  1. Ft. Clinch
    • This is a state park at the northern end of the island that features a Civil War era brick fort.

      Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

      Ft. Clinch

  2. TheFernadina Beach Lighthouse.
    • Best views are from the Egans Creek Overlook within Ft. Clinch State park or parked alongside Atlantic Ave across from Atlantic Park
    • You usually can’t get close since it is located behind a locked fence and it is only open the first and third weekend of the month (website)

      Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

      Fernadina Lighthouse as seen from Ft. Clinch park across the Salt Marsh

  3. Fernadina Beach ‘Old Town’
    • Find Centre Street on your GPS and head there after sunrise.  Park your car and take a stroll…the street is quiet and deserted before 9am so you can walk the sidewalks by yourself and capture the antique buildings in soft morning light.
    • Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
  4. Cumberland Island/St. Marys
    • My wife and I enjoyed the Amelia Island Boat Tour.  Cost is $28/each and for that you get a well-narrated 2 hour tour that leaves from the little harbor at the end of Centre Street in downtown Fernadina Beach.    You  have a good chance of seeing dolphins as well as wild horses on Cumberland Island (bring your longest lens).  You can get nice shots of Ft. Clinch as well distant views of nuclear subs at the base at Lake Mary’s.  See reviews of this tour on Trip Advisor by clicking this link.
    • Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise LocationAmelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
  5. Sunsets are a bit more challenging to capture than sunrises.
    • This shot was taken from harbor at the end of Centre Street (next to Brett’s Waterway Café)Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location
    • If you are a guest at the Omni resort, you might want to try shooting the sunset from the boardwalk at Drummond Park (on Sea Marsh Road past the Golf Clubhouse).  The sunsets during my visit were lackluster, but I’d bet that a decent one would look pretty impressive over the salt marsh.  If you aren’t a guest at the Omni, I believe you could still get to the park if you have reservations for dinner at the lodge…if so, they will allow you access thru the guard gate.

I won’t be able to post again for a couple weeks, but I have a great excuse:  I’m leaving this Friday for a two week trip to Hawaii (I know, poor me!)  I’ve spent the last two months planning every sunrise and sunset shot…dozens of hours on the internet looking for tips, eons on Google Earth figuring out angles and shadows, forever on Trip Advisor trying to figure out the best tours…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!  I’m looking forward to sharing my photos with you when I get back.  In the meantime, have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Doesn’t get much better than this…

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

One last shot….I was blessed with two consecutive killer sunrises!

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips and a great Sunrise Location

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Locations

Amelia Island and Fernadina Beach: Photo Tips & Sunrise Location

Posted in Landscape Photography, Southeast U.S.A. Also tagged , , |

Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips…an Icon that lives up to the Hype

If you are a landscape photographer, then you have seen images of Delicate Arch…probably hundreds of them.  After all, this incredibly graceful 65 foot tall sculpture of entrada sandstone is a photographic icon.  Majestic, colossal, dramatic, colorful…I mean, what more could any photographer ask for?  So earlier this year when I was planning a photo shoot at Delicate Arch, I was pretty surprised when I googled “Delicate Arch Photo Tips” and got only a handful of hits.   If you are like me, Delicate Arch is not a spot that you will get to visit often…so you don’t have time to learn things the ‘hard way’…you want to be prepared so that when you get there you are able to maximize your time.  This article is intended to help you do just that.

Delicate Arch Photo guide and tips

Summer Monsoons can result in wonderful sunset compositions…
(Click on photo to see full resolution version)

 

 The Basics:

Be Safe.

A lot of the folks that trek to Delicate Arch the first time clearly don’t have any idea what to expect.  This isn’t the typical National Park ‘scenic overview trail’ where you drive up, walk ten minutes on a paved trail, take a look and walk back.

  1. Listen to that voice in the back of your head.
    • This location isn’t inherently dangerous, but there are cliffs and drop-offs.  If you stick to the main trails, pay attention to where your feet are going (rather than looking out into the distance for your next shot) and listen to that little voice that asks you “Is this really a good idea?”…then you will be fine.  Just use common sense.
    • With that said, it is a truism that when any photographer worth their salt visits an iconic location, they want to get a unique shot.  Not the standard postcard view that has already been printed a million times (okay, we want to get the postcard shot too…but we really want to capture something NEW).
      •  So…if that sounds like you, please keep in mind that at least two photographers I know of have died at Delicate Arch.  Both of them slipped and fell.   One of them was climbing on the sheer cliff behind the Arch and the other guy was in the ‘bowl’ in front of it.  My guess it they both didn’t listen to that little voice and went a bit too far trying to get that unique shot.
  2. This really is a HIKE.  Yes, it is only 1.5 miles to the arch, but remember that you are at an altitude of 4,800’…if you are aflatlander like me, you will find the thinner air will sap some of your energy.  There is also a 500′ elevation gain.  The hike should take you about an hour depending on your pace.
    • There will likely be tons of folks on the trail…you certainly won’t be alone, so there shouldn’t be any chance of getting lost.
    • Dave and Ginger Rathbun have a detailed article about the hike that includes lots of photos, use this link to see more
    • Wear good hiking boots…you will appreciate the traction when you are trying to keep your balance on the slickrock that makes up much of the trail.
    • Summer temperatures in excess of 100F are common.  No shade.  There are no sources of water, except what you bring with you, so bring LOTS of water…at least a liter or two.  A couple bottles of Aquafina stuffed in your pockets isn’t going to cut it
    • A big hat with a wide brim, sunscreen and sunglasses will help
    • Bring rain-gear for you and your camera (unless the temperature is below freezing).   The last time I photographed the Arch the forecast had “ZERO” percent of rain…and yes, it rained anyway.   Raingear is lightweight and good insurance to have.  Also, there is no shelter out at the arch and slickrock is called slickrock for good reason.
    • If you are going for a sunset shot, bring a good headlamp. In fact, bring a spare or two.  If you leave right at sunset, you should have enough light to get back to the car lot.  But if you get enraptured with the sunset and say a bit longer than you planned (it’s happened to all of us) you really wouldn’t want to find yourself on that trail in the pitch black.
    • The arch is in an exposed area and the temperature drops pretty quickly after the sun sets.  In the summer, that is a wonderful thing.  However, if you are visiting at another time of the year you might get chilly or downright frozen after dusk…bring something warm in your backpack for that hike back.

How to find it

  1. Delicate Arch is located in Arches National Park (use this link to see their website) just north of Moab Utah.
    • If you are coming from Moab, take Main Street north out of town (main street becomes UT-191).   After you cross the bridge over the Colorado river, drive 1.8 miles and turn right into the entrance for Arches National Park (Nice big sign).
    • If you’re coming from I-70, take Exit 182 (Crescent Junction) and drive south on US 191S about 27 miles.   Turn left into the entrance for Arches National Park.
  2. After passing the fee station ($10 per vehicle per week) continue past the visitor center and then up the hill.  At 11.7 miles, take the road on your right which will have a sign for Delicate Arch and Wolfe Ranch.  After 1.2 miles you will reach the Delicate Arch/Wolfe Ranch parking area (here is a link on Google maps to this spot).  Park here and look for the trailhead on the edge of the parking lot.  The parking lot often fills up near sunset, if so, there is a bit more parking on the right side of the road just past the main parking lot.
    • It should take you about 30 minutes from downtown Moab to get to the Delicate Arch Parking lot.
  3. For those of you that like to do it yourself:  Here are the GPScoordinates
    • Trailhead of Delicate Arch Trail: 38.73563N / -109.52049W (38° 44’ 8.268” / -109° 31’ 13.7634”)
    • Delicate Arch is located at: 38.743501N / -109.499327W (38° 44’ 36.6036” / -109° 29’ 57.5766”)

 When to go

  1. Season
    • Summer
      • Hot and the crowds can be frustrating
      • On the other hand, the summer monsoon season often results in some incredible cloud formations and aerial pyrotechnics.
    • Winter
      • The most impressive shots I’ve seen of the Arch have been winter shots with a layer of snow. The contrast of blue sky, red sandstone and white snow can be incredible. Check out this shot by Gleb Tarassenko.
    • Fall & Spring
      • Fewer tourists, not as hot, but often not as many clouds as summertime.
  2. Time of Day
    • Sunrise and sunset are wonderful times to be at the Arch, but of the two, sunsets would be my first choice.  The setting sun reflecting off of the Arch’s sandstone makes it nearly glow and its colors become fully saturated.
    • Mid-Day
      • During the summer, mid-day isn’t fit for mad dogs or Englishmen.  Insanely hot and unless you have a storm with photogenic clouds, it’s just not worth your while…go hit something else in the park instead!
    • Night
      • I had planned to photograph the Milky Way rising thru the Arch my last trip there.  Unfortunately the summer monsoons resulted in cloud cover every night so I added that shot to my future ‘bucket list.”
      • Other photographers have done outstanding work of the Arch at night.  Take a look at this link to see night images by Brad Goldpaint.  His work is breathtaking and it gives you a goal to shoot for next time you visit here.
      • The walk back in the dark could be treacherous, so I wouldn’t try it unless you’ve made the hike a couple times, you don’t try to do it alone and you have good headlamps.

What to Expect/What to Shoot when you get there

  1. First of all, don’t expect to be alone..unless you are there during a blizzard or at night.  More than likely there will be plenty of tourists there and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM WILL GO AND STAND DIRECTLY BELOW THE ARCH TO HAVE THEIR PHOTO TAKEN.  But in the interest of full disclosure, I did the same..and then I took photos of my son under the arch as well.   Just expect it and be prepared to use some “Content Aware Fill” in photoshop to clone them outta there.  After the sunset, most of the tourists will bolt for the parking lot, so you can often get some nice people-free shots then.  Keep in mind though, that a human silhouette can really help to give the arch a sense of scale.
  2. Be prepared to feel like a foreigner because Americans are often a minority of the folks you will meet there!  Seriously, it can be like being at a mini UN.  I challenge you to ask everyone there where they are from…you will likely be shocked about the number of nationalities that are represented.
  3. There is a photo op that you shouldn’t miss about 50 yards before the end of the trail.  This is Frame Arch…named because you can use this arch to ‘frame’ a shot of Delicate Arch.  It is located up and to your right as you approach Delicate Arch.  Just don’t do what I did… I was so excited when I finally got to Delicate Arch that I totally forgot about Frame Arch.  Here is a link  to an impressive photo by Tom Horton showing you the shot I missed.
  4. The classic shot of the Arch is from the edge of the ‘bowl.’  This is where you first see the arch as the trail comes out from behind a wall of sandstone.  This perspective will allow you to frame the distant La Sal Mountains thru the Arch.  Use this link to see this spot on Google maps (look for theplacemark labeled “Perspective A”).  The last time I was there, a storm bank positioned itself behind the Arch…it made for a dramatic shot, but the mountains were hidden:
    A shot from the 'classic' perspective.

    A shot from the ‘classic’ perspective.

    • This link will take you to a nice shot by Dan Hartford of this same view showing the La Sals thru the Arch.
  5. If you move further to the left (east) along the rim of the ‘punchbowl’ in front of the arch (careful of your footing), the perspective changes.  I was lucky that a break in the clouds opened up right at sunset and illuminated the distant mountains to the right of the Arch in this image.  The maroon color was just incredible.
  6. If you move even futher to the left (where the tourists line up in a cue to have their photos taken under the arch), the perspective changes again.  This link will show this location on Google maps (look for theplacemark labeled “Perspective B”).  Iwas blessed with an incredible sunset here back in July, and from this spot with a verywide angle lens, I was able to capture the full extent of the scene.  See below.

    16mm glass was able to catch the full sunset panorama

    16mm glass was able to catch the full sunset panorama…including the incredible ‘punchbowl’ in front of the Arch.

  7. Panoramas beg to be taken here.  Go ahead and take a number of overlapping shots which will allow you to create a high resolution, wide panorama in Photoshop when you get home.
  8. HDR really helps for sunrises/sunsets.  Otherwise, the dynamic range will likely be more than your sensor can handle .  All of my shots on this blog were HDRs.
  9. Tripod…of course.
  10. Bring your widest lens.  This is an incredibly expansive vista and wide glass will help you capture all of it.
  11. Have a zoom with you as well, it will allow you to shoot the La Sal mountains thru the arch as well as arch close-ups.  Here is a detail shot of Windows Arch  by my Swiss friend Carlos Wunderlin.  Most photographers (including myself) would never think of framing only part of an Arch because we are enraptured by the grand panorama and want to get it all in the shot.
  12. A polarizer will likely come in handy.  Of course, if you are photographing in the Southwest, you always have one of those with you…right?!
  13. When you get to the arch, use your Photographer’s Ephemeris app  on your cellphone to see exactly where the sun will set (This app only costs $8.99 and you will be surprised how often you will use it).
  14. If you going to shoot at night, then the Star Walk app ($2.99) will be invaluable in allowing you to ‘see’ where the Milky Way will be.  The cool thing about this app is that you can key in future dates so you can ‘see’  what the sky will look like at a particular date, time and place in the future.

So there you have it.  Certainly not an exhaustive study of everything you can do at Delicate Arch, but enough to ensure that you are well prepared for your first trip!  I’d love to hear your own insights and suggestions about this wonderful place…just pop me a comment and I’ll update this article with additional info.

Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , |

Sedona’s Towers of the Virgin: A Surprising Sedona Sunrise Photo Location!

I spent three days shooting in Sedona, Arizona last week and I have some great images and tips that I will be sharing over the next weeks about the area’s iconic locations (Cathedral Rock, Devil’s Arch, Bell Rock, etc.)  However, first I’d like to let you know about a Sedona sunrise photo location that I’ve never seen discussed before…and it surprises me because I think it bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park.  I’m going to call it Sedona’s Towers of the Virgin, but I just made the name up this afternoon, so don’t ask anyone in Sedona about it…they will just look at you like you were another crazy tourist.

A 'mini' Towers of the Virgin?

A ‘mini’ Towers of the Virgin?

Okay, now it certainly isn’t as large as the real thing, but it’s a wonderful vista just the same.  And, unlike the shot at Zion, I wasn’t in a field filled with other photographers taking the same shot!  For the sake of comparison, here is an image of the “Virgins” at Zion:

The 'real' Towers of the Virgin at Zion

The ‘real’ Towers of the Virgin at Zion

Like the location at Zion, the Sedona ridgeline is lit by the rising sun as it clears the horizon and the red rock just glows as it warms up.  Wonderful spot to spend a morning.

If you would like to visit this location, here are the directions and photo tips:

  1. From the “Y” in ‘downtown Sedona (this the roundabout intersection where 89A and 179 meet), just head south 4.9 miles on Highway 179.  Here is a map on Google Maps.   GPS Coordinates for the trailhead are 34.807336,-111.769574
  2. There will be a ‘scenic overlook’ sign on the right (west).  This is the only scenic overlook on the right…all the others are on the left, so you can’t miss it.  Park and pay $5 at the automated kiosk.  This location is called Yavapai Point (not to be confused with the location with the same name at the Grand Canyon:)
  3. The trail is well marked.  Follow the one called Yavapai Vista Trail.
  4. The trail will twist and turn and will have a slight elevation gain.  In about .2 of a mile you will come to a large slick rock shelf from which you will see the ridgeline I photographed.
  5. The sun will start hitting the ridge about ten minutes after the “official” sunrise time.
  6. Take a tripod.
  7. You will need a 35-50mm lens on a full sized sensor camera…or a 57mm-75mm on a cropped’ sensor DSLR.
  8. The dynamic range of the sunrise is best captured via HDR.  If you don’t use HDR, bracket your shots and merge them in Photoshop so you avoid blown-out highlights and totally black shadows.
  9. There are great shots to be had here of Bell Rock as well, just look to the east:

    Photo of Sedona's Bell Rock at sunrise

    This location provides you with a perspective of Bell Rock that is different from the ‘standard’ shot.

If you are in Sedona, this is a great sunrise spot.  Personally, I like it better than the popular Airport mesa.  Hope you enjoy it!

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

PS:  Here is a final shot:

Red Rock in it's morning glory!

Red Rock in it’s morning glory!

Posted in Landscape Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , |

Mesa Arch: The Southwest’s best Photo Op?

First of all, let me apologize…I haven’t written a blog for a few weeks, but I have the best of excuses: I’ve been on a two week photo trip!  An absolutely incredible, 6,100 mile roadtrip with my son who just graduated from High School.  Frankly,  I’m still sore from hiking over 40 miles (often with a 35 lb backpack in 100+ degree temperatures!) but the pain is alleviated by the treasure trove of new photos that I will be editing over the next month or so.  The trip also provided a wealth of blog topics and I’ll start with a fun but controversial one… Mesa Arch: The southwest’s best photo op?

Why controversial?  Well, the American Southwest may well have the world’s greatest concentration of landscape photography icons, so picking one out as the best would be challenging.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time in the southwest over the past few years and I think I could make a good case that Mesa Arch is the best of the best.

Why do I think Mesa Arch is the best photo Op in the American Southwest?:

  1. Well, photographs like this one are a good first argument.
    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.

    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.

    I mean, just look at it!  This arch stretches over the precipice of a cliff gazing out over a breathtaking vista.  But of course, Mesa Arch’s true claim to fame is the way the rising sun illuminates the bottom of the arch with an intensity that makes every photograph look like you went nuts with Photoshop’s saturation slider!  Seriously, when I first opened up the raw files from my shoot at the arch, I had to do a double check to see if I had already worked on the shots…the orange was really that insanely saturated!

  2. A second argument is that Mesa Arch has a lot of varied looks.  By that I mean that for a location that isn’t really all that large, you can harvest a wide range of shots just by changing lenses or moving 15 feet.   For example, this image was taken no more than a dozen feet to the right of the previous photo:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    Move around and get different perspectives..

  3. A third point is that Mesa Arch is relatively easy to get to. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d be the first to admit that a location that requires a ten mile hike makes me appreciate the resulting photos a bit more than one where I simply roll down the window and shoot it from the car. With that said, Mesa Arch was my last shoot of this trip, I was bone tired and sore in places I didn’t know I had, so I didn’t mind that it was only a 15 minute stroll from the parking area!
  4. My last point has nothing to do with the resulting photographs, but it has everything to do with photography.    By that I mean that I had a ball photographing Mesa Arch because of the other photographers that were there.  There were folks from Switzerland, France, Germany, Boston, Michigan and Florida (yours truly).  Now, it really isn’t all that unusual to see photographers from Europe in the southwest…sometimes I think they outnumber the Americans:)  What was wonderful was the sense of camaraderie, civility and pure friendliness that this group of strangers shared for the couple hours we enjoyed the spectacle that is a Mesa Arch sunrise.  Folks were sharing ideas, shifting positions to let others get a shot from the ‘prized’ tripod locations and actually talking with each other, which I can tell you isn’t always the case when 20 intense landscape photographers are trying to get the same shot at the same location!  Perhaps it was the fact that we had all traveled far and were so excited to have the chance to photograph this breathtaking location that we were near giddy..even those all of us had gotten up at about 3:30 am to be there!

For my fellow-photographers:  Mesa Arch Photo Tips:

  • Stay in Moab.  This quaint and funky little town is about an hour from Mesa Arch.  It is the perfect base for Canyonlands National Park (where Mesa Arch is located).  It ALSO less than ten minutes from Arches National Park as well.  A quick look a the map and you will see that Moab is truly in the center of a incredibly ‘target rich’ environment for the landscape photographer.  There are a number of hotels and plenty of interesting places to eat.  If you are traveling with a companion, they will find plenty to do here.  Oh, and if you visit Moab you will be obligated to check out the gallery of one of landscape photography’s superstars: Tom Till.
  • You will need to leave your Moab hotel about two hours before sunrise.  Why?  Well, space under the arch is limited and  if you aren’t one of the first there, you probably won’t end up with an ideal spot for the sunrise.  It is about 38 miles from ‘downtown’ Moab.  Just take Main street North out of Moab (Main becomes Hwy 191 outside of the city) and turn left on UT-313.   UT-313 will become the ‘Island In the Sky Road’ and then ‘Grand View Point Road’. Once you pass the Canyonlands National Park entrance area (careful of the intense speed bumps) it is another 6.3 miles to the Mesa Arch parking area on the left (marked with a sign). Trailhead coordinates: 38.389084, -109.868143
  • The road is in good condition but it doesn’t have lighting and is a “free range” area.  If you aren’t from the west, then you need to know that ‘free range’ means that the roads aren’t fenced and cows can and do wander on the road.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being surprised by the sight of a black bull standing in the middle of a dark road on a moonless light while traveling at 70 miles an hour, then you know why you shouldn’t be driving anywhere close to the speed limit!  Take it easy and hold your speed down…the drive is beautiful, even at night.
  • If you took my advice, then you will be at the parking area about an hour before sunup…and you still might not be the first one there!  Mesa Arch isn’t a secret, I’ve seen twenty photographers here at sunrise shooting side by side with overlapped tripods.  If possible, come on a weekday and/or out-of-season to avoid the crowds.  Shots after a snowfall can be magical with the wonderful contrast between the red rock, blue sky and white snowflakes.
  • There is a well marked trail to the arch from the parking lot…there are a few areas that cross over sections of slickrock where the trail is a bit more difficult to see but there are a number of cairns (piles of stones) that will show you the way.   You will need a headlamp.  The hike is about 15 minutes…the trail is a .5 mile loop.
  • When you get to the arch, use your Photographer’s Ephemeris app on your cellphone to see exactly where the sun will rise within the arch (If you don’t have this app, buy it.  It only costs $8.99 and you will be surprised how often you will use it).  Basically, the sun will rise on the left side of the arch in summer…right side during winter.  Personally, I like the look of the sun off-center, so I position my tripod accordingly when I first get to the arch.
  • While the sky is beginning to brighten, use your Live View to get your focus perfect.
  • Before the sunrise, take your time to figure out the different apertures you will need for each lens you plan to use.  At the very least, you should be prepared to use two apertures.
    1. Be prepared to shoot at your smallest aperture when the sun first breaks to get a nice ‘sunburst’ effect
    2. Then open your aperture up to a hyper-focal point that also allows your Depth of Field (DOF) to be sharp from the foreground to the horizon.  If your memory isn’t as good as it once was (like me), there are easy apps for your smartphone that will help determine your DOF and hyper-focal point.  The one I use, Simple DOF, costs only $2 and is easy to use.
    3. You should also know the aperture at which your lens produces its sharpest images…this is critical if you are going to blow-up your shots to a large size.  When I first buy a lens, I look on-line for test results to determine its sharpest aperture.  I then write this aperture # on a small label and stick it on the barrel of the lens.  Maybe not a sophisticated method, but it helps when I’m excited at a photo shoot and can’t remember silly little details like this:)
  • Bring your tripod…this is a location made for HDR.  The dynamic range needed for these shots is incredible.  I started shooting with a 5 stop bracket (-2 stop to +2 stop) but found that wasn’t enough.  Even a 7 stop bracket range was barely sufficient.  I’d suggest a full 10 stop bracket…it is better to have a few extra frames than to find that the sun ‘blew-out’ your highlights!
  • You will need a minimum of a 16mm lens on a full frame camera (or a 10mm on DX sensor camera) to get all the arch in the shot.  Frankly, a 12mm would be perfect.
  • I did try some panoramas by using a sharp 20mm prime and stitching them together…but it is REALLY hard to keep the full dynamic range without using HDR.  Perhaps my next time I will try to do a HDR Panorama, by then there will likely be software than can make this a reality.
  • This location also works well with a fisheye lens…I had a ball with my 15mm Sigma FE:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    Fisheye perspective (non-corrected). Click on the image to see full resolution image in Flickr.

  • Once the sun peeks over the horizon, get your shots of the starburst with your smallest aperture.
  • After you get that starburst, MOVE!  Don’t stay rooted to the same spot.  If you pick up your tripod, others will do the same and everyone can shift around and get some different perspectives.  As a matter of courtesy, it is considered bad manners here to take your camera off the tripod and leave the tripod set in a ‘prime’ location.  Please pick it up and let someone else have a shot.
  • You should have about 2o minutes or more to work after the sunrise.   At this point, change your aperture to it sharpest setting and continue shooting until the sun is just about to slide behind the bottom of the arch…then shift back to your smallest aperture to get that sunburst one last time.  The saturation of the light on the bottom of the arch is also at it’s peak at this point.
  • Since you are shooting nearly directly into the sun, your polarizer won’t be particularly helpful unless you are lucky to be blessed with reflective cloud cover.
  • Be careful of lens flares.
  • Also, don’t pack up once the sun slides behind the arch.  Get out your telephoto lens out and get some shots of the landscape thru the arch like this one:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise

    View thru the Arch

  • Talk to the other folks there.  This is an event!  For most of the photographers there, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Break the ice by just asking where everyone is from: the smiles will come out and the conversations will flow!
  • I found it fun to use a pocket point-and-shoot to take some shots of the other photographers…

    Mesa Arch Sunrise Photographers

    Photographing the Photographers

So is Mesa Arch the best of the best?  Well, at the very least it is in my Top FiveIt really should be on every photographer’s ‘bucket list’!

Next week I’ll share with you my trip to another southwest icon:  “House on Fire”

Till then, Have fun and keep shooting!
Jeff

 

Posted in Landscape Photography, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , |