Category Archives: Southwest U.S.A.

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Earlier this year I spent the better part of week photographing the area around Moab, Utah .  I had visited once before back in 2013, but I only had a couple days to cover nearby National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands).    That visit was spent running around like a maniac photographing the highlights, especially Delicate Arch, False Mesa and Mesa Arch.  Although I was ecstatic with the images I came home with (see the next three shots), I was painfully aware that I had failed to fully explore the area’s photographic potential.  I intended to better address that opportunity this time.

Delicate Arch at Sunset

My favorite image from my 2013 visit: Delicate Arch in Arches National Park at sunset. An icon…and with good reason!  To read a previous blog with photo tips about Delicate Arch, click here!

False Kiva afternoon

I’m glad I got to photograph False Kiva during my trip in 2013 because I may never get the chance again. It was closed to the public in the fall of 2018 because of vandalism and it is anyone’s guess when/if it will reopen.

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Mesa Arch is as incredible as you’ve heard. But it is a zoo at sunrise. Don’t expect a quiet, solitary experience…but the view is worth every crowded, tripod-packed, wall-to-wall photographer minute.

Day One

I started my first morning at Moab by making the short drive to Arches National Park.  My goal was a sunrise shot that has been done so many times it is almost considered trite:  Turret Arch framed by the arch in the North Window.

 Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Turret Arch viewed thru the North Window at sunrise.

I found the view to be amazing…which wasn’t surprising…that’s why everyone wants the shot.  But what was surprising was that it isn’t an easy shot to get.  I got there well before dawn to scout around and slowly realized that to get to the spot where you can see Turret Arch thru the North Window, you had to crawl over a huge boulder that had a good 30 foot drop on three sides.  I tried it three times before I could make it.  To be honest, my heart was pounding and the adrenaline was flowing…. the fall to either side looked like a bottomless abyss as I tried to find handholds on the smooth sandstone boulder.  As I blindly lowered myself down to the other side I had one of those moments when you wonder: “Is this really a good idea?”   Yes, I do love the image I captured but just the same, I won’t return unless I bring some rope and a buddy (at least that way someone could tell them where find my body).

After my pulse calmed and the adrenaline shakes subsided, I headed further into the Park.  One spot that I had completely missed on my previous trip was a small panel of Native American petroglyphs near the Wolfe Ranch on the Delicate Arch trail.  

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

The Wolfe Ranch panel is actually carved into the patinaed stone.  The lighter colored, non weathered rock provides contrast

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

The Courtyard panel is actually painted, which is pretty rare…and unfortunately susceptible to weathering and vandals.

Over the past few years, I’ve started specifically seeking out petroglyphs to photograph. I find them fascinating and surprisingly beautiful in a stark, non-embellished way. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

This 40-year-old photo shows the art before the vandalism

Another panel I hiked to later in the week was the Courtyard Wash Panel (between Arches and Moab).  Sadly, it was defaced by some morons back in the 1980s.  The vandalism resulted in a loss of much of the color and definition but the figures are still quite striking.




As the hours passed the light became more harsh so I shifted from photographing to scouting.  But even with direct light, the dramatic clouds and sandstone monoliths still caught my eye. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Courthouse Rock is impressive at any time of the day. Processing in black and white really suited this dramatic setting.

For sunset, I wanted to capture a panorama from an incredible vista I had seen on the internet.  Unfortunately, none of the photos I had seen had provided much info on exactly where the heck it was.  A bit of time on Google Earth had narrowed it down but I still had to invest an hour or so wandering around in the desert until I found the spot.  And I’m glad I did!  As the sun began to set, a wicked rainstorm blew in from the north darkening the skies in the distance.  Fortunately, the sky behind me to the west was clear and the result left me in awe: 

Balanced Rock overlook sunset at Arches National Park with storm and rainbow

A sunset that was all I could have ever hoped for.

Low-angle, golden sunlight illuminated the red sandstone which contrasted against the dark and threatening sky. Then, just to top it off, the rain spawned a rainbow.  Truly a spectacle. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

A telephoto shot of Balanced Rock. You can see Turret Arch in the background just to the right of Balanced Rock.

So where is this spot? Actually, it is easy to get to once you know where it is.  Just drive north on the main road (Arches Scenic Drive) to the Balanced Rock parking lot.  Instead of turning right into the parking lot, turn left onto the dirt road directly across the street from the parking lot.  This is Willow Flats Drive (BLM 378).  Go about 1000 feet (this is past the bathrooms) and park on the side of the road just before the sign that informs you that this is a 4WD road (the road up to this point is fine for regular rental cars).  From here, hike about 400 feet north along the rim of the ridge.  The vista is to your right (east). 

That night I headed to Canyonlands to try to catch a moon-rise at Mesa Arch.  I’d heard that moonlight can light up the bottom of the arch (a look similar to the iconic sunrise shot).  Unfortunately, the skies were overcast and although I enjoyed the solitude and quiet of the desert at the night, I didn’t create any photographs that were particularly impressive.

Day Two

Back to the hotel in Moab, four hours of sleep and then off to Dead Horse Point State Park (near the entrance to Canyonlands NP).  I had photographed this overlook six years ago but the view was so impressive I had to try it again. This overlook is on the point of a tall ridge that allows you views to the east:

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Sunbreak at Dead Horse Point. That odd looking “lake” just below the sun is a potash evaporation pond…man-made but beautiful just the same.

A five minute walk on the paved trail and you come to the western viewpoint:

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

I loved this twisted and warped little tree that was clinging to the rim overlooking the iconic Colorado River Gooseneck.

My last trip to Moab was during the summer and my son and I still laugh about the time we tried to hike one afternoon when the mercury hit 105.  After a miserable hour slogging thru the baking sand we decided to head back into town grab a couple of cold drinks and relax in an air-conditioned movie theater.  As it turned out the A/C in the theater was busted, but at least we weren’t in the sun!

Well, the spring weather on this trip was wonderful.  Temps never got higher than the low 70s and I took full advantage by hitting a bunch of hiking trails.  One particularly enjoyable trek was the  Park Avenue Trail.  It was like I had the whole place to myself.

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Near the trail-head of Park Avenue Trail looking down into the valley.

Arches was odd that way:  when I would drive into the Park before dawn, I wouldn’t see a soul.  But by mid morning long lines of cars were backed up at the entrance waiting to get in and herds of tourists filled every parking lot and pull-off.   But even in the middle of the day, whenever I hiked away from my car for five minutes it was like I was the only person there.  I’d bet my Nikon that most visitors never get more than 100′ feet away from their vehicle…heck, some of them probably never even roll down a window.    Those poor folks really don’t know what they are missing.

That evening I made my way to the Green River Overlook at Canyonlands (about an hour from Moab).  This is an incredible, drive-up location with an elevated view of the Green River and the surrounding badlands that is particularly impressive at sunset. The late afternoon cross-lighting on the cliffs is really quite dramatic view and the colors are rich and earthy.  My favorite image of the evening was made with a long telephoto lens which allowed me to pick out details of the colorful and tortured cliffs cut by the river.

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Sunset at the Green River Overlook

Day Three

At 3:30 am I was up and heading back into Arches.   I made a quick stop to photograph Courthouse Tower which was brightly illuminated by the full moon:

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

If it wasn’t for the stars, you would think this shot of Courthouse Towers was taken in broad daylight.

My goal for the morning was one of the most memorable locations in the park, Double Arch.  A quick five minute hike from the parking area and I was setting up my three small led lights on tripods.  Over the next hour, I experimented with different locations for the lights and adjusted their light output settings to illuminate the areas of the arch not lit up by the moon.   This trip coincided with the Lyrid Meteor Shower .  It was pretty cool to see the ionized gas trail of the meteors as they burned up in the atmosphere 60 miles over my head. 

Standing alone under this massive arch with falling stars streaking across the heavens above you is a humbling experience.  It is moments like this that remind me again why I adore photography.  

Double Arch night photography with comet

Self Portrait at Double Arch. I was tickled pink to capture one of the Lyrid comets in this exposure.

Then I made the short walk over to Turret Arch to see if I could make use of the full moon.  This image was my best effort: 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Tower Arch frames the full moon

After sunrise, I crashed at the hotel for a bit then headed out again in early afternoon.  I had heard raves about the Devil’s Garden Loop Trail which meanders by a half-dozen arches along its 7 mile (round trip) length.  I wanted to do some night photography at some of the arches along this trail so I wanted to scout it out during daylight before returning during the dark.   

Possibly the most impressive sight on the hike was Double O Arch.  Double O features an expansive and inspiring view of the distant landscape through its larger arch, especially when the afternoon sun lights up the red rock.  I was there for over an hour photographing from different perspectives and chatting with a volunteer Park Ranger.  It is one of those classic landscapes of the American West that leaves an deep and lasting impression. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Photoshop Alert: No, I really didn’t climb atop Double O Arch…I just Photo-shopped myself up there. NPS rules forbid climbing on the Arches to avoid damage to the soft sandstone (and the Park guests)

On the way out of the park that afternoon, I had to stop for a quick shot of Skyline Arch since it was literally right by the road. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Skyline Arch

Although it was getting late, I squeezed in one more hike to check out Broken Arch.  Unfortunately, it was in shadows by the time I got there so my photos were pretty blah.  To make matters worse the hike took longer than I had anticipated which made me late for leaving for my sunset shot at Fisher Towers. By the time I got there, the towers were in the shadows.  I had missed the light. 

Yes, I am blatantly guilty of packing my shooting schedule full.    My trips would be more relaxing and laid-back if I didn’t plan out every last minute, but that just isn’t who I am.  Often my over-scheduling pays off…this time it didn’t.    On the other hand, all the hiking helped me lose five pounds before I returned home a week later!

Day Four

Up again at o’dark thirty and back to the Devil’s Garden Loop Trail.  When I pulled into the parking lot this time, it sure looked different.  Twelve hours earlier I had been forced to circle twice to find an open parking spot.  Now there were only two cold and lonely cars sleeping at the trail-head.   

One of the things I had been looking for the day before was an arch that faced north. 

Pine Tree Arch Star Trails Night Photography at Arches National Park

The moonlight provided plenty of illumination for Pine Tree Arch

I hoped to make a long exposure star-trail shot of the North Star through one of the arches.  At every arch I passed, I’d pull out my iPhone and use my PhotoPills app to “see” how it would appear at night.   The best candidate was Pine Tree Arch but even so it was a tight shot.  It would only work if I used a wide lens (14mm) and positioned myself in a tortured spot between two shrubs with the camera few inches off the sand. 

 To make a star-trail long exposure shot of the north star, I have found that you need to take a series of four-minute exposures…at least 15 of them.  Fortunately my intervalometer will do that automatically. 

So I programmed it, started it up, then laid down in the chilly sand and spent the next hour thinking about rattlesnakes slithering up to me looking for body heat.   Well… I thought about some other stuff too but my mind seems to go off in uncomfortable directions of its own choosing when I’m alone in the desert during the dead of night. 

I combined the shots with a free app called StarStax after I got home which yielded this image: 

After wrapping up this photo, I really wanted to get a sunrise shot at Partition Arch which was a bit more than a mile further down the Devil’s Garden Trail…but I wasn’t sure I could hike it safely at night.  You have to walk on top of some tall and sketchy sandstone “fins’ to get there…which wasn’t an issue during daylight but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle it at night.  I decided to at least head down the trail and see how it looked.

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Afternoon view of Landscape Arch

Along the way, I stopped at Landscape Arch.  It is certainly impressive.  It has a width of over 305 feet which makes it the largest arch in the world.  I had photographed it the day before but it faces east, so I was shooting directly into the sun.  This resulted in a neat sunburst but the harsh contrast and dark shadows didn’t really show the arch to its full advantage:


But at 5 am, with the arch slightly illuminated by the approaching dawn and the moon positioned so it was bursting along the base of the arch, the view was much improved. 

Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Pre-dawn ‘moonburst’ at Landscape Arch

By now it was about 5:40 am and dawn was an hour away  Between the full moon and the lightening skies to the east, the visibility was pretty good along the trail.  So I decided to try for the sunrise shot at Partition Arch.  As it turned out my fears were unfounded and I had no problem getting there safely at least 30 minutes before dawn. 

Partition Arch isn’t nearly as well known as Mesa Arch, which is kind of odd since they have a lot in common.  The bottom of both sandstone arches glow a glorious red as they reflect the light from the rising sun while hosting incredible elevated views of the landscape and distant horizon through their arches. Plus they are roughly the same size and are about the same distance from Moab. 

However, a sunrise visit to these two beautiful locals is a totally different experience.  If I had been at Mesa Arch at that moment, I would have been lined up elbow to elbow with a couple dozen other photographers jockeying for position.  But at Partition, I was all alone. 

I’m guessing that the reason that  Mesa Arch is an internationally recognized icon and Partition Arch is relatively unknown is simply because you can photograph Mesa Arch after an easy ten minute walk from the parking lot.  On the other hand, to photograph Partition at sunrise, you have to hike 90 minutes in the dark along a sketchy trail.

I was enjoying the view and solitude when I was surprised by another photographer stumbling down the trail a few minutes before sunrise.  As he set up we got to talking and he excitedly told me that he had made the hike to Partition twice before hoping to catch a sunburst as the sun breached the horizon through the arch, but the weather hadn’t cooperated…so he was back hoping the third time was a charm. 

It was!

Sunrise at Partition Arch in Arches National Park near Moab Utah

Personally, I think this view of Partition Arch is every bit as breathtaking as the better known Mesa Arch


Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP

Partition Arch has a large ‘piercing’ next to the Arch that you can use as a window for the rising sun

As the sun appeared, the sandstone started to glow as if it was living thing.  I had preselected a few different perspectives and with only two of us there I was able to easily waltz my tripod between all of them before the magic morning light faded.   All too soon I was saying goodbye to my new friend and headed back down the trail to the parking lot.  It was a killer way to complete my visit to the Moab area but I was already thinking about a hot cup of coffee and my next destination:  the Bisti Badlands.  But more about that trip later.

Moab is one of my favorite areas to photograph in the Southwest.  It is a funky, quaint little town that is a great base for photographic excursions to Arches NP, Canyonlands NP and multiple other nearby locations.  Even after two trips, there are still a half dozen or more nearby locations that I haven’t had the chance to visit…yet. 






Some Photographic Highlights of Arches and Canyonlands NP



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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 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…a pit toilet at the main Bisti Parking lot has recently (March 2020) been added…so at least you don’t have to drive 40 miles to find a bathroom like in the past! 

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
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:

  • To download a PDF of this map, click HERE.
    • 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!

  • 2020 UPDATE:  The Bisti Arch collapsed early in 2020.  Arches may seem like permanent structures, but sadly, they are not.    As it turns out, the shot shown here of the Bisti Arch turns out to be the last one I’ll ever take. 
  • 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

A little creative night-time Low-Level Lighting and you would think you were on another world

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.

Manta at night under a full moon

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.                                                                                    You will see lots of petrified wood here, including this incredible stump:

Another daytime view at the same spot:

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:

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 HERE.

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.




Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers

Bisti Badlands: Tips & Comprehensive Guide for Photographers


Also posted in Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer’s Perspective

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Can you say BFE?

New Mexico’s Bisti Badlands is one of those places that most folks have never heard of but landscape photographers  idolize as an ‘icon’.   So why is that? 

I guess we could start with the fact that the whole area was once the shore of an ancient sea which covered much of New Mexico 70 million years ago.  And…so what, how does that make Bisti cool?   Well, the answer lies in what happened after the dinosaurs (including the “Bisti Beast”) had their time in the sun   Erosion over the millennia on Bisti’s unique geology created vast areas of absolutely bizarre and delightful rock formations unique on earth.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Not of this earth…

So why isn’t it famous and packed with tourists?    Well, first of all Bisti is way off the beaten path…about an hour from the nearest hotel.   Plus, this isn’t a ‘pull up and whip out the iPhone’ kinda place.  Once you park you have to hike across a desert for at least 45 minutes.  Yes, I said desert…which gets  a bit toasty in the summer with temperatures soaring over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius).  Oh…and did I mention that there isn’t a visitor’s center, or bathrooms, or water, or food, or shade or trails, even decent cell coverage for that matter?  


Maybe that’s why you’d have to be a crazy photographer to consider Bisti a “must see.”   But to be honest, even though landscape photographers say they love Bisti, you won’t find many that have actually been there.   I was certainly guilty…it had been on my ‘bucket list’ for ten years or more…but I had still only seen photographs of it. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Cracked Eggs the Alien Egg Hatchery

The ‘Hatchery’…more about this spot later.

But last month all the planets aligned and I finally found myself hiking out into the Bisti Badlands in the cool fall weather.   So after a decade of anticipation, how did it measure up?  In this blog I’ll discuss my impressions and share photos so you can see for yourself.  If you are a photographer and plan to visit Bisti yourself, check out my free “Photographers’s Guide to Bisti” which is chock full of maps, tips and other info that will help make your trip as productive as possible. Down the road I’ll write a longer blog in more of a ‘how-to’ format with lots of photographer specific info.

First of all, Bisti really is in the middle of nowhere.  Some days I would hike from before sunrise to after sunset and see only one or two other souls the whole time.  Seriously, I saw more coyotes than people.   Other than the occasional footprint, there are few signs of mankind here.   If you are like me and enjoy some time alone, then you will appreciate the solitude.  It is deeply peaceful place.

Bisti isn’t Disney.  Once you leave the parking lot, there are no rangers, no boardwalks, no trails, no signs, no way to find your way unless you have a guide or can use GPS.  Maybe that’s why they call it the Bisti Wilderness.  2020 UPDATE…a pit toilet at the main Bisti Parking lot has recently been added…so at least you don’t have to drive 40 miles to find a bathroom like in the past! 

Bisti is about as alien as anyplace on earth.  For example, would it really surprise you to see the image below in Luke Skywalker’s photo album from his boyhood home on Tatooine?

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Would it be difficult to believe that this image was created a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?  The ‘Conversing Hoodoos’ are tall, graceful formations with a commanding view of the surrounding valley.

The area is huge.  The Bisti Wilderness covers over 45,000 square acres.  Even though I hiked 10-20 miles per day, I covered only a small fraction of the area.  You could literally spend weeks exploring here and find something new every day. 

Bisti is full of surprises.  I had done a lot of research before my trip but even so, I was unprepared for the sheer number of hoodoos, arches, wings and formations of every possible, misshapen and contorted shape imaginable.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Hoodoos, Wings and Arches…oh my!

Known as the Vanilla Hoodoos, this is one of many football field sized areas full of hoodoos you will come across in the Badlands

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

UPDATE:  The Bisti Arch collapsed in March of 2020.  The ‘Bisti Arch’ is no more than two feet tall. But you can make it look larger by getting your tripod down to just a couple inches over the sand.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Every variety, every shape, every size…





There are hundreds, if not thousands of wings and hoodoos. 

I had heard that you could find shards of petrified wood at Bisti.  Well, heck with that…I found whole trees:


One of my neatest ‘finds’ was the hoodoo shown below: 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Look again…yup that is a  hunk of petrified wood on top….only in Bisti!

Yes, Bisti was alien during the day but it truly was magical at night.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The ‘Stone Wings’ are one of the best known locations in Bisti. These ‘star trails’ were created by combining 25 or so four minute exposures ‘. I used my backpack as a pillow while the camera automatically took a series of shots for over an hour. It was peaceful, quiet and, to be totally honest, just a tad spooky.

Other than the mournful howling of coyotes, the loudest sound you will hear is the beating of your own heart as you gaze up at the Milky Way.  The nearest towns are 30-50 miles away so light pollution is minimal and Bisti’s 6500 feet of elevation ensures that the stars are incredibly colorful, bright and crisp.  

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone Wings under the Milky Way

That’s Mars in the upper left. I was lucky to have a small cloud pass just under it when I was making this exposure.

The Bisti Badlands are beautiful but barren.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The “Beige Hoodoo’s”…literally hundreds of them.

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

Badlands…as far as the eye can see.   Nary a tree or critter in sight..

By that I mean that this isn’t a place conducive to life.  No grass, no trees. An occasional, desiccated scrawny bush and some insignificant lichens growing on rocks.  Perhaps a few birds and you might even flush a jackrabbit if you are lucky…but don’t expect to see much else green or moving. 






Bisti is the kind of place that really fires up your imagination.  You see the wild shapes sculpted millions of years of persistent erosion and then your brain struggles to make sense of what you are looking at. 

For example, my eyes saw this hoodoo:

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective Stone WingsBut to my brain, it was a Klingon Battle Cruiser:



Then I noticed this one :

But my inner Jedi saw a Star Destroyer bearing down on me!


As I explored Bisti my mind kept drifting and I found myself daydreaming about Sci-Fi movies.   Apparently that doesn’t make me unique…after all, the most famous place in the Badlands was named after a scene in the classic Sigourney Weaver Alien movie…

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

This set from the movie ‘Aliens’ inspired some creative soul years ago when he/she named Bisti’s “Alien Egg Hatchery”…

The ‘eggs’ are a collection of rounded boulders, each about 3′ long or so.  From a distance they seem nondescript but as you get close they really do appear eerily organic.  The experts will tell you that they are are remnants of limestone tubes that eroded into egg shapes, but your imagination might come up with a more frightening explanation.  The Egg Hatchery can be wildly dramatic near dawn or dusk when highlighted by direct, low-angle sunlight.   At night, it just takes a little low level lighting (LLL) on the eggs to create stunning images. 

Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

An image like this only needs Ripley to jump out and start roasting these limestone eggs with a flamethrower…


Bisti Badlands: A Photographer's Perspective

The wonderful low angle sunset light really makes the whole scene pop.



























I found Bisti to be one of the most entrancing, memorable and emotionally stirring locations I’ve visited.  It is easy to understand why Native American’s consider the area to be sacred.

Just the same, Bisti clearly isn’t for everyone, but if you want to see something totally different, don’t mind solitude and can put up with a bit of walking, it might just sing to you like it has to me.


Reminder to you photographers out there:  If this place interests you, I also have written a comprehensive Bisti guide for photographers.  Just click here to check it out!

“Warp Speed Mr. Sulu”



Bisti Badlands Photography

Bisti Badlands:  A photographers perspective


Bisti Badlands Photography a photographer’s perspective







Also posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Racetrack Playa is high on the bucket list for many landscape photographers…and with good reason.  Photos of the ‘sailing rocks’ with their long mysterious trails winding off behind them on the vast mud playa captures our imagination.  Your inner-child has to wonder how the heck those boulders move and the photographer in you recognizes the potential for dramatic photography.  Although Racetrack Playa is a photographic icon, I was surprised that there weren’t many ‘how-to’ photo tips available  on the internet.   So this article will address that shortcoming…consider it my effort at ‘paying it forward.’  So to help you make the best of your next visit, here is Racetrack Playa:  Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“The Long and Winding Road” (apologies to the Beatles)


Sad…very sad.

Before I begin, let me make a plea.  The Racetrack is fragile and easily damaged…its surface is nothing more than a thin crust of dried mud.  Fortunately a few simple precautions will allow you to avoid causing any harm:

  1. Don’t drive out onto the Playa with any vehicle (including bicycles). They are not allowed on the Playa because they can leave tracks which can remain for years.  There is no reason other than pure maliciousness to drive on the plaza.  Check out this blog to see the damage a jerk in a car can do.
  2. If the Playa is wet, do not enter it.  Not even on foot.  Your footprints will remain a permanent feature on the Playa until the next good rain…which could be years.  If it is wet during your visit, please be considerate to the visitors who will follow you over the years and don’t walk out onto the Playa.

 Racetrack Playa Description

Racetrack Playa is located in a remote high desert valley in California’s Death Valley National Park.  The Racetrack is a playa:  A huge dry flat lakebed surrounded by mountain ranges.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The surface of the Playa is a mosaic of sun-baked mud

It’s larger than you might think:  2.8 mi (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 mi (2.1 km) wide (east-west).

It’s real claim to fame of course are the ‘sailing stones’ (also called the ‘rollling stones’, ‘moving rocks’ or ‘sailing rocks.’)   The floor of the valley is littered with rocks and boulders (some of them weighing hundreds of pounds and the size of large television sets ).   The fascinating thing is that the rocks have long, winding trails behind them.  Clearly they move across the valley and how that happens has fired imaginations for generations. Theories included everything from aliens from nearby Area 51 playing hockey to stuff that was really ridiculous.  Recent research  has shown that the rocks actually move on thin sheets of ice that slide across the valley during a rare combination of weather events.  Personally, I like the alien theory better, but either way, you can’t stand on the Playa without a sense of wonder enveloping you.

Getting There

Death Valley is only a couple of hours by car from Las Vegas (or 4 hours from Los Angeles).  Getting to Death Valley isn’t a problem, but getting to the Racetrack is another story.

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0406-Pano

Ubehebe Crater. It is difficult to capture this facinating subject well…at least I haven’t been able to do so yet.

Racetrack sign

Sign at the beginning of Racetrack Road

Once you are in the park, head north on Scotty’s Castle Road to Grapevine junction where you turn west onto Ubehebe Crater Road.  Take it to the end where you will see Ubehebe Crater.   At the crater, you will find a sign for Racetrack Road.  That’s where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.

You’ve heard the expression “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well, they weren’t talking about the Racetrack.

Racetrack Road is 28 miles of broken rocks, huge potholes and the worst washboarding you will probably ever experience.  Racetrack Road is graded once per year but you might not even notice:  the road is still hideous.

Note:  There actually are a couple of other roads/trails to the Playa but they are much worse than Racetrack Road.   I’ve never had a reason to try them.

  • Vehicle Suggestions

    1. You will need a high/clearance vehicle.  I’m not saying a regular sedan/van can’t make it but understand that there is a good chance you will damage or destroy your undercarriage.  I’m not exaggerating.  On my last trip down Racetrack road, I saw three vehicles broken down in the first few miles.
      • There is no cell service.  If you break down you get to wait until another vehicle comes by and hope they stop.  It isn’t a well travelled road, so you could be waiting for hours.
      • If you are in a rental, nearly all their contracts forbid off-road driving.  If you got the rental insurance, you will find it doesn’t cover you either if you go off-road. You will pay for the repairs out of your pocket
      • Getting a tow-truck here is insanely expensive…like well over $1,000.  I know people who have had to spend twice that amount.
    2. A 4 wheel drive vehicle isn’t necessarily mandatory if you are careful (and lucky).  But unless you are very experienced at driving off road, it would be a good thing to have.
    3. Bring a full-size spare tire (or two).  This isn’t a gravel road.  It is sharp, broken rocks.  They slice open tires (especially sidewalls).  I’ve NEVER driven this road without seeing at least two people changing flat tires. Racetrack Road is notorious for damaging light-duty passenger car tires
    4.  Also bring a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lugwrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand.

So, you don’t want to take a chance with your rental or personal car…and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle and live close enough to actually drive to Death Valley…what can you do?  There are only two options:

  1.  Take a Tour.  There are a few companies who will take you out to the Racetrack.  I’ve never taken a tour, so I can’t review them.  However, the tours I’ve checked on usually only spend a couple of hours actually at the Playa…and  they take you there in the middle of the day when photography is far from ideal.
  2. Rent a jeep from Farabee’s.

    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    My Farabee’s Jeep Wrangler on the road to the Racetrack

    Farabee’s rents jeeps specifically for off-road use in Death Valley.  (see this link)  Their jeeps are well-maintained and modified with beefed up suspensions and heavy duty tires, plus they give you a GPS Spot unit (this sends a signal to a satellite in case of emergency).  They aren’t cheap.  A rental will cost you about $250 for a 2 passenger jeep and another $50 for a 4 seater.  Plus, the rental isn’t for a full day.  You pick up the jeep after 8 am and you have to return it that night…or you pay for a second day.   If you want to photograph the Playa at night or at sunrise, you need to plan on a two day rental.

Driving Tips

  1. Make sure your gas tank is full before you start your drive to the Racetrack.   Gas stations are few and far between.
  2. If the road is wet, or if rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens), then don’t go.  Even 4WD vehicles can have problems if the roads are wet and unless you are an expert off-road driver, you will likely find it beyond your capabilities.

    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    A selfie with my son at Teakettle Junction

  3. Drive right down the center of the road.  Don’t try to ‘smooth out’ the ride by driving with one set of tires on the edge of the road and the other on the ‘hump’ in the middle of the road.  The sharpest rocks are found on the side of the road and you will greatly increase your chances of tearing out a sidewall.
  4. The road is narrow (not wide enough for two vehicles to pass in many locations) and there are a few blind corners.  However,  you can see dust clouds from approaching vehicles well in advance.  I’d suggest you slowly pull over and stop before approaching cars reach you and let them pass safely
  5. Keep you speed down.  I’ve seen folks take the road at 40+ mph…and although the ride seems to me to be smoother at higher speeds, your chances of hitting a pothole or nice big sharp rock is greatly increased.  It usually takes me about 2 hours to drive the 28 miles….yes, I know that is less than 15 mph….take your time, it is worth it.
  6. Stop at Tea Kettle Junction.  About 22 miles down Racetrack Road, you will run into a ‘road’ junction called TeaKettle Junction.  It is traditional to stop here for a photo (it’s a nice break anyway) and if you have one with you, tie a tea kettle to the sign. At this point you have about 6 miles to go.  Soon enough you will see the Playa.

When to Go

Time of Year

Not the summer.  Death Valley got it’s name for a good reason.  Summer temperatures hit 120 F/49C…in the shade.  Heck, Farabee’s closes for the months of June, July and August because no one is crazy enough to be out in that heat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Usually the sky doesn’t add much to your images at the Racetrack, but exceptions to that rule can be wonderful!

High °F Low °F High °C Low °C
67 40 January 19 4
73 46 February 23 8
82 55 March 28 13
91 62 April 33 17
101 73 May 38 23
110 81 June 43 27
117 88 July 47 31
115 86 August 46 30
107 76 September 41 24
93 62 October 34 16
77 48 November 25 9
65 38 December 18 4
91 63 Year 33 17

My favorite time of year to visit the Playa is February or March.  The only downside to spring is that it can get really windy.  If you want clouds in the sky to spice up your shots, then your best bet is to visit in winter or in April/Sept during the cusp season for summer monsoons.

Time of day

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0422

This shot was taken during the middle of the day. The lack of shadows makes it look flat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This shot was taken right after the morning sun cleared the mountains to the east. The low-angle light makes the image much more dramatic.

Although the novelty of the sailing stones makes the Playa photogenic anytime of the day, it really is at it’s best in the morning after the sun rises over the surrounding mountains or in late afternoon just before it dips below the horizon.  This is because sun is at a low angle during those times of the day and that dramatically increases the shadows in the mud mosaics Playa floor.  The shots to the left and right demonstrate that effect.

Also the color of the Playa is a non-descript, washed-out light tan.  However it can take on an attractive golden hue near sunrise/sunset.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Sun Racer”

Be aware that since the Playa is in a valley, the sun will set about a half hour before ‘official sunset’ time due to the mountains to the west.  By the same token, you won’t see the sunrise until 30+ minutes after the ‘official sunset’ as well.

You need to get to the Playa early enough to give yourself some time to scout around.  The Playa is pretty large and the sailing stones are somewhat dispersed, so you need to have time to locate some photogenic ones before the light is right.  I’d suggest planning at least two hours for scouting.

If you enjoy shooting at night, the Playa can reward you with incredible images of the Milky Way (see section below about shooting here at night).  The Playa is at an elevation of 3,700′ and is located well away from most light pollution,  Shots of the Playa lit up by moonlight are also amazing.

What to  Bring:

  1. There is no water, food, gas or phones (or cell service) on Racetrack Road or at the Playa.  In other words, you need to bring with you all the supplies you might need during your trip.  Especially the water…lots of it.
  2. There is a port-a-potty at the Playa’s campground a couple of miles south of the Playa (see map).  It may or may not have toilet paper.  Other than that, you are on your own.
  3. Obviously you are going to be in a lot of sun.  Don’t forget a hat, lightweight breathable clothing and sunscreen.
  4. It would be a good idea to bring some goggles (especially in the spring).  When the wind starts blowing, the sand can be hard on your eyes.
  5. Don’t forget a tea kettle so you can leave a memento at the Junction;)

If you are going stay over night at the Playa:

The campground I mentioned is about 15-20 minutes past the Playa and it has about a dozen sites which are first come first served.  They are nothing more than a small area cleared of stones, but they will do if you bring a tent.  If you happen to visit during the spring, be aware that the wind at night can be incredible.  During my last visit, the wind was so intense that my trusty MSR tent nearly collapsed and the noise and constant movement made sleep impossible.  Some folks just sleep in their vehicles at the parking lots by the Playa.

The Playa can get cold at night so bring some warm clothes if you are planning to shoot after sunset from November thru March.

Photo Gear:

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The Playa is big it takes some time to walk between the rocks. Spend some time scouting and have your ‘primo’ rocks picked out before the light is at it’s best.

  1. There is a lot of dust and grit at the playa.  Bring your lens cleaner and lots of microfiber cloths so you can keep your equipment clean.  Try to minimize lens changes.
  2. Bring your wide angle lenses.  I find that most of my shots here are taken between 16-35mm on a full frame camera (30-75mm on APS-C camera).  You probably won’t have much need for telephoto lenses at the Playa.
  3. Tripod.  A lot of your shots will involve getting real close to the rocks but trying to keep the background in focus as well so a tripod will come in handy…especially if you are shooting in low light near sunrise/sunset.
  4. A remote shutter release
  5. A polarizer will help make the blue skies really pop.  They will make a nice contrast for the pale-tan playa surface
  6. If you do any time-lapse photography, this is an incredible venue for it…bring your gear.

Okay, So you have your gear and made it to the Plaza, now what?

Racetrack Road enters the valley containing the Racetrack from the Northwest. Most of the sailing stones are located in the far southeastern corner of the Playa.  There really isn’t much of interest in the rest of the Playa except for the Grandstand.  The grandstand is a 73′ tall hunk of nearly black rock that rises out of the Playa’s flat surface.  If you have a lot of spare time on your visit, walk out and check it out.  Personally, I don’t find it particularly photogenic and would rather spend my time photographing the sailing stones.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Close-up of the Grandstand


Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This is the view from the edge of Racetrack Road about halfway down the Playa.  You can see the Cottonwood mountain ridge on the far side and the Grandstand is visible just left of the center of the shot if you look closely.

Drive down Racetrack Road (it runs along the western edge of the Racetrack) to the last (most southern) parking area near the end of the Playa.  Park here.  The sailing stones are located directly across the Playa.   If you have a compass, set your heading at about 70 ° (this is northeast), grab your gear and get going.  As you walk east across the Playa, it will at first look empty but you will start seeing the rocks after you get about halfway across.  Distances can be deceiving here…remember, the Playa is more than a mile wide…it is going to take you a while to get across.  The good news is that the number of rocks increases the closer you get to the opposite side.  The map below will help you familiarize yourself with the area:Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Photo Techniques & Tips:


  • I know I already mentioned this, but you really need to scout around during the day and have some images preplanned so that you are prepared when the light gets good at the end of the day (or right after sunrise, if you spend the night at the Playa).  The best light doesn’t last long and it takes time to walk from one rock to another plus some of the rocks are just more photogenic than others.  Scouting ahead will allow you to take full advantage of your time on the Playa.


  • Try setting up your tripod a few inches off the ground near a rock and use it anchor your image in one corner while showing the vast playa and distant mountains in the background.Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“From the Source”

However, one fascinating aspect of the Playa are the trails the rocks make, not just the rocks themselves.  They twist, cross each other and make all types of eye-appealing designs.  Don’t miss the chance to set your tripod to its full height and capture that perspective as well.

F/22 or Focus Stacking:

You will likely want to try to keep everything in focus throughout your image.  That can be difficult if you have a rock a foot from your lens but also have distant mountains in the background.

If you are comfortable with focus-stacking, it can be quite helpful at the Playa.

Otherwise, set your aperature to f/22, switch to Manual Focus and use your Live-View.  Adjust the focus point until you can get the image sharp from front to back.

Night photography:

The Playa at night is a nearly mystical place to be…as quiet as anyplace I’ve ever been.  The photo potential is incredible.

First of all, you need to know where the rocks are.  It can be surprisingly difficult to find the rocks on the Playa at night…even if you spent hours there the same afternoon.  Give yourself plenty of time to find them or mark their locations with a personal GPS device during the daylight.  A flashlight will obviously come in handy.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Midnight Run” This is a combination of two photos taken a couple of minutes apart. The rock in the foreground was illuminated for a couple of seconds with a small flashlight during a 400+ second exposure. The Milky Way shot was taken a few moments later…it is a 22 second exposure.

Personally, I like to do a bit of light painting on a rock, while taking a long exposure with a low ISO.  Then, I switch to a higher ISO (like 3500 or so) and take a 20-35 second exposure to capture the Milky Way.  After I get home, I merge the two shots together.  Click here for more details on how to take good Milky Way shots and the equipment you will need.

If anyone else is out photographing the Playa at night while you are, it might be a good idea to team up with them so you both aren’t ruining each others shots with your lightpainting.


So, that should give you enough info to help you avoid the ‘rookie’ mistakes I made during my first trips to the Racetrack.  By the way, if you would like to read a blog with details about my last trip there, hit this link.  It isn’t a ‘how-to’ article but you might find it interesting and pick up a few more tidbits of info.

Take care and enjoy your trip to one of the coolest places on the planet.  Feel free to email questions and if you have suggestions for other tips, just let me know and I’ll revise this article.  Plus, if you want to share some of your Racetrack photos with me,  I never get tired of them!




Also posted in California, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides 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:


Artist’s Palette



Zabriski’s Point



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 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!



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




Also posted in Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography 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!





Zion’s Subway Photo Tips

Zion’s Subway Photo Tips



Also posted in Photo Tips and Guides 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!


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White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield…when photographers think of White Sands National Monument,  “it just don’t get no respect.”   If you review the “A-Lists” of must-see locations for landscape photographers in the southwest USA…White Sands doesn’t often make the cut.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Sunset Panorama at White Sands

Frankly, I think the root of the issue is simply that White Sands is isolated and doesn’t easily work into the routing for a typical “Southwest Icon Tour List.”

A second issue is that White Sands doesn’t comfortably fit into the preconception of what we think of when we dream of the American Southwest.  Visions of red rock, hoodoos and carved canyons dance in our heads.  White Sands is none of those things.  It is difficult to categorize…difficult to comprehend.

For whatever reason, it took years of exploring the Southwest before I made the long, lonely drive to these secluded sands.

First of all, let’s talk about exactly what White Sands is.  Covering 300 square miles, it is the world’s largest white gypsum (not sand) dune field.  Gypsum dissolves in water, so unless there is a basin where rain is trapped it is impossible for gypsum to be converted into sand.  Well, White Sands is located in the huge Tularosa Basin which is enclosed by the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains near the small town of Alamogordo .  After the last Ice Age, a lake that covered the basin evaporated and left the fields of gypsum that became White Sands.  The Park is actually part of the White Sands Missile Range (home of the worlds first A-Bomb explosion…the Trinity Site).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Yup…the sand is white…makes for a striking image.

Second of all, those facts don’t matter a bit when you visit.  What matters is that this place is truly strange…and oddly magical.  Put yourself in this mindset:  you’ve driven hours across desert in the middle of nowhere to get there.  Hour after hour of flat, boring,  mundane, reddish brown desert.  Small, nondescript towns connected by a seemingly endless line of two-lane blacktop.  Finally, you see a sign welcoming you to Alamogordo…and before you know it, you’re passing a sign thanking you for visiting Alamogordo.:)   A few minutes later you pull up to a small National Park Service building, pay the guard, get a brochure and continue driving into the desert.  But…then…things… start …to… change.  As the road twists and curves, the sparse vegetation becomes even more scarce and the sand starts to loose its color.  Then the flat landscape begins to shift as the sand forms dune…which become larger and larger as you drive on. By the end of the eight mile road you might think you were on another planet.  There is an absence of plants and animals.  The sky is blue…the sand is white and other than that, very little color.  There is no sound unless the wind stirs.

You stand there, looking around and then you start to notice weird things…like the the sun might be scorching hot but the sand is cool enough to walk on with bare feet (gypsum doesn’t readily convert sunlight into heat).  And to make it a scene right out of your favorite sci-fi movie, you might even see rockets arch overhead (from the Missile Range).

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

Getting down low to the sand and processing in black and white can help to emphasize the drama of the scene.

This place is just not right…like a slightly warped alternate version of reality.  But…it is beautiful.  As a photographer, I was mesmerized. The landscape is so stark, so extreme that images can deliver a real punch.  I experimented a bit with black and white since it complimented the views well.  My son and I parked at the end of Dunes Drive and hiked north to get away from the few other people around and to find dunes that were free of footsteps.

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

These tracks became visible near sunset as the shadows lengthened.

It didn’t take long to get the feeling that we were the only persons alive on this strange alien world.  However, there were a few tracks in the sand, so some critters had obviously adapted to life in this extreme climate.

We hiked even further, just enjoying the solitude and incredible vistas.  All too soon the sun began to set behind the distant San Andres mountains. The orange hues of the sunset created a wonderful palette against the blues and white.  The next few minutes proved to be my most productive as I scrambled to find different compositions.

My favorite shot of the day proved to be my last one.  As my son and I were putting on our backpacks for the hike out, I caught this image of Ryan taking a last, longful look at the rising moon.

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

I consider this image to be one of the best I’ve ever taken.

With this photo, White Sands entered the “Big Leagues” in my book.  I will be visiting again!

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

1)  Bring your polarizer…it can really help blue sky ‘pop.’

2) If the wind is blowing, sand will get everywhere.  Bring a blower for your equipment and avoid changing lenses

3)  There are a few hiking paths, but those areas tend to be covered with footprints.  If you want photos of ‘virgin’ sand, you will have to avoid the trails. I’d suggest parking at the furthest parking lot and hiking north click here to see a detailed map of the park.  Also, if you want shots with only a solitary yucca plant, you best bet is also a the north end of the park.

4) Bring a GPS if you go off trail.  It can take only a few minutes to loose sight of the road and there are few landmarks.  I’m dead serious about this.  It is not a place to get lost.

5)  Morning shots are challenging because the park doesn’t open until 7pm which is after sunrise for much of the year.  If you don’t mind camping, there are a limited number of camping sites that you can reserve.  Keep in mind that sidewinders live at White Sands, so don’t be out in the dark unawares.  They do leave interesting patterns in the sand…if you can find them!

6)  Sunsets are not a problem since the park is open for an hour after sunset.  Just don’t hike so far out into the dunes that you can’t get back to the park entrance in time.

7)  Although shots taken early or late in the day provide wonderful shadows behind the ripples in the sand, photos taken during the middle of the day can also work due to the sheer sharpness of the setting.

8)  Obviously this is the desert so if you are there during the summer, dress accordingly and bring lots of water.

9)  The further you go into the park, the fewer plants you will see.  If you want shots of nothing but desert, you need to go to the end of the road.

10)  Get down low.  It will emphasize the shadows behind the ripples in the sand.

11)  A tripod will be a must if you are going to shoot in low light.  Bring a lightweight one if you are going to hike a distance into the desert.

12)  Temperatures during the summer can be brutal.  It was over 110 on the day I visited (hot even for a Florida boy).  It is certainly more comfortable during the winter.  On the other hand, the summer monsoons often create wonderful cloud patterns.

13)  The park is actually closed regularly because of military rocket tests so before visiting you should check this site for info on Missile Closures.


PS:  I love some of the roadside art I see on my travels.  This 15 foot tall road runner was in a junkyard along the road heading out of Alamogordo…

Photography at White Sands National Monument:  Tips and Guide

♪ Beep! Beep! ♪ ♫ Roadrunner, roadrunner, the coyote is after you….! ♫

Enjoy your travels!


 White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide

White Sands: Photo Tips & Guide


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Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

I couldn’t tell you when I saw my first photo taken in the Virgin Narrows at Zion National Park.  But since that first moment, this became one of the top locations on my “photographic bucket list.”   And with good reason:  the images of sandstone walls glimmering with reflected light were magnificent.  Sort of like Antelope Canyon…only with a river ripping thru it!  Last month I finally got a chance to visit this icon and I have to tell you, it was everything a photographer could hope for.  First I’d like to share with you some of the highlights and then provide some hints for those that hope to make this trip in the future.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

The sensuous curves and dramatic reflected light on the towering sandstone cliffs will touch your soul.


So, first of all, what exactly is the Virgin Narrows?

Over the eons, the Virgin River has carved its way thru sandstone to create the wonder that is Zion National Park.  The Narrows is a section where the river has sliced a thin, deep wound thru the surrounding sandstone…only 20 feet wide in some spots and the walls of the canyon shoot nearly straight up over a 1,000 feet.  Just imagine yourself standing in the river, the walls close on either side, and the sky no more than a sliver of light snaking its way far overhead.  It truly is magnificent.  And if that wasn’t enough, what really makes this a wonder to see is the incredible way the sandstone of the canyon walls reflect light…it isn’t easy to describe…almost a glow, an iridescence…heck, just look at the pictures!

My top Impressions

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Try some shots while set up in the river for a different perspective.

Here are four aspects of the Narrows that truly stand out:

1)  The light.  I’ve already mentioned it, so I won’t beat this to death, but the quality and color of the light as it reflects off of the sandstone walls of the canyon is amazing.

2)  The sheer number of incredible views.  You know, many of the places I photograph really are ‘one-trick-ponies.’  You go to a specific location for a specific shot, set up the tripod and might not even move it more than ten feet until you leave.    But the Narrows is not a single, specific vista.  Here you are moving the entire day and are treated to new views every five minutes!   I could spend days here without photographing the same scene twice.

3)  Six hours never zipped by so fast.  I know that this sounds like a long hike, but much of the time you will actually be photographing, not walking.  And I was so enthralled with trying to capture the grandeur before me that time just flew by.

4)  I actually enjoyed this hike.  Time for a confession:  I usually don’t really love hiking.  I mean, the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other with a heavy pack in hot weather for a full day…well, I can think of more pleasant things to do.    With that said, this is one of the few hikes I would go on again even if I didn’t have a camera with me.  It-is-really-THAT-cool.  The scenery is non-stop the entire way and the fact that most of the hike is actually in the river itself makes it just plan fun!  My son and I have hiked a lot of places during our years in the Boy Scouts.. but we both agreed that this was the best day of trekking we have ever experienced.  It is small wonder why this is often included as one of the Top 10 hikes in the country.

There are different hikes for the Narrows, which one should I take?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

To put things in scale, check out my son on that white rock in the middle of the river!

For photographers, I’d suggest you do the “Bottom-Up”  hike in which you trek upstream about 3-5 miles and then turn around and return.  This hike will cover most of the prime photo ops, you don’t need a permit and most reasonably healthy folks should be able to make the hike with no problems.  Another great thing for photographers is that you can catch a sunrise shot, hike the Narrows after sunrise and finish in time to head out to another location in the park for your sunset shot.

You could also do the “Top-Down” hike.  This is about 16 miles starting at the trailhead at Chamberlain’s Ranch.    It can be done in a long 12-14 hour day IF you are in great shape, AND you don’t mind that you won’t have any time to actually stop and take photographs. Photographers will need to plan to make this a two-day overnight hike.  A permit is required for any “Top-Down’ hike and you can obtain them three months in advance at this site.

Since the “Bottom-Up” hike is the one most photographers choose, it is the one I will review in this article.

 What should I expect on the Bottom-up hike?

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

See all the hiking sticks? Folks leave them on this bank at the end of Riverside Trail for the next day’s hikers

This trailhead starts at the Temple of Sinawava.  You first walk a mile on the paved “Riverside Trail.”  Keep your eyes open, there is a lot of wildlife (especially early in the morning).  At the trail’s end you enter the river and head upstream.  Most of the water is waist deep or less and you will cross from one side of the river to the other dozens of times.  With a bit of practice you will learn to recognize where the current is slowest and cross at those spots.  Photo ops begin immediately once you get into the river.   Less than a 1/2 mile will bring you to Mystery Falls (see photo below).

Each bend of the river reveals another photo-worthy vista and you will find yourself stopping often to set up your tripod.

About 2.5 miles from the trailhead (1.5 miles after entering the river), you will see a small stream enter from another canyon on your right.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

You will see Mystery Falls slipping over this bank of sandstone early in your hike.

This is Orderville Canyon.  Although it has a charm all it’s own, the best of the Virgin Narrows is yet to come, so I’d suggest bypassing Orderville and continuing down the main channel.  After Orderville, the canyon gets even more narrow and the photo ops continue over the next two miles until you get to Big Springs (when you see waterfalls coming out of the western side of the cliff, you will know you found it).  This is as far as most folks will be able to reach before having to stop and head back.

When should I go?

The Park Service doesn’t allow hikers in the Narrows when the water flow is high due to snow-melt (usually April to June).   As a result, summers are the most popular time of year to hike the narrows and even though it might be over 100 degrees, the cool river and the shade make it a comfortable trip.

Autumn and winter has fewer crowds, however, the river sure gets colder!  I’ve done this hike in March with a dry-suit (you can rent gear in Springdale for about $55/day) and I was warm and toasty.  The only downside is that the water levels were higher and the water wasn’t quite as clear.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

By noon, the light is harsh and the river is full of tourists.

Go EARLY in the day!  The Narrows can become a real zoo by late morning, especially in summer when there will be literally hundreds of people on the river by noon.  Trust me, you want to be at the trailhead as early after dawn as you can so you can enjoy the river and your photography while the multitudes are still in bed or having a leisurely breakfast.

Also, during the summer, the reflected light is best in early or mid-morning during the summers…by 11am or so you will have missed the best light.  I still regret that I skipped some shots when I first got to the Narrows figuring I’d just take the shot on the way back…but by then the light was harsh and directly overhead…plus the river was so packed with bodies that it was pointless to even pull out my camera.

Note that if you are hiking in autumn, you will find the best light in mid-afternoon.

How to get to the Trailhead

If you are visiting Zion between November and mid March, you have to take the mandatory park shuttle bus to the trailhead (at the Temple of Sinawava…the last stop).  Just park your car at the Visitors Center, which is on the right after you pass the toll-booths at the South (Springdale) entrance of the park.  The Shuttle is free and during the summer (May 9-Sept) the first one leaves at 6am  (it leaves at 7am the rest of the year).  Be on one of the first buses. Here is a link to the 2014 Zion Shuttle Bus schedule (note that it changes every year).

If your trip is between November and early March, you can just drive your own vehicle to the parking area at Sinawava.


You need to be aware that the narrows can be dangerous after a rain…that pleasant, shallow river can turn into a raging wall of rushing water coming at you in a narrow canyon with no way to reach higher ground.  Don’t take this hike if rain is in the forecast.

We photographers love our clouds. You can hear us groan at sunrise or sunset when the sky is clear.  However, clear skies are actually ideal for this location since there will be that much more sunlight to reflect off the sandstone.  If you are spending multiple days at Zion, do this hike on a day with a forecast for sunny skies.


Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

River rocks make nice foreground elements…

Since you are going to be actually hiking in the river for much of the day, there is some equipment you will want to bring that probably isn’t part of your usual kit.

1)  Buy a Dry Bag.  A dry-bag will cost you less than $20 on Amazon and it will prevent your camera, wallet and (electronic) car keys from getting wet.  The rocks in the river are rounded, smooth and often not visible.  Even if you are sure-footed, there is a strong probability that you will trip at least once.

Yes, this means that you will have to pull the dry bag out of your backpack for every shot, but once you’ve done it a few times you will get it down to a science.

2)  Take hiking poles.  Even if you don’t normally use them, make an exception on this trek.  I would have fallen at least three times if I hadn’t had these with me.  A single hiking stick is better than nothing but a pair of hiking poles is really the way to go on this excursion.

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots...

Everytime I go on this hike I find new perspectives for my shots…

3) Footwear.  Since you will be in the water a good part of the day, you need footwear that can handle it….and this doesn’t mean sandals or water shoes!  You will be jamming your feet against rocks (I still have two bruised toes!)  Wear shoes that give your toes some real protection, have a tread pattern that can grip slippery rocks…and if they provide ankle protection, so much the better.  Also, buy some 3mm neoprene socks (about $15).  These will help keep sand from getting between you and your shoes and rubbing you raw…they will also keep your tootsies a bit warmer.

4) Tripod.  This isn’t an option.  The canyon is definitely a low light photo op.

5)  Clothing.  Quick dry (non-cotton).  Even when water is at its lowest during the summer, there are spots that are chest high in the river. You will get wet.

6)  Food/Water.  You are going to be out for a good part of the day and you will burn some serious calories.  There are some epic spots for picnics.  Climb atop one of the big sunny rocks in the middle of the river and enjoy a nice lunch that includes something more elegant than  granola bars.  You can also develop quite a thirst over 6 hours and you won’t want to drink the river water.  A single bottle of Aquafina isn’t going to cut it.

Looking into Orderville Canyon...which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

Looking into Orderville Canyon…which flows into the Narrows a couple miles into your hike.

7)  Hat/Sunscreen.  Really? In a slot canyon?  By mid-day, the sun will be hitting you right on top of the head and during the summer it will be hot.

8)  Camera.  You will be hard-pressed to get high quality shots with anything less than a DSLR.  The dynamic range in the canyon is incredible.  My full-frame Nikon 800E has excellent dynamic range, but even it was incapable of handling the Narrows with a single exposure. If you also have small waterproof point-n-shoot, stick it in a pocket to capture shots of your fellow hikers and those spontaneous events that you will otherwise miss because of the time it takes to unpack your big camera!

9)  Lens.  You really need a wide lens otherwise you won’t be able to capture the full scene from river to cliff top.  Nearly all of of my shots were taken at 16mm or wider (10mm on APS-C cameras).  Your lens does not have to be particularly fast since you will be photographing from a tripod

10)  Polarizer.  A polarizer will help tame reflections and saturate colors.  It will also result in a longer exposure, which helps to produce that ‘silky’ water effect.


Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

Something remarkable around every bend…

1)  Use HDR.  As mentioned earlier, the dynamic range in the Narrows is dramatic.  Sometimes I had to take 9 separate exposures a full stop apart to successfully capture the full range of light in HDR.

2)  Only show a sliver of sky (or none at all) in your shots.  If you include large portions of the sky, it will be difficult to prevent it from overpowering the rest of your image…even with HDR.  In addition, the direct sunlight tends to lessen the beautiful effect of reflected light…which is why you are photographing the Narrows in the first place.

3)  Get Low.  Set your tripod as low as you can…and try some shots set up in the river.  This makes for a more unusual perspective and tends to emphasize the water’s movement.

4)   ISO  Since you are shooting on a tripod, use your lowest ISO setting.  This will result in some long exposure times, but it will maximize the quality of your images and also soften the appearance of the rushing water.

5)  Don’t forget people!  It’s not all about scenery (at least my wife keeps telling me so).  Capture some memories of the folks you spend time with in the river.

Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide

My son Ryan and I share a moment in the Narrows

So there you have it, tips and suggestions to help make the most of your adventure on the Virgin River.  If you get the chance to photograph this iconic location, I’m sure you will have as incredible a time as Ryan and I did!

Take care,

Picture yourself here.  You just gotta make this hike!

Picture yourself here. You just gotta make this hike!



Zion Virgin Narrows Photo Tips and Guide




Also posted in Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , |

Lost Dutchman State Park: Phoenix’s Saving Grace for Photographers

Phoenix is Arizona’s capital, its most populated city (6th largest in the US) and it is located smack-dab in the center of the state.  As a result, Phoenix seems to come up in travel plans for most of us at one time or another.  So I guess it isn’t surprising that I found myself in Phoenix for a conference a few years back with a free day on my schedule and a memory card itching to soak up some landscapes.

What is surprising, was that there isn’t a whole lot nearby to interest a landscape photographer.  Or at least it seemed that way to me at first.  After all, Arizona has the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Horseshoe Bend…the list seems endless, but in comparison, I originally thought Phoenix was a bit, well…boring.

That was until I found the Lost Dutchman State Park:

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

View of the Flatiron from the basin area of Siphon Draw Trail. This is my favorite spot in the park but don’t get caught here in the rain!

Lost Dutchman State Park is a wonderful bonanza for photographers located only 4o miles east of Phoenix.  The park’s centerpiece is the Superstition Mountains which rise majestically from the Sonoran Desert.   Here you can find a compact area with mountains, desert, Saguaro cactus, wildlife and a rip-roaring dollop of western history.

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

The Superstitions greet another dawn. The summer monsoons generate outstanding cloud formations that enhance your photographic efforts.


Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

I think this little fella was looking for the stash too…

So how did Lost Dutchman get its name?  Well, the story goes kinda like this:  Back in the 1870s Jacob Waltz, (“the Dutchman” ) and his partner,  Jacob Weiser,  hunted for gold in the Superstition Mountains.  They hit it big and buried their gold to keep it safe.  Weiser was soon killed (maybe by Waltz) but Jacob also died without revealing the gold’s location.  Folks have been looking for it ever since.

So…do you wanna so look for some gold (or even just take some photos)?  Either way, here is a link to the park’s website for details, directions and other info.  The entrance fee is a bargain: only $7.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Time of year?  If you were like me, your schedule was pre-determined.  However, if you have an option, try to visit during March and April when the wildflowers bloom in the desert.  A great second option would be during the summer monsoons (July thru September) when the skies often feature killer clouds.

Time of Day?  Mornings in the desert can be awesome, but the Superstitions look best when illuminated in the late afternoon.

Highlight?  Siphon Draw Trail is a 4.8 mile loop trail in the park that takes you to the famous Flatiron (see below).

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

The prow-like profile of the Flatiron is unmistakable

It is about a 1.6 mile hike to the basin where you get the best view of the Flatiron (see the first shot in this blog).  You can go farther, but it is steep and tough going beyond this point and the views, although impressive, are not particularly photogenic (at least in my opinion).  This trail is often crowded on weekends and it can be HOT.  Take more water than you think you could ever drink.  The hike is obviously cooler in the morning, but the light for photography is better in the afternoon.

Safety Note:  That little stream of water you see in the gully on my first photograph becomes a torrent in wet weather: this isn’t where you want to be if rain is forecasted.

Sunrise/Sunset Spot?  You can find a great location for sunrise and sunset just before you get to the guard gate at the entrance of the park.  Pull over here and hike a hundred yards to the east or west of the road and you can find some killer landscape opportunities.  You will also find a bunch of saguaro cactus here and they make wonderful foreground subjects.

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix.

This spot is within 500′ of the park’s entrance.

This blog only scratches the surface, but you get the idea.  If you find yourself in Phoenix with a camera and some free time, this is the place to go.

PS:  If you do find the Dutchman’s treasure, you really should think about giving me a small finders fee:)

I’m heading off to Atlanta this week, so I won’t be posting for a couple weeks, but I hear Zoo Atlanta has twin baby pandas….might be worth a shot or two!


Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

This spooky old wreck was at a nearby tourist trap: Goldfield Ghost Town


Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

Photo Tips for Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix

Also posted in Landscape Photography 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.


  • 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!)


  • 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!

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


Also posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , , |

False Kiva: A “Hauntingly” Beautiful Landscape Photography Icon

April 2019 Update:  False Kiva is CLOSED

Due to repeated instances of vandalism, the National Park Service no longer allows visitors to enter False Kiva.  You can still use the hiking trail to the entrance of the alcove that contains False Kiva, but you can go no further.  This restriction was put in place in fall of 2018 and there is no indication when or IF it will be lifted.  Unfortunately it only takes a handful of immature morons to make it impossible for the rest of us to be able to enjoy treasures like this.  I fully understand and support the action of the Park Service but it saddens me to think that I may never again be able to enjoy this vista.

False Kiva is one of those locations instantly recognizable to most landscape photographers.  And with good reason!  It has it all:  Indian ruins framed by the opening of a cave on the edge of a cliff that looks out upon a magnificent desert landscape stretching out to distant mountains on the horizon.  It is also kinda spooky…well, that’s not technical term, but it is accurate.  Unlike most of the icons I’ve photographed that are technically beautiful, but serene, False Kiva has a definite ‘vibe.’

False Kiva Photography tips

Killer View
To see a full resolution version, just click on the photo.

My son Ryan and I hiked to the Kiva this summer.  As we threaded our way around a rock outcropping we caught our first glimpse of the kiva high on the cliff to our right.  But it wasn’t empty.  There was a tall, almost spectral figure…bald, light-skinned and shirtless glaring intently down directly at us.  We were too far away to see facial details (assuming there WAS a face)…but judging by the body language, it clearly wasn’t happy to see us.    Ryan’s  internal ‘heebie-jeebie’ radar immediately got the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.  His next move, seriously, was to find a sharp rock that he could use as a weapon..actually, two rocks, one for throwing and one for hitting!  I have to admit, I was bit spooked myself…I hadn’t really expected to see anyone else at the site…and we were in the middle of nowhere.

We continued the climb toward the kiva, always looking up toward the entrance to see if we could spot the occupant again…but we saw nothing.  As we made the last turn and approached the entrance we strained our necks to look inside.  It was empty.  Ryan and I just looked at each other and then s-l-o-w-l-y turned and stared out at the trail we had just climbed.  There was only a single way in or out.  Even a mountain goat would have broken its neck getting out of the kiva any other way…but the fact remained we were alone.  And confused.  We looked at each other again, shrugged our shoulders and laughed that stupid chuckle that men do when they are confused and alarmed but are too macho to admit it.

We never did figure out what happened to the “person” we saw.  I started calling him the “Crazed Kiva Killer” which Ryan thought was funny…but he didn’t put down those two rocks until we got back to the car a couple hours later.  True story.

Tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. The Kiva is located in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park (near Moab) but it isn’t marked on any of the park maps (the rangers don’t want visitors to ‘love it to death.’  The (unmarked) trailhead is on Upheaval Dome Road.  If you decide to make this trek I would suggest caution.  Don’t take this hike alone. The trail isn’t marked.  It is isolated.  Parts of it hug a cliff and if you were to fall, it would be along time before anyone would pass by.
  2. I know a LOT of folks who have taken this hike and never found the kiva.  There are a lot of cairns but even so, this isn’t an easy spot to find.   If you aren’t comfortable with your GPS, you should seriously consider hiring a guide.
  3. There is little shade and no water.  Dress accordingly and take plenty of fluids. Plan on about an hour to hike to the site.  The hike itself wasn’t long (about 1.6 miles each way)
  4. Take a WIDE angle lens.  A 15mm fisheye on a full frame camera was barely able to capture the full scene.  The cave is not as deep as I thought it would be…it is really more of an alcove than a cave.  If you don’t have really wide glass, you could also take a number of shots and stitch together a panorama.
  5. Take a tripod because you will want to try HDR at this location. Obviously the cave/alcove is dark and the view out of the entrance is bathed in direct light, so you will need HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
  6. A polarizer will really make the blue sky pop.
  7. The cave opens to the west, so the lighting is great by late morning.  Sunsets are also pretty dramatic here but you will have a scary hike back in the dark.  Originally I wanted to shoot a Milky Way shot but after making the hike in the late afternoon, I decided that I didn’t want to make the return trip in the dark. If my son fell off a cliff on the way back my wife would just make my life insufferable.  Maybe next time.

You might not have the same unsettling experience my son and I did when you visit False Kiva, but if you read blogs of folks that have visited it, they all seem to have an emotional reaction to it.  And I have to admit, even though I’m a pretty non-emotional, logical,  ‘”just the facts, Ma’am” type of guy…False Kiva is one of the few locations that struck an emotional chord in me.  Far more so than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, or any of a number of far more famous landscape icons.  It truly is a serene site.  Beautiful, yes…but one that is more than just pretty…one that speaks to your core.

Photography is about a lot more than just pretty pictures,


False Kiva Photography tips

“We survived the Crazed Kiva Killer!”

 False Kiva Photography tips


Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Photo Tips and Guides

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 Icon that lives up to the Hype
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 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 a flatlander 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”)

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

      A shot from the ‘classic’ perspective.

 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 the placemark 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: 
    • 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 further 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 the placemark labeled “Perspective B”).  I was blessed with an incredible sunset here back in July, and from this spot with a very wide angle lens, I was able to capture the full extent of the scene.  See below.

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

    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 PhotoPills app  ($9.99)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 PhotoPills will again 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!


PS:  I’ve written another blog about some of the other fantastic photo ops at Arches National Park (and nearby Canyonlands NP).  Check it out by clicking here.


Delicate Arch Photo Guide and Tips


Also posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , |

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and Tips: 2021 Update

Ask anyone who has visited Horseshoe Bend to describe it and I bet that I can predict the reaction:  They will hesitate, then a sly smile will creep across their face…they will slowly shake their head and say:  “Oh yeah…Horseshoe…Wow… you have to see it yourself.”

Horseshoe is one of those places that truly are more emotionally impactful in person than you could ever think possible if you have only seen it in photos.  Try to imagine this…you walk about 30 minutes over a featureless desert landscape…there really isn’t much to see…some mountains out in the distance…lots of sand and slickrock…maybe a Jack Rabbit or two bouncing between brown and thirsty plants.  Then, suddenly, the path ends.  Actually, it doesn’t end, it simply disappears as it abruptly ends at a sheer 1000′ drop:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset: One of those "OMG" moments. Click on this photo to see a full resolution image.
Horseshoe Bend Sunset: One of those “OMG” moments. Click on this photo to see a full resolution image.

Look at the bottom of this photo…that is a straight drop down to the river…nothing to stop you other than a couple sandstone outcroppings that might slow you down a bit as you bounce off of them:)

Photographer at Horseshoe Bend Arizona. Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips
Check out the front leg of the tripod…next step: 1,000 feet straight down!

This vista WILL get your heart kicked into overdrive.  In fact, I’ve seen some folks actually crawl up to the edge on their bellies to take photos because they didn’t trust their legs. But in all fairness, I won’t deny that I had second thoughts as I set up my tripod on the edge. If you are ever near Page Arizona, then this is a stop that you really have to make…it is a visual and emotional powerhouse!  Interested?  if so, then read further for my Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips.

The Basics:

  1. Horseshoe Bend is a loop of the Colorado River 5 miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell (just south of the Utah line).  It has its own parking area on the west side of US 89 about 4 miles south of Page, Arizona.  The GPS coordinates are: 36.876246,-111.502788.  This link will show you the parking lot location on Google maps.
  2. There is a (small) sign for Horseshoe Bend, but it is easy to miss.  However, if you keep looking to the west you will see the parking lot…there isn’t a whole lot else out there. The parking lot was expanded in 2019 but still fills up on Holidays and busy weekends.
  3. There is a $10 parking fee (as of Feb. 2021) for personal vehicles, vans and buses pay more.  The lot is staffed from sunrise to sunset.  Your National Park Pass is not accepted for parking since the lot is actually managed by the city of Page, not the National Park Service. 
  4. The path to Horseshoe is very easy to follow.  The hike (actually it is more of a walk) to the overlook is a gentle slope of 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round-trip over flat terrain. The trail was upgraded in 2018 and is now so easy it is even wheelchair accessible. It has two large shade stations along the way. It should take you about 30 minutes depending on your pace.  
  5. There is no water for sale.  No bathrooms (except at the parking lot).  If you are there in the middle of the day during summer, you will need to bring plenty of water.  A hat and sunscreen would be good to have with you too.
  6. It can be pretty windy…bring your sunglasses
  7. Be prepared to meet folks from all over the world!  I had two guys from France on my right a German to my left and a photographer from Mumbai India spent twenty minutes asking about my camera.  You will be surprised how friendly and talkative folks can be when they have this scene before them.
"Sunset Self-Portrait"
“Sunset Self-Portrait”

Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips for my fellow Photographers:

  1. Most photographers are going to visit Page because of Antelope Canyon.  The nice thing about Horseshoe is that you can photograph it before or after your day at Antelope.
  2. How much time should you schedule?  Well, if you jumped in your car in Page, drove to the parking lot, hiked to the site, snapped off a dozen shots and hoofed it back to your car, you would be back in Page in less than a total of 2 hours.  If that is all the time you have, then fine.   However, if your schedule isn’t too tight or if you are blessed with a killer sunset, you can easily spend twice that amount of time.
  3. Bring a steady Tripod.
  4. Where to set up:
    1. There is a new viewing platform that was completed in 2018 (see NPS photo below).  It has a railing and is great for those who like something solid between themselves and the thousand foot drop.  You can get a solid image from the platform by setting your tripod up right against the railing.

  • The platform takes up only a small amount of the real-estate on the rim and frankly, you can get a better perspective and more interesting images if you don’t restrict yourself to this one spot. 
  • Do yourself a favor and show up a bit early and scout around a bit.  You just might find a nice bush or a landscape feature that will make your shot stand out from the crowd.  99.9% of the images taken here were made within 50′ of each other…don’t be shy about roaming around a bit and looking for your own unique view.

5. Lenses:

  • A 14-16mm lens on a full-frame camera will let you capture the whole panorama in a single frame (you will need a 10mm lens on a APS-C, cropped sensor camera).
  • If you have a fisheye lens, you can have fun with it at this location.  My 15mm fisheye came in handy here.
  • If you don’t have a wide lens (or if you want a super-high resolution image), you can stitch together a panorama in Photoshop.

6. Time of Day:

  • To get an idea about how the light at Horseshoe changes over a day, check out this link.  It shows a wonderful series of photos by Brian Klimowski from pre-dawn to late evening.
  • My personal favorite time of the day here is sunset.  There is at least a full 7 stops of dynamic range at sunset, so you will need to use HDR or a strong ND filter to capture the shadows and highlights.
  • If you can’t schedule this for a sunset shot, morning can be good as well…
  • Mid-Day will light up the full scene.  For example here is an afternoon shot I got a few years back:
Horseshoe Bend Arizona. Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips
Mid-Day perspective
  • A polarizer will come in handy except at sunrise or sunset.
  • Be careful of your focus.  With a wide angle or fisheye lens, the lip of the cliff right in front of your tripod will be in your frame, so you will want to either crop that out of your final shot or set your focus accordingly.
    • Night
      • I have seen some wonderful Milky Way shots taken here but most of those images are older. The issue is that parking in the lot is no longer permitted at night. And if you are thinking that you can just park alongside US 98 and walk-in, you should be aware that you might be ticketed since road-side parking on US 98 is prohibited as well.
    Time of year:
    1. The drama of this scene is undiminished no matter what season you get to see it, however, summer during the rainy (monsoon) season can provide dramatic clouds (see the first shot above…taken in July).  I’d bet this would be an incredible to see covered in snow, but I haven’t been able to capture that shot yet

    There is a whole lot more to photograph in the area (Antelope Canyon, Bryce, Zion, etc.)  If you have more than a couple of hours to spend in Page, then you might want to check out this blog which gives you pointers on how to best schedule your day to maximize the photographic potential!

    You will enjoy (and certainly always remember) your time at Horseshoe bend. Have fun!


    PS:  When my son was taking this shot of the photographers lined up on the cliff’s edge he thought:  “You know…one good gust of wind and these guys will be the lead story on the TV news tonight”

    Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips
    One little push…

     Horseshoe Bend Photo Guide and tips


    Also posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , |

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

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

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

    The " Classic Shot"

    The ” Classic Shot”

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

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

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

    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

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

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

      House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

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

      House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

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

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

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

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

    Have fun and keep shooting!

    House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips

    One last perspective…



     House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips


    Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Photo Tips and Guides 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!

    PS:  Here is a final shot:

    Red Rock in it's morning glory!

    Red Rock in it’s morning glory!

    Also posted in Landscape Photography 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!


    Also posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , , |

    Can you do the Charleston? (Charleston Photo Tips)

    As a photographer, it is often a challenge when you shoot a new location.  Time is always short and you don’t want to miss any cool photo ops, especially those that might be right around the corner but you just don’t know about them. If you are like me, you research the web looking for photo tips about the site and if you are really lucky, you find a recap by a photographer who helps you shoot like a pro.

    Well guess what?  You are lucky because this is the recap of Charleston photo tips and locations that I wish I could have seen before I went there!  Below I’ve listed my top 6 tips for the photographer who has a day or two to spend in Charleston.

    1)   Spend most of your time in Old Town

    Old town is just what you would think it is, the older, historical section of the city.  It is located on the southeastern part of the peninsula that Charleston occupies and is roughly bordered by Meeting Street, Broad Street and Charleston Harbor.  It is crammed with old homes, parks and buildings that could easily consume a full day of photography.   In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming and without a guide you could spend a couple days wandering around and still miss a lot of the good stuff.  If you can, get a hotel actually in Old Town..all the photo ops are within walking distance and when you are done shooting, there are tons of restaurants and boutique shops to keep you entertained.  We stayed at the Doubletree on Church Street, which was very convenient.

    2)  Go on a Walking Tour

    A good tour guide will help you find those locations that you might otherwise miss and ensure that you optimize your time.  Hands down, the best tour for photographers is Charleston History Tours This tour is targeted specifically for photographers and your guide (Joyce) will spend over two hours showing you the locations you might otherwise have missed.  Not only that, but she knows her Charleston history.  To make this a no-brainer, she only charges $23.50 for the tour.

    3)  Be at Waterfront Park for sunrise

    Photo tips for Charleston

    Charleston’s Waterfront Park at Dawn

    Photo tips for Charleston's Waterfront Park

    One of the fountains at Charleston’s Waterfront Park

    This park has two impressive fountains and an attractive covered pier…all three are outstanding foreground subjects for sunrise photos. This means that you can get a number of very different sunrise shots all within ten minutes of each other.  Get there at least 40 minutes before sunrise since the best color sometimes hits that early.  Parking can be difficult in the Old City but I’ve never had a problem at daybreak.  Waterfront Park is located at the intersection of Concord and Vendue Range Street.

    4) Get a shot of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge

    Although I adore landscape and wildlife photography, I have to admit that on occasion, we humans get lucky and create something truly exquisite.  I wouldn’t usually say that about a bridge, but this one is an exception.  A great location to shoot the bridge is from a park (Mt. Pleasant Pier Park) located just under the bridge on the other side of the Cooper River in Mt. Pleasant ( at 71 Harry Hallman Boulevard Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 843-762-9946 or 843-795-4386).   It is free to enter and there is a long, new concrete pier that runs right alongside the bridge that will give you a great perspective for photos.   The sun sets behind the bridge so you can get great sunset shots here as well.

    5)  Hit the outskirts of the city

    If you have exhausted the photo potential of Old Town, then there are a number of plantations about 40 minutes from Old Town out on Highway 61 that can yield photo ops.  Locals recommended Middleton Place Plantation the best of the bunch.  Frankly, I didn’t get a lot of great shots there.  Keep in mind that I visited in October and I’m sure it is more interesting in the spring when everything is blooming.

    I’ve already mentioned Old Sheldon Church in a previous post .  This is located about an hour from Old Town off of Highway 17.   This is absolutely worth the hour drive from Charleston.

    6)  Are you a history buff?

    Then you have to see Patriots Point, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Moultrie and the Confederate submarine, Hunley.

    Patriot’s Point is a wonderland for anyone with an interest in aviation, warships or all things military.  Seriously, if this kind of thing interests you (I’m certainly guilty), then you could spend the better part of a day here.  Tickets are $18 for adults and it features the U.S.S. Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier that is packed with aircraft and exhibits of all kinds.  They also have a submarine, a destroyer and a mock-up of a Vietnam-era support base.  Patriots Point is located at 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 near the Mt. Pleasant Pier Park mentioned above.

    Ft. Sumter was a bit disappointing from a strictly photography perspective since it really isn’t that dramatic visually.  If you haven’t been there before, you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t at all resemble those pictures you saw in the history books about Civil War…

    Flag at Ft. Moultrie

    On the other hand, Ft. Moultrie was different from the dozen or so other Civil War era forts I’ve visited since it had been restored to look like it did during it’s heyday.  It is in Mt Pleasant and is a bit of a drive, but if you have the time, you can get some interesting shots here.

    As for the Hunley, well it is a fascinating story…both its wartime service as well as its recovery, but like Sumter, you will find it difficult to get exciting photos.


    So, there you have it…a quick recap of how you might want to plan your Charleston Photo Trip.  Hopefully you have found this helpful, but either way, I’d love to have your feedback so I can improve my ‘Photo Tips’ in the future.


    Sunrise from Waterfront Park





    Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Military Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , |