American Southwest - May 2019
The American Southwest is home to some of the most unique and stunning desert landscapes on earth, highlighted by one of the natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon. It had been years since I visited the Grand Canyon, so Katie and I decided it would be a good idea to head down to Arizona for the challenge of photographing such a vast landscape. Coming from Denver, we also stopped at several other popular landscape photography destinations such as Page, Arizona and Monument Valley on our way.
After a long drive to the Utah Arizona border, we finally arrived in Monument Valley early in the afternoon. The tall red buttes surrounded by vast desert around Monument Valley have become one of the most iconic symbols of the American Southwest and an extremely popular photography location. The landscape is such a beautiful and inspiring location filled with rich history. After visiting the Navajo Museum in the visitor center to learn more about the Navajo culture, we got prepared to photograph the sunset. We walked around for a little while searching for compositions. There were several yucca plants in bloom as well as purple wildflowers that would’ve made for good foreground elements. After much internal debate, in the end I decided to go up the path a little higher to focus more on the road leading to the buttes. Without many clouds, the sunset wasn’t spectacular, but I did like the way the light was hitting the buttes, making them glow with red color. I also like the way the car trails lit up the road during a long exposure once it got dark. After the sun had gone down, clouds began rolling in making the blue hour actually more preferable for images. The soft ambient blue light was really nice on the landscape. My favorite image came when I went back to the Yucca plant that Katie was already photographing. Having the yucca as a foreground element really helped the image. Even though the sunset wasn’t great, it was nice to come away with some really good images without spectacular light, and it was a great way to start off our trip.
In the morning we woke up early, eager to photograph the sunrise. This sunrise was one of the easiest to wake up to, since our campground at the View Campground actually had amazing views of the buttes right outside of our tent. We got out of our tent, walked maybe a hundred yards to the nice group of yucca plants. Like the sunset, the sunrise was absent of any significant clouds, but since the sun was rising directly behind the buttes it created a sun flare and a nice warm glow behind the buttes. After the sun crossed the horizon, I frantically hopped from composition to composition in an attempt to capture different images. I ended up going down a path that lead to a patch of sand that had blown into waves. It added a nice foreground element leading to the buttes. Since the sky wasn’t great, I definitely needed to capture images where the focus was more on the foreground and buttes than the sky. The image with the sand was my best attempt and turned out being my favorite picture from that morning.
After our short time in Monument Valley, we were ready to head to the next destination. Page, Arizona is another iconic destination for landscape photography. From Monument Valley the drive is only about two hours long. We drove through the small but expanding tourist town of Page, Arizona and headed to our campsite near Lake Powell. We relaxed at our campsite for a while before heading to one of the most famous locations in the entire United States for sunset, Horseshoe Bend.
It had been a couple years since I had last visited Horseshoe Bend, and I was eager to return and try to photograph this spot. This viewpoint had changed a lot since the last time I was here. It was much more developed as a tourist location with a bigger parking lot and an actual overlook platform. It has also become an even more popular landscape photography and tourist destination. We were greeted by hundreds of people along the ridge, all eager to capture their own images of this iconic location. But what was even more annoying that the vast amounts of people clamoring for a spot were the vast amounts of bugs hanging around the ridge of the canyon. Needless to say, standing on the ridge in a literal cloud of bugs surrounded by other photographers wasn’t the relaxing and idyllic experience that a lot of our landscape photography outings are. All that said, it was still an amazing time. Horseshoe Bend is one of the most awe inspiring places I’ve ever visited. The scale of just how enormous this place is can be mind boggling and no picture will ever be able to come close at showing how big these cliffs are. You really have to be there to appreciate it. We sat there and watched as the sun slowly went down over the horizon.
The most enjoyable experience of that night came later after the sun had set and almost all the tourists had left. Katie and I stayed to photograph the stars. It’s always nice to try something new and unique at popular spots like this. I’m sure that hundreds of people have photographed the stars here, but it’s still more unique than the vast majority of pictures that you see from here. Luckily for us, while the people and bugs had left, the moon had appeared. The moonlight filled the canyon with some nice, soft light, which really helped create a nice unique image of such an awesome spot. Overall, the images I got turned out nicer than I would’ve thought.
We headed back to our campsite and off to bed, eager for the morning and the part of the trip I was most excited for. The next morning we headed out for our photography tour of Antelope Canyon. Chances are you’ve probably seen pictures of Antelope Canyon before. It’s another place that people come to from all around the world to see and photograph. It’s such an incredibly unique place, and very special to visit. Since it’s on sacred Navajo land and for safety reasons, you have to take a guided tour to visit the canyon. We booked our tour through Navajo Tours, which we would highly recommend. There are two types of tours that they offer, a walk-in tour and a photography tour. We decided on spending some extra money on the photography tour, which allowed us to bring in a tripod. I’m certainly glad we opted for that tour since we definitely wouldn’t have gotten the images we did on the other tour. I knew this place was going to be busy, but when I first saw the amount of people in the canyon I was shocked. The canyon is pretty small and narrow, so with the hordes of people crammed in, it made it difficult to move around let alone try to capture a picture without any people in it. That is where the importance of the photography tour came in. The guides did an excellent job at holding people off to clear out sections of the canyon so we could get pictures without people. They also led the way through the canyon moving people to the side, making it possible to navigate through the crammed canyon. The guides knew all of the most popular shots, and the best times to be at certain spots to capture light rays. They would get us to the right spot, block off the people for only about two minutes before we had to move on. It was a hectic and somewhat stressful situation to make sure I was able to capture the shot I desired. Usually a setting like this would’ve left me feeling a little bitter of the situation, being rushed and crammed with hundreds of other tourists. Somehow, whether it was the amazing scenery of the canyon, the VIP feel of the tour, the experience of being so focused on my images and not the people around me, or seeing the way the images were turning out left me with nothing but joy. The best part of the tour was that at a certain time of day the sunlight shines through the canyon creating light beams in the dusty canyon. The guides knew exactly when that would happen and even kicked up a little dust to accentuate this phenomenon. Seeing this happen was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever seen. Even with the crowds and additional cost of the photography tour, I would still highly recommend this experience to anyone.
That night we hadn’t originally planned on shooting a sunset, but since the clouds in the sky were promising we decided to head back to Horseshoe Bend hoping to get some nice light. I was hopeful since there were a lot more clouds in the sky than the night before, but unfortunately the clouds were all in the wrong direction and not over the bend. Overall, I actually preferred the images from the first night, and even though we still had a great time, it was disappointing to not come away with a better image.
The next morning we were finally on our way to our main destination, the Grand Canyon. After driving through some spotted rainstorms for a couple of hours, we arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Before setting up our camp we checked out the Desert View Watchtower. We liked this viewpoint so much that we ended up heading back here for sunset. While driving from our campsite back to the watchtower, we stopped at Lipan Point when the light started looking really good. We watched as distant rainstorms formed and moved above the canyon. The light was shining through the clouds and illuminating the rainfall. I tried to focus on a composition that was wide enough to show the depth of the canyon, but deep enough to focus on the nice backlit light. I snapped the picture as the rain moved closer and more sunrays shined through the gaps in the clouds.
It was difficult to leave such an amazing scene, but it was beginning to look like it was going to be a great sunset so we continued on the road to the Desert View Overlook. I liked this viewpoint so much because it had great views in almost all directions, so I could shoot in the direction of wherever the best light was. My favorite composition was one where you could see all the way down to the Colorado River, adding a nice leading element. Luckily, the clouds were beginning to move in that direction above the river. In the opposite direction where the sun was setting, you could see deep across the canyon where the clouds were also spectacular. For the next almost two hours, we waited and captured so many amazing images as the light kept getting better and better. The sky was lighting up with color in every direction, making it hard to focus on one subject. We watched as the clouds turned from golden yellow to orange to pink and watched as the light slowly faded away and the stars began to come out. It was only our first night at the Grand Canyon, but the sunset we got that night was one of the most memorable moments during the entire trip.
The next morning we headed out on a short hike to Shoshone Point. It was really nice to get away from the crowds and have this viewpoint all to ourselves. The view there was amazing, with panoramic views of the canyon in all directions. It was the middle of the day so the light wasn’t great for pictures, but I liked the way the clouds and the shadows of the clouds on the canyon were moving so I decided to set up a timelapse. We relaxed as we waited for the timelapse, having some snacks, reading our books, and just enjoying the view.
As it got closer to the evening, there were a bunch of clouds in the sky, looking promising for another great sunset. Sadly, as the time passed more and more clouds formed and ended up completely blocking the sky and ruining any chance of another sunset. Nonetheless, it was still a beautiful night and it was nice to capture some more images under different light conditions. The blue hour was especially nice, with soft blue light filling the canyon and good texture in the clouds.
After a couple of great days on the South Rim, we headed to the North Rim. While you wouldn’t think so, the two rims are actually pretty different. The South Rim is like an entire village, while the North Rim is much less developed. Also being at a higher elevation, the North Rim has much colder weather. This caused some issues for us. The road to the viewpoint I was most looking forward to photographing was actually still closed for the winter. This caused us to change our plans a little bit. We headed toward Point Imperial. Point Imperial is the highest point in the Grand Canyon, and once we got up there we could tell immediately. The wind was gusting and blowing rain at us at what felt like 50mph. There was a slight break in the clouds in the direction of the canyon so I captured an image before heading back to take shelter in our car. We waited for a little while hoping the weather would improve, but when it became clear that the storm was moving our way and only getting worse, we decided to head back to our campsite.
After looking at the forecast we ultimately made the decision to head back home early the next day. We were tired from all the adventures and the weather was only going to get worse so in the morning we made the long journey home. Overall, this trip went as well as I could’ve asked. The Southwest is such a unique and beautiful place to visit and photograph. Of course I would’ve like to have more amazing sunsets than just the one in the Grand Canyon, but I still captured several images that I’m really proud of and came away with even more amazing memories of such an incredible place.