Our 2018 trip was action packed with amazing landscapes, reliable light, astrophotography, lack of sleep, and an abundance of enchiladas and quesadillas. It was everything you expect from the American Southwest.
Words by guide Marcus.
The Utah 5 -prospectors of landscape gold
As usual, our meeting point was Las Vegas where we stayed in the New York New York hotel and casino for the night. Due to everyone in the group coming from Europe, we were all naturally awake by 3am local time, so rather than blowing the trip budget on the roulette table, we went for a wander down the world famous Strip. Taking shots of urban nightlife is not why come to this area of the world, but while it's dark and we're waiting for the breakfast buffet to open, it seems like the best way to check that the shutter finger is in good working order.
Our first night's accommodation was an understated joint on a quiet avenue!
Once full with pancake stacks, deep fried bacon and terribly weak coffee, we hit the road heading east towards our first location - Sedona. This was to be a new area for us, but we needed something within a 6 hour easterly drive from Vegas and didn't fancy the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what we found. It was much better. The town is built around some amazingly photogenic rock formations, the most striking of which is called Cathedral Rock. From looking at photos previous to our arrival, I had the impression that it was a remote wilderness, but in fact it is right in the centre of an urban environment. However, none of the buildings are more than 2 storeys high and they are all terracotta in colour so you simply can't see them from more than a hundred metres away as they either blend into the landscape or are obscured by the trees. This contrast of feeling like you were in a thriving town but seeing amazing landscapes in every direction gave a unique and charming atmosphere to the place.
You would never know that this is in the middle of an urban town.
Up until an hour before sunset it had been cloudy for most of the day, but as so often happens in this part of the world, the sun found a tiny gap through which to provide the kind of light which gets photographers very excited and running around like lunatics. It was the perfect start to the trip.
The following morning we took advantage of our body clock's desire to ensure we were all wide awake in the small hours and got on the road early, heading to the Grand Canyon for sunrise. It wasn't on the plan, but we needed to pass within 30 miles of it anyway, and none of the group had been before. I tried to manage expectations as the Grand Canyon simply isn't impressive enough (as a photo subject) to warrant being included in this trip, but one expectation I hadn't managed was to prepare for temperatures of minus 4C with a 40MPH wind which had the chill of the devil himself. I have been in some seriously cold places before but I don't think I have ever felt cold like this. Fingers didn't even get the chance to go numb before they felt like someone was drilling through the bones. Luckily the sky was cloudless, so the best of the light only lasted a few minutes before becoming too harsh and flat, so it was a great excuse not to hang around.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Once back in the car and with the heater on full power we headed for Monument Valley - our first location to get truly excited about. We had arranged to camp overnight in a remote area only accessible with Navajo guides, and one with views to die for. After meeting up with our driver who I expected to be called something like Wind in the Hair but turned out to be called Carlos, we headed for the hills in his 4WD car. A second vehicle followed us, laden with camping gear and food for the bbq. It took almost 4 hours to get onto location, but it was one of the most thrilling drives I have done in a while, negotiating a variety of different terrains from deep sand dunes which need to be taken at speed to slickrock which needs to be taken at a crawl. At one point we arrived at what we thought was a dead end in the track, as we looked ahead out through the windscreen at a sheer wall of rock. After a brief stationary moment, Carlos told us to hold on to something, before somehow achieving what seemed impossible - driving vertically up a cliff.
As we arrived at the viewpoint, we already felt as though we had got our money's worth from the journey alone. The views however were about to trump anything we had experienced so far.
Are there many better views on the planet?
While everyone was capturing award winning images, Carlos and his sidekick set up camp and got everything organised for us. It was great to arrive back to the sound of a crackling fire and the sizzle of fresh steaks on the griddle. Just as we thought it couldn't get any better, Carlos then started digging under the soil. I thought it was a bit close to camp to be preparing the toilet, but it turned out he had cooked potatoes and corn on the cob the traditional Navajo way - under the ground. As we sat there reflecting on an eventful day, the night sky above us came to life and we slept under an infinity of stars knowing that more amazing opportunities were just hours away.
Not a bad sight to greet us after an epic day of photography
Now on our third morning, we needed the assistance of an alarm to wake us in good time for sunrise. The viewpoints we headed to were slightly different to the ones we had shot at sunset, but no less impressive. As we stood overlooking Monument Valley from our elevated viewpoint, someone said "Carlsberg don't do photo locations, but if they did...." There wasn't really much else which could sum it up.
After breakfast we started heading back to civilsation but Carlos told us about a natural arch which he wanted to show us on the way. It required a 5 minute walk up a ravine which had rattlesnakes written all over it, but as we reached the far end, an amazing double arch came into view. Forget Arches National Park, this was better than anything they have there. By coincidence, we timed our arrival when the sun was lighting it perfectly to resemble a smiling face. I wanted to climb up into one of the openings in order to get a shot with a figure to give the scene some much needed scale. Both myself and team member Adam tried, but it would have been too difficult to get back (a mistake I have learned from experience!). I really wanted to get the shot so we explored other ways around the back to see if it was possible. Turns out it wasn't, but I now had the shot in my mind and was frustrated I wasn't able to get it. The next best thing was to take the shot without anyone in it, record the focal length and distance, and then take a shot of Adam at the same distance (in the same light) and put the two together with a bit of Photoshop cheating. This is identical to the shot I would have got had we found a way to get there, but I always criticise others for not coming clean when they have cheated, so I am holding my hands up now.
Smiley Arch - about as far off the beaten track as you can get
On the way back down rattlesnake ravine, I saw a possibility which we hadn't explored which could allow us access to the key area, so I have made a mental note for next year when we visit. Hopefully we can get the same shot in a more authentic manner. Some may ask why this matters? But if you need to ask, then you won't understand the answer.
Upon arriving back at the hotel which was to be our next accommodation, we checked into the rooms and checked out the views from the private balcony. To reduce costs as much as possible (which get passed onto the customer) our guides always share a room and always get the cheapest one available. Today was no exception, and we had the cheap room with the worst view. This was it...
The "cheap" rooms have the worst view!
Appreciation of a hotel room is always heightened after a night of camping, but this was not the time to rest as the sun was already getting low in the sky and we knew we needed to make the most of the light. Just a few metres from the hotel is one of the classic landscape views of the world, and while some wanted to shoot it (nothing wrong with that), I headed down a little lower with James, one of our customers for a bit of a 1-to-1 session on composition. I explained that viewpoint is key to being successful with composition, as if you position the camera in the correct place, everything will seem to come nicely together. If on the other hand you find yourself struggling with composition, then it means you are probably in the wrong location. With this in mind we went on the hunt for a suitable foreground to place in front of the iconic Mittens of Monument Valley - a sure winner at sunset when the last light lingers on the tops of the towers, turning them orange.
It wasn't long before we felt we were in the best place, so we got James set up and ready to go. The only disadvantage of where we were was that we didn't have a view of the western horizon which meant we were unable to see when the sun was about to set. We watched the light get better and better, and I suggested to James to take a shot every few seconds in order to make sure he had a shot at the optimum time. Sometimes if you wait for the best of the light, it peaks before you realise, and you end up missing the moment. Just as I was explaining this, the light suddenly died and all the colour disappeared. We waited a couple of minutes and I assumed the sun had set. I was just about to suggest packing up when it suddenly came back to life. Clearly the sun had just been temporarily obscured by cloud - something we would have been able to predict had we had a clear view to the west. Luckily we were still set up and ready to capture the action. It only lasted about 30 seconds, so had we not been set up, we would have probably missed it.
Classic light on a classic subject
Once the sun had properly set, we headed back up to meet the others. From the higher viewpoint there is a clearer view of the road which snakes around the valley. This gave me an idea to try some traffic trails using the few cars which were returning from the tourist loop road. However, they were going too slowly to achieve the desired results, and kept stopping to take their own photos. To solve this issue we got Adam to drive one of our cars up and down the road as fast as he could, which received some awkward stares from other motorists. We had radio communication with each other, so it was just a case of me waiting until I could see the road was clear, and then telling him he had exactly 30 seconds to drive through the scene and get out of sight around the corner before the exposure had finished. Everyone got the shot and retired happily knackered to bed.
Balancing the ambient light with artificial light is a technique we often go over during our various holidays.
Bed didn't last very long however, as Monument Valley is one of the best places to try astrophotography. With cloudless skies and no moon in sight, it was an opportunity not to be missed. We headed out to one of the most iconic rock formations known as the Totem Pole, as this gives the perfect subject to protrude into the sky without obscuring too much of it. Once again we needed a Navajo guide to access this area but it was just as well, as it was so dark that it was impossible to work out where the best location would be. Carl (brother of Carlos - clearly their parents weren't too creative with western names!) got us into position with rippled sand dunes in the foreground and the iconic rocks in the background. The problem with rippled sand is that you need light on it to bring out the texture, and there doesn't tend to be a lot of light around at 4am when the moon is below the horizon. We therefore illuminated the foreground artificially with a head torch, balancing out the scene of the Milky Way overhead.
The core of the Milky Way above the Totem Pole
You need to know what you are doing when you light a scene with a torch (a technique known as paining with light) as it is not as straightforward as it appears and many photographers really manage to mess it up. The first thing you need to understand is the importance of the direction of the light. Never ever stand next to your camera lighting your scene with a torch, as this will provide the most horrid light known to mankind and will totally ruin your shot. We've even seen other workshop companies doing this - actually showing their customers the worst way to do something. The second thing you need to understand is the Inverse Square Law. That's quite a heavy subject to go into here, but let's just say that you need to make sure you are lighting your subject from a long way away so that the luminance levels across the frame are reasonably consistent, especially if you are lighting a large area as we were in the example above.
There are many bad sides to astrophotography, namely having to get up in the middle of the night, attempting to focus in the dark, and (in my case) having to run around like a headless chicken trying to light a subject whilst tripping over bags and other paraphernalia. One of the up sides to astrophotography however is that you don't then need to get up for sunrise as you are already on location. Once the first twilight of dawn erases the Milky Way from view, it is often just a matter of waiting for 30 minutes or so before you can start getting totally different shots of the same subject.
Dawn and dunes provide the perfect environment for this scene
Our next location, and our base for the following four days was the town of Moab. As exciting as it is to keep arriving at new places each day, it is also good to be able to stay in one location for at least 2 or 3 days in order to relax a little, and Moab was ticking all these boxes. For anyone who has never been, it's a pleasant town with a comfortable and laid back atmosphere. Frequented by adventurers and trendy "cool dude" types, we naturally felt right at home.
After checking into our new hotel, we wasted no time in getting out to explore the surrounding scenery. Canyonlands is National Park which seems to have slipped under the radar of the masses, yet it offers some of the best views and photo opportunities of all the American National Parks. The fact that Arches National Park is just over the road probably helps to keep the hoards of tourists away, but nevertheless, it is surprising that it is not more popular. This is great news for us photographers though, as we do like to have the place to ourselves. Not only does it mean one less thing to worry about when considering composition and whether someone is in your shot, or worse, you are in theirs, it enriches the experience of just being in amazing locations and allows a unique connection with the planet.
James getting serious with the shorts from the Island in the Sky
While we try to avoid the crowds and stay off the beaten track, we also appreciate that certain iconic landmarks shouldn't be missed. In this area, Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch are two such places. Both magnets for tourists and photographers, it is virtually impossible to have a moment of solitude here. Classic shots are classic for a reason though, and this is usually because they are good. Mesa Arch only works photogenically at dawn when the first warm rays of light strike the cliff face below it, which in turn illuminates the underside of the arch a stunning orange hue.
To get prime real estate for your tripod here would mean turning up at 2am, marking your territory, then waiting for 4 hours for the sun to come up. After a couple of super early mornings shooting astro images we opted to try our luck by turning up 20 minutes before sunrise. On a previous visit here a couple of years ago, such luck occurred when we arrived at what we thought would be an early enough time to get a decent spot, but to our horror we found 40 photographers already jostling for position (the key area here only has room for about 3 tripods). We resigned ourselves to the fact that we wouldn't be getting the shot, so we just sat back and savoured the moment, entertained by some of the group's techniques.
The sun appeared over the horizon and shutters started going off frantically. The light was good, but I could see it was going to get even better in a few minutes due to a thin bank of cloud out to the east which the sun was about to disappear behind and then reappear from the other side much stronger. As it weakened behind the cloud, to our amazement, everyone (and I mean everyone) started packing up. I wanted to stop them all and explain that they should wait a few minutes to get a much better shot, but why would I want to prevent them all from occupying the best spots?! Just as they disappeared along the trail back to the car park, the light came back, 10 times better than it had been when they were all lined up, yet now we had the entire place to ourselves. With the sun slightly higher above the horizon, there was no unwanted direct light on the underside of the arch, allowing the reflected light to be richer and more consistent.
It's clear to see why Mesa Arch is so popular with photographers - the light in phenomenal
During our visit this time, the story started much the same but there was no cloud to disperse the scrum of photographers. Our group all managed to get great positions however, so it wasn't necessary on this occasion to have the place to ourselves. It was amusing to hear the conversation from different photographers, all giving a live commentary as the scene developed. Some were clearly amazed by the vividness of the light on the arch (the whole reason for being here at dawn) while others were complaining that it was terrible and that they needed more cloud in the sky! You just can't please some people.
"Would anyone mind if I stand by the arch?"
We did a couple of short hikes to new locations during the middle of our days in the area. All were amazing and would offer great potential in the right light, but you can only be in one place at one time, and as is too often the case in Utah, there are always more locations than there are days available to shoot them. You don't really need to worry about the light here, as it is 90% reliable, so very few days are wasted by the weather. In fact I would say that, photographically, it's probably the most productive trip we do. The hardest part is deciding which images to edit when you get home. Never has the reject folder been occupied with so many great shots!
This scene is one I hadn't shot before, but the conditions were too perfect to ignore
Forget the Grand Canyon, this place is infinitely better for photography. Plus we have it all to ourselves.
Eventually it was time to move base again and start heading back in the direction of Las Vegas. With two action packed days still ahead of us, it made leaving the Canyonlands area slightly less traumatic. You don't need to travel far in this area for the landscape to totally change. This was certainly the case on our route for day 8 which felt as though we were taking a tour of the planets of the Solar System. One moment we were on Mars, then the Moon, and then Venus. It's the closest I've ever got to travelling at the speed of light.
Team member Adam looking for Neil Armstrong's footsteps
Usually it's wise to avoid your own shadow in a photo but I couldn't resist
There's always one, and it's usually me!
Capturing the dawn light at Bryce Canyon
James capturing the amazing way the light bounces around between the hoodoos shortly after sunrise
As with all road trips, you end up passing things along the way which are worth stopping for. There's no shortage of these kinds of subjects in the American Southwest.
Old car with bullet hole at head height in the windscreen!
A sure sign you're in the Wild West
It's always difficult to decide on the duration of our trips. Not enough time means missing too many amazing locations, but too much time results in people burning out with fatigue. Our Utah trip is always 10 nights which seems to give a good compromise. When I consider all the places we don't get time to visit during our itinerary it makes me weep, but at the same time it is testament to how stunning the locations we do visit are. When we find ourselves with places like Arches National Park, Lake Powell, and the Grand Canyon unable to make it onto the list, we know things are looking good.
After the end of the customer trip, Adam and I stayed on for a couple of extra days in order to check out more locations for potential inclusion on future trips. Of course, we found plenty, but this just means we have to cull even more from the existing list. Here are a few of the ones we liked. Hard times are ahead!
Life on Mars
The Milky Way over an alien world - a truly extraterrestrial scene
The Devil's Backbone