It’s great to be back on the open road after 2 years of limited travel. I never get tired of photographing the Southwestern United States, so I wanted to photograph some locations that I hadn’t been to before and especially one that is my favourite national park-Bryce Canyon. The last time I photographed Bryce was with a lower spec camera, so I was anxious to try out my Nikon D850. I wasn’t disappointed as the quality and resolution is outstanding.
When it comes to landscape photography, I have a fascination with unusual rock formations and the Southwest certainly has an abundance of them. This list is by far not concise, but these are locations great for the photographic experience with very few people to share tripod holes with. Even though at the top of my list is Bryce Canyon National Park, I have never come across too many other photographers, especially going in the winter.
1. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah – Because Bryce Canyon is situated at 9,100 feet, it is subject to low temperatures at night and high temperatures during the day. Water seeps into the rock and freezes, creating these incredible hoodoos. As it was March, I was hoping for snow to cover the formations and though I had just missed a heavy snowfall a week earlier, there was still enough snow in places to give a good contrast to the orange colour in the rock. I think the best place to photograph the sunrise is ironically at Sunset Point. There is the Queen’s Garden to the left and Silent City to the right of the point. I was poised to capture the first light on Queen’s Garden and while I was waiting for the sun, I turned around and noticed the clouds over Inspiration Point lighting up with colour. A quick shift to the other side and I managed to capture the colour before it faded. Quick tip-always look behind you at sunrise or sunset.
One day I hiked down into the canyon to immerse myself in these incredible formations. There was a rock wall with two holes in it that appeared like the eyes of a Optimus Prime. It goes well with Thor’s Hammer to the right. I waited until the sun was just breaking the horizon using my Nikon 24mm 1.8 ‘Optimus Prime’ lens and positioned the sun on the edge of the opening to create a sunburst using an aperture of f/11. I exposed three images, 2 stops over, one normal and 2 stops under to create an HDR image using Lightroom. The reflected light off the canyon walls helps to bounce light back to the formations.
2. Sunset Arch, Utah – This was my second attempt to photograph this arch located in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It’s not easy to find especially as the first time I went, I didn’t have the convenience of Google Maps and halfway into the hike, it clouded up so there wasn’t any chance of warm, golden light on the arch.
It’s located down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road out of Escalante, which is 62 miles of gravel road. The turning is at the 40-mile marker up the Coyote Gulch Road where you park by the water tanks. From the car park there isn’t a path to the arch, so this is where your GPS comes in handy. I could just see the top of the arch from the car park, which was in line with the snow-covered Navajo Mountain in the background, so I kept heading for that. About half an hour later, I arrived at Sunset Arch with not a soul in sight. I used a 24-70mm lens at 28mm positioned close to the arch. I wanted to try one with the 70-200mm lens standing further back to make the size of Navajo Mountain more prominent under the arch.
3. Metate Arch, Devil’s Garden, Utah – Devil’s Garden is also down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and is a wonderful place for rock formations. Metate Arch is best photographed late in the afternoon when the warm side lighting lights up the underneath side of the cliff face. I think a vertical orientation suits it better as the sweeping line of the rock face leads down to the arch and the shadow from a large juniper tree is cropped out on the right-hand side of the image. I used a 16-35mm lens @16mm with an exposure of 1/10 second @ f/11.
4. Zebra Slot Canyon, Utah – I consider the best slot canyons are Upper and Lower Antelope near Page and I’m glad I was able to photograph them before they got way too crazy with crowds. So it’s a nice change to photograph another slot canyon with far fewer people and interesting characteristics. This is located also down the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and the best place to park is after the 3rd cattle guard once you leave the main road. You will most likely see other cars parked there. The hike takes about 50 minutes and follows a dry river bed. Once I entered the canyon, it became evident that this slot canyon was not for people that suffer from claustrophobia or someone on the large side. There was a bit of water in it in one place, so I had to shimmy horizontally over it. I definitely got a workout navigating through the canyon. Most people with backpacks left them outside so I’m glad I only brought a small pack to take the camera and a 16-35mm lens. Absolutely no room to use a tripod, so I bumped the ISO up to 1250, switched the vibration reduction on the lens and exposed it at f/11 @ 1/25 second. Every image was pin sharp.
5. Stud Horse Point, Utah – Located between Page and Big Water down a remote gravel road, Stud Horse Point is a collection of hoodoos on steroids. To get a sense of scale, I had someone stand next to one of the hoodoos to show just how large they are. The harder capstones seem to balance precariously at an angle.
6. Fire Wave, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada – There are many arches and unusual rock formations in the Valley of Fire and the Fire Wave is like a cresting wave of banded red and white stripes. From parking lot 3 on the Mouse Tank road, the hike takes about 20 minutes to reach the wave. I photographed it at first light and last and felt the afternoon light brings out the contours the best. I was fortunate there was always someone there to model on top of the wave to give it a sense of scale.
7. The Toadstools, Paria Rimrocks, Utah – I’ve photographed this location many times before, but never with the full moon rising over these unusual rock formations. Located off Highway 89 between Big Water and Kanab. When I first photographed this location, you had to follow cryptic directions, but now there is a sign in the car park. The hike is an easy 20 minutes up a dry river bed. I arrived late in the afternoon to capture the last light on the formations. Once the sun went down, the temperature dropped quickly, especially in the wind. I sheltered along the cliffs until the moon began to rise above the horizon. There was another photographer there so between us we used our head torches to light the rocks. The moon didn’t rise quite in the location where I wanted it, so I used the multiple exposure feature in the Nikon D850, besides I wanted to increase the size of the moon to make it more dramatic. Using the 24-70mm lens at f/2.8, I exposed 20 seconds for the rocks. After that, I changed to the Nikon 300mm lens exposing for the moon f/8 @ 1/250 second positioning it to the left of the rock formation. This usually takes a few attempts to get the exposures and positioning just right, but luckily I nailed it on the first attempt. Good thing, I was freezing at this point!
I hope you enjoyed my road trip around Nevada and Utah. I always look forward to exploring new desert locations so hopefully, the next road trip isn’t far off.
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