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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Our Blitzkrieg Road trip through the National Parks of the West - Part 2

Utah - Zion, Bryce Canyon, Moab, Canyonlands and Arches National Park

Utah is one of those places that it would be best just to live there rather than visit. There is just too much to see and photograph. So I chose these four parks to visit in the time I had available. I hope someday to go back and see places like the Vermillion Cliffs, Capital Reef NP, various slot canyons, and more of the places of beauty that Utah has to offer.

Zion has a similar layout to Yosemite in that much of the park is cliffs surrounding a valley. When we got to Zion the colors of the leaves were starting to change. There were gorgeous yellow fall leaves, red rocks and emerald water. I could have stayed a week or two in Zion. The hiking is great if you are not afraid of heights. The deep green of the plant life compliments the red sandstone cliffs. There is a lot of good hiking in some of the out of the way places, such as the Narrows slot canyon (with a cold river at the bottom that requires renting specific gear to wade through) or the Subway a beautifully colored rounded tunnel that requires a backcountry permit.

Most of Zion can be seen from the main road. There is a shuttle service that operates from early morning until late in the evening. This was great because you don’t have to drive, you can stop at any major point along the way to hike and if you are like me when I am in a new beautiful place, I stop to look around and see what is new and driving becomes secondary. There is also a very informative recorded message that plays on the shuttle describing the wildlife, the formations and the parks early visitors. Zion is a must see for any photographer or nature lover, it is simply too beautiful to pass up.

There is no single iconic image from Zion; it has slot canyons, peaks and river valleys, all very colorful. My favorite images were taken while walking along the river capturing emerald cascading water against red rocks. For this an 8-10 stop neutral density filter is a must to help you get that soft misty water. A neutral density filter is essentially a dark piece of glass and when you put it in front of your lens it makes you exposure longer because your camera has less light going through it. The longer your exposure the “softer” or more misty your water is going to look. My minimum exposure with cascading water is ¼ of a sec but I try to get it anywhere from 2 seconds to 2 minutes.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @24mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F16 @ 1 Sec, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Not far from Zion but at a huge elevation gain is Bryce Canyon National Park. It is approximately 8,000 feet above sea level and it was cold. We had to get a hotel for the night and a good thing because it hailed that afternoon. Bryce is not a huge park and much of it can be seen in a day but Bryce is a must see with its large, orange crazy graphically shaped hoodoos. The orange in the rock is best captured at sunrise and if you can’t make that then late in the afternoon when the sun is making the shadows longer. Because of the position of the park it is very difficult to get a good sunset picture at Bryce. My favorite images were taken using the early morning light with a sunburst in the image. You can do this by placing the sun behind an object with just a pinprick or sliver of sun coming around the edge and shooting at F22 or your lens’s most minimum F-stop.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F22 @ 1/40, and ISO 400

To the east of Zion and Bryce across Utah is Moab; a city that inhabits a good spot nestled between Canyonlands and Arches National Park. There is a lot to see and do between these two sections of Utah but due to the weather getting colder and time constraints these are the places we chose to visit. We found that most cities next to National Parks and Monuments seem set out to empty your wallet but Moab was very reasonable. We had good micro-brews, inexpensive food, and cheap lodging. Moab still had a nice small town feel making it our favorite urban place that we passed through.

Arches National Park, as its name describes many sandstone arches, there is probably not a better place for astro-photography. Due to the elevation and lack of light pollution Utah prides itself on its night skies. When you add in a large arch for shooting night skies through you have a great place for star-trails.

My favorite arch would be double arch, pictures can never do the sheer size of the arch justice, it is like being inside an outdoor god-made (or time-made depending on your preference) cathedral.

One of the most popular arches in the park is Delicate Arch; there is probably not a more perfect arch out there. If you’re going to shoot this at sunset get there early, you are going to have to share your elbow room with a lot of other photographers.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F5.6 @ 45min, ISO 200

Arches National Park is photogenic any time of day or season, I prefer sunrise and sunset, but if you’re out in the afternoon bring a polarizer to help bring out the colors of the sandstone and the blue of the sky. Give yourself at least three days in this park to see all you want to see and give yourself a couple of nights for stargazing and remember to have flashlights, it gets really dark and quiet there. I’m talking hear the blood pumping if your ears quiet. Also, don’t make the same mistake I did and forget the batteries for your flash. Adding light on your subject when doing night photography will make your images more interesting and it turns photography into painting. The night is your blank canvas, the light is your brush, and you decide what to paint.

Canyonlands National Park is a very large park cut into sections by the Colorado (and Green Rivers). Most of the park is only accessible by raft or 4x4 but the most well known section of the park has its entrance about 45 minutes out of Moab called the Island in the Sky District. This section of the park has one of the most photographed arches in it, Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch’s underside glows orange at sunrise from light being reflected off of the stone below it. It is so popular in fact that you must get there early WELL before sunrise to get a spot. Photographers will create a half circle around the arch and there is a pact among them not to walk in front of the others so that everyone may get a shot. The down side to this is that there are so many images of the arch already out there that it is hard to create something original at this location, the up side is that you WILL get a beautiful image. Add a little extra sumthin-sumthin by adding a sunburst in your shot as described above. This is also a good spot to meet and talk shop with fellow photographers. It is here I met fellow photographers and regular contributors to Outdoor Photography Magazine Gary Hart and Don Smith. In fact if you are in a park in Utah you will meet other photographers many of them professional, it’s always worth saying hi and asking a few questions because in photography there is always something to learn.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F22 @ 1/40, and ISO 400

New Mexico - Taos, Santa Fe, Petroglyphs, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks and White Sands

New Mexico seems like a dry and desolate place from the viewpoint of the interstate, but there are many hidden gems all across the state including, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on this planet; White Sands National Monument.

White Sands is pure white gypsum that forms sand dunes. Sand dunes are always nestled between two mountain ranges. No other place I have been has the ability to take away all the distracting elements in photograph, so easily making the image purely about texture, pattern, line or color as White Sands does. Of course, the sand is so white and so reflective it is best to meter your camera off of the palm of your hand to get a correct exposure; the sky will often come out dark blue in your images because the foreground is brighter than the sky. This is the same reasoning you would use for snow, you can even go to you exposure compensation dial which is usually marked with a little +/- and set it to around +1 ½. It is best to photograph in the early morning or late evening when the sun is raking its light across the dunes making stronger patterns. Another good time to photograph white Sands is during sunset, moonrises, and full moons and at night. In fact during season the park offers Full Moon walks. Don’t forget long sleeves and sunscreen, I once went to White Sands and forgot to put sunscreen on my legs and wore shorts, the next day I could not walk!

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @12mm, F8 @ 1/320, ISO 200

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a great day hike between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, named for the rocks the shape of pointy tents. The 2 1/2 hour hike takes you through narrow slot canyons as you climb to high above giving you a bird’s eye view. A five star hike in my book and it is not overpopulated by any means.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @14mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F11 @ 1/200, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Petroglyphs National Monument is a wonderful daytrip right outside of Albuquerque that is worth seeing if you are passing through. Keep a mental map during your day hike so that coming back in the evening is easy so that you can combine a petroglyph and a star-trail/astro-photography/timelapse, use your headlamp to light up the petroglyph. Of course the night hike in Petroglyphs is not recommended by the rangers.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @22mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F8 @ 1/125, and ISO 200

If you want images of picturesque adobe style buildings in the evening with maybe some dried red chili peppers hanging in front of a colorful door of a beautiful pueblo style church then Santa Fe city center is the place for you. If you would prefer a place that is less tourist oriented or more of an out west feel head to Taos. Taos also has a large well known, still inhabited Indian pueblo that is worth going to just for the experience. It is a World Heritage site and the TaosNorthern Tiwa) speaking Native American tribe of Pueblo people have tourist information at the entrance of the pueblo. Taos is also home to Earth Ships, self-sustainable homes built out of earth, tires, cans and what-have-you that looks like part of some futuristic art project. (

There are many cliff dwellings, pueblos, petroglyphs and other places in New Mexico that are worth visiting. A few years back when I attended UNM, I also visited places such as the ruins in Mountainair, Aztec Ruins, Bandelier, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Bisti Badlands, and Carlsbad Caverns NP. New Mexico is the land of enchantment and these multitudes of sacred places are one of the reason’s why.

Arizona - Sedona

There is still much more I would like to see in Arizona such as the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Monument Valley and basically the whole northern section. Unfortunately, the weather sent us straight to Sedona, which was warm. Sedona has a lot of great scenery, vortexes and spiritual healers. The city of Sedona is a nice little town that caters to tourism, surrounded by red rock sandstone plateaus covered in deep green flora, the hiking and landmarks are beautiful. Apparently, many of these landmarks have what’s called a “Vortex” which is described as a place where the spirit often feels lifted, you may have a sense of elation or happiness and these sights often have a male or female orientation of some kind. These vortexes were hard for me to pinpoint because whenever I am in a beautiful place I often feel happy and elated. This could also be because the trails were poorly marked, so it can be difficult to find your way around without a guide. This is something I feel that was done on purpose since most street corners in Sedona were trying to sell you some kind of guided adventure tour. Sedona is a place with so many vortexes in one location that the city has somehow attracted a large population of spiritual healers, tarot and different kinds of mind and body therapy.

Nikon D300s, 12-24mm @14mm, Tripod, Cable Release, F11 @ 1/40, ISO 200, and Polarizer

Any questions on locations, techniques, or how-to please email me at and remember; the easiest way to improve your images is to always use a tripod whenever possible!