Photographing Arizona’s Landscape

by Frederick Lee

An experience beyond words, you just have to be there.


Arizona1.jpgArizona sits in the most southwestern part of the America’s Southwest, an area famous for its distinctive landforms and unique vegetation. It is, after all, the Grand Canyon state with its iconic Saguaro cactus. Early explorers of the land have discovered that within a few hours traveling, the area’s diversity reflects the arid desert of Mexico to the lush coniferous forests of Canada. One strong reason to put Arizona as a photographic destination is that most major sites are within driving distances and can be covered in a week or longer. Driving in Arizona (except in the City of Phoenix) is pleasant and unhurried. North of Flagstaff, the route is very scenic with elevations varying between five to seven thousand feet. Although the key attractions are centered on the unusual landforms, yet each site has its unique quality and poses different photographic challenges. I have always loved the mystical images of slot canyons; its surreal colours and sublime shadows. But the experience of being cloistered within narrow canyon walls is beyond words. By contrast, it is a different feeling when dwarfed by the majestic sandstone formations in Monument Valley Navajo Reservation. For me, what started as a photographic endeavour ended in a greater enrichment in human experience; an engagement with nature on its own terms.

Antelope Canyon – Looking Up

AntelopeCanyon is located along Highway 98 on the way to Page, thenorthern-most town in Arizona. The Mecca of slot canyons, yet you caneasily miss it as it is not marked on most maps. The best landmark isPage power station with its three chimneys. There are two parts to thecanyon; the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, both discharge into LakePowell. Driving north, you can see road signs leading to the respectivecanyons after passing the power station. The Navajo folks at the UpperCanyon offer two types of tours, one for tourists and a longer one forphotographers. Slot canyon photography is challenging on both thetechnical and aesthetic fronts. Since lighting inside the canyondepends mainly on reflections, it is difficult to assess the effectthese have on the sandstone rock surfaces. One lesson that I havelearned is that the camera’s sensor does see a lot more of the colourspectrum than the human eyes can. This is especially true on the blueend. Experiment with the White Balance setting and use the histogramfor optimal exposure control. Strong highlights can ruin your image, sothe overexposed highlight warning is a very useful feature in thissituation. Personally, I find the aesthetic challenge the greaterbetween the two. But first we must locate the potential areas and thisis where local knowledge comes in very useful. A photographer who isfamiliar with the location can point you to potential spots andindicate their salient features that are not obvious with a passingglance. I had the good fortune of meeting Jackson Bridges of OverlandCanyon Tours in Page. Being a photographer, he was able to point me tojust the right places in Canyon ‘X’, another slot canyon in the area. Ireally needed it as the five-hour tour passes much quicker thanexpected. A final thought on slot canyon photography; don’t pass thosedark areas too quickly, allow your eyes to adjust for a few minutes andtake another look. You’ll be surprised how much more there is. Engagenature on its own terms.

Near Entrance – Antelope Canyon
 WB: Incandescent
WB: Cloudy
Monument Valley is a visual splendor of timeless forms and magnitude.Hidden in obscure corners are the most unexpected landforms carved overmillions of years. The Valley is located on the Arizona side of theborder with Utah; you actually have to drive north into Utah beforeheading south into the reservation. The scenic drive along Highway 163is a foretaste of greater sights to come. I was tempted several timesto stop by the roadside just to record the scene but was put off bysafety considerations. There is a seventeen-mile, self-drive trackwhich is passable to a family sedan, but you would need to negotiate itcarefully because of the rough terrain and poor road holding that thesand and small pebbles offer. However, the better views are not on thistrack. You need to hire a Navajo guide to bring you to the prime placesand I did just that; without regrets. There are just so manymagnificent geologic formations (the local Navajo call them monuments)that to photograph each individually would require a few days. I am notaware of sunrise tours, but there are tours that include the sunsethours. Be mindful that during the winter months, the sun sets early(about 5.00 pm) and quickly. To display sufficient details of themonuments, composition is best confined to no more three of them withina frame. Natural lighting plays an important role here, so be preparedto stay after nightfall for sunset shots. Since working distances arequite long, mid-focal zoom lenses (about 24-85mm) work best. Again, fora short visit, take advantage of local knowledge. The local Navajoguides know the times and places for the best shots. You want to benice to them in some practical way.
 Monument Valley – Left Mitten
The success of a photographic trip depends largely on one’s preparation. Ifyou plan to drive, work out all your routes beforehand and include reststops for long journeys. I have been using a mapping GPS receiver thispast year and have found it more convenient than paper maps. I stillcarry them though. Next, decide on a list of basic equipment andaccessories you are expected to use. Anticipate the number of shots youexpect to take and carry a memory device large enough to accommodateall the images. I prefer to carry additional CF cards in the field anddownload them in the evening when back in the hotel room. There is justtoo much to contend with in the field than to have to worry aboutdownloading into portable memory devices. With stuff like batteries,you need spares. Make all your bookings for accommodation and tourarrangements well in advance as most National Parks in the US have verylimited facilities. In some cases, bookings as far as a year in advanceare needed. Planning also includes having the appropriate clothing andfootwear for the season. The best times of the day to photograph arealso the times when normal folks are having their breakfasts ordinners. You may not like to deprive yourself of basic creaturecomforts.
Monument Valley – Mittens and Merrick
This trip to Arizona was my first. I made extensive pre-trip searches ofphotographic sites on the internet about these locations. I made notesof the exact spots and the best angles. As an example, not allviewpoints along the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon are good forsunrise and sunset shots. Viewing images by others can indicate a lotabout the view to expect and the lighting angles. This saves a lot oftime when at the location and improves the yield of ‘keepers’. My tripto Arizona began months before I left and the experience continues tolinger and endure in my images long after it ended. Best of all, I cannow share them with family and friends.

Copyright © by Frederick Lee 2007


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