Saturday, December 15, 2012


I woke when the alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. with the goal of doing more star photography. A quick check of the night sky showed no visible stars. I'd say I was disappointed, but crawling back into the warm bed made up for that. Got out of bed again at 4:30 a.m. and still no stars but it was snowing. This was even better. Back to bed again.

I was dressed and ready to shoot by 6 a.m., only problem was that visibility looked like it might only be 100 feet. At first light I still couldn't see anything so I decided to just have breakfast and wait it out, since I wasn't going to leave Monument Valley when there was a chance to capture some snow photos.

A Yucca plant in Monument Valley, Ariz., during a mid December snow.
Yucca plant in Monument Valley.
Finally went out around 8 a.m. and while visibility was still limited, I was able to shoot some detail shots. For a brief moment I thought I would get a break when the bottom of Mitchell Butte was visible, but the fog quickly settled back in. After two hours I returned to the hotel, checked out and waited patiently in the lobby.

The fog clears to reveal Merrick Butte in Monument Valley, Ariz.
The fog clears to reveal Merrick Butte.
First glimpse of the Merrick Butte through the lobby window came around 11 a.m., so I grabbed my gear and quickly ran to get in position. Visibility came and went, first revealing most of Michell Butte, but want really caught my attention was when I started catching glimpses of just the top portion of the West Mitten.

The West and East Mitten become visible as the fog clears after a mid December snow in Monument Valley, Ariz.
West Mitten and East Mitten.
It was constant shooting for the next hour or so as the fog came and went and more of more of the valley came into view. As the wind picked up it wasn't long before most of the fog had cleared. I knew I had about a five hour drive ahead and figured it was about time I got on the road.

Fog clears from Monument Valley after a mid December snow.
Mid December snow in Monument Valley.
During the drive south to Payson, Ariz., patches of blue began to appear in the sky and before I knew it there were these amazing cloud formations. I kept wanting to pull over and was desperately looking for something to put in the foreground. Finally I saw some interesting rock formations by the side of the road and thought they would make a good excuse to photograph the clouds. Those photos came out fine, but as I turned to head back to the car, I noticed the clouds that had been behind me were far more interesting, so I framed up a simple composition and made the final image of this trip.

Dramatic clouds in Arizona.

Hope you enjoyed joining me on this photographic adventure as I talked about planning the trip, the gear I was bringing and the daily updates while on the road. Check back after the holidays for posts on my first time shooting the stars and what I learned photographing in Upper Antelope Canyon and more.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Star photography over Monument Valley, Ariz.

Started today early, waking at 2 a.m. to begin taking star photographs. As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm staying at the Monument Valley View hotel, so I only had to go as far as my balcony to begin shooting. I struggled for about an hour, mostly with focus. I would shoot a half dozen photos and then look at the photos on my laptop. A couple are usable, but far from what I'm hoping to do tonight.

Ended up laying back down and woke again 5:45 a.m. Tried a few more photos from the balcony, but again it just wasn't working out, so I gathered all my gear, bundled up and headed out in search of the hiking trail which starts about a quarter mile from the hotel.

West and East Mittens at sunrise.
West and East Mittens at sunrise.
As the sun began to rise, I found a nice vantage point to photograph the East and West Mittens. As the morning light began to fill the sky, I started feeling better about the photos I was taking. Around 8 a.m. when the sun was a bit higher, I took advantage of the golden light and photographed Mitchell Butte, including some nice sand patterns in the foreground, accentuated by the low light skimming across.

Gray Whiskers, left, and Mitchell Butte in early morning light.
Gray Whiskers, left, and Mitchell Butte in early morning light.
Ate some breakfast and then drove 22 miles to Mexican Hat, Utah, to photograph a sombrero-shaped rock outcropping that gave the town its name. Wasn't quite what I expected, but since the sun was having trouble breaking out all day and the light was very flat, it provided a distraction. I also decided to take a break and check out the Goulding's Trading Post Museum located at Goulding's Lodge.  Director John Ford and actor John Wayne were frequent visitors when filming westerns, such as 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' in Monument Valley.

Horses pass in front of the Totem Pole, right, and Yei Bi Chei.
Horses pass in front of the Totem Pole, right, and Yei Bi Chei.
When I finally figured I better get back to taking pictures, I drove the 17 mile loop again, only this time I stopped often and tried my best to make some photos despite the light not cooperating. Horses are left to graze throughout the valley and as I was photographing the Totem Pole I just happened to see some  approaching from the distance. I had tried to photograph horses yesterday and earlier today, but this time it worked out.

West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte in afternoon light.
West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte in afternoon light.
Finally around 3:30 p.m. the sky began to clear and the sun started to light up the valley. It was then that I started shooting like crazy, but also knew I still had to drive about six miles to get to a point where I could capture the sun hitting the West Mitten Butte. Stopped a few times and captured both the West and East Mittens as they just lit up. Ended the day at about the same location I was in when shooting the sunrise.

Old tree oversees Monument Valley.
Old tree overlooking Monument Valley.
Finally around 5 p.m., I made my way back to my room and quickly set up to shoot a time lapse with the D700 and a 24-70mm pointed at the West Mitten which still had some light on it. Set the interval timer to take a shot every five seconds and stopped it when the sun went down.

Another good day. More star photography, only tonight I'm going to head out very early in the morning to hike down into the valley and away from the hotel. Should be darker and maybe easier to focus if I'm closer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Stars fill the night sky at Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.

When I was planning this trip I had an idea of the types of photographs I wanted to make. As the trip neared, I started to feel some pressure, similar to when I'm about to leave on a work assignment. It's the kind of pressure you put on yourself to ensure that you make the photographs that will tell the story and please the client. Pressure to produce better images than the last assignment. And this is the pressure that drives you to get to the location early and stay late, making sure you don't miss anything.

I kept telling myself that this trip was for pleasure. It was about seeing something new and making some photographs that pleased me. Why the pressure? Also since I was traveling solo, what would motivate me to get up early and stay late.

Today I passed the first test, rising at 4:45 a.m. and returning to Horseshoe Bend by 5:30 a.m. It was dark and guided by only my headlamp it felt really good to be out there. In fact it was a little too early to see much, but I did notice that the stars were still out and what better time to see if all the reading I did about shooting the night sky would pay off. I think the first effort came out pretty good and it did give me some starting points for next time.

Returned to hotel and had breakfast, checked out and headed to downtown Page to meet my guide at Antelope Canyon Tours who would take me to Upper Antelope Canyon for two hours of shooting.

Upper Antelope Canyon outside Page, Arizona.

What an amazing place with amazing light. In fact it doesn't seem to matter which direction you aim your camera, there is a shot. I rushed a bit at first, just wanting to get something usable, but once I calmed down and realized that there would be enough time, I began to actually get some photos that I am very happy with. As with star photography, I plan a separate blog post with all the details and lessons learned.
Sand spills down into Upper Antelope Canyon outside Page, Arizona.

After some lunch and a stop at Walmart for canned air (there is lots of sand in the canyon), I made the 137 mile drive to Monument Valley. The scenery in this part of Arizona is just beautiful and the temptation is to pull over and make photos every couple of miles. I only made one quick photo stop, but wanted to reach my destination early and start processing the images from the morning. 

I'm staying at the Monument Valley View hotel where every room has a balcony that overlooks the valley. There is also a 17 mile loop road which takes you around the Navajo Tribal Park. Road is being kind and I wouldn't try this without an SUV. In winter it closes at 5 p.m. and I set out around 4 p.m. The sky was overcast and the light was flat, but I wanted to take the loop and at least check out vantage points for tomorrow, especially if we get the snow they are calling for.

The overcast sky breaks just enough during this sunset in Monument Valley, Arizona.

It took a little longer to make the loop than I anticipated and it was starting to get dark, however just as I neared the end I was rewarded by a very nice sunset. Goodnight from Monument Valley and if the sky is clear it will be a night spent shooting the stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Photograph of Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.

Day one is over. Technically it was day two, but yesterday was spent traveling from Washington, D.C., and visiting with friends in Phoenix.

Today I traveled 350 miles making my first stop at the North Rim at Glen Canyon, but only made a few images. It was a chance to break out the gear though and also start wrapping my mind around what I wanted to capture on this trip. Everywhere you look around here the colors are spectacular, very warm, yet also subtle. For me the tendacy was to keep the 14-24mm on and just take everything in. I think I will struggle on this trip and have to force myself to use other lenes.

About a mile after you reach the Page city limits there is a turn off for Horseshoe Bend. The parking lot is right there and then after a three quarter mile hike, you arrive and are greeted with a really nice view. I grabbed the wide angle and inched as close to the edge as I dared. Even though it was just after noon, the sun was low enough to provide contrast in the scene, yet high enough to light all the way down to the Colorado River.

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.

I spent about 2 hours shooting and came away with a few images that I liked, even shooting a few verticals. My plan is to return tomorrow for sunrise before I have to meet my tour guide for Antelope Canyon mid morning.

The Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell in Arizona.

Next I continued north on route 89 and passed through Page to the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell. Spent a little bit of time playing with shadows created by the bridge and transformer towers. I also realized that the sun would cast some nice light on Lake Powell during sunset. The park ranger gave me some advice on a good scenic overlook and that is where I spent the final hours of the day as the sun went down.

Lake Powell at sunset.

The light was very nice, but not much of a sky. And from that vantage point there are some marinas that stick out in the lake making shooting around them tricky. Normally I wouldn't mind included the boats as an element, but in this case I thought it really was a distraction.

Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, at sunset.

It was a decent first day. Shook out all the gear and managed to get a few images that I like and as I suspected I did meet other photographers and even received some good tips on what to look for tomorrow. Time to finish posting, get to bed early, and prepare for tomorrow.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


I've just finished packing for the Arizona trip and wanted to share what gear I'm taking along and some of my thoughts behind it. I'll break this down into three sections, camera, computer, and accessory.


Nikon D3S, Nikon D700, Fuji X10, 10.5mm, 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 80-200mm, 2x teleconverter, GoPro, SB900, SU800. 

Nikon D3S with a Zacuto Z-1 Pro on a Gitzo Serires 00 carbon tripod

I'm taking three cameras, the Nikon D3s and D700, and my new Fuji X10. I thought about not taking the D700 as a second body on this trip since I will primarily be shooting landscapes and didn't think I would need a second body affixed with another lens for quick reaction. In the end however, I thought if something happened to the D3s, the only backup would be the X10 and while I'm learning to really like that camera, it just does not compare to a full frame DSLR in quality.

I'm also bringing an Nikon SB900 in case I need fill flash especially if I'm shooting during the middle of the day.


Apple 15" Powerbook, iPad, LaCie Rugged Mini 1TB hard drive, SanDisk Firewire 800 card reader, Photo Mechanic, Adobe Lightroom 4.0, Photoshop CS4, Verizon MiFi.

Apple 15" powerbook with LaCie Rugged 1TB drive and SanDisk FW 800 CF card reader.

The plan of course is to process images during the trip, as well as continue to update this blog, so I'm bringing my 15" Powerbook. Simple work flow will be to offload camera cards each day, copying contents to desktop then backing up to a portable hard drive. I will use Photo Mechanic to rename and caption images, then import into LightRoom 4.0, and finish off in Photoshop CS4.

Other than the laptop, I am also bringing my iPad, along with a camera connection kit, on this trip. And it is not just for entertainment, but for practical purposes. Other than the photo apps that may see some use, I rely on the Sun Seeker app which provides you with sunrise and sunset times, shows a map view of sun direction for each daylight hour and 3D views of the solar path. In fact I've already studied the direction of light during the time and day when I will be in certain locations. Two other non-photo apps I will use on this trip are The Weather Channel app and SkySafari 3.


Gitzo Series 00 Carbon tripod, Zacuto Z-Finder Pro, PocketWizard Plus, Blackrapid camera strap, battery chargers, mouse, Belkin surge protector,  Lexar professional 600x 32GB card, Lexar professional 400x 16GB card (2), SanDisk Extreme 16GB, SanDisk Extreme 2GB,  Tenba sandbag

So far it's been pretty straight forward, but the details are in the accessories. I have two tripods, a Bogen Model #3033 that I've owned since 1986. It is a sturdy, dependable tripod, however it is very heavy and not very compact. The other is a Gitzo Series 00 Carbon 6X with a Arca-Swiss Monoball Z1 ballhead. This is a great tripod for travel and backpacking because it is so light, but my concern is that it may be too lightweight, especially for star photography, so I'm bringing a sandbag to help steady along with hanging my backpack should help.

In order to assist with focus at night and to make sure everything is sharp during the day, I'm bringing a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro 2.5x eyepiece which should give some piece of mind as I shoot. For triggering the camera, I'm going to use a PocketWizard Plus. Perhaps a bit of overkill, but without a cable release, this is the next best thing.

The Kelty Redwing backpack with Think Tank change up bag and various Think Tank pouches to keep gear protected during travel.

To transport most of the gear, I'm using a Kelty Redwing backpack. Not a photo backpack you say? That's right. I was at REI and looking at backpacks when the Kelty caught my attention. Plenty of room, good support and the right size to also be used on a two to three backpacking trip. As I've mentioned previously, I use Think Tank test drive bags (now called Lens Changers) and pouches to protect my cameras and lens in the bag. The main compartment has a place to hold my laptop and the front portion has room for my iPad, pens, notebook, phone, etc. This pack also has side pouches to stow additional items plus they have a pass through that will allow me to carry a tripod. The final bag will be a Think Tank Change Up Belt Pack. I've mentioned this bag before in my GOING LIGHT(er) post.

I'll carry on most of the camera gear in the Kelty and the Change Up. Things like chargers, cables and of course clothing will all go in my checked bag.

Thursday, December 06, 2012


In my last post I mentioned an upcoming self-assignment trip to Arizona. Back in October of 2011 when I relaunched this blog I made the conscious decision to start taking photographs for myself. With that in mind, I began researching various photography workshops and came to some realizations.

First, they fill up quickly which means you have to book early and with my current or potential assignment schedule, that is not always possible. Secondly, they can be expensive, usually somewhere in the $1000.00 to $2,000 price range. I'm not saying the price isn't worth it, in fact sometimes I wonder how they get the workshop leaders they do for that price. Remember, with some exceptions, the workshop price does not include transportation, meals or lodging.

Taking all that into consideration, I decided that I would put together my own photographic adventure. So next week I'm headed to Arizona with plans to visit the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, The Painted Desert, and whatever else I come across in a week's time.

Why Arizona? Sometimes things just come together and that is the case here. I was on Google + and saw a post from R.C. Concepcion about a Red Rock Adventure trip he was on as part of Bill Fortney's His Light Workshops. This was actually one of the workshops I had considered after having talked with Bill during PhotoPlus in 2011 and really admiring his art and passion. However, as I mentioned above, timing was not on my side, but at $499, the price was incredibly reasonable.

RCs post started me thinking, but then I saw a Google + post from Matt Kloskowski, another Photoshop Guy, talking about the same trip and that led me to his blog post titled What I Learned on My First Star Photo Shoot about his experience shooting at night in Monument Valley.

Now I really started thinking. Next step of course was to open Google Maps and figure out the relationships between these locations in terms of distance. And didn't I have friends in Phoenix that I've been promising to visit for years?