I may have previously stated the best part of the trip is planning. Can I change that and say the best part of the trip is the journey to and from? Or maybe it’s the destination?
If you go back two blog posts you can see my planning for our trip to Antelope Canyon. One of the things I did was try and research photo opportunities outside of the canyon itself. After all, it is a 10 hour drive from Denver and the canyon tour is only 3 hours long.
The first part of the drive through the Rocky Mountains is a familiar one. I’ve done it dozens of times and sometimes it’s hard to find interesting shots when the scenery is so familiar but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I’m typically behind the wheel when driving so I took this opportunity as a passenger to play with my camera while on the road.
The shot above was taken driving through the Eisenhower tunnel. Relying on the instant feedback from my digital camera I continued to modify my camera settings to get something I liked. I found that the road is much bumpier than I expected and all of those bumps came right through the dash of the vehicle. I determine that I now need to buy a gimbal. 😉
Once we got into Utah the landscape really changed from the familiar mountains of Colorado to the red cliffs of the desert. As expected we were driving through most of this beautiful red rock landscape in the middle of the day – not the best time for landscape photography. However, around 5pm we were on our approach to Monument Valley. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how little research we did on Monument Valley but luckily we had plenty of time in the car and a strong LTE connection.
Arriving from the east and driving into the setting sun did not provide the best lighting for the typical approach shot RT 163. We agreed that an approach at sunrise would yield much better results. But the views perpendicular to the setting sun were stunning. Having a polarizing filter really brought out the colors too.
The land all around the road belongs to the Navajo nation which provides you a small strip on either side of the road for composing your photos.
Finally we made it to the overlook at The View Hotel in Monument Valley. This is the spot that everyone visits. It is from here that you can arrange for a drive through the valley itself. Arriving late in the day we did not do this but just enjoyed the view from the overlook. Pulling out the tripod I set my camera on bracket mode and tried my best at capturing the landscape. Bracketing shots would allow me to use a program like the Nik Collection when I got home to create a more dynamic photo. Honestly, I think HDR Effects overdoes it a little but what’s a few more shots in the end.
As you can see in the image above, it looks pretty but it’s a bit grainy and soft. One of the things I did way too often on this trip was I forgot to turn off the bracketing mode when I was done. If you keep it on then the next shot you take will look good but the following four shots (varies depending on your bracketing settings) will be over or under exposed. You would think I would learn that quickly but somehow it was harder than it should have been. I got lots of photos that looked like this.
The dynamic range in the valley is pretty high since the overlook starts to cast a shadow on the valley as the sun sets. I’m still not real comfortable dealing with this in my post-processing so I decided to wait until the sun had fully set and then snapped a few more photos. As you can tell by the one below the lighting was much more even but nonetheless impressive. If it wasn’t apparent, all of the shots from the overlook were done on a tripod. You’re close to your car and honestly, you have plenty of time to prepare your shots so why not benefit from the stability of the tripod.
As the sunlight disappeared we decide to go into the hotel restaurant to eat while we waited for the stars to come out. By the time we had made it into the restaurant seating was closed for non-hotel guest but they did have a small buffet that worked out nicely. It gave us some time to review our recent photos and joke at some of the other photographers trying to capture their best selfie.
After eating I wanted to try and get some night shots of the valley even though it was getting late and we still had about an hour drive to Page. After struggling with some camera difficulties I snapped off a few photos but in the end I wasn’t really impressed with my work so none were worthy of sharing. I will say that it was good practice and with digital cameras it didn’t cost anything but time. By then it was completely dark and we continued on to Page to get some rest before our Antelope Canyon tour the next morning.
One thing to note when traveling around this region in the summer (or any location in another time zone for that matter) is be aware of the different time zones. Arizona does not follow daylight savings time. Utah does and apparently the Navajo nation in Arizona does too. The company we booked the tour through was based in Utah but they honored Arizona time since that’s where the tour started. It made for a lot of interesting calls to the receptionist asking questions like, “what time does your watch say?”
Check out my previous post for our Antelope Canyon tour.
We ended up visiting the overlook three times during our trip. It’s easy to reach the overlook with just a short hike from the parking lot. The easy access attracts a great number of visitors. We were mentally prepared for this and it lived up to the reports we read online. But even with the steady stream of tourists we found that the overlook and the whole landscape is so large that it dwarfs even the largest tour bus.
Our first visit was at sunrise the day after we visited Antelope Canyon. We awoke in the dark and made our way to the car. It was about a 30 minute drive from where we were staying. Being our first visit we were definitely taken aback by the shear scale of the canyon and the distance to the water below. Despite this we could see a group of rafters below and hear them splashing and playing in the morning water. There was no issue finding a spot on the rim and we got to work setting up our tripods.
I had read that you really need a wide angle lens to get the whole bend in the frame. Using my rented 14-24 lens gave me plenty of flexibility. Sunrise is a quiet and peaceful time in the desert even at a popular destination like this. We arrived well before the sun came up over the horizon and then it slowly lit the scenery in front of us. First it began to paint the sky and then it illuminated the cliffs off in the distance.
This is another setting where bracketing your shots comes in handy. The sky and cliffs are very bright while the depths of the canyon are relatively dark. However the shot above was early enough that I like how the single RAW file looked when processed. You can see in the shot below that the sun was much higher and thus the bracketed shots came in handy. At the time I used the Nik Collection to process the multiple shots into a single HDR.
After driving down to the Navajo Bridge (I’ll mention more about that later) we returned to Horseshoe Bend around lunch time. The lighting was much different but it was still impressive. As we saw the sun rise, earlier the same day, and light the canyon walls we thought it would be interesting to see it when the sun lit all the way down to the river. A different rainbow of colors greeted us as the sun illuminated all the greenery along the banks and in the water.
Since there wasn’t much going on with the sky we decided to skip a return trip at sunset. Waking up at 5am really killed that plan too.
After Horseshoe Bend
One of the spots on our list was Navajo Bridge. I had gone on Google Maps and saw that it’s right down the river. Unfortunately, I failed to actually map the driving route between the two. It looks like it’s about, oh, 8 miles away. Leaving Horseshoe Bend I put in our new destination and we headed south. About 5 minutes later I realized that it was saying we had 25 miles to go. I figured we had missed something but as I panned around on the map I realized that the driving route takes you all the way down to Bitter Springs and then back up to the bridge. It turns out to be about 35 miles away by car. Oh well, we were already on our way.
It really is a beautiful bridge and worth the visit. However, the sun was getting higher and it really wasn’t ideal for photography.
Since we had come this far we decided to drive across the bridge and down to Lee’s Ferry. This was not on our itinerary at all but we didn’t know of much else in the immediate vicinity and we didn’t want to just turn around and drive back.
Luckily we had purchased a National Park Pass before the trip so the entrance fee was covered. I think the most enjoyable part of this short excursion was that we got to get down to the Colorado River. Up until this point we had been gazing down at it from the top of the high canyon walls at Horseshoe Bend or the bridge at Glen Canyon Dam or other overlook spots.
The drive home
Before leaving on this trip I planned to shoot anything and everything. I wanted to really exercise my skills with my camera. But it’s amazing how things change after shooting for several days straight, racking up such a variety of photos. On the drive home my desire to shoot anything really waned.
We had another 10 hour drive back from Page to Denver so we decided to break it up by stopping in Moab, UT. Most of this was going to be completely back tracking the route we drove out but to our delight we realized that the portion from Monument Valley to Page had previously been driven in the dark. Passing through this area, eastbound, in the late afternoon was a nice surprise.
Just before arriving back at Monument Valley you pass by El Capitan (photo above). Can you imagine driving by this massive figure in the dark and having no idea it is there?
The drive home offered some spontaneous photo opportunities like the one below. We were driving along and we both spotted this lone tree lit by the late afternoon sun. I’m pretty sure that in our minds we both asked each other if we should stop but with just a glance and a simultaneous “yeah” we both knew we had to stop and photograph it. The car practically pulled itself over.
Over the course of 5 days I took over 600 photos. I was culling them, to some degree, on the trip but most were going to require lots of time when I got home for refinement and processing. The efficiency of my workflow has improved but unfortunately my laptop screen is far from ideal when it comes to fine tuning my images. This was something I had not even thought of when I purchased my laptop several years ago.
This concludes the series of posts about my trip to the southwest and Antelope Canyon. Hopefully the three of them are entertaining as well as informative, and inspires you to get out and take a photography adventure.
P.S. this trip occurred April 19-23, 2017