30 Days in the Desert

View as a photo gallery – or read the story below with inline images.
I used to be a photographer.

Then, back in 2009 I co-founded Unbounce and hung up my camera. It took 5 long years to get back behind the lens, and this is the first photo I took.

Toroweap overlook is an extremely remote part of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Less than 1% of visitors go here because it’s a pretty big undertaking. Most visit the South Rim which is about an 8 hour drive away. It sits 61 miles down a dirt road where there are no facilities, no cell reception, and you have to be prepared to “self rescue” << I had tire plugs and an inflation device, plenty of water and a full tank of gas.

According to some reports, 25% of visitors blow at least one tire on the road. Having driven the first 55 miles I couldn’t imagine why – it was a pretty straightforward washboard-laden experience.

Then there is the final 5 miles to the backcountry campground and a further mile to the overlook, which is serious high-clearance 4WD territory. I bottomed out several times, hearing a massive bang as the underside of my SUV crunched down on solid rock. #RENTAL

My journey on this road and subsequent similar dirt tracks led me to an experience I’ve dubbed “The Washboard Wiggle”. Basically, I always have an energy drink on the go on my road trips, and I’d grab it with my right hand as I’m driving, bring to mouth,sip and put back in holder. But for some reason every time I was picking it up, the pour hole wasn’t where I left it and I’d invariably spill it down my front like a baby. It took me days to figure out it was the vibration from the washboards making it revolve in it’s holder. Too funny.

Unsurprisingly, I was the only person in the entire area.

Toroweap is famed for having the most extreme overlook in the Canyon, dropping a sheer 3000ft down from the edge – and I’m shit scared of heights.

I took this shot at sunset, standing 18 inches from the rim with pretty hard winds and shaky legs. It was a huge adrenaline rush, but nothing compared to where I had to stand in the morning.

A Long Way Down

The Toroweap sunrise shot is the more famous one, facing (obviously) in the opposite direction down canyon.

Here the canyon walls are completely vertical which really adds to height fear.

To get to this point I had to shimmy down a 4ft drop to get to the ledge, which was about 5ft deep. I practiced because the first time I thought about doing it I said “FUCK! I drove all this way and I’m too chicken shit to go over there where I know I need to be to get the shot.

It’s an acrophobe’s worst nightmare – the fluctuating thoughts of what if I jump, vs. I need to leave right now this is a bad idea, I know it’s awesome and everything, but I’m fucking scared.

This turned out to be one of my biggest challenges on this trip. I’d see an image online and know I needed to go there to take the shot. Then upon arrival I’d be faced with getting to somewhere I knew my legs and mind couldn’t be. It was my biggest challenge, but also my greatest achievement as I overcame my fear on at least 4 occasions to “get the shot” and I think it gave me a stronger resolve.

Here’s where things got silly.

I packed up my gear, jumped in the SUV excited to get up to Zion. I drove past the campground, waving it goodbye as I am want to do when I’m roadtripping, and off I toddled back up the road from hell followed by the long dirt road drive.

I got to Zion, ready to scope out my sunset shot and went to the back of the truck to look for some gear. Where is the blanket, and, and the tent?

FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-UUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!!!!

I’d left it fully set up back at the campground. Which I’d done so I could get to the rim quickly to set up for sunrise. It was back at the campground. Back down the dirt road and the road from hell. In total 5 1/2 hours back the way I’d come.

I could have cried. I came close. How could I be so fucking stupid? I’d completely ruined and wasted the entire day, and now I wouldn’t get a sunset shot in Zion. At times on the dirt road I was driving so fast that I actually took off from some of the rolling hills. It’s quite the rush, feeling temporarily completely out of control.

25% of people get a flat, was all I could hear in my head. And I was driving this fucking road 4 times.

I didn’t get a flat, but I did smash the undercarriage against a giant rock really hard, to the point where I was balancing partially on the rock with my front-left in the air. Fortunately I reversed out of that.

I don’t think I’ll ever drive that road again.

December 2016 Update: I’d consider going back again, for the purpose of showing someone else how amazing it is. And to help me fix the punctures I will inevitably get by pushing my luck a second time.

VIRGIN RIVER NARROWS

The Virgin River carves its way through the Zion Narrows for about 16 miles, where the walls reach as high as 2,000ft above the water. You can hike up the river where you are submerged anywhere from ankle deep to above your head.

Being December and 4C degrees the water was freezing. You can rent dry suits and boots from a local outfitter, but apparently I went to the wrong one which was closed. No matter. I’d bought a dry backpack to carry my camera gear and I would only be going to waist deep anyway.

Then for some unfathomable reason I decided against taking the dry bag and took my regular camera pack instead, I’ll only go thigh deep.

Wearing neoprene booties inside my hiking boots I was able to stand the frigid water as I stumbled along. Instantly regretting my pack decision, worried that I’d slip and fall and 10k of camera equipment would meet a watery end.

I had a trekking pole for balance, and used the removable leg from my tripod as a fourth appendage, making life a lot easier. Sadly the rubber end of the tripod got caught between rocks at some point and came off, starting the damage to the tripod leg that would progress over the trip making it very hard to work with and needing several episodes of MacGyver’ing to keep it functional.

To get the silky water shot you see here you need a long exposure and no direct sunlight. Typically this type of shot can’t be taken during the middle of the day, but I’d bought a special filter that lets you dial in 1-8 stops of darkness to facilitate this type of shot. It was awesome to use.

I hiked for a couple of miles ‘til it reached waist deep then turned around to seek out a few shots like this one.

For this shot I had to rest the tripod on a sand bed – which is a horrible place to be for a long exposure as the legs sink into the sand under the weight of the camera, aided by the flow of water around the legs.

The best way to counter this is to find 3 flat stones, place them in the sand and stand the tripod legs on top of them. This spreads the weight out over a greater area and works beautifully for keeping still for 5-10 seconds.

LOWER ANTELOPE SLOT CANYON

There are two parts to Antelope Slot Canyon, upper and lower. Upper is a total gong show these days as its become rampantly popular. The number of tours going through make it virtually impossible to spend quality time with a tripod, which you need as the canyon can be so dark at times that you need to run anything from 10 seconds to a minute.

The lower canyon isn’t as spectacular, but with a special photographers pass you get two hours instead of one, and can roam freely away from the tour groups.

I have 4 different tripod heads that I use for different purposes, my favourite landscape head being a geared unit that lets you turn 3 knobs with extreme precision to get a perfectly composed – and level – shot. I have a ball head too but I despise them for landscapes as they’re impossible to keep your composition while making it level. However, my goal at Antelope was to focus on skyward shots, in which case the horizon has zero influence and you’re composing entirely around shape and form.

For this purpose the ball head is perfect. But I didn’t bring it. I took the heavy geared head which was a stupid call. It was impossible to tilt it far enough to look directly up, so I ended up doing all kinds of crazy spiderman moves with the legs angling off the canyon walls and me acting as a counterweight to keep it from toppling over. To be able to see what I was shooting I had to lay on my back in the sand craning my neck beneath the viewfinder. I would have loved a swivel LCD for this.

Because the contrast is so high, the sky just burns to white, so you need to take about 7 frames and combine them to get the full dynamic range. You can see how the colours change as the light gets brighter close to the canyon rim. Unfortunately in this shot there are clouds, which you don’t want for a long exposure as they get messed up, as you can see in the bottom-right corner.

NO DIRECT PATH

This shot shows a narrow part of the canyon where you need to side-step to get through. Left, right, left, right. Again, you can see how different the colours are based on how much light is seeping into the canyon. They tend to range from brown to magenta to red to orange to yellow and even blue – which you’ll see in a later shot.

HORSESHOE BEND SUNSET

My goal for this trip was to focus on panoramic shots. I have a pano head that lets you position the camera in such a way that the entrance pupil sits directly over the center of the tripod, removing parallax effects when you stitch the frames together in Photoshop.

The tripod head lets you rotate in 10 degree increments (or other sizes based on the detent rings you use inside) to maintain full coverage of the subject.

For this shot I needed 17 frames to get the full 180 degree sweep from rim to rim.

This was a really tough shot as I was also trying to capture the sun starburst which is most prominent when you capture the sun as it hits a boundary such as the horizon, an arch or a solid cloud. You also need to set the aperture between f/16 (towards f/22 and on) to see the sun beams.

The sun drops below the horizon really fast in the Winter so I had to get the exact right exposure at the brightest point (the sun) and then whip round the 17 shots – each taking a few seconds as you need to swivel the head, click to set to mirror-up mode for maximum sharpness, watch the bubble level until the vibrations stop then click the cable release a second time to take the shot. Add, rinse, repeat.

I love the final result.

A HELLUVA PLACE TO LOSE A COW

As I drove to Bryce Canyon the fog started to roll in and the entire area was socked in for 24 hours. At 9,000ft above sea level, weather like this renders the park useless for photography. I could see about 40ft in front of me.

The *potential* was excellent though as there was a layer of snow on the ground, and Bryce looks phenomenal in snow – which I’d never had the pleasure of witnessing first hand.

The next day I set up for sunrise in a location I *thought* might work – not really knowing because I was going by memories set in 2006. Sitting and waiting for a few hours (as I tend to do for large portions of these trips) it looked like a hopeless task.

I find the best way for epic lighting to occur is to pack up your gear and walk away from your perfect spot towards the car. This has the almost predictable effect of a break in the clouds and a visual event that you only have seconds to capture – and your shit is in the car.

Sprinting in snow wearing a 30lb backpack with tripod in hand is kinda funny to watch, even in your own imagination.

As the sun burned through the fog the scene cleared with such clarity that only high mountain air seems to produce. At the same time stormy looking clouds were barrelling in from my right hand side. Pulling the fog with them.

This shot is a panorama comprised of about 8 frames. It doesn’t look incredibly panoramic, but it does have the benefit of being a very large file – some thing that makes panos awesome for printing.

BRYCE CANYON CLOUD INVERSION

I’d seen video footage of a few days prior of a cloud inversion happening in the Grand Canyon, something I really wish I’d been able to capture.

And then it happened at Bryce, right before my eyes.

A cloud inversion is when there is a sudden change in temperature and the air traps the clouds beneath, holding them inside the amphitheatre of the canyon. This type of weather phenomenon occurs about every 3 years, so to see it, at the same time as brilliant light was something I won’t forget.

Picture the amphitheatre from the last photo. That’s what the canyon looks like below the clouds, which started to spill down into the next area of the canyon almost like they were water being poured from a jug.

BRYCE CANYON CLOUD INVERSION II

As the storm clouds entered the local sky the light came and went, sometimes burning highlights in the inverted clouds as they rolled between canyon arenas. I could have shot here forever.

CLEARING OF THE INVERSION

I drove quickly round to another viewpoint (if you look closely you’ll see that this is a different spot than the others) as most of the inverted clouds had lifted – only 30 minutes after first settling. The storm clouds were moving in fast and a little while after the whole scene was socked into thick fog once more.

I love the pure light and the wonderful colours of the canyon in winter. The blue, orange, green and white play wonderfully together.

Gambling at The Wave

I’d been to the Wave once before in 2007. You need to win a lottery ticket to get a pass to hike to the Wave, and it’s really hard to do. There are only 20 passes available each day. 10 of which are won via an online lottery 4 months in advance, the remaining 10 being given out for the next days hike. I tried the daily lottery 3 times on this trip, showing up at 8:30 every morning.

It’s pretty fun to attend to be honest. The ranger is awesome and cracks his round of jokes as he explains the rules. Then wooden balls are placed in a tombola << yup. And he spins it calling out the numbers of the winners. However if a group wins a permit, that sucks up 2,3,4,5,6 of the 10 permits very quickly. There was a group of 6 Japanese students there every day, filming the draw, hoping for a permit. As a solo hiker I was secretly hoping they wouldn’t get one – even though I wanted them to win based on their persistence.

What I didn’t know is that on Fridays they draw for Saturday, Sunday and Monday all at once, so your odds are 3 times as good.

In the summer you can find up to 200 people at the daily lottery making your odds virtually nothing, but in December you have pretty good odds as there were only 35 people in the room.

The tough thing this time was that the next day (Saturday) was going to piss down with rain, rendering photography useless, and the chances of the dirt road turning to mud and quicksand very high. I didn’t want to win a permit for Saturday.

I won a permit for Saturday.

Now I had a decision to make. I could take this permit and virtually guarantee that either the drive wouldn’t be possible, the 6 mile hike would be miserable, and the photography would be pointless. Or I could turn it down and after the Saturday draw was done, my ball would be returned to the Tombola for Sunday. Quite the gamble for a permit that it can take people decades to actually win.

I gambled.

I won a permit for Sunday.

Fuck yeah.

UPPER CATHEDRAL VALLEY

Cathedral Valley is a remote backcountry area of Capitol Reef National Park, and somewhere I’d wanted to visit for 18 years. Failing 3 times previously.

Here’s my rapid fire version of what went down.

Go to visitor center. Find out I’m the only person in the entire national park. Turn down $2 guide from visitor centre. Start up the road, come to a junction with no signs. Regret not paying $2 for a guide. Choose wrong direction. End up in a clearing with 3 new directions, pick the one that goes back to the first wrong turn. Turns into an 8ft wide sand trail. Wind through that thinking “oh fuck” is the whole thing going to be like this?” Come out the other end onto the correct road. Drive cautiously for 10 minutes, not enjoying any of it. Super tight in the shoulders, worried that the roads will be fucked. That I’m not prepared. That there will be no signs. Come to a sign saying “Entering Cathedral Valley”. Oh, not there yet. Road gets better. Turns into a sweet sand/mud/gravel road that I barrel down at 70 kph, sliding and whipping round corners, totally owning the 4WD experience. Driving with one hand out of the window holding my GOPro. Love the deserted campground. At 8,000 ft, it’s super fresh and cold. Go to shoot sunset. Too cloudy, no light. Take a pano which looks super flat and lame. Share it on FB and immediately regret it. Took some good GOPro video of finding the shot location.

The shot didn’t turn out the way I wanted because there was no direct light. Just lots of clouds. This did however create some diffused light which saturated the colours.

If you’re wondering why the “cathedrals” in the middle of the valley are orange and the far walls are red, it’s all to do with the depth of the rock sediment. If you look closely at the far side you’ll see that there is in fact an orange layer beneath the red top layer, which lies at the same height as the central monoliths.

This was a 12 frame panorama stitch.

I camped overnight at 8,000ft in -7 C temperatures and freezed my ass off.

FALSE KIVA

Getting this photo involved doing the scariest hike of my life.

The skinny:
Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 6,200 ft, hiking alone, -1 Celsius, unofficial hike – not on park map, following narrow trail with rock cairns as guides, and the trail is about 12-24 inches wide for the final portion with steep drops that tumble 2,000ft to the Colorado River.

I was following instructions for this unmarked trail that I’d taken a photo of on my phone from a book I’d bought. Not being on a map, I had to bumble around the road looking for the trailhead. I took the wrong one and ended up hiking down a wash for 20 minutes. I couldn’t find a decent trail so I retraced my steps (not easy at this point as this is wild barren desert with lots of hills, bumps and rocky spots where no footprints are set).

Eventually I found the correct trail and wandered off to find the location I’d seen in my book. It’s a beautiful high alcove cave set in the rock within which is a human-made stone circle of unknown origin.

I knew as soon as I reached the final portion of the trail that I was fucked. I could see a small indentation in the rock face high above me to the right. I knew in my gut that this was where the shot was taken from, and yet I said out loud to myself “there’s no fucking way I’m going up there, I really hope that’s not it!” But I knew it was, and kept hiking, sensing that I’d soon be turning around.

The narrow ledge I was descending on became narrower and narrower, the cairns harder to find, until they ended completely. I turned behind me to my right, where sure enough was a loose trail climbing steeply up the edge of the rock face to the cave.

Carrying a heavy camera bag on your back really sets your equilibrium off when scrambling. Making large vertical steps really hard to do. You almost have to touch your chest to the ground to prevent from toppling over backwards as you press upwards.
Breathing deeply, I scrambled bit by bit up the slopes, all the while thinking about the descent and how I was getting myself into deep shit with every step.

After I got to the cave I sat and contemplated the hike for a while while sizing up the photo ops. I didn’t do quite as well as I would have liked. This is a single shot, but I should have done a wide-angle pano as well.

I was nervous about hiking back out after dark so I left just before sunset started, which is a shame as it looked really awesome.
The hike back down was actually pretty easy, much to my relief. In the end, it was well worth it, but I don’t fancy ever doing it again.

I RECORDED THE FINAL PART OF THE HIKE ON MY GOPRO

 
FOG AT TURRET ARCH – THROUGH NORTH WINDOW

I’ve shot from this location before. It’s really an intrepid photographer only shot as you have to climb (again) around to the back of the arch and over an awkward boulder with a 40ft drop before you find a small ledge to work from. Then you shimmy up an outcropping rock to balance on its tip to get the shot.

The light was pretty shite when I got there. In order for the scene to look good it needs direct sunlight at sunrise to light the rock face and also to light up Turret Arch through the window.

Just like at Bryce, there was a sudden break in the clouds about 30 minutes after sunrise (as I was thinking of packing up – see? It’s a thing!).

I couldn’t believe my luck – again – when the fog started rolling in. It’s such a treat as a photographer to see the natural elements at work as you work. Blank blue skies are incredibly dull and unfortunately all too common in December, but Arches was looking splendid on this day.

Like I said, I’ve taken this shot before although nowhere near as nice as this one. And really I wasn’t here to even take this shot, this was a handheld shot I took in a moment of frantic panic as the light sang and I realized my 2 memory cards were full (from the shot on the next page). I quickly tried deleting some photos from the cards – forgetting that I had 2 smaller spares in my pack – hoping that they didn’t fuck up the shot I’d already taken which was a pano.

Luckily all ended well and I got clouds in the skies and on the ground.

WIDE EYED

This was the shot I’d had in my mind for 3 months prior to the trip. I’d see a couple of others attempt it, but none of them looked particularly good. It was an 18 frame pano, and I was really hoping I hadn’t deleted any of the ones I needed as described in the last shot.

It was super hard to shoot this as the contrast range was insane. The far left was close to the sun so the highlights were far far away from the balance on the right.

It’s a really dramatic view of North and South Window, which you can just make out in the middle of the frame as the second “eye” of the monster.

And yes. The rock formation on the left looks like a penis.

THE ROAD TO MONUMENT VALLEY

I have a particular disdain for Monument Valley. I got a wonderfully serendipitous stormy rainbow sunset shot there back in 2007, but hated the experience as much as I did this time.

During crappy weather elsewhere I made a 4 hour round trip drive to get a sunset pano. It was socked in with fog. Seems this was a common theme throughout the area this week.

So when I returned again, and the weather was shit again it was draining. Worse still was that the December angle of the sun meant that a sunset shot wasn’t even possible as one of the Mittens (the large buttes that are in the famed view) was cast in complete shadow before sunset even got going.

Then a big wind storm kicked in knocking my tripod to the ground. Not ideal.

The reasons I hate this place are many, but mainly I’m just a frustrated photographer when I visit. There’s the classic and somewhat boring view from the parking lot (the one that wasn’t working) and there’s a 17 mile drive which photographically speaking in my mind is boring as fuck.

To get to the better areas of the park – which is a Navajo Tribal Park – you have to take a tour. I hate tours. Especially after reading the description of this one, where there are staged Native American scenes and dancing and all kinds of crap I don’t give two shits about. I like serenity and solitude when I’m taking pictures, not a staged “cultural” song and dance.

If you want the really epic shot of Monument Valley – from Hunts Mesa, you have to hire a guide and hike and camp overnight after shelling out $250. Sounds like a pretty good trip but I didn’t have the budget for that, and again, relish my solitude.

So I drove out of the park to this view form the road, almost exactly 13 miles north. I tried shooting a pano here but it sucked. This didn’t surprise me. Hate this place. But I did take a single shot because it’s a sick road view and there were some nice shadows.

LOWER ANTELOPE UVULA

Because of the bad weather, I decided to go back to Antelope Canyon which is one of the rare photographic subjects that you actually want to shoot in the middle of the day, when the sun is high in the sky, entering the narrow canyon from above.

Normally my day looks like this:

Get up an hour or two before sunrise.
Drive to location I scouted the day before.
Take pre-sunrise shots.
Take sunrise shot.
Go for breakfast knowing the light is done for the day until sunset.
Scout sunrise shot for the next day.
Hike/drive to sunset location.
Shoot sunset.
Shoot after sunset.
Go for dinner.
Back to hotel/motel/campsite/back of truck to work on my shots from the day.
Drink some wine.
Go to bed.

So it’s always a real treat when I get the chance for a legit good shot in the middle of the day.

I wasn’t particularly happy with the two shots you saw earlier. They’re good but I wanted to get a better skyward shot. And this one has so many weird layers that I decided to spend most of my time around this area.

The striations and waves in the rock are just so beautiful, and the layering of colour is a joy to look at.

The interesting thing though is that you can’t see it all with your naked eye. You just see different shades of orange. But when you look at the photo, after a long exposure, you see all kinds of colours that you weren’t aware of.

Which brings me to the next shot…

HOT AND COLD

Spend a bit of time looking at this shot. Just let you eyes relax into the lighting of the scene.

If you didn’t go fullscreen at the start, hit Command+Shift+F on a Mac to remove all of the surrounding light. Hit the same to exit at the end. I’m not sure how to do it on a PC these days.

I didn’t even see what was happening here. But there was a native guide doing a photo tour and he was spending quite a bit of time on this area.

Turns out, that when you shoot here, the portion on the left-hand side is almost completely blue. This is due to the coldness of the light that isn’t direct, but is being bounced around and hitting from certain angles. Sadly I missed it putzing around with my now seriously fucked tripod. But I did manage to capture a bit of it.

You’ll see that the right side is a nice glowing orange colour, but the left is really quite purple with elements of blue towards the top.

It was only then that I noticed the potential composition with the sharp split and the pool of sand and rock.

I’m really quite fond of this photo. The great thing about Antelope Canyon – despite being a frustrating place to shoot – is that there is an infinite number of compositions.

Side note: this is somewhere where I *would* recommend taking a tour (a photo tour, not a regular tour). Not sure who best to do it with, but the guides know so many great spots where the formations look like people or things, and where you can find colour and texture. I’ll probably go back to do one.

HOPI POINT ALPENGLOW

The Grand Canyon is another place I didn’t have a particular fondness for. This is because I visited in the summer (back in ‘96) when the park is jam packed with thousands and thousands of tourists. And you can’t drive along the rim, you have to get in a shuttle bus with said tourists. Not to mention the feeling that every overlook is exactly the same. That’s the problem here, that it’s so big and vast that it’s hard to know what to do with it. As opposed to smaller parks like Arches that have such specific and intricate formations.

But the winter is a completely different story. The crowds are way thinner, although still dramatically busier than where I’d spent the first few weeks of this trip. And you can drive the rim which is so nice when you’re a photographer. Bus schedules doth not good photos make.

After missing my turnoff coming from the north, I ended up driving an extra 3 hours round through Flagstaff to enter the park from the south rather than the east. Gah. So I showed up at Hopi Point 10 minutes before sunset, after reading it was one of the best sunset spots.

I scrambled around to find a position for a shot, the sun set and I had nothing. The contrast was too great and just having the tips of the rocks lit was lame considering the grand scene in front of me. So I packed up my gear and threw it in the trunk.

It’s a brilliant strategy.

I turned round as I walked to the car door and was floored by what I saw.

Alpenglow (from German: Alpenglühen) is an optical phenomenon in which a horizontal red glowing band is observed on the horizon opposite to the sun. This effect occurs when the Sun is just below the horizon.

The sky was aglow with the most incredible pink colour I’ve ever seen in my life. There was a blue band above the horizon, and then the pink rose almost all the way to the top of the sky. And the net effect of this is that the glow bounces back *into* the canyon to bathe it in the softest, most even light you can imagine.

This is a stitch of about 14 frames. I did still need to use a 3-stop graduated neutral density filter on the sky to balance the darker canyon – the light wasn’t bright enough for complete balance.

Big lesson learned here that the short time before sunrise and after sunset is often far more spectacular that the “main” events themselves.

Something to note as you look at this photo. The only portion of foreground is on the right. I find this a little unsettling as the left side is left open. You’ll see if you compare it to the next shot – which has a foreground anchor on the left – that there is quite a difference. I wonder if this is a western thing, from reading left to right? I’d love to hear from someone who’s culture reads in the opposite direction, to know which they prefer.

MATHER POINT PRE-SUNRISE LIGHTSHOW

I woke filled with optimism about the shoot this morning. Primarily because I was going to experiment with a pano pre-sunrise. I had a feeling that the sunrise shot would be a bust, just like the sunset was the night before.

The think with the Grand Canyon is that if you don’t have epic clouds and dancing light and colour it’s hard to make a sunrise or sunset shot work as the canyon walls themselves don’t work that well with small highlights…. when you shoot them as a panorama. The time for sunrise and sunset “in-canyon” shots, I believe is when you are willing to spend the time searching the canyon with a long telephoto lens for interesting shapes and shadows, and play the highlights into your scene.

That’s all well and god but I want panos. So pre-sunrise it was.

Holy shit the clouds were epic. Any time you get good clouds, and by good clouds I don’t mean stupid fluffy round ones, I mean streaking, thin weaving and waving clouds.

With this pano, the wide expanse of the sky makes the clouds feel like they’re reaching out to you.

You’ll notice that on the left the clouds have a pink and blue hue, whereas on the right they are more orangey. This is due to the position of the sun. The sun is rising on the left, just beyond the edge of the frame which means it gets more of the cold dawn colours, and the right-hand side which is approximately 170-180 degrees away, show warmer colours. It’s a strange scene that you don’t usually see in a photo. Next time you are out watching sunrise or sunset and there are clouds all around, make sure you spin around and take in the differences.

FALLING INTO DARKNESS

Havasupai is a Native American reservation at the base of the western end of the Grand Canyon. It’s essentially an oasis amidst the red rocks. The name Havasupai means the people of the blue-green water, and it’s hard to put into words how special it is when you start seeing the river running through the canyon down at Supai. The life that erupts from the water is quite sublime.

There are three ways into the canyon, you can; hike 10 mile (16km) from rim to river, you can ride a mule, or you can take a helicopter ride.

I was on a very strict timeline, and my knees are fucked so I opted for the helicopter, which only flies on Fridays and Sundays in the winter, which dictated my planning to flying down on Friday and back on Sunday.

The real treat of Havasupai are the waterfalls, of which there are 4 main ones. First is Lil’ Navajo Falls, followed by Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls and Beaver Falls.

There was a massive flash flood in 2008 that wiped out large portions of the falls making them vastly different from how you may see them in many photos. In fact Havasu Falls which is the most famous, was a shadow of it’s former self when I got there.

It’s known for it’s beautiful two-pronged fall that splits at the top. But now there is only a single path and the destruction below has removed the beautiful travertine layers that had created mini falls below. I struggled a lot trying to get a good shot and in the end walked away without one.

This shot is from higher up the river, just below lil Navajo falls which you’ll see in a moment. IT was an area of incredible beauty and very ripe fresh greenery. I can only image how lush it looks in summer, as many trees are looking pale and washed out without leaves at this time of year as soon as you step 2 feet from the water.

This is a crop of a larger area of falls that were partially obscured by under and overhanging foliage, and the rocks were so dramatically dark that I decided to shoot in monochrome.

My alternate title for this shot was the Afghan Hounds From Hell. That’s what I see when I look at it.

MOONEY FALLS

Bypassing Havasu falls, I hiked to Mooney falls which has been on my bucket list for years. At 200ft it’s twice the height of Havasu falls, although the scale is a little hard to see here. It’s quite a dodgy trail around the top of the falls to where this was taken, at least for me and my height fear. But then it gets super sketch directly after my position. You have to climb through a few tunnels before meeting the almost vertical “ladders”, which are a mix of footholds, actual ladders and chains for your hands.

I figured I’d pushed my luck enough on this trip so I opted not to descend to the base of the falls. I wasn’t going to visit Beaver falls so I didn’t mind missing out, although I’m sure the canyon continued it’s stunning beauty.

I chose to make the scene a little more intimate for this shot. I took some wider angles that showed the height but diminished the beauty of the falls.

Here you can see the texture of the travertine walls that seem to drip down. You can see one of the chain railings staked into the rock in the lower-right corner.

You can really see how the name of the blue-green water comes about in this photo. The water is glacial-like without being so.

LAND OF THE BLUE-GREEN WATER

These falls were the highlight of my visit in the canyon. They are somewhat tucked away from the trail and I missed them on my first day.

There was a beautifully placed (and no doubt flood-carved) promontory sticking out into the water on which to stand, and when I first reached it I almost melted into the dirt. It is so beautiful here. You can’t see the whole shot, but the falls extend another 90 degrees to the left where it’s all dark and moody with less water. I immediately thought “pano!” which is what I returned to shoot later when the sun had moved behind the distant canyon wall.

The pano looked incredible, but somehow fake. I think because the change in the rock walls and the shift from red/pink to black and back to pink was too dramatic, so I spent hours on this crop, trying to make it just right.

I love how the long exposure blurs and smooths the water beneath the falls, yet you see the clear reflection in the protected pool directly beneath me.

I wish everyone could stand where I stood. It took my breath away.

Shoulda worn my GOPro.

This was my last night in the canyon so I decided to experiment with a nighttime starry sky shot. Nighttime photography was something I’ve wanted to get into but never tried.

After reading a couple of articles I had the basics: 1600 ISO, 20 seconds, aperture as appropriate for how much light you need.

The reason for 20 seconds (30 max) is that you’re trying to capture the stars as they are in position, and hopefully things like the Milky Way which wasn’t in my future in this trip due to time of year and moon factors. If you expose any longer than 20-30 seconds you start to see star trails, where it will turn from a dot into a line.

That’s cool if you want to do the big circular star trail shots – which I’ll try another time, and can take hours for a single shot.

I found it super fun to shoot night skies. I think one of the reasons is that it’s kinda old school. It feels like a micro version of sending your negs away to get developed. You have no idea what’s going to appear in your final image until the 20 seconds has expired. Composition and focus can be a significant task due to the low light.

I explore the skies a couple of times in the following images.

YOU LEFT THE KEYS BY WHICH TREE?! 

I came to Joshua Tree with two goals. Get a sunset silhouette photo of a Joshua Tree and a nighttime photo of Arch Rock.

I’ve tried to get the big silhouette shot before in Saguaro Cactus National Park in southern Arizona, failing miserably. It’s really hard and the primary reason for that is the overwhelming cognitive load on making a decision on which tree you should actually photograph.

My original goal was to take a pano where I was surrounded by Joshua Trees and it seemed like there was nothing in any direction *but* the trees.

So I would approach a stand of trees – and there are thousands of them throughout the park – thinking “it looks really dense in there, that’s a great spot!”, only to get into the trees and realize it’s a compression effect whereby they look dense from a distance, but spread out up close. In truth, the trees each occupy a territory that means they are fairly uniformly spread out, and as soon as you get to that “dense” patch, you realize you are still equidistant from all of the other trees surrounding this one.

Following this realization, and watching the sun vanish beneath the horizon, I was sent into crazy frantic mode, running from tree to tree, no longer concerned with density, but with a sharp silhouetted shape. I’d read that you need to find simple trees, without too many branches and offshoots that complicate the scene and overlap each other.

Last time it was snow, this time I found myself running in sand, holding my tripod with top-heavy head and camera, jumping from tree to tree, check the angles to see if it looked good alone and then how it looked connected to the horizon.

I stopped at this tree, half because it was a good candidate, and half because I had no time left. I exposed to black out the tree and highlight the colours in the sky, flapping off a couple of shots until I caught a glimpse of the corners of the frame where on the horizon all of the distant trees were messy and overlapping one another.

I’m not here to get average photos I told myself so I held the camera to my face, tripod banging off my legs, and rotated around the tree, watching the parallax as the distant trees came and went, until I found a single spot of clarity. I planted the tripod, levelled off, stepped back and pressed the cable release to grab this final shot.

If you look at the horizon just off-center to the right you’ll see what looks like a family with the parents holding hands and the children dancing under their arms. Pretty cool.

MOONLIGHT AT ARCH ROCK

I’d seen photos of Arch Rock, and honestly they were either shit, horribly confusing, or on occasion quite epic. I say confusing because, it’s kinda weird looking and it was hard to get a sense of what was going on in the scene. That’s why I wanted to do a pano, to show it’s environment.

When I got there I understood why this was. It lies right in the middle of many many fins and bulbous rocks, so plentiful that you’d miss it if you didn’t know it was there. Even when you stand in front of it (standing on rocks you have to climb upon), it looks weird and you’re so close that even a 17mm lens could barely fit it into the frame.

I kinda like this because it immediately said wide angle pano!!!

This shot is comprised of sixteen 20 second vertical frames at 19mm.

After my practice at Havasupai, this was to be my first nighttime shot, so I was prepared with my headlamp to do some light painting to fill in the arch.

However, there was a half moon in the sky doing all the painting for me. This was both awesome and shitty. Awesome because it lit up the entire scene beautifully with cold white light, shitty because it meant that the sky was polluted with light, limiting the number of stars that would present themselves.

Couple that with some high winds and clouds in the scene and I was worried it would be a blurry mess, but it turned out really well. I’m glad I chose 20 seconds over 30 though as that could have been problematic.

282 BELOW

The last thing you want to do when arriving at Death Valley in the winter is to be unprepared.

Cough. Here goes.

I was late leaving Joshua Tree as I took a 3 hour detour to get my camera sensor cleaned (right at the end of the trip I know but fuck me did it need it). It was a 5 hour drive, 3 of which would be in the dark. I despise driving in the dark and have actually become quite a nervous night driver. My eyesight ain’t the best and my glasses that I wear specifically for night driving, are a decade old.

Midway I stopped at a small collection of gas stations and services, went inside, peed, bought some shitty beef jerky, man I fucking hate almost all beef jerky! It’s so loaded with sugar. It’s meat! It shouldn’t be sweet. Fuck. That’s a rant for another time. And continued on the desert highway to Death Valley.

I like to find a buddy when driving at night. Someone to drive behind, at a respectful distance, as it helps to have that red dot to point the way. I hate being the lead at night, as I was at this point.

The temperature was dropping, I was getting closer to the park boundaries, and whoops! I only have 73 miles worth of gas left. I pulled into this super creepy hotel that used to have an opera/theatre attached to it, and people are sitting in a dark room watching some creepy old movie. It’s a freakish place called the Armagosa Opera House, named after one of the two mountain ranges in the valley. I stayed there in 2007.

I ventured inside to inquire as to the closest gas station, and the price of a room. I mention the price because I’m shit with money and I only had access to $80 in the whole world at this point. I was going to get paid at midnight so I only needed to survive until then.

$65-100 was the price, but they were full. WTF. Why is this weird place in the middle of nowhere full? Ohhhh, it’s New Years Eve. I have no concept of time or date or anything really when I’m on a road trip. Each day is much the same as the next, except for weekends when things get a tad busier. Less magnified in the winter.

23 miles east on the State Line Road is the closest, or you can go 30 miles into the park, but I don’t know if they’re open.

Decision time.

I can follow her directions to the gas station which means a 46 mile detour, at night, and my eyes are so dry and sore that driving has become painful. Or I can risk going into the park. If I go into the park it will either be open and all is well, or it’ll be closed and I’ll head to a campground and get gas in the morning.

Hmm. All the campgrounds were full in Joshua Tree, surely not here. And of course if they are, I can’t drive out of the park because I don’t have enough gas. But it’s new year, and Armagosa was full, maybe everyone comes to Death Valley for new year.

Fuck it, I’m going into the park.

30 miles further on I see lights. I was here on a fleeting visit a decade ago so I remember virtually nothing. My recollection was of nothingness everywhere. I pass a resort that I recall reading about ($220/night), no gas there. Half a mile further and I approach more lights, this time it looks more promising. 40 miles left in the tank. CHEVRON!!!!!! I see the sign and my shoulders relax.

Then they tense up again. I’ve been living off my Visa debit card this whole time as my credit card is maxed, and it’s caused some problems at gas stations. Half of them tell you to go inside when you try to use debit, a quarter say no, and a quarter let it through as if it’s a credit card. The problem here is that there is no cashier. It’s too late and they’ve gone home. This better work. YES! It works. I start pumping, and as I do I realize my mistake.

When I bought the beef jerky I made the call to withdraw almost all of my remaining money in cash as it’s tangible – my cards balance had been going up and down for weeks as hotels and gas station charges came and went, so I couldn’t trust it to not steal the rest of my cash.

So here I was, in Death Valley, cold, without accommodation (yet), no gas, no way to pay for gas by cash, and a gas pump with my debit card in it. Oh, and is the general store still open? I’ll need firewood to warm up and cook some food IF I can get into a campground.

I pull the trigger on the gas, and it trundles along and adds $12.17 worth of gas to my SUV before turning off in disgust.

Well that’s another 70 miles so at least I can escape if I need to.

Happily I see that the general store is still open and I spend my remaining dollars on 3 bundles of overpriced ($11) firewood.

I drive to the first of three campgrounds. FULL.
I drive to the second of three campgrounds. No campfires. But I just spent my life savings on fucking firewood!
I drive to the third of three campgrounds and it has spaces. Great! Wait a minute. I have cash to stick in an envelope to reserve. That’s how it works right? Not anymore. Please insert your credit card to reserve your spot. WTF world! I sheepishly insert my actual credit card (with a negative balance) and close my eyes. Whirr, whirr, ticket printing. I guess my card has eom kind of low limit emergency acceptance mechanism? Phewf. Let’s find a spot.

As I drive around the campsite a massive wind storm starts. And It was bad. As I turned a corner, what I could only guess in passing as a 4-person tent with 4 sleeping pads and 4 sleeping bags in it, flew past me in the wind, with sagging bottom showing its contents as it winged its way across the campground.

I’m sleeping in the car.

Sure enough, my pay went in at midnight, the sun rose and all was well.

Pretty sure that’s the most irresponsible and luck-filled entrance to Death Valley in recent years.

Oh the photo!

Badwater basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It’s an awesomely desolate place as you might imagine. I spent a few hours here scoping out my sunset shot location. I’d seen some interesting circular patterns in my photo research that I wanted to find. It’s always a good exercise to familiarize yourself with the locations where classic or famous or just interesting shots have been taken. It lets you orient yourself with the location. It’s also a good creative exercise to capture an image of a popular location to get it out of your system.

Then you can focus on being original.

As soon as I stood in the center of this panorama I stopped walking. To get here I’d walked about a mile and a half out onto the salt flats. Everything you see here is pure salt. I licked it. It’s true.

I stopped walking because the formations on the ground, in the 1st and 3rd areas in the center of the shot, it made me think of Game Of Thrones. Of all of the different areas being built up into the map in the opening credits.

This was such an interesting shot to take. I was focusing on G.O.T. and not thinking about the surroundings, which is really stupid when doing a pano, but I hadn’t realized that the horizon was perfectly symmetrical, something which really makes a pano sing. It was perfect! The Panamint mountains rose and fell perfectly, the Armagosa range at the edges rose equally, there were actually some clouds and they sat in perfect harmony with each other, and then there was this big wide white slice of ground tearing into the symmetry.

I was gutted as I looked over the shot. Chastising myself for making such a stupid mistake as to not step 30 feet to the left to try and have a symmetrical foreground. I loved the shot, but vowed to return and reshoot in a slightly different location.

Which is exactly what I did two days later, and it failed miserably. I hunted this location for an alternate spot to stand that would make it symmetrical and it was just actually impossible. This is what this spot looks like.

I hiked all over the nearby salt flats to find a place, and eventually did. But when I shot a pano there it was bad, really bad. The texture was wrong, the light was wrong, the symmetry in the mountains was wrong.

Now that I’ve accepted that this is just how this shot is supposed to be, I love it. It’s so different than any shot I’ve seen from Death Valley, and I just love it.

So many lessons learned.

ZABRISKIE SUNRISE – DO NOT ENTER

As I drove into the park that first night, I passed a large construction sign that proudly announced “Zabriskie Point Closed. Do Not Enter. Under Construction Until April.”

I was gutted. Viscerally disturbed by this news.

I’d shot Zabriskie Point in 2007 and did a bad job, despite some excellent recon the day prior. What I hadn’t found was the best spot to shoot it from. There is a standard spot near the parking lot where photographers line up every sunrise to shoot this place. But I am NEVER happy standing among them. I need an original or at least off-the-beaten-path spot to stand in or I feel lame.

And I’d done my research and got a loose description of where some of the better photos had been shot. It’s from a ridge about 400 meters west of the regular spot, up on a rough rocky hill.

But I wasn’t allowed in.

On my second day I drove back up to the spot to see what was going on. There was construction tape spread for hundreds of meters saying stay out, reaching all the way up to the bottom of the ridge I wanted to climb.

Hmm. I’m not actually crossing their boundary, fuck it, imma climb that shit tomorrow at sunrise.

It’s always daunting getting to a location for sunrise when you haven’t actually walked right to the place you’ll stand when taking the shot. But it wasn’t very hard to climb to the ridge.

When I got to the top I laughed. I LOL’d. Out loud. Hard. It was such a great vantage point.


I hadn’t seen a pano from Zabriskie before so it was a risk taking one. The think with panos is they take a fair amount of prep time, and specifically a different tripod head, so if I want to transition to a regular shot I have to switch heads and unscrew/re-screw the tripod head mounts in the base of the camera. It’s a PITA. I’ll be buying a separate body just for panos in the future.

Some shots just aren’t meant to be panos, and you end up with a load of wasted space and your subject looks tiny. The spike that pokes up on the right is the main point of interest in the classic shot, but I find the waves of rock much more compelling which is why I think this works, combined with the light striking the different points as it rises.

WALKING ON THE MOON

When I’d returned to re-shoot “with symmetry” I realized that this might be a great opportunity for a nighttime shot. So I went for dinner and drove back to the scene at around 8pm. I started recording my moonlight walk out on the salt flats (it was incredible) but I got that shitty beep beep beep beep immediately telling me the battery was dead.

GOPro batteries are worse than iPhone batteries. And that’s saying a lot.

It was a beautiful experience walking out on the flats lit entirely by a eight tenths moon, completely alone.

This pano was 18 frames, but cropped quite a lot to remove the outer mountains that you saw in the first shot. This one made sense to focus entirely on the foreground and the Panamint range.

The moon was so bright that hardly any stars made it into the shot, but you can pick them out. And the high ISO actually lends some impact to the moonlike effect of the foreground.

Again, 20 second exposures at 1600 ISO. I could have actually reduced it to 400 ISO and had a much smoother image because of the amount of moonlight, but I wanted to ensure the foreground was sharp so I stuck with a small aperture for depth of field.

FAREWELL VALLEY OF DEATH

Dante’s View is the only road-accessible valley overview location. The other would be Telescope peak, the highest point in the park at 11,000ft which is the tip of the Panamint range across the valley. It’s a long backcountry hike to do a sunrise shot there. Next time.

I scoped it out the day prior and picked this location over another peak about 600m north of this point.

With my recent experiences of pre-sunrise and post-sunset I planned this shoot entirely as a pre-sunrise effort. You can see the alpenglow style light forming above the opposite horizon again shifting from the cold blue/yellow to green/orange as you move through 180 degrees.

I love Death Valley. It’s such a brutal place, and I saw some other amazing places that I was unable to capture properly.

There’s one place in particular that will bring me back. It’s called The Racetrack, and it’s a beautiful valley bed that has rocks that have moved over the years in zig zag patterns across the surface. It befuggled scientists since the 1930s until just this year when scientists randomly happened across an event that explained the phenomenon. Unfortunately it’s the roughest backcountry road in the park, way worse than the shittiest road I was on, and you need hard core tires to contemplate the trip. There were a lot of big ass Jeep Wranglers there with giant tires just for that reason.

Next time I’m renting a beast.

30 days. 30 photos. I hope you enjoy viewing them 1/100th as much as I enjoyed taking them.

A final thought
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I’ve only just begun photography at night, which I already profoundly love doing. It feels like a throwback to film days. You don’t have to wait days or “one hour” for processing. But you do have to wait 20 to 30 seconds, wondering what will be revealed from the view you can’t really even see with your naked eye.

So the saddest thing is that, with this new found love, I have to return from the desert, return from the stark desolate, isolated beauty of my past 30 days, to a land so polluted by light to the point where it’s no longer even physically possible for me to court my new love.

And we only just met…