I wrote the following journal during and after a photography workshop taught by Raul Touzon. During the workshop, we shot in three National Parks and one state park, in Utah and Arizona. This is the second field workshop I have taken with Raul. The journal talks a little about the photography and the workshop, but if you are interested in this type of learning adventure, please go to Raul’s website, and look through the various national park trips he takes. They are a great experience.
Canyonlands Photo Workshop (June 2015)
This journal will not be written as I go along – which is my preferred method. First, it would be nearly impossible! We have a very demanding schedule! Second, much of what we do – take pictures – is probably not something you would do, so it might not interest you much. I would hate to bore you! I will write about the picture taking, but I will also try to tell you something interesting about the three national parks and one state park that we will have visited by the end.
I hope you will see a difference in the photos on this post: After all, I am on this trip to improve my photo skills!
“Why now? In June, you’re going to the desert?” you might ask, rightfully. Yes! Just ask Raul Touzon, our leader and teacher. In June, we have a better chance for rain and thunderstorms. Weather improves a landscape (though I do love a cloudless blue sky). This week is relevant, too. No moon means we can shoot the stars at night, contending only with man-made light interference.
Our adventure began on Monday morning (June 15th, 1015. The beginning of the trip is covered in a separate page about Salt Lake City). Following an orientation session, we loaded up in the van for a 4 hour ride to Moab, Utah, our staging ground for the first four days of the “field workshop.”
I loved the view from the car. The land is dry and rocky. Green belts seem to pop up where the land is lower and water must collect. They remind me of the oases in Morocco. It is a harsh landscape – harsh and hard. Hardscrabble plants struggle to thrive in the arid soil, and of course, rocks abound!
And what amazing rocks they are! Towering red pillars or massive rounded domes, they hold your attention for their variety and for their sameness. The sameness is due to the sheer amount of rock you see, but their variety manifests in the layers of texture and color, and in the way wind and water have shaped them over the millennia.
I enjoy letting my imagination run wild. Hot on the heels of my trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, I am seeing castles everywhere. Rocks still standing tall on eroded cliffs look amazingly like the ruins I saw along the Rhine. I could see walls of ancient kasbahs in places where the talus slope looked like sand covering the base of the kasbah walls. Naturally the true scale of what I see is nowhere near what I am imagining – the bases around those Utah “kasbahs” may look like sand, but they are really boulders and shards that have split from the cliffs overhead.
The scale is perhaps the hardest part to grasp. Or, maybe the hardest part is their age. Either way, it is an intellectual struggle that returns at each fresh vista.
Our first shoot was right away on Monday afternoon. We arrived in Moab, but decided to take a spin through the park – Arches National Park – before checking into the hotel. After check in and dinner, we returned to the park and set up at the Double Arch, to take pictures of night falling and the stars appearing in the spaces between the arches. We lit the arches with a flashlight to set them off against the night sky.
The next morning shoot (Tuesday) we were in the van and headed back to the park at 4:00 a.m. The early hour is because we would like to shoot the stars, and hopefully the Milky Way, while the sky is still dark. Once we arrive in the park, we are greeted with a thunderstorm. (That’s a good thing!) It makes taking pictures very interesting! We were shooting in an area called the Courthouse, or the Courthouse Towers. What I thought looked like “The Three Kings” are actually referred to as “the judges” but I think you can conjure up an image: A bunch of guys huddled around conferring. Here the “guys” are tall spires of red sandstone.
Now on a trip like this you learn to catch a nap when the opportunity arises because you certainly do not get to sleep through the night. (You probably guessed that!) Between breakfast at the end of the morning shoot and the departure for the afternoon/evening shoot, you can choose between sleeping, editing pictures for the afternoon critique, and eating lunch. Doing them all? Good luck!
May I take a minute to explain how and why these rock formations are here? Back, way back, in time this area was covered by a salty sea. As it evaporated, it left the salt behind in huge deposits. Sand and mud accumulated over ages on top of the salt, and the salt was either crushed below or seeped up through less porous rock to lodge in other areas. The weight of the accumulations was finally so heavy that the layers of sand and mud were changed into rock.
All the rock in this area is sedimentary. But, you will see rock layers that are vertical – as if there had been metamorphic factors at work. The explanation I read says that water shaped this landscape, not wind. Water dissolved the salt deposits. As dome-shaped salt deposits were emptied, the domes collapsed and the rock layers above tipped. This is what accounts for their being vertical in some places. Likewise, salt and softer rocks eroded faster, creating the mesas, buttes, spires, windows and arches that we see all around us. It is hard to believe that these structures aren’t ready to fall at any moment…and honestly, the signs say that if you hear a popping or cracking sound, you need to move away from the rocks as fast as you can.
Tuesday afternoon, we returned to the park to shoot again in an area called “Windows.” We stayed ‘til roughly 9 and then went to Moab to find a decent dinner, and a cold beer. (We found both at a place called The Broken Oar.)
We were back at the hotel about 10:30 p.m., but we were up again at 3:30 a.m., off to shoot Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. That early hour was not because dawn was coming earlier than usual, but because we had to get to the park and set up before the rest of the photographers. Even so, when we got there just after 4, already there were two photographers in the prime spots. (They had set up at 1:30 a.m.) As it got lighter and lighter (first light was about 4:30 a.m.) the details of the valley floor far below were slowly revealed. When I say “far below,” you need to realize that “far” is an understatement. The valley was over a thousand feet below us! And we were less than two feet from the edge.
Mesa Arch is not one of the towering arches. It is rather flat and low – seen from the side we were on. There was not much about it that was remarkable in the dark, but as dawn revealed the scene it watched over, it was both remarkable and unforgettable. When the sun finally peaked over the horizon the underside of the arch started to glow orange. The effect was worth every lost minute of sleep.
Slowly from 4:00 onwards when we arrived, other photographers were dribbling in and setting up. A friendly camaraderie was established, and though the entire area in front of the arch was populated with people and tripods, camera talk made colleagues of us all. However, smack at the stroke of sunrise (about 6:20 a.m.) – a hoard of Japanese tourists came stampeding and chattering into the area – pushing and shoving to get pictures of the canyon. The front line held! The invaders were rebuffed! Next time they should get here earlier! It was actually pretty comical despite that some of our group got stepped on and shoved.
When we packed up and left the Japanese were headed back to their tour bus, too. They must have spent all of 10 minutes there – even considering it was about a 15 minute walk from the parking lot. So they swooped in, took a picture and left, carrying their expensive cameras and checking that off their bucket lists.
Here in Canyonlands National Park, we are in an area called the “Island in the Sky.” As we drive it feels as if we are on an endless flat prairie. But it is not endless – it does indeed end: It drops off thousands of feet to create the canyons from which the park gets its name. You cannot see them until you’re fairly close to the edge… and looking down can give vertigo to even the coolest.
We marveled at the view from the overlook. How do you describe something that is immense? Earlier I mentioned that “far below” was an understatement, and here I have to admit that “immense” is also entirely inadequate. This feeling, of looking down on the entire world, I experienced once before when I was at the top of a mountain in Scotland.
The Green River and the Colorado River have carved out the land below, cutting deep gorges in the stone. In the far away haze, different colored layers mark the distant rock formations.
We stopped again to view the Colorado River from the top of the canyon. It is an “old river” with lots of horseshoe bends and turns. The water is high, and brown. The river feels relaxed here, but I am told it has wicked rapids in other sections.
As if looking way down into the canyon weren’t scary enough, guess what? We’re going to drive down the canyon wall! A steep, bumpy, one-lane, switch-backing, sand and scree road keeps us holding on to our seats and trying not to look down! Breathtaking scenery is the other reason we were holding our breaths!
Once at the bottom, we stopped in a creek bed. The sun was fairly high overhead by this point and too strong and flat for taking landscape pictures, so we looked for details. Here it is easy to see how the water has molded the rock. It was actually odd that the area had some water still collected in pools in the rock. It must have been there for a while, as there were tadpoles. Later I heard bull frogs, so they survive, somehow.
Wednesday evening we were back in Arches to shoot the “Fins,” but sadly we found sections blocked off because of vandalism, i.e. people scratching their names and dates in the rocks. We practiced shooting the Sand Dune Arch and scraggly trees with our flashes. Tonight we had dinner again at The Broken Oar (one, because it was still open and two, because someone … left his credit card there last night.)
Thursday morning we were up early again (3:00 a.m.). We drove about 30 minutes and then traipsed through the dark to another arch, this one called Landscape Arch. (Funny aside here: I was walking along in the dark, conscious that there were very large things just off the path. Wow, I thought, trees out here! Trees?? They were rocks! But it shows what my frame of reference is.)
Amazing to me, as I read afterwards, Landscape Arch is the largest arch in North America, about as long as a football field. It didn’t seem that big…We lit it again with the flashlights, trying to shoot it and the stars. Long exposures on the tripod and crossed fingers for the results gave way to hand-holding the camera when the sun came up and kissed the arch with its rosy light.
If sleep were not an issue, we would be shooting the Milky Way between 1:00 am and 3:00 am, but alas, shooting at the times we do, we are lucky if we get even a shot or two where it is visible. It is already too late for star pictures when first light is before 4:00 a.m.
Thursday afternoon we went to Dead Horse Point State Park (you can look up the various legends that explain where that name comes from and believe the one you like best). There is a well-planned vantage point, complete with railings (!) from behind which to take pictures. The canyon below is spectacular. My favorite part is the “white rim,” an area of limestone, white obviously, that outlines the rim of a canyon within the canyon. At the base of it all is the Green River. The white is complemented by the pastel colors of late afternoon. I found it very evocative. At another overlook, we stopped again – this time – no railings, so we stayed back away from the edge, but at our final overlook, there were daredevils who just had to get up and walk on the railings … I am glad I wasn’t there to see them.
Our final shoot in Arches National Park was Friday morning. Back at the “Windows” this was the day to get the shot looking through one window at another. I opted not to climb around on steep ledges in the dark, so missed “the” shot. I certainly did admire the pictures of those who dared.
Before I continue with the next portion of the trip, I want to encourage you to visit the area around Moab, Utah. Zion and Bryce National Parks are much better known, and I hope to see them soon, but the south east has wonderful sights to see, too. Hiking and water sports are available for enthusiasts, and you can even camp in the parks, so you just have to roll out of your sleeping bag to shoot the Milky Way at whatever time of night you want. Moab is full of motel style places to stay and you can even find some edible food (and if that is important to you – skip the Denny’s!).
We had some editing time of our own on Thursday but our planned activity was a four hour drive to Monument Valley in Arizona. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and our hotel, The View, are on the Navajo Nation, and both the park and the hotel are managed by it. Our hotel has the most amazing view of the “monuments,” huge buttes that stand all over the valley floor. We can shoot them from the parking lot and from our rooms! They are that close.
The hotel is quite interesting. Its decoration reflects the Navajo culture in a very refined way. It is not overdone or touristy, but rather just the right amount of native flair. All the employees are Navajo, some live in the park itself, but most we talked to travel from other areas to work here. There is a restaurant also called “The View” which it has in spades. The food is good, but way too much! There is no alcohol served anywhere on the reservation. And boy, was it ever hot and dry! I washed the dust out of my pants after every shoot, and drying time was less than 30 minutes, out of the sun!
Here’s a slideshow of images from Monument Valley:
We shot in Monument Valley on Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening, and Sunday morning and evening. We drove around to various points in the park looking for the best places from which to shoot dawn or sunset. Despite the heat, we didn’t get very sweaty. Dust was the real bugaboo. Every car that went past kicked up a cloud of red dust. (You cannot see the park without driving on your own or taking one of the tours…things are just too far apart).
A big favorite for everyone was seeing free-range horses! On two occasions we were able to photograph them as if they were wild horses, for they roam the park without so much as a bridle. There was also abundant green plant life, despite the arid conditions. A woman who took me back into the park one night to find the handle of my tripod, told us that May was the rainy season. I am assuming the green plants appeared with the rains.
In reading about Monument Valley, I found the definitions and differences between mesas, buttes and spires. Lucky you – I am going to tell you! Mesas are the huge flat topped structures, tablelands, that are in the initial stages of erosion. A butte is a mesa that has been eroded into a tower shape. A spire is the remnant of a butte, in the final stages of its erosion. Here, both wind and water are the eroding agents. Water was responsible for carving out the mesas, and wearing down their sides to form the buttes. Wind has rounded the buttes and their surfaces. Water, in the form of ice, works to pry shards of stone off the buttes and form the spires.
It seemed to me that most of the visitors to Monument Valley spent just one night in the hotel and then moved on. We were fortunate to have a vehicle and to be able to explore the park on our own, for we ended up seeing and experiencing so much more than you can from the parking lot, or even the back of one of the open tour vehicles. Watching the valley transform at sunset and at dawn is never the same two days in a row, and it’s spellbinding. In fact, I would recommend that you take the time to experience it without a camera in your hands. The scale, the magnificence, the age – all combine to create a profound effect that you won’t soon forget. By all means, if you go, stay at The View Hotel in the park. It is a very pleasant experience and you will meet people from all over the world, in addition to your Navajo hosts. Note that unlike Arches and Canyonlands, you really cannot do any hiking or camping in this park.
I will certainly return here. There are ancient petroglyphs and ruins in the area that I would love to see and which, I believe, are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.)
On our final day of the trip we traveled another two hours to near Pages, Arizona to photograph Upper Rattlesnake Canyon and Antelope Canyon. These shoots were accomplished with a Navajo guide, in our case one from a photography-focused agency called “Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours”! Our guide was very knowledgeable about the conditions in the canyons for good shots, and lined us up for the best angles. He also threw sand into the sunbeams so they would show up in our photos. It was a great experience. Though I will probably throw out 95% of the 1000 pictures I took, I expect to have at least some that document the experience, maybe even one worthy of framing.
The first canyon we entered was the Upper Rattlesnake. It was not particularly big, rising between a foot and 6 feet over our heads. It was very narrow and very twisty. Trying to take pictures meant keeping the areas open to the sky out of the pictures. It was wonderfully dark in the canyon, the sun’s diffuse light making the red sandstone glow orange, red and yellow depending on where it was brightest. The forms created by the water rushing through the canyon are abstract photographed like this.
The second canyon was Antelope Canyon – a famous spot. You have probably seen photos made there, even if you didn’t know that was the place. It’s iconic!
Though there were lots of people in the canyon, Raul, who has been 5 times before, said we were lucky that there were so few people. It was a zoo, but a manageable zoo! Still many of the 95% of my pictures that I will throw out have random people in them.
The drill was to line up and get the cameras ready. We were shooting on tripods (continuous mode) and our tripods overlapped. We were shoulder to shoulder! We waited for the sun to get into position. The guides stopped the other tourists from walking through the shot, threw sand into the sunbeams, ran out of the pictures and we clicked away for several minutes. Then he let some people pass through and we got to shoot again. Change “room” and repeat!
Antelope Canyon is much bigger than Rattlesnake. Here the rocks tower a story or two overhead, and the caverns below are even quite spacious. It’s an experience you should not miss – no matter how far out of your way you have to go to experience it, and even if photography is not your thing.
From here, we had a six hour drive to return to Salt Lake City, and we all scattered to our respective destinations the following morning.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this trip (the Salt Lake City journal), I fell in love with Utah on the first day, and nothing that happened for the rest of the trip could dampen my enthusiasm for this state. I intend to return as many times as I can to spend time here, just enjoying all the wonders within its borders. I will also return to spend time in Arizona, and I hope my travels will also get me to New Mexico. The West is a fascinating place and I cannot seem to get enough.