It all started when Johan Beyers phoned me one evening in January 2009 and took advantage of my state of self pity (my last photo trip was two years ago to Antarctica). He “suggested” that we think about touring the South West of America at the end of February 2009 as he would be there for work and have a couple of days to spare. Seems like I can be convinced very easy……
The purpose of our tour was twofold. Johan wanted to re-shoot a couple of scenes that he had done before, as well as a couple of new ones that he was not able to do on previous occasions, while I always wanted to see the places and just shoot the shit out of it! This was my first opportunity to photograph the area whereas Johan had toured the area on numerous occasions before, accumulating a wealth of knowledge and experience. In the end our trip provided a good balance between shooting some well photographed icons and some not-so-well-known gems of the area.
You need to do a lot of research to be able to squeeze the most opportunities into the amount of shooting time available. In this regard the Internet proved invaluable, and thanks to the speedy delivery of Amazon the first two volumes of Laurent Martres‘ “How to Photograph the South West” saved us a lot of time.
We flew into Las Vegas and rented a vehicle for the round trip that have taken us, across the J Edgar Hoover dam, to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. From there we continued to Monument Valley and on to Moab with quick stops at Goosenecks NP and a couple of historic Indian Cliffside dwellings around the Cedar Mesa. We spent two full days and three nights in Moab and definitely did not scratch the surface in terms of opportunities, but it proved to be some of the best photography of the whole trip! Our only foray out of the Arches National Park was to the Mesa Arch, which is situated in Canyon lands NP, some 20 odd miles to the south.
The next sleepover at Bryce Canyon National Park where we slept two nights. Timing it right, one could save a night here, only really needing one evening and one morning if the weather plays along, but we needed some rest to allow myself to recover from as nasty cold that I was convinced was terminal Pneumonia at the time! On the way there we stumbled upon the Goblins State Park and Little Wild Horse Canyon, which was my first experience of photographing Canyons.
Our last stop was three nights at Page Arizona, a town built to accommodate the people who built the (in)famous Glen Canyon dam that created Lake Powell. Although the area certainly has the same potential (in terms tourist opportunities) as the area around Moab, Page did not manage to break the mould of an “industrial town. It never the less offer world-class photographic opportunities , such as the slot canyons, vistas like Horseshoe bend and some unique hoodoos . From Page we returned to Las Vegas Via Zion National Park, with a stopover at Michael Fatali’s studio in Springdale, Utah.
As with all other types of Nature Photography, early morning and late afternoon light adds a glow to your shots that sets them apart from images made at other times during the day. As the weather was still full of winter, camping was not really an option, and we rather lodged at motels along the way. It was out of season so we never ran into problems with availability and the rates were quite acceptable. It did mean that we needed to travel further distances to and from the locations that we wanted to shoot though, resulting in 18 hour days, that left the middle of the day for traveling and /or scouting.
In retrospect I would have liked to spend a longer time in the south west of the United States of America to photograph the absolute beauty of the landscapes carved over time by the forces of nature. Having said that, it will be to a photographer’s advantage to concentrate on one or two of the venues, rather than to try to cover the whole area on follow-up visits. These scenes have been in the making for millions of years and deserve special attention. Wind, water and sand, as well as the absolutes of temperature at both end extremities of the scale experienced in these desert areas, worked together to create a vast “wonderland of erosion” over millennia.
In a certain sense the area has been explored and utilized by so many photographers and naturalists over the years that one might question the logic of a decision to spend time photographing the area. I mean, how many ways are there to shoot the Delicate arch in Arches National Park in Utah? Turns out quite couple! And although your shot of this specific Icon of the southwest is probably not going to be get photographers packing their gear and rush over there to try and copy you, to experience the sun setting over the desert with the last light precipitating a eerie glow, seemingly originating from deep within the sandstone is a experienced that will stay with you for the rest of your life! To add to this experience, there’s only another 2000 arches in the park! Which reiterates the point that the photographic opportunities available are directly related to the time spent shooting the area.
Shooting the “postcard shots”, as we’d like to call them, might feel like plagiarism, and probably is exactly that, but using the “postcard composition” as a starting point and then striving to do better than the postcard photographer is a nice goal to strive toward. As you work the subject, the real challenge is to create “something different” taking the variables such as the weather, time of day, season etc, into account and applying these in ways to express the beauty of the scene. You should set that as your ultimate goal for each subject. This way the experience will be so much more personal and the end result a lot more satisfying.
We also managed to locate a couple of lesser-known photo spots with a bit of homework. These locations are a bit harder to get to and take a bit of effort on the side of the photographer, but proved to provide some very enchanting subject matter! The only real effort, once you have done the homework is to get to the places to be there when it is best to photograph the scenes. We did a lot of overland trekking, some of it at ungodly hours before dawn and after dusk, but it was always worth the effort!
The one advantage of doing landscape work is that you do not need to carry around ultra long glass (if you shoot 35mm format!). In this regard the Nikon D3x with it’s 25 MP sensor proved a blessing as I was able to shoot extremely high resolution shots with a “35mm” body and needed only three lenses for the trip. I had with me a 14-24, 24-70 (the one I used most of the time) and a 70-200. This helped me to bring down the weight of my pack to less than 15kg including a tripod and other protective gear! It was easy on my lower back on the long treks and also saved me the cost of extra weight, which the airlines love so slap on you nowadays!
Using the 25mb Nikon D3x Raw files and Photoshop CS4’s Photomerge functionality we were able to stitch together panorama shots of 200Mb plus that can be printed 2.5m X .5m with no extra effort! This combination gave results that, in my opinion, rival the image quality that was up to now proprietary to the large format digital equipment like Phase One.
It needs to be said that the contemporary landscape role models like Michael Fatali en Peter Lik still captures their images on large Format Velvia. Michael Fatali told us (yes, we were actually lucky enough to run into him at his Gallery in Springdale!) that he now captures on 10 X 17 film! From this one can only deduce that, to keep ahead of the advances and digital, he needs to shoot those large trannies to still have an advantage over digital users! His images are something to admire though and it is obvious that he have mastered the art of printing from velvia to such an extent that he is undoubtedly well and truly the great master of it! Really something to aspire to!
I can certainly recommend a trip to that part of the world for any serious landscape photographer. It must be obvious that I would go back tomorrow to continue where we stopped, and having done the quick version of the area I would certainly try do more photography in a specific location on a future visit. And herein lies the problem is that it would be extremely difficult to decide where!
More images from our whirlwind tour of the American Southwest can be seen on my website!