Monument Valley


Monument Valley at 3 am. Camera settings: ISO 2000, 20 sec., f 2.8.

Monument Valley at 3 am. Camera settings: ISO 2000, 20 sec., f 2.8.

Much like my recent post offering five tips on photographing in Upper Antelope Canyon, I admit that this post offering my thoughts on photographing stars doesn't come from years of experience. In fact, this was my first real attempt.

So why should you continue reading?

Because with any photographic technique there will always be a first time. And because I come to these new situations with years of photographic experience behind me, I think my approach and the lessons learned can help you as you expand your photographic horizons and explore new areas or genres of photography.

I mentioned briefly in my post about planning for my Arizona trip that one of the things I wanted to do was try shooting at night. Coincidentally, I also realized that I was going to be in Monument Valley during a large meteor shower, so my expectations were high.

What did I learn?

Star photography is much more that putting you camera on a tripod, setting a long exposure and sitting back while the magic happens.

And of course, you already know that you'll need a sturdy tripod, cable release and a flashlight (headlamp works best), right?

Horseshoe Bend at 5 am. Camera settings: ISO 1600, 20 sec., f 3.5.

Horseshoe Bend at 5 am. Camera settings: ISO 1600, 20 sec., f 3.5.

Probably the first thing I learned was to crank up the ISO. I went as high as 3200 but found that 1600 worked best. Normally when using a tripod, your first thought is to use the lowest ISO available since the possibility of camera shake caused by a lower shutter speed is minimized. But when you consider that the planet your tripod sits on is moving, a slow shutter speed causes the stars to blur, thus making everything seem out of focus.

Speaking of focus, the second thing I learned is that obtaining sharp focus at night is really difficult. While you think you might be able to set your lens to infinity and all will be good, you'd be wrong. If there is something in the foreground such as a tree or barn that you can shine a light on to set focus then you are fine. Absent that, I would set my focus to infinity, then back off just a bit, take a series of photos, go to the laptop and check focus. I was never able to determine true focus using the back of the camera, even when using a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro.

Even though it appeared very dark, lights from a far-off town became visible on the horizon during the long exposure. Camera Settings: ISO 3200, 30 sec., f 2.8.

Even though it appeared very dark, lights from a far-off town became visible on the horizon during the long exposure. Camera Settings: ISO 3200, 30 sec., f 2.8.

Monument Valley was dark, really dark, and remember that darkness is your friend when shooting the night sky, despite the focus issues previously mentioned. Light pollution is all around us, so the farther from civilization you can get, the better. Even as dark as it was in the Arizona desert, I noticed bright spots on the horizon from far off towns would appear after long exposures.

I found a shutter speed between 20 and 35 seconds worked best. Anything longer and you will definitely have soft stars. I set the f-stop somewhere between 2.8 or 3.2, which again seems to go against conventional thinking when using a tripod and trying to achieve a deep depth of field with everything in focus from near to far.

However, if you think about it, you need to strike a balance between getting the most light into the camera without too long of a shutter speed, which is why you crank up the ISO. Luckily today's cameras can handle the higher ISOs.

Remember, even if the temperature is warm during the day, it can get really cold at night, so dress warmly, bring extra layers and maybe a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee. You want to be comfortable when you settle in for a long night of shooting the stars.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatic clouds in Arizona.

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


Star photography over Monument Valley, Ariz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Upper Antelope Canyon outside Page, Arizona.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought about all this for a night and the next day started to run the numbers for hotels, flights, rental car, access (some of these locations are on Navajo land which require guides), etc., and realized that I could do this at a reasonable cost, probably the whole trip for around $1000. I also had enough frequent flier miles to cover airfare and because of the time of year, many hotel rates are lower.

With the decision made, I began to line things up. I picked the dates and secured the time off from work. Called Phoenix friends and asked if I could spend first night in with them. Next step was to book two nights at the Monument Valley Inn where all the rooms have balconies with a view of the valley and based on recommendations from Matt, I secured a top floor room with no overhang. Finished off my hotel bookings with one night in Page, Ariz., and the final night in Payson, Ariz., leaving me close to Phoenix the night before I return. Sent email and made the arrangements with Antelope Canyon Tours to take me to Antelope Canyon.

With the itinerary complete, the only thing left for me to do is find the motivation to get up early and stay up late. This is one downside to not participating in a workshop; the other is missing out on the camaraderie. But I don't think I will be alone in these spots and I'm sure I'll meet other photographers. Besides, being on my own will give me some flexibility in schedule and the option to explore or discover other things along the way.

Next post will be about packing for this trip, then I plan to update this blog each day of the trip, with a final post about the whole experience.

Additionally, I will be posting some photos and other updates to my Google Plus, Flickr, Facebook and 500px accounts.