The first afternoon at Monument Valley was a mere introduction to the locale; the second day was full exposure, an entire morning, from sunrise until the light became unshootable, and then a complete afternoon/evening session. All of that time would be spent with an experienced Navajo guide and virtually all of it would be spent in the Valley’s back country, where access is limited to the accompaniment of a certified guide. By the time the day ended, I had categorize it as one of my top 10 photographic experiences ever.
Our guide was Fred Cly, who not only knows Monument Valley like the back of his hand, but is a photographer himself. With a photographer’s sensibilities to locations, timing and light Fred was an ideal choice to guide our group. (I can’t recommend Fred highly enough; if you’re planning a trip to Monument Valley and are interested in a guide–remember, most of the Valley is off limits unless you have one–drop me a line for Fred’s contact information.) He met us at the View Hotel before 5 AM and the six workshop participants (including E.J. Peiker, the workshop leader) boarded a converted pickup truck–with open air seating where the flatbed would be. E.J. likened the vehicle’s makeup to what is frequently used for African photo safaris. The open air part of the experience would be–interesting–later in the day, but as we jumped aboard that morning it was temperate and dry and the rugged roads of the Valley meant that the trip would be at a slow pace.
Our first stop was to shoot the iconic Totem Pole at sunrise. When we arrived at our destination the eastern sky was just beginning to show signs of life and the Totem Pole was visible in silhouette. Exposures were long at base ISO at this point, but they were shortening by the minute as ambient light levels increased.
This was my first extended shoot with the Nikon D800E. I’d already seen direct evidence of the camera’s remarkable dynamic range–a stop or two better than that of the D700, which I already thought was amazing–given my experience shooting after the sun went down at Sunset Crater two days earlier. I was to realize the impressive results again this morning at Monument Valley; the sensor’s ability to retain detail at both ends of the spectrum meant that it was necessary to deliberately underexpose–or adjust the black point accordingly in post-processing–to attain the above silhouette. The below image is a careful processing of a single exposure; this is not a multi-exposure blend or HDR rendering. Note that detail is visible throughout.
The sunrise was very nice and after the sun came up a glance at the sky indicated that we were going to have a very good morning; the clouds were phenomenal. Before we left the first location, I composed a few other images, including the two below, first using a telephoto lens, and then switching to a wide angle.
We moved on to photograph the Totem Pole from a different perspective, using reddish sand dunes as a foreground.
From there it was on to a towering rock edifice, complete with a window known as Sun’s Eye.
I shot the window from several different perspectives.
The same location included an ephemeral pool of water, fed by recent rainstorms, which allowed the relatively rare opportunity to capture Monument Valley reflections.
There were petroglyphs as well:
And if that wasn’t enough, I simply had to photograph this juniper, dripping with character, against the towering wall.
We had one last stop before calling it a morning, and that produced several additional photo opportunities. The first was the chance to photograph the valley through a large triangular rock opening.
The second was a dilapidated shack. I shot a half-dozen compositions, including the one you see below.
It had been a long, but incredibly productive, morning. After a mid-day respite (I used the break to hit the treadmill back at the hotel), we reconvened at about 3 PM for the afternoon/evening session.
We started off at the iconic Teardrop Arch, well into the Monument Valley back country.
From there, it was off to Mystery Valley, which lent itself to numerous and varied compositions and means of expression.
The light was beginning to fade, but the decision was made to try and shoot the Mittens at sunset. We had to get out of Mystery Valley, get back on the main highway, and zip back to the area near the Monument Valley visitor’s center. In the open air vehicle, moving quickly on the main road was like being in a wind tunnel, but we were fighting the clock. We arrived at our destination less than five minutes before sunset. I quickly grabbed my things and ran to a promising looking spot. We had the wonderful valley view, but no sunset light–the sun was blocked by a bank of clouds hugging the western horizon. This is an east facing shot, so you’re not actually photographing the sunset; you’re waiting for angular end-of-day light to hit the valley formations and light up the red rocks.
I set up, just in case the sun popped out. There was no margin for error, and if it happened it wasn’t going to last very long at all. After fine tuning the composition, setting focus and establishing an exposure based on the bright sky, I waited. I looked behind me, checking the western horizon–it wasn’t promising. I heard E.J., from his position perhaps 25 feet behind me on a ridge, say “it’s not going to happen.” I had already come to the same conclusion. Well, I thought to myself, it had already been an incredible day of shooting. We were bound to face one disappointment. It was too bad, though–I knew that this sunset shot of the Mittens and Merrick Butte was the one image that my wife most hoped I’d come home with and there wasn’t going to be another opportunity to get it since the previous day’s sunset hadn’t happened either and we’d be moving from Monument Valley after sunrise tomorrow.
And then, suddenly….it happened! The sun slipped below the cloud bank, just above the horizon, and hit the formations with phenomenal red-shifted light.
I shot an image just before the one you see here–when the light was still partially defused–and another just as it was fading, with the sun slipping below the horizon. I checked the metadata from both shots; the entire phenomenon lasted barely two minutes, and we had been on site no more than two or three minutes before it began. We had arrived in the nick of time. What a terrific cap to a tremendous day of photography.
There’s an epilogue. After the sun dropped below the horizon, I looked at the western sky and took a grab shot. The composition was complete junk, but I took a shot anyway. Our guide, Fred, encouraged me to move to the other side of the gravel parking lot that I was shooting over, to see if I could find something worthwhile before the light disappeared.
As always, Fred’s advice was spot on. I ran a few hundred yards to the west, across the parking lot and the adjoining road, and make a beeline for a lone juniper that caught my attention. The breeze was light, but it was just enough to produce some movement in the foreground grasses and plants, not to mention in the branches of the tree itself. I wanted to maintain a low ISO to eliminate any chance of noise and to retain as much dynamic range as possible. HDR–requiring multiple exposures–was out. The D800E and its amazing dynamic range came to the rescue again, bookending the day.