After shooting for a number of years, and traveling to many corners of the globe, there was one region of the United States that I had largely not yet explored – the great American Southwest. It was a vast and varied landscape that both held untold numbers of amazing views, but also endless expanses to cross to find just the right spots to shoot. Knowing that I wanted to explore and experience the southwest at its best, I chose to put my trust in letting another photographer lead the way to the best locations and light. Having met Mark and having been an admirer of his work for some time, and knowing that he had lived and shot full time in the area for a significant amount of time, he was the obvious choice to join on a workshop. After keeping close eye on this workshop announcements, I jumped on his early September Ultimate Southwest Workshop the day the dates were announced. Mark’s workshop information and willingness to answer questions and make suggestions quickly proved that I had made the right decision.
Preparing for the trip
Without having to do all the usual location planning that I usually go through when starting a trip plan, instead the first thing I had to figure out is how to get to myself to Page, Arizona. I had two basic options – fly into either Phoenix, Flagstaff or even Las Vegas; or drive my 2015 Toyota Tacoma from my home near Dallas. After checking flight costs and what it would take to rent an all-wheel or 4wd vehicle for the duration of the trip I quickly made the determination that I could put those funds into upgrades to the truck and have what I was sure would be the most capable vehicle of the group. I could also extend the trip a little on either side of the workshop dates to explore a little on my own for any locations I wanted to either scout ahead of the workshop, or didn’t get a chance to see during it. Several months of planning and work later – I would leave town with a 2.5″ lift, off road bumpers front and rear as well as a set of bed bars installed on the truck. The bars had a rise of around 12 inches over the bed, with the intent of using them to hold up a rainfly over the bed if I needed it.
On the photographer gear side of things, I decided to add the newly released Rokinon SP 14mm f/2.4 to my lens kit. Having following Mark’s work I knew he was an expert at shooting with ultra-wide lenses. While I already had the 14mm f/2.8, but after reading the reviews of this new version I decided to do something I probably never would have guessed I’d do – spend almost a thousand dollars on a Rokinon! Now, let me tell you, this isn’t like any Rokinon lens I’d ever held before. It’d be like stepping out of an early 70’s Pinto and getting into a brand new Mercedes S-Class. This thing is a solid hunk of glass. Plus it adds internal aperture control – though focusing control is still manual.
The final advantage to deciding to drive vs fly – I was free to pack as much gear as my truck could hold. Camp gear, camera gear, clothes, trail food, recovery gear in case I or someone else on the workshop gets stuck, hiking gear, you name it, I had it. I’ve been known on other camp gears for having just about anything under the sun within my two large black bins that fit in the bed, and even though I wasn’t taking my entire camp kitchen gear, I was still fully prepared to survive for several days in the back country if the need arose.
Now for the down side to deciding to drive – the drive! Or at least, getting up at 5am to hit the road. My plan was to be in Amarillo by noon to have lunch with a good friend, and then on to Albuquerque for my first day on the road. No joke, a 12hr day on the road made me reconsider my thinking to drive. But after a solid dinner of New Mexican food and a local beer – I was in good spirits again. The next day I pushed on into Arizona and into Page. Having a little time before the meet up that would kick off the workshop, and after two days of sitting in the truck, it wasn’t long until the lure of the hotel pool was calling my name.
During the first night’s meet up Mark had some good and bad news. The good news was that the first day’s morning shoot would be just down the road at Horseshoe Bend. The bad news was that was because the weather forecast was calling for nearly clear skies throughtout the region, which didn’t really make it worth traveling far for lackluster light when we could have the same right down the street.
The Horseshoe was a fantastic start to the trip, even with less than ideal light. Getting experience shooting ultra wide and even sneaking in a few tighter compositions, just getting a feel for how to work with the types of leading lines that this entire region can provide. That afternoon, due to the continued lack of good light opportunities, Mark decided to do the post processing portion of his workshop on the first day instead of the last as he usually does, in hopes that we would get better opportunities for shooting later in the week. The next morning we ventured a little further out from Page, Arizona – up to Crosby Canyon. This was a spot that I had looked forward to and hoped to get to see, having gotten a sneak peak through one of Mark’s post processing tutorial videos I had watched before the trip. Opting to zero in on the ridge that I had seen in the video, I setup just as the first hints of light were starting to appear on the horizon, day was quickly going to be taking over the night, but with few clouds around, I knew my best opportunity was going to try to catch some of the night sky surrounding the mountains of the canyon. Trying to compose ultra-wide shots in an unscouted location in just the faintest hint of light while trying to keep your headlamp usage to a minimum not to interfere with others a challenge for sure. Mark’s direction and suggestion on compositions utilizing ultra-wide lenses was key to making the most of the shoot.
From Crosby Canyon we finally broke away from the immediate Page, AZ area and headed for another wish list view from Mark’s back catalog – Wotan’s Throne on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The plan would be to shoot both sunset and sunrise at the North Rim. The evening light was the best we had thus far, and getting to climb down a couple ledges from the ‘official’ viewpoint to get a cleaner view of the epic canyon formations was an amazing way to spend the evening. Mark’s climbing experience and just overall experience shooting in these environments were really starting to pay off – knowing how to safely get the group to the best shooting locations, letting the group focus on taking the shot. While I took a lot of beautiful wide angle views, my favorite shot of the night would end up being a telephoto view of light streaming into the canyon. The next morning the light upped the ante even further with some gorgeous soft morning light which resulted in some of my favorite shots of the entire trip.
From the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the rest of the trip largely left the pavement and ventured deeper into the back country of Arizona’s northern regions and onto Indian Reservation lands which Mark had arranged for access to. First was a long slow drive out to Tatahatso Bend – after which followed a night I will not soon forget. We backed the vehicles up right up near the ridge, and I slept in the bed of the truck under a full moon so bright I was able to walk along a several hundred foot drop without a headlamp to light the way. Tatahatso is several times larger that Horseshoe bend from a few days prior and the view even in the day was impressive, but watching the moonlight fill the enormous bend was just magical. Things got even more interesting the following day when the party moved to the convergence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. We finally got to at least view some monsoon style afternoon storms, though thankfully the stayed off the dirt roads we were traveling to our overnight stay. This night too would be filled with amazing views, both for the eyes and the camera lens. Under full moon light we shot into the late night hours, and the next morning finally were greeted by truly amazing light and skies.
For the last day of the workshop, we said goodbye to the Grand Canyon and ventured to another canyon a few hours away. Coalmine Canyon, also on Indian lands is a very different place than the deep rock canyons of the Grand Canyon, it’s a strange blend of badlands and canyon wrapped into one. The white chalky rock, which crumbles easily, is striped with deep red bands. We experienced this amazing landscape under mostly cloudy skies, with a sunset that was painting the whites into hues of violet and rose. I can only imagine what it would look like under the light of the stars and moon as by the time the light of day was gone, and we had said our goodbyes to the workshop, the clouds had obscured all the light above.
With the workshop with Mark wrapped up, I had two and a half days before I absolutely had to be on the road for home. While all of the views we had seen through the workshop checked a lot of items off my wish-list there was one that I just had to to add before I headed home. White Pocket. It was the place that I had designed all the modifications of my truck to reach, I wasn’t going to leave without setting foot, and tripod foot, on that landscape. I had read several descriptions on how to get out there, but after a long week on the road, I got lazy and tried to let Google be my guide out there. That, I would find, was a mistake. It attempted to take me the ‘direct’ route, so direct that the roads soon got narrow and eventually barely a track at all. I eventually found a way to get turned around, backtracked a good 45 minutes, and then finally found the ‘long but easy’ way. And by easy, I still mean treading through deep loose sand for over an hour, at 20 minutes per hour. The detour had eaten up most of my scouting time, and the evening light, made moody and dramatic by gathering storm clouds, was already starting to glow by the time I finally made it out to the sandstone formations. And wow, what formations they were! I was a kid in an endless candy store, with the only time limit the setting sun. I shot well into the evening, before finally walking back to the truck, setting up camp right next to it, and falling asleep after a long day of exploring the far reaches of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
Early the next morning I was up well before the sun, amazed to see crystal clear skies, without a hint of the storm clouds I had watched fade into darkness the night before. I was up and moving in minutes, racing out onto the sandstone to find compositions I had shot the evening before, this time under the night sky and into the early morning light. What I wasn’t expecting that with the early morning light, those evening storm clouds returned, another round of dramatic clouds gathered as quickly as the light of morning. I shot out on the sand as long as I could before I feared staying any longer would result in getting stuck out there if the rains ventured too close and turned the road into an impassable mess.
In my eagerness, and in the need for a quick exit, I managed to twist my knee a little on my way out of White Pocket, paired with the nearly 2 hour drive out, by the time I reached Kanab Utah, my knee was quick to tell me that it wasn’t up for any more trekking the remainder of the trip, which in turn scratched off my original plan for a final stop at Zion National Park. Instead I decided to point the truck east after lunch at Kanab Creek Bakery, headed for Monument Valley. Knowing that much of Monument Valley was best seen from the driving tour, and the classic views of the valley easily photographed from only short walks from the truck figured it would be the best way to make the most of my time left and gimped up leg.
Shooting Location Tips
Horseshoe Bend: Located just outside Page Arizona, this is an incredibly popular location. Thousands of tourists come and go from this location every year. Getting here early, well before sunrise, is key to both avoiding the crowds and making the most of the best light. You’ll need an ultra-wide lens or shoot in panoramic sets to get the entire bend in a single shot. When I was here the sky wasn’t interesting so I avoided including any more sky than needed, but if you time it right you can get dramatic light or even the sun coming right down the middle. The bend faces due west, so if you’re after that sunset beam, you’ll be looking for a sunset, and fighting larger crowds.
Crosby Canyon: First thing to know is that there’s a low water crossing to get across to get into the Crosby Canyon Recreation area. If there’s been a lot of rain recently, this can be difficult if not impossible to cross. Once you’re on the gravel (with lots of washboard) road, keep your eyes open both towards the cliffs to the left and the open valley to the right. There are a lot of different views and textures to explore. Badlands, rocky outcrops, mud flats, cracked mud, you name it. Again, for the most part, ultra-wide lenses let you accentuate foreground detail of the desert floor that leads then up into backgrounds. The ridge to your left as you drive in faces north, something to consider if you’re thinking about shooting this at night. Of course, unless you read this or look it up on a map, not many people will know that if you decide to get creative with Photoshop.
Wotan’s Throne: One of the quietest spots that can be driven to on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Wotan’s Throne is definitely worth the drive. You’ll want at least a 16mm (Full Frame) to capture the entire view of Wotan’s Thrown and the surrounding canyon. While the view from the overview is good, there are some foreground trees and other obstructions. Take extreme care if you decide to explore beyond the railings!
White Pocket: What can I say other than textures, leading lines, colors, and compositions are endless. If all the other locations were wide angle suggested, this is wide angle required. When you get to the parking area, there’s one main pathway out onto the sandstone formations. The ‘Brain Rocks’ with the single tree you often see photographed is off to the left a little, the yellows and red stripes of rock are forward and to the right. Get here with plenty of time to explore, mark locations on a GPS or map to revisit when the light gets good.
This was the first of 3 major ‘desert landscape’ trips that I would take in 2017 and early 2018. After this I also ventured to Death Valley and Big Bend National Parks within six months of this road trip. Many of the lessons I learned from Mark, and just with the experience of shooting in these amazing landscapes have carried over into these later trips and continue to be put to use. Overall, I absolutely believe that every minute and dollar spent was well worth it. If you are looking to join a workshop that will take you beyond the well known tourist stops and put you in front of views beyond your wildest imagination with the best light that Mother Nature can provide – I fully recommend looking up Mark Metternich. I can only hope to one day know half as many amazing locations with a third as much experience in those places as he’s collected.