Shooting Camps in Southern Utah (Part Two)

This sort of photo is quintessential Monument Valley imagery – it’s “destination specific”, in that almost everybody will immediately recognize its location.

The foremost butte is the “main subject”, predominant in the frame, occupying an intersection of thirds. Secondary buttes offer a “repetition of pattern”. As the foreground overlaps the background, a dynamic composition is created, augmented by all of the buttes breaking the horizon. The fact that the tops of the various buttes form a diagonal across the frame hurts not at all.

This is late afternoon light, where a polarizing filter was used to saturate the colors.

We’ve been shooting at Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, as well as Coral Pink Sands State Park, while we explore southwestern Utah. Now it’s time to pick up a cache of extra film (that we arranged to have waiting for us in Kanab) and head east to Capitol Reef National Park. Our route of choice is Highway 12, an amazingly scenic route through high country that takes us over “Hell’s Backbone.” Photography here is difficult, because it’s not easy to compose with a foreground, but the views are fabulous.

We climb over Boulder Mountain just outside the town of Torrey, Utah. The mountain is covered in aspen forests and, in the autumn, turns yellow and gray. We can spend a whole day on the mountain, shooting yellow trees with white trunks against the dark blue sky. Photography doesn’t get any better than this. Here, we employ the same techniques we used shooting red trees in the Northeastern autumn–back lighting, polarizing filters, isolated compositions, and close-ups on a cloudy day without any visible sky.


Our shooting camp for Capitol Reef is the Best Western Capitol Reef Resort, the closest accommodation to the park. They offer a huge swimming pool, the Red Cliffs restaurant, and laundry facilities. (You have to do something when the sun is high.) Even the scenery from your motel balcony merits a few exposures.

We save our efforts for early morning and late afternoon. The effect of low-angle lighting on Southwestern scenery is so fantastic, we discard images made at midday. The exception to the no-midday-shooting rule is flowering cacti in the spring, as the blossoms open only after the sun is high and the day has warmed. However, don’t put your camera away after the sun has dropped below the horizon. Many of those fantastic Utah images you’ve seen were done with ten-second exposures, the rocks reflecting the last pink light of a western sunset.

Capitol Reef National Park offers good “drive-by shooting” opportunities, both on the scenic drive and on the main road through the park (Highway 24). The route to Hickman Natural Bridge is a worthwhile hike. You can climb up and under the bridge, in order to shoot back through it, framing rocks and skyline. This is a good shoot both early and late in the day.

Incidentally, if you’re in Capitol Reef (or any of the Southwestern parks) in the spring, you’re going to find an astonishing array of wildflowers. If you enjoy macro photography, arm yourself with botanic reference books, so you can identify the plants you’re shooting. (We use Wildflowers of Southwestern Utah, and the National Audubon Society’s Pocket Guide to Familiar Flowers of North America West.)

This shot is typical of the scenery to be enjoyed at Goblin Valley, State Park, a wonderfully whimsical place of teeny tiny hoodoos with a variety of shapes. It’s essential to photograph here in low lighting, which usually means a round trip of at least two hours from the nearest accommodations.


Goblin State Park can be reached with an easy side trip during the drive from Capitol Reef to Moab, Utah. However, detouring there during the drive always places you on-site after the sun is high. Goblin is a huge collection of whimsical rock formations, most of them less than ten feet high, and a great place to visit. If you can deal with a two-hour round trip, head there from Capitol Reef in the late afternoon, returning to Torrey after dark. Photographs made in high contrast lighting will be “record shots.”


The town of Moab, one of the larger in southeastern Utah, is our favorite place to hang our hats while visiting Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. There are several motels on the main drag. We hole up at the less expensive of the two Best Western Inns. Just down the street are two excellent Italian restaurants, as well as Tom Till’s photographic gallery. For compositional inspiration, don’t miss seeing Tom’s work.

If you have only a short time in Moab, concentrate on shooting at Arches National Park, which lies only a ten-minute drive away. Canyonlands is easily forty minutes distant and is vast. While most attractions in Arches are easily accessible by car, Canyonlands generally requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a knowledgeable guide. (The exception is Mesa Arch, well worth the trip at sunrise and sunset. Be prepared to share space with lots of other tripod drivers.) You’ll find acres of flowering prickly-pear cacti, both the yellow and magenta varieties, just outside the Canyonlands entrance gate in late spring. This is a super midday photographic destination.

Double Arch was photographed in Arches National Park. Two hikers arrived at a propitious time and location, just as the tripod was set up, to provide scale and human interest.

The image was slightly over-exposed so as to show the detail in the surrounding rocks. The darker arch was superimposed over the brighter background arch for impact.

One of the prime photo opportunities at Arches is Delicate Arch. You can get optically close to it by taking the “short” hike (Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail), up a quick rise, then over easy ridges of rock to good telephoto range. Afternoon is best on a clear day. You can get physically close by taking the “long” hike of several miles over a demanding trail with drop-offs that vertigo will not tolerate. Don’t make this trip unless you’re prepared to stay to shoot at sunset and walk home in the dark.

To come home with memorable shots from Arches, be sure to situate a person for scale when you can and use the arches to frame other scenes. It’s a good idea to peruse photo books of the area to gather ideas for possible compositions.


The only place to stay when you’re visiting Monument Valley is Goulding’s Lodge, so close to the Valley that you can snap memorable sunrise photographs from your motel balcony. Goulding’s is so famous, it appears on the Arizona state map, even though it’s in Utah! Goulding’s offers various tours of the Valley and boasts the only civilized dining experience within many miles, so there really is no other choice. The story goes that truckers used to come from other states just for the Thursday night beef ribs special. You think Duke Wayne and John Ford made all those movies in Monument just because of the pretty rocks?

You can find some grand images in the Valley by driving the tourists’ dirt road that winds down from the Visitor Center, but for a memorable experience, hire a photography-savvy Navajo guide and his four-wheel-drive. You’ll photograph arches and other formations you might otherwise have missed.

Be sure to visit Mystery Valley at sunset. Take your flash to photograph Susie Yazzie in her hogan, and spend one sunrise and one sunset at the sand dunes with The Totem in the background. Put your camera away during the middle of the day, and don’t come back for supper before dark.

Big Ear is one of the many arches found in Monument Valley, most of them well off the usual tourist trail. The stark dead tree in the foreground, breaking all horizons, gives a nice foreground, providing sharp edges against the sky and the background rocks. Notice how the underside of the arch is nicely lit with bounced light.

This is one example of using a Cokin Blue/Yellow polarizing filter, to enhance the glow of the rock, while not “overdoing” the saturation of the sky.

This was an expensive photograph. When this image was made, a mini-sandstorm was blowing, and in our enthusiasm, we neglected to simply wait for clear air. It was necessary to later have the zoom lens cleaned professionally, to remove the resulting grit from its innards.

One of the best locations for photographing flowering prickly pear in spring seems to be outside the entrance gate to Canyonlands National Park, where acres of blooms will be found, both magenta and yellow. The blossoms only open when the day is warm, and so make a find mid-day photo op, after you’ve finished doing your laundry, and have swum yourself silly.

It’s always worthwhile including a macro lens with your inventory, if travelling in spring. Popular technique advocates that you shade the flowers, so that there are no harsh shadows in your picture – but this will cause a color shift on the film, in this case, and your magenta blossoms will become rather pink, on the resulting image. For true color, live with the shadows, and don’t shade the flowers – or be prepared to work with correction filters.

Most views of Canyonlands National Park are made from higher elevations, looking down into the bottom lands. The horizon is usually a long way off, and your view goes on for many miles.
…and it’s all background! Making a good photographic composition is difficult, as you need some kind of foreground. Without a foreground, all that view is going to be very tiny in the frame, without impact. Luckily, you can often find twisted junipers or piñon pines, that you can use as a frame for your composition.

Its fun photographing the various Park entrance signs, and very useful if you need title slides for a travel show, later. Your title shots will have far more impact, however, if you include some happy tourist, looking like he or she is glad to be there.

A Cokin Blue/Yellow polarizing filter greatly enhanced the colors of this image, the blue of the sky and the yellowish rock. The filter was carefully rotated until the rock just began to glow, while the intense blue of the sky was diminished somewhat.

Placing the peak of the rock formation at an intersection of thirds immediately draws the eye to it.

One of the “destination specific” locations in southern Utah is Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park. At dawn in mid-October, the sun rises exactly opposite the Arch, making shots such as this possible.
A number of pro photographers have worked this location, all of them producing better images than any of ours! For inspiration and ideas, a study of Tom Till’s image of Mesa Arch, in his Moab gallery, should precede a trip here. 

If the sun is to be included in the composition, reduce the possibility of flare by removing all filters from the front of the lens. Be sure to bring your widest lenses, and expect a horde of fellow tripod drivers to arrive with you.

Photographs of arches are more successful if the arch is used as a frame, through which background scenery is viewed. Climbing up inside the North Window Arch in Arches National Park, with camera bag and tripod, was a labour of love. It required good boots, a tolerance of heights, and a strong constitution. The trip was worth it. 

Allison was convinced to occupy an intersection of thirds in her red jacket (lower right) to provide scale. A better image would have resulted we could have had her figure “break the horizon” in the composition, but it was a choice of breaking the horizon or the photographer’s neck. There are several different views available while looking back through this arch, but flatlander vertigo prevented a more extensive exploration of the possibilities. 

The trip back (down!) through the Arch was far more difficult than the trip up, and required some tactical planning and advisories from the studio audience.

Reminiscent of the Jenne Farm in Vermont, sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park draws hordes of photographers, each intent on leaving with the ideal composition.

In this composition, the photographers should ideally “break the horizon”, but that would have put my tripod in somebody else’s composition!

The sand dunes area (known to the Navajo guides!) in Monument Valley is the location for a number of famous compositions by well-known published photographers. It also happens to be a good location for photographing tumbleweed (Russian thistle,) which takes on a beautiful yellow hue in mid-October.

This photograph, taken from the balcony of our motel room at Goulding’s Lodge in March of 1987, remains the best sunrise image with which we’ve returned from Monument Valley. It was a progressive sunrise, the sequence begun before the sun rose, and continued until the sky lost all color. 

We were only in the Valley for twenty-four hours on that occasion, arriving in bright sunshine, sitting through a dust storm, and leaving the next day with three inches of snow on the rental car’s roof. We did make time to sample the beef ribs at Goulding’s, a “destination specific” occasion in its own right.

by Michael and Allison Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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