Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Locations for photography: Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

My final ‘locations for…’ item from the US

Were I to write about all of the remainder of the locations we visited in the US recently, and which I’ve not yet talked about in the last few articles, I’d be covering old ground, both in the sense that they are very well-described on the web already, and in that I’d be repeating some general observations which I’ve already written. Monument Valley, The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, they’re all much-photographed and very familiar subjects to many people. They are all, of course, well worth visiting simply to experience the grandeur and sheer scale of each of them.

Canyon de Chelly is another matter. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels considerably less well-known than everywhere else on our drive. It was recommended to me by a number of US friends, however, so perhaps it’s more prominent as a destination if you live there?
Canyon de Chelly track
For those who’ve not heard of it, it’s a y-shaped canyon near Chinle, not far from the New Mexico state line and deep in the Navajo Nation area of Arizona. It starts off, at the point where you access it by vehicle, level with the surrounding land and rises to something in the order of 300m. at the far end of each of the two upper parts of the ‘Y’. It contains a river, through and along which you drive (are driven, in most cases) when taking a tour. Along its rim are numerous overlooks from which it’s possible to look down, and from one of which a descent to the canyon floor is both easily possible and permitted. Apart from that, access is only allowed with a Navajo guide.

The dominant features of the canyon are red sandstone, cottonwood trees, the meandering river, and numerous ancient, native American dwellings built into the cliff walls at various heights. These indicate how high the canyon floor was when they were built and date back nearly a millennium in some cases. It is, I can comfortably say, a marvellous place to visit.

Our Navajo guide was excellent, being very knowledgeable about the history of the place, as well as tolerant of frequent stops for photography and just wandering about. He waited ages, for example, whilst I attempted to find an angle which would allow me to exclude the green fence which marred the lower-right corner of the image below. I failed at the time but removed it later after some kind advice on Flickr. His tolerance may have been helped by it being off-season, though I think he was just very helpful. We also weren’t hanging about too much since a major storm system had skirted the area the day before and was still putting down snow throughout our time in the canyon (as can be seen in the images in this article, especially when viewed in the larger sizes).
Golden Fleece

But is it good for photography?

I think so! As with all canyons, capturing the scale is tricky, and the nature of access, by 4×4, through a river, and with a guide, means that repeated trips might be necessary to really work out what to do with the subject matter (this would become expensive!). Nonetheless, there are some very interesting colours in the trees and the canyon walls, and some spectacular views from the canyon rim.

We had just a half day in the place, which was sufficient, given the rather low ambient temperature and constant snowfall, but I saw a great many interesting rock formations, groups of trees which simply must have compositions within them, and areas of the river where reflections and winding sub-streams would make interesting abstracts.

Considering the wider area beyond the canyon itself, this is very much deep in Navajo country, and there were very few people indeed who were not native Americans – neither in the motel we stayed at, nor in the surrounding area. It was a fascinating cultural experience as a result. I was particularly amused by being informed at a fuel station, by a boy who looked about 3-4 years old, that “You’re not Navajo”, in a tone which suggested that this observation was worth making, at least to him!

I have no idea how busy the canyon becomes in peak times of the year, but visiting it in December, when we were the only vehicle there, was an excellent experience.

To return to the wider trip. I’m not going to write anything more as I have nothing photographic or observational to say about the other locations, other than that they’re as good as they’re reputed to be! I shall, however, finish with the following images from a sunrise and a sunset at Bryce Canyon, purely since the sheer vibrancy of the colour on the hoodoos was astonishing, even though I’d seen countless images of them before. These shots have both been desaturated considerably.
Bryce Canyon hoodoosBryce Canyon hoodoos

Tripod substitutes

Both images are also examples of captures made with the assistance of the Mandypod, an excellent tripod substitute which I promised to mention in one of these articles.

Whilst only a bipod (biped, technically), and only five feet high, this device is very flexible and makes a fairly good camera support when a tripod is not available. It did tend to vibrate, or shiver, slightly when the temperatures (as for the sunrise image) dropped to minus 19C, but it was, nonetheless, considerably better than hand-holding the camera, since I was shivering rather a lot at the time too… Not only that, but it’s self-powered, does not require carrying, and occasionally responds to voice commands. Height adjustment is naturally limited to six positions: the camera is located on top of the head or shoulder and this is combined with instructing the ‘pod to sit cross-legged, kneel, or stand upright. These six levels were invariably adequate, however. Extra stability can be achieved by locking the camera-holding arm around the neck of the ‘pod and bearing down firmly, although this could lead to stability issues if maintained during an exposure of more than a few seconds (due to a process known as asphyxiation). I was very grateful indeed to have the use of this device on a number of occasions when strong winds would otherwise have made shots impossible :-)

Thumbnail links to gallery for this article

2 Responses to “Locations for photography: Canyon de Chelly, Arizona”

  1. Colin Griffiths

    There’s a remarkable painterly quality about the first image. I don’t normally make suggestions about other folks images, so please excuse me, but I keep seeing the sky cropped out and maybe a letterbox crop applied. I could image that it would make one print that would really come to life on a matte paper. It’s got a lovely grainy, low key, pastel look about it.

    I’ve got a really cheap (£15) Jessops monopod with flick leg locks, about 15″ long when folded and very light. It’s very useful at times because I can just slip it into a messenger bag with a camera and lens. Not all good things have to be expensive!

    • Mike Green

      Thanks for the suggestion, Colin. I may well give that a try. I can’t right now as I’m not near my ‘play with images’ machine, but I’ll look at it. The thing I like about that one is how visible the snow is, and I think doing what you suggest could well bring that out even more.

      I did toy with a monopod, but Mandy did very nicely when it was absolutely necessary!


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