mikegreenimages

Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Locations for photography: Lofoten (preface)

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Lofoten islands in the north of Norway; the Arctic in fact. I shall write an article in the not too distant future about my impressions of the place; this is just a quick post now that I’ve finished processing my captures.

'Apostrophe'

I was on Bruce Percy’s first ‘photo safari’ to Lofoten, named as such since it wasn’t a traditional workshop, more an opportunity to spend time photographing with Bruce, who’s great company and has now visited the islands several times, so has excellent local knowledge.

All I want to say at this stage is that, as I’m sure many people reading this will already know, either through having been there or from reading about it, Lofoten is a fabulous place. Irrespective of whether the primary objective is to photograph it, just being there was a wonderful experience. This was helped by the fact that we were fortunate in having near-perfect weather, with storm fronts rolling in daily and bringing fresh snow, but nothing too severe fortunately (that came a day after I left and it closed the roads and airports…).

Just a couple of points on logistics…

Lofoten in winter is off-putting to a lot of people. Fair enough: it’s not unreasonable to imagine that the southern fringes of the Arctic are potentially somewhat inhospitable in mid-February. My concerns on that front were ill-founded, however. Yes, it was cold, but temperatures were only a little below zero in general and, whilst the wind-chill did make this subjectively cooler, that’s something you can compensate for by making sure all your clothes are wind-proof. I did, and I was fine and perfectly able to capture photographs every day. Critically, Lofoten, like north-west Scotland, benefits from the gulf stream (though there is a notable absence of the palm trees found in places like Poolewe!), so it was 20C warmer than a couple of hundred miles inland, in Sweden, at the same time!

Another thing is access. There is a risk of the occasional flight not making it out; usually due to said flight not making it in: the planes can’t land unless the pilot can see the runway, and snow flurries tend to have an obscuring effect! The infrastructure in place for clearing roads and runways is superb, however, and, whilst there was a lot of snow each day, we never had a problem getting to even the more remote beaches. Of course, Bruce was driving, so transport was arguably not my immediate problem, but with studded winter tyres and ploughed roads, all went very nicely. Yes, there is the possibility of a delay arriving or leaving, but usually a later attempt will be successful, and the pilots are very used to the weather conditions there.

So, yes, do go in winter if you like stark drama! My impression is that the place would be utterly different in summer since the black rock of the omnipresent mountains was superbly picked out by the snow cover. Obviously, that’s absent in summer and the textures and shapes of the mountains could be more difficult to work with.

The final thing I’d like to say in this first, short post, is that our accommodation at Det gamle Hotellet Guesthouse in Reine was excellent; perfect for our needs. I can unequivocally recommend Lilian’s guest house as a good base if you’re thinking of visiting Lofoten.

Once I’ve worked out what my thoughts on Lofoten as a photographic location are, I’ll write more. For the moment suffice it to say very positive!

'Apostrophe'

Oh – one last thing: we did see a spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis on 14th February, but we were surrounded by houses at the time so my images are… ‘colourful but uninspiring’ is probably fair. I was debating whether to publish any when I saw Joe Rainbow’s most recent northern lights image on Flickr, ‘Green tsunami’, which is excellent and convinced me not to! http://www.flickr.com/photos/24562498@N03/

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 :-)


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Locations for photography: Zion National Park, Utah

Cottonwood congregation

I spent four nights in Zion and made not a single ‘big landscape’ image

Perhaps that sounds odd, in that Zion is a vast canyon with soaring, near-vertical rock walls and a generous helping of overall magnificence. It was our last stop on the long trip around the desert south-west of the US though, and by that time I was reacting against big pictures and literally focusing on detail everywhere. Fortunately, Zion has an abundance of excellent detail!

As with the other locations we visited, Zion has already been heavily documented and photographed, so this is a short piece about my overall impressions of, and reaction to, the place.

Zion cleftIn summary, and to be slightly contentious: it’s a US version of the English Lake District. I realise that anyone who’s been to both places will recognise that, in isolation, that’s a radically misleading statement. What I mean is that it feels like the Lake District; it’s atmosphere is strangely similar. It’s not the landscape itself that has this feel; it’s the way the landscape is used by people.

  1. It’s on a small scale – in fact, the principal canyon is not a great deal larger than Langdale, in terms of area, though it’s a winding, 10Km long, 500-700m. deep canyon cut into the surrounding desert.
  2. It feels very tame, compared to other national parks in the US south-west. Feels is the important word there: the Lakes don’t have cougars, rattlesnakes or bears, but then again, for most practical purposes, nor does Zion. The main areas are so populous with humans that the potentially aggressive wildlife stays well away. Conversely, the deer living on the canyon floor are so used to humans that they’re verging on tame and can be approached to within a couple of metres!
  3. Zion zig zagsIt’s manicured – not quite literally, though it is very neat. The owners of Zion Lodge (the only place to stay actually in the park) are currently converting most of the lawns around the buildings back to natural vegetation, yet the nature of the terrain means that the paths (sorry, trails in US-speak) are often the only option. Straying from them is sometimes forbidden, often impractical, and most are paved for the mile or so from the parking area which the average visitor will manage.
  4. StreamEven in the off-season, and mid-December is about as ‘off’ as it gets, we saw more people in Zion than anywhere else on our circuit. That’s not to say that it was anything approaching crowded, it was perfectly comfortable, but it certainly was relatively busy. I dread to think what summer is like, when the road up the canyon is closed to private vehicles and access is via what is apparently an excellent, multi-stop shuttle-bus service.

All those characteristics just kept making me think of Lakeland…. but a restricted Lakeland, one with:

  • less variety in its colours (a completely different palette in fact, but a more restricted one, at least in December);
  • Still deathless potential for choosing your own route from A to B;
  • and less space, both in real terms and in the naturally imposing nature of very high rock faces and a flat, narrow canyon floor littered with very neat, very well-maintained stopping places and viewpoints.

But hey, I like the Lake District – subject to the normal caveats of going there when it’s less crowded than it can often be – and I liked Zion. In particular, it was a great place to relax for a few days at the end of a long trip and many miles of driving.

Photographically, I found it excellent for the type of image I was, by then, making

It’s true that the rock which makes up most vertical and horizontal surfaces does tend to be the same red/yellow sandstone throughout the park, but it consists of numerous layers, and those layers vary in their thickness, degree of erosion, and pattern. If you want to look for abstraction in rock, this is a fabulous place to visit. One rather pleasing feature is that semi-abstract compositions can be made wherein the scale is very hard to determine: some of the rock images above are tens of metres across, though they could appear to be an order of magnitude or two smaller, at a glance (they often do to me, and I took them!). For example, if you examine the top right of the zig-zag rock image above, at the large size, there’s a bush there. That bush is about the size of a medium-sized dog, whereas I keep thinking the whole image is a small area!

Frozen in amberIn early winter, there are also frequent pockets of ice to be found, held in the curves of small watercourses, often with decaying vegetation, both encased in the ice and lying on the surface. I used these to add some different colours to what was otherwise becoming something of a ‘red and granular’ series of images.

Zion ice creamWould I go there again? Yes, though I wouldn’t wish to go out of my way too much to do so, and if I did it certainly wouldn’t be in summer. Further, I’d be looking to concentrate on similar subjects to those I found this first time. A search on images of Zion will bring up many shots of the sheer grandiosity of the canyon itself, but examine those carefully and there are relatively few significantly different compositions – the nature of the place is that it has a number of viewpoints,and the sheer scale of the rock walls means that varying a composition from the norm is decidedly tricky. Moving away from those viewpoints very much, certainly in a direction which would enhance the composition, tends to require the power of flight!

I do strongly recommend a visit there if you have the opportunity, I’m certainly very pleased indeed to have gone; but set your expectations appropriately in terms of the type of photography it’s possible to practise, and enjoy it also for simply being a rather wonderful place with great drama, easy access and, if you’re vaguely fit and can follow steep, but well-trodden trails up to 700m. from the valley floor and back down again, some superb viewpoints.
Winter colour

All of the above is, of course, very generalised

It’s entirely possible to go to Zion and make some superb ‘big landscape’ images, as proven by the number of great photographs that exist showing it looking truly majestic. My approach was somewhat dictated by the equipment I had with me, but, as I said above, it had more to do with simply having had a near-surfeit of ‘big landscapes’ by the time I arrived there. That said, in this particular case, I do think that the wealth of small scale, detail / abstraction / texture / colour images are the most interesting subjects Zion has to offer…
Zion waves


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Musings on: not being eaten whilst photographing landscapes

We’re lucky with our wildlife in the UK. We don’t have:

  • Bears: black, brown, grizzly or polar
  • Big cats: OK, there may be a few on the loose, but they’re at best very elusive!
  • Snakes: yes, there are a few, but they don’t have fatal, or terribly serious, venom.
  • Spiders: not the deadly sort at least, with a few airline stowaways being very much the exception.
  • Coyotes: though there are some wolves in Scotland now I believe.

We have no need, in Britain, for signs like this one:

Of course, if you’re out trying to photograph any of these animals, the UK’s sadly lacking and clearly not an ideal choice, but, if your interest is landscape photography, the absence of assorted, powerful carnivores and venomous biting things is a major benefit!
'Snakes warning sign'

This item was originally conceived as entirely light-hearted, but I’ve been thinking about it some more and there is a serious point too: making landscape images, which usually involves considerable time standing around, concentrating on the camera and the subject, is a great deal more relaxed in an environment where nothing either predatory or venomous is out to get you.

What made me think about this was spending a few weeks in the US south-west, an area where all of the above may be seen or, potentially, not seen until it’s too late. As I said in my previous article, this wasn’t a photographic trip and I therefore didn’t spend much time immobile, awaiting the arrival of a hungry something, but if I do go out to the region again, with intent to photograph landscapes, I suspect that being out in the wilds alone could well be considerably less relaxing than it is here.

It’s not as if there’s an easy rule to follow :-\

Quite apart from anything else, remembering how to respond to any given encounter is a bit of a challenge. The variations in whether or not to look at an animal, whether to make a noise, whether to be aggressive or passive, are considerable! (Broadly, though: looking at bears is a bad idea, whilst anything feline really doesn’t like being stared at one little bit. As to snakes… well, don’t step on them and don’t get within about three metres, especially if they rattle!)

'Bears warning sign'

Naturally, weather is something we have to contend with in Britain, but it’s not actively malevolent and out to get you. Weather can kill, and I’m sure it does so to a far greater degree than all of the wildlife above put together, but it’s passive and, to a reasonable degree, predictable (or so the met office claim at least). It’s most emphatically not worrying in quite the same way!

The real risk isn’t the issue; it’s a question of concentration

I genuinely think that landscape photography in the UK has many advantages over what might appear to be more dramatic landscapes elsewhere (colour palette, variety, accessibility, to list a few), and this is just an additional factor – but perhaps a very significant one. I’m not at all sure how well I could concentrate on producing the best composition I’m capable of, and waiting for the light to be optimum, if I was worrying about being eaten or poisoned! OK – I do know: not very well at all. For example, the rattlesnake warning sign at the top was vaguely amusing at first, but less so when we were standing on a lookout and noticing all the suspiciously circular, snake-sized holes in the desert surrounding us.

I don’t want to get the real risk out of proportion here: the number of fatalities attributed to the entirety of the above list of animals, per year, in the whole of the US, is measured in tens, so the risk is trivial. What I’m talking about here is the – to me – undeniable nervousness produced by these dangers existing at all, and the effect that would have on my photography. i.e. This is really a musing on how the potentially dangerous wildlife which may be nearby at a location affects [my] ability to make photographs. Much as the factors I discussed in my general article on photographing this area – time, equipment and over-familiarity – had a profound effect on my images, I think that this feature of the less-benign environments of the US south-west could also have a considerable, detrimental effect, purely through psychology :-(

'Lions warning sign'

I’d be interested in whether anyone who’s been out making landscape images – especially solo – either in this area or in others where potentially threatening animals are present – has had similar thoughts, or been affected by the simple concern about this, in reality trifling, risk?

Locations for photography: Death Valley National Park, California

I’ve long wanted to go to Death Valley; now I want to go back sometime – very much so!

I thought I’d post a short piece to give my impressions of Death Valley and to say that it’s by far my favourite location of the many I visited in the area. It’s simply superb, if you like that sort of thing. i.e. deserts – which I do. There are plenty, or at least several, detailed articles on-line describing where to go and when, so this simply relates some personal experiences and tries to give an idea of scale and breadth of opportunity there.
Salt flats at dawn
It’s not only the photographic opportunities – though those are both multitudinous and, within the context of the emphatic ‘desert landscapes’ theme, very varied – it’s simply a highly accessible and stunningly beautiful piece of land. There’s a relevant proviso to the ‘highly accessible’ aspect, which I’ll cover shortly, but, generally speaking, everything in Death Valley is approachable by normal car and a short walk, or no walk at all in some cases. I had only two days there, yet managed to easily visit all but one of the primary locations on most lists of ‘things to see and photograph in Death Valley’. Yes, that did involve starting slightly before dawn twice, and finishing after dark, but at least, in late November, dawn was after 0700; almost civilised!

If you’ve read my piece on the Bolivian Altiplano, you’ll know that I’m rather keen on deserts in general, and varied, rocky deserts in particular, especially those with salt flats. Death Valley has all of those features, including actual sand dunes, albeit restricted to a rather bizarre, footprint-covered patch only a couple of miles across, the Mesquite Dunes, in the centre of the valley, plus some which are relatively hard to get to. The rest of the national park area is flat(-ish!) terrain with gravel, scrub and small rocks at one end and various forms of dried salt formation at the other – and it’s all surrounded by dramatic, multi-coloured mountains which rise to a high point 3,454m above the lowest place in the valley, Badwater Basin, itself 86m below sea level.

To add to those numbers, the valley also holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere: 56.7C. That was in July; late November is much cooler, though still in the mid twenties during the day, and much hotter than that in the direct sunshine. My idea of thoroughly clement, in fact :-)

Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley
Lots of extremes and impressive numbers then; the main attraction to me, however, is the sheer grandeur of the place. No, it doesn’t feel especially like a wilderness – that’s tricky to pull off when there are well-maintained roads running the length of the park – but it does feel wild and it is a genuinely threatening landscape in the hot months.

From both the photographer and tourist perspectives, the main sites are no more than a couple of hours apart by road. That makes it a big national park, by desert SW standards (many, you could realistically walk around, but not this one), but perfectly compact for touring about and moving from one end to the other in a day to capture different places at what might be the best times.

For me, the main objectives were the Badwater Basin salt flats – essentially because they’re so thoroughly surreal – and Racetrack Playa, where the famous moving stones are located, the ones which have never been seen to move, yet leave long tracks on the hexagonal ‘saucers’ of mud in this very flat basin. Unfortunately, the easiest access to the playa is a 28 mile long, rough gravel road. This can be driven in a high clearance, two wheel drive vehicle, but given several pieces of advice that, even in an off-road 4×4, it’s a good idea to carry two spare wheels, I’m not entirely convinced of the good sense of that idea (well, I am: it’s a bad idea!). The good thing about that unfortunate omission from my trip is the compelling argument for going back ;-)
Vegetation, Death Valley
Even having missed out on the racetrack and the nearby dunes, the collection of places we did get to, including the famous Zabriskie Point, Ubehebe Crater (volcanic, not meteorite-induced), the Devil’s Golf Course, and several narrow side canyons with fascinating formations and excellent colours, was genuinely spectacular and, as I’ve said, enormously varied. Were I to find myself there for a couple of weeks, ideally with a 4×4, the opportunities for photography would be far from exhausted.

Naturally, doing anything which could be considered original in the valley is a challenge, and not one I even attempted in two days, but the iconic locations are iconic for good reason, so just being there and having the opportunity to admire and photograph them is enough!
Manly Peak from Zabriskie Point


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Locations for photography: Antelope Canyon, Arizona – one piece of advice!

'Antelope tumbleweed'

Go there, if you possibly can – but go at the ‘right’ time of year!

I strongly suspect that the majority of people reading this will already know what Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona is, and what it looks like. If you don’t, a ‘net search will produce a wealth of images of orange, purple and yellow swirls of striated, curvaceous rock. Without hyperbole: it’s stunning! Whether it’s the most stunning slot canyon in the US is a question I can’t answer – there are rather a lot of them; notably an entire national park called ‘Canyonlands’, which presumably contains at least the odd few – but it’s surely ‘up there’, and it’s extremely accessible.

Antelope CanyonAlong with the wealth of images available on-line is a similar abundance of advice and guidance on how to photograph the canyon, so I’m really not going to repeat it all (you’ll be pleased to know!)

In summary, however:

  • the canyons (Upper and Lower) are deep, dark slots in sandstone;
  • the light at the bottom is therefore a) minimal in most places and at most times, b) very, very bright in other places…
  • If you go equipped for this – and also bearing in mind that your probable, desired points of near and far focus in a given frame may range from tens of centimetres to a few tens of metres – then you’ll find numerous achievable compositions throughout the short length of the canyons.

It would be really quite difficult, I suspect, to go in there and not come away with at least a few shots which could be considered pleasing, even if you were to randomly point the camera in a vaguely upward or horizontal direction and press the shutter repeatedly! (Note: ‘pleasing’, as I think mine are, not necessarily ‘good’, and it would certainly be a challenge to add anything new to the existing wealth of images of the place! That said, I am very pleased with the tumbleweed image at the top of this article!)

The tricky thing is the myriad of other people…

Antelope Canyon…or so I’d been informed by reading a fair few pages of photographic advice. Our Navajo guide, Brian(!) told us that he’d counted 3,000 people leaving the Upper canyon in one hour one summer day, whilst waiting to lead his group through… We did press him on this, and he insisted that he’d literally counted them. Having been there, it seems hard to believe those volumes to be physically possible, and I would personally not have entered in those circumstances. Nonetheless, even assuming that he was exaggerating for effect (if so, he succeeded there; we were appalled!), it clearly does get very busy – everyone says that.

But it’s not always like that

What everyone doesn’t say is that this somewhat distressing, even alarming, throughput of people is not constant throughout the year. This was Brian’s point, and he was making it since we were the only people in the canyon at the time. You enter and exit at the same end in Upper Antelope (which is where we were) so everyone who enters is obliged, on their way out, to pass the groups who have followed them into this often narrow passage. In our case, we met just one group of seven people as we left: that was bad enough, and I don’t like to imagine what a busy, summer day is like :-\

Unfortunately for me, I’d believed the stories of gross over-crowding: the near-impossibility of setting a tripod up; the constant jostling for a view; and the likelihood of people constantly throwing sand in the air to catch the light. Consequently, I had no tripod and only one lens. Had I known that the two of us, plus Brian, would have the place to ourselves for an hour, I’d have brought extra kit from Europe, just for that hour!

Importantly, we were there in early December. i.e. between the two major US holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Antelope, along with everywhere else we went, was enjoying its deepest ‘off’ season of the year.
Antelope Canyon line detail

I’d choose this month again, without hesitation

  • Yes, the weather could be an issue: we did have some snow, but nothing which affected our travel more than to extend journey times a little on a couple of occasions.
  • Yes, the famous and beautiful light beams, which pierce the narrow opening of Upper Antelope and illuminate the sandy floor at predictable times of day (and encourage people to throw sand into the air…) are not present in December: the Sun is too low in the sky to ever reach the floor of the canyon. Personally, I was happy to miss out on these beams, given that it meant the confined space was devoid of the summer hordes.

I should also say that we were the first party of the day to enter the canyon, which probably helped. There were, however, only about ten people getting ready to go in when we left, so it didn’t appear that the Navajo were going to have an exactly bonanza guiding day.

I can’t emphasise enough how fabulous the place is when you have it to yourself, irrespective of photographic potential. And if you are going to photograph it carefully, and need to use a tripod (and I’d say that having one is close to essential for lots of compositions), then going at a busy time would be, at best, very frustrating indeed. Lower Antelope is supposedly still quieter, but the flow-rate of visitors is now also rising as the Upper canyon has clearly reached capacity on busy days.

So, that’s my recommendation: go, if you can, and go in December.
Antelope Canyon pink detail


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Musings on: bonsai landscapes in the US south-west

For my first article about the western desert of the US, a few thoughts about how preconceptions of landscapes, as well as the circumstances in which we visit them, can affect our approach to photography – well, my approach at least, but I’m daring to assume that I’m not unique in this!

No, ‘Bonsai landscape’ is not the most usual description of the south western desert area of the US! My alternative title to this piece was:

‘Musings on: how over-familiarity, equipment availability, and travelling style affect the way we view landscapes’

…. but that was a teeny bit verbose; not to mention that I like the term ‘bonsai landscape’ to describe the very small areas, often with tiny bushes in them, which I seem to have photographed predominantly whilst there.

I’ll step back here and provide a bit of context.

I’ve just returned from a road-trip touring around various ‘big ticket’ sites in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, centred around Las Vegas as a convenient and pleasingly bizarre place to enter and exit the US. The thing is, it wasn’t a photographic tour, it was a non-solo, driving holiday, and the point was to ‘see the sights’, which meant Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Antelope Canyon, the Canyon de Chelly and all sorts of less well-known things en route. I’ve written before about the incompatibility of ‘serious’ landscape photography and non-photographer companions, so I reluctantly chose to take just a camera body, two small, light lenses and one [polarising] filter. My graduated filters, the two lenses I use for most of my images, and my tripod all stayed at home.

The effect of this was interesting.

  • Firstly, and not surprisingly, it avoided all the problems I’d imagined, had I taken all the normal kit and gone with ‘intent to photograph’: no issues with anyone else having to wait around whilst I set up shots and waited for changes in light, and the big benefit of not having much to carry around either!
  • Secondly – and this is the more interesting result, and the subject of this musing – I ended up making very different images, in general, from those I’d expected to concentrate on.

Tiny elements of a vast landscape

The south-western desert area of the United States is a huge landscape, characterised by vast skies, monoliths, and deep canyons – the sort of thing which lends itself to big vistas. That impression is reinforced by a quick on-line search, where the photographic results which come back are predominantly ‘big stuff’ with ‘impressive skies’. I have very few of those shots. Yes, I do have some, but I have considerably more detail shots. And it’s not even medium level detail, the type of thing I generally find myself capturing; they’re real detail of landscape elements measured in single digit metres across the frame – not something I’ve done much of before. Whether I shall again is another question…. I like the results, but I think I prefer my normal work, such as ‘Plateau’, below.

'Plateau'

At the time, I didn’t notice what I was doing….

I recognised this concentration on detail for the first time whilst doing initial processing on the captures I made during the trip. Prior to that, I’d not been at all aware that I was behaving differently, in terms of what I photographed, from normal.

I think there are three reason for this – temporary! – change in subject matter:

Equipment availability
I had no wide angle lens: my widest was 35mm on Nikon DX format, or about 50mm full frame equivalent; not exactly wide. I had no tilt-shift lens, no tripod, and no graduated filters: all these things are essential to how I normally take photographs, so, inevitably, I couldn’t do what I would typically do. Instead, I gave up on real front-to-back sharpness, any idea of including sky, and any exposure longer than about a 30th of a second. OK, so the sky aspect was no great change – I often exclude it, as discussed before – but the other two things were!
Time availability
Generally, I’ll hang around at a site for at least an hour, and more often two or three, making a single capture. Doing that sort of thing at every location on a long road trip would have been…. let’s say ‘not sociable’, nor productive in terms of the primary objective of ‘seeing lots of things’. As a consequence, most of my images took a matter of a minute or less to see, compose and shoot – a bit of a difference from my usual approach.
Over-familiarity with the landscape
I think this is the most significant factor. The two above are both strong, practical arguments for a different approach, and consequently for a different set of take-home images, but this is the one which, I can see now, really drove the change.

I don’t mean that I’d been to these places before; I hadn’t. Yet, with these iconic and stunning locations being both heavily photographed and included in innumerable feature films, I found myself acutely and accurately aware of what I was going to see before I arrived in most places. It’s great, for example, to have seen Monument Valley in the real stone (and the real snow, and the real ice, and the real, very bitter, wind), but I didn’t exactly learn anything new, visually, from being there. It looks as it does in the films, and many people have made excellent images of the mesas through a combination of familiarity and repeated visits. I wouldn’t seek, or be able, to emulate those. Essentially, in one day, I didn’t feel that I could add anything on the vista scale.

'Antelope waves'

These three things conspired to make me concentrate, unknowingly at the time, on small elements of the overall photographic possibilities in each place

Lack of time and kit meant that compositions were necessarily simple and quickly made, and my reluctance to try and capture the vast vistas in a manner which was new, or improved upon, existing work, led to abstract and detailed shots. These will, I’m sure, remind me of the trip very well indeed, despite the fact that relatively few of them could be placed on a map with any certainty. Given that ‘making memories’ was the main point of my photography on this trip, that’s fine!

And?!

In retrospect, perhaps all of the above was obvious: perhaps I could have predicted the type of capture I’d make? Maybe so, but I didn’t, and discovering this after the fact is quite enlightening – it’s another new thing to add to my gradually increasing understanding of the photographic process as a whole.

It does, of course, mean that, in future, I shall be more aware of the possibilities of different styles – or at least of different choices of subject matter – emerging when I travel in different circumstances, with different equipment, and with overall different objectives from ‘serious photography’. Personally, I think that’s great: change and new revelation in any pursuit is, I strongly believe, a good thing, and it maintains interest :-)

'Bonsai bush - Zion'

I’m sure much of the above is painfully obvious to many people reading this….. If so, thanks for reading this far! This journal is, as I’ve said before, aimed at recording my progress as a newcomer to landscape photography, and this really was quite a major revelation to me, whether it should have been or not!