Southern Utah Photography Tips

Southern Utah Photography Tips

Steam flowing through giant alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsGlen Canyon National  Recreation Area #76338  Purchase

The quality of light and subject matter in Southwest Utah has been attracting photographers since the earliest days of photography. Photographers from all over the world come to photograph its deserts, canyons, hoodoos, wildflowers, and open vistas. In this follow-up to my recent post, Southern Utah Travel Tips, I hope to offer some practical advice for a safe and successful Southern Utah Photography tour. Much of the information in this post can be applied to many other areas of the Southwest as well.

Leprechaun Canyon, one of a group of canyons called the Irish Canyons near Hanksville Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsReflected light in Leprechaun Canyon #74983  Purchase

Make Use of Reflected Light

Canyons

Reflected, or bounced light, is one of the hallmarks of Southern Utah Photography. This is the light that gives such a beautiful warm natural glow to sandstone rock. Without it, the walls of slot canyons and many other formations would appear dull and lifeless.

In most instances, a sunny cloudless sky is usually not favorable for landscape photography. But when you’re working in a canyon with high walls it’s just the thing you need. When the sun hits one side of the canyon it’s reflected on the opposite side.  Since the rock of Southern Utah is mainly sandstone with various tones ranging from cream to red it is that light that gives it a warm glow.

Twilight afterglow view from Panorama Point Capitol Reef National Park Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsPost-sunset glow over Capitol Reef National Park #75454   Purchase

Clouds

Clouds in the morning and evening also offer another opportunity to photograph this glow. Under the right conditions during the golden hour, the sun can reflect its rays off the bottom layer of clouds, giving them a warm tone. The light from the clouds then bathes the landscape below in that glow.

If you are lucky enough to be there sometimes the sun briefly breaks through heavy clouds just minutes before sunset. In these instances, it is imperative to have your composition ready and exposure calculations ready. These special instances can last only minutes before they are over.

Clearing storm at sunset over Cedar Mesa Bears Ears National Monument UtahCedar Mesa #74750  Purchase

Then there are times when the light continues to intensify on clouds even after sunset. Just when you think it’s time to pack it in it starts getting better and better. These instances are fairly rare and it takes a bit of experience to gauge when they may occur. So always wait until it’s obvious the light show is over.

Essential Tip:  When photographing in narrow canyons check out the lighting conditions throughout the day. One side may look great and offer good compositions in the morning, and the other side may look even better later in the day. Also, don’t overlook midday light, it all depends on the height of the walls and their orientation of them to the sun.

Scout Relentlessly

I can’t overemphasize the importance of scouting. Good location scouting makes the difference between coming away with great photographs and missing out on golden opportunities. There’s not much worse than being in a location during excellent lighting conditions and not knowing where the good compositions are.

Wild Horse Window, a natural arch inside a snadstone alcove. San Rafael Reef UtahSan Rafael Reef #75102  Purchase

Good location scouting begins long before you even head out. There are many sources available today to help ensure that you’re successful in the field. Some of the best and most obvious are websites of National Parks and Monuments, Google Earth, Google Image Search, adventure websites, and blogs, to name a few.

Good topographical maps are essential for not only route-finding but also for identifying landforms and angles of light. Whether you prefer actual physical maps or their digital counterparts they can help guide you to and pinpoint a location you first came across on Google Earth or elsewhere.

As soon as I settle in at a location I like to head out to explore the most obvious possible areas for compositions. I’ll walk around the subject matter and make mental notes of angles of interest and how and where light may strike it at different times of the day. After that, I’ll move on to the next subject or slowly expand in a circle from the first.

Checkerboard Mesa Zion National ParkZion National Park #76996  Purchase

After feeling I’ve covered all the possibilities available I’ll then assign priorities. Then, returning when the light is good I’ll work my way down the list. Often during the hectic period of golden hour priorities can and will shift. Sometimes a mundane or unnoticed composition from early scouting may turn out to look quite different and interesting under the right conditions.

Essential Tips:

    • Always research before you head out.
    • Thoroughly walk through your location in advance.
    • Seek out compositional elements, leading lines, foreground subject matter, unusual rock formations, plants, etc.
    • Always be observant, look up, down, low to the ground, and behind you.
    • Previsualize your subject, think of how it may look in a different light and how you want the final image to appear.
    • Prioritize subject matter and compositions.
    • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good photos can be made only during golden or blue hours. Under the right conditions, you can make great images any time of the day!

Petrified Dunes slickrock formations, Snow Canyon State Park UtahSnow Canyon State Park #77042 Purchase

Start Early and Stay Late

Most serious photographers know that a key to success is being at the right place at the right time. The previous tips helped you to identify the right place. Now you need to be there at the right time. Get used to setting your alarm early, very early. If you’re not an early riser by nature it helps to start getting into the habit before you actually start your trip.

How early you need to rise depends on how far you are from your subject matter. A disadvantage of staying in motels or lodges is that you may have a long drive ahead of you to get to your subject in time. Part of your research and scouting should have been to identify a base camp in close proximity to your subject.

Ideally, you should arrive and be in place at least an hour before sunrise. Longer still if you plan on photographing morning blue hour. Some sunrise locations are notoriously popular with photographers. For those places arriving even earlier is essential.  For example, at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park photographers will vie for a prime spot hours before it even gets light out. Some may even camp out the entire night to ensure an optimum spot.

Moki Dugway Bears Ears National MonumentCedar Mesa Afterglow #74762  Purchase

In the evening be prepared to keep working past sunset. And don’t give up if clouds moved in before sunset canceling out any good light. All you need is a last-minute break in the clouds to bring the drama back. Often in the Southwest clouds tend to dissipate around sunset. This can set up the elements for some spectacular afterglow or alpenglow lighting conditions.

Essential Tips:

    • Always have a good headlamp, preferably an LED one with multiple settings and a red light option.
    • Autofocus on your camera may not be accurate in low light. Always switch to manual focus, make test exposures and check focus on your camera’s monitor.
    • Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries
    • Scout your location well beforehand, so finding it in the dark will be easier.
    • Use extra caution around hazardous areas when it’s dark, straying from the path can lead to cliffs.
    • Be Patient and persistent
    • Don’t pack it in at sunset, excellent light can be had after sunset during the Blue Hour, see next segment.

Factory Butte UtahFactory Butte during Blue Hour #75293  Purchase

Utilize Blue Hour Light

Although blue hour photography has gained in popularity in recent years it is still overlooked by some. Blue hour is simply the period of twilight both before sunrise and after sunset. The length of the blue “hour” varies throughout the year and with atmospheric conditions.

Why photograph during the blue hour? There are a few reasons, one of which is the beautiful soft glow and tones the light has. In the morning it starts out with deep blues then changes to purples, pinks, reds, and oranges. In the evening of course the sequence reverses, with purples and blues to be the last in the show.

Another reason the blue hour is so special is the soft contrast present due to the diffused light. It’s very easy to bring both highlights and shadows into the range of one exposure. There also is a lovely amount of color saturation spread out over the scene. In most instances, you won’t need to add any additional saturation in post-processing.

Virgin River at Court of the Patriarchs Zion National Park UtahMorning Blue Hour in Zion National Park #76937b  Purchase 

Finally, during the blue hour, the long exposures necessary will give a silky feel to moving water and clouds. Although it’s all down to personal taste this effect can accentuate the mood of your images.

Essential Tips:

    • You will definitely need to use a good sturdy tripod
    • Autofocus on your camera may not be accurate in low light. Always switch to manual focus, make test exposures and check focus on your camera’s monitor.
    • Some means of remote shutter release will definitely help reduce vibration
    • For very long exposures use a stopwatch, or use this feature on your smartphone.
    • As mentioned in the previous section be prepared to arrive early and stay late
    • Always have a good headlamp, preferably an LED one with multiple settings and a red light option.
    • Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries

Eroded sandstone walls and overhangs resembling Swiss Cheese in the"subway" slot portion of Crack Canyon San Rafael Reef Southern Utah Photography TipsSan Rafael Reef #75122  Purchase

Be Creative See Differently

Don’t be a copycat! Be yourself and utilize your own creative instincts. You will have undoubtedly seen some great images online during your research stage. While I encourage you to be inspired by them don’t simply try and mimic their style.

There are some well-known photographers with a dramatic, moody, painterly style. Every photographer on earth seems to be clamoring to copy every pixel of their technique. Ughh! The result is a homogenous sea of look-a-like knock-offs. One thing is for sure, chasing likes on social media definitely will stifle your creativity!

Sandstone canyon wall patterns resembling an archaeopteryx fossil in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahEroded sandstone resembling Archaeopteryx fossil #76313  Purchase

Southern Utah photography has many different elements which can be used to expand your creativity. One of my favorite subjects is the abstract quality that eroded sandstone takes on. A key to creating your own personal vision is to know your subject matter intimately. Learn to love and appreciate its moods and what makes it tick. This kind of understanding doesn’t come to fruition in one quick visit. It can take years of return visits to learn to appreciate all its subtle nuances.

I mentioned this earlier and it’s worth repeating. Don’t make the mistake of thinking good photos can be made only during golden or blue hours. Under the right conditions, you can make great images any time of the day!

Southern Utah Photography Safety

Southern Utah photography demands some extra safety and preparation considerations. My previous blog post addressed some of these concerns, but I will repeat some of them. I’ll also add a few photography-specific ones.

The tips offered below are fairly basic starting points to get you thinking. They are not all-inclusive of hazards you need to be aware of on a trip to the desert.

Halfway Hollow trailhead to Harris Wash and Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument UtahA trailhead sign to be taken seriously #75933

Water:

Always, always carry water, everywhere you go. It’s frightening how easy it is to get quickly dehydrated in the desert. I carry a hard-sided 7-gallon water in my vehicle and top it off every chance I get. On hikes, I carry a 3-liter hydration reservoir in my pack filled with a sports drink.

Weather:

To ensure a safe and enjoyable trip carefully monitoring the weather is essential. This is especially true when hiking in any slot canyon or dry wash. Flash floods can occur from storms many miles away. Just like filling up on water and gas before you head out to a remote spot you should load up on several weather forecasts.

Sun: 

Even on a mild spring or fall day, the sun can feel burning hot. Unless you’re hiking in a deep canyon with tall walls it can be difficult to find shade. Always carry and use plenty of good sunscreen. Heat and sunstroke are serious issues that can come on very quickly in the desert. Know the warning signs and immediately get in the shade and drink plenty of fluids if you or your companions are in danger.

Quicksand:

Yes, it does exist, but in my experience, it’s not like what you see in old western tv shows and movies. You will encounter it mainly along streams in canyons, especially after heavy rain. If you’re walking on a bank along a creek that suddenly quivers like jello and liquifies under your foot that’s quicksand. It’s easy enough to extract your foot if you’re alert and don’t proceed any further. If you get both feet in it you’ll have more trouble extracting yourself and you may lose a shoe. But you won’t slowly sink to your death like in the movies.

Steam flowing through canyon walls of Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahThis sandbar most likely hides quicksand #76253  Purchase

Be Alert and Use Common Sense: 

When you’re out photographing it’s very easy to be so focused on your work that you lose track of your surroundings. This is especially true during the fast-changing golden hours.

    • One easy way to get in trouble is falling into the “just one more photo” or “there’s probably a great photo just around the bend” mentality. For example, the Escalante River is a labyrinth of canyons and washes. If you’re not paying attention you can very easily get lost here, where much of the terrain looks very similar.
    • Don’t get in over your head for that one special photo. This can literally be true in some slot canyons filled with water. I’ve been wanting to photograph Zebra slot canyon for years. Last fall I finally had a chance when I was in the area. There was a pool of water at the entrance, and reportedly several more pools further on where the best photos were. I didn’t know when or if I would return for another chance so it was tempting to give it a shot. Fortunately, two hikers appeared and cautiously tested the water. Before reaching the end of the first pool the water was chest-deep. At the very least I would have risked ruining my camera gear. With a camera pack on my back, I could have drowned if it got too deep.
    • Pour-offs in canyons can be a trap. That great photo may be reached by an easy slide down a short section of slickrock at a canyon pour-off. But will you be able to get back up? If you’re on your own maybe not, and there might not be someone around to help.
    • Crumbly sandstone cliff edges are another quick way to say goodbye forever. There are many different types of sandstone in Southern Utah and some are much stronger than others. Check carefully before you lean over the edge!
    • Possibly the biggest danger is ignoring the weather to get that trophy photo. Again, you may have only this one opportunity to photograph a slot canyon. However, the weather forecast calls for severe thunderstorms miles away in the mountains. Slot canyons were created by flash floods. Think carefully if that one single photo is worth your life. It is a fact that people have lost their lives in canyons ignoring flash flood warnings.

Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park Washer Woman Arch, Monster and Airport Towers are in the distance. Southern Utah Photography TipsMesa Arch Canyonlands National Park #74554  Purchase

Camera and Travel Gear for Southern Utah Photography

In a nutshell, my advice is to take whatever you have. Obviously, if you’re strictly a landscape photographer you’ll probably not need long telephoto lenses. My kit is pretty basic and has been quite sufficient for all my needs for many years. It consists of three lenses, a DSLR body, a tripod, and a few accessories.

Here is a partial list of some of what I personally consider essential.

    • Ultra-wide to short telephoto zoom or prime lenses. 14mm-200mm on a full-frame sensor camera is generally sufficient.
    • DSLR or Mirrorless body, and a backup body if you have one
    • Several extra batteries and charger
    • A good sturdy tripod with a ball head and quick release plate
    • Remote shutter release
    • *Polarizer filters to fit all lenses  *You’ll probably use this filter less in the Southwest than in other regions.
    • Lens cleaner and microfiber cloth
    • Memory card reader
    • Laptop or some sort of hard drive to download and store files on
    • Method to recharge camera batteries, laptop, etc. Solar panels are ideal and reduce the risk of draining your vehicle battery.
    • Dedicated camera pack for short distances
    • Backpack for all-day excursions. One that is big enough to hold all your camera gear, a 3-liter hydration reservoir, snacks, and the ten essentials. It also must be well-fitting and comfortable. Most camera backpacks currently available are way overpriced and lacking in essential features. I prefer Osprey packs, they are well designed, comfortable, durable, and reasonably affordable.
    • Hydration system. Again I use an Osprey reservoir. I’ve tried several others and this one works best for me. And no, they aren’t paying me to endorse them.
    • Hiking or trail running shoes. Heavy leather hiking boots aren’t really suitable. Consider neoprene water shoes if you’ll be crossing canyon streams often.
    • Large cotton bandana and hat

Southern Utah Photography in Conclusion

Hopefully, this along with my tips in my previous post should be enough basic information to get you excited about planning your own trip, and safely come back with some excellent images.

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsCoyote Gulch #76073  Purchase

Also check out: Southern Utah Travel Tips for more practical advice for your next trip!

Coming Up Next:  Backpacking and Photography in Coyote Gulch

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Southern Utah Photography are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

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