We at the Aperture Academy think the Southwest rocks! (literally) Our intrepid group of photographers met on a Friday night in Las Vegas, Nevada. So, because "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" we cannot share the details... okay, that's not true, we can, and here's the story.
As is our custom, we start our journey with an orientation where we get to know each other, everyone's gear, level of experience, as well as what skills and imagery each student might want to come away with. Everyone was excited to start, and friendships were quickly forming after instructors, Jean Day and Matt Granz, gave some tips on shooting at night before we left the lobby of the Excalibur Hotel for the brightly lit up streets of Las Vegas. A place which is like Disneyland on steroids…overwhelming for some, but a great place to learn the basics of night photography.
The Bellagio Fountains, architecture, waterfalls, long exposures of street traffic, and many interesting displays of form and light were all studied and photographed. Suffice it to say we had a blast shooting "street photographer style" before going back to the hotel to get ready for the following day where we headed for the beautiful Zion National Park in Southern Utah. Upon our arrival we were seeing dramatic skies and pulled off the road from some shots looking over the valley toward the park. Everyone was getting great shots and learning some of the basic settings we like to use with and without polarizers and at various focal lengths. The afternoon light danced on the mesas between cloud shadows adding a lovely depth to the red rock desert.
Sunset over the Virgin River was a wonderful way to end the day. Matt and Jean led their students along the river's edge to find and capture the most pleasing compositions. Some of the class even shed their shoes to get cascade waterfall pictures from the middle of the river. It was a fabulous evening of exploration and everyone was coming away with fantastic alpenglow images!
The following morning found us at the Court of the Patriarchs where the group witnessed some awesome alpenglow on the mountain peaks. After spending a bit of time exploring along the river and capturing more longer exposures of the river cascades, we headed down to the museum through the golden morning light to shoot the 3-7 Sisters, so called because Jean couldn't remember the names of the peaks. Nobody cared as all were happy to witness the majestic beauty of Zion's rugged terrain.
Back on the road after a tasty breakfast we arrived at the Checkerboard Mesa area for some shots of a little juniper tree tenaciously growing out of a rock. Here the group learned some creative framing ideas and how to shoot directly into the sun during noontime hours. We made a stop at Red Canyon for a picnic lunch and a little more photographic exploration, then headed on to Bryce Canyon.
Sunset at Bryce is a thing to behold! The group hiked down to admire Thor's Hammer and saw the canyon from a more intimate view than the rim allows. Everyone enjoyed finding a multitude of compositions along the trail and helped each other getting some portrait shots to commemorate the experience. The late evening light danced across the mesas and hoodoos before sinking into the clouds, allowing our students even more opportunity to marvel at the magic of this incredible place. The following morning saw our class up early to shoot sunrise from Bryce Point. Jean taught the class some tricks on how to shoot this event without getting sun spots all over their images. The hoodoos lit up and made for some excitement as everyone clicked away.
The next destination was Moab. We found several good reasons to stop along the way, including an Aspen tree forest where Matt taught students to capture long shadows created by the tree trunks, while Jean helped in creating more intimate images with compression shots or looking for whimsical patterns on the white bark. The petroglyphs at Capital Reef and the muddy Fremont River were the backdrop for a picnic lunch, and wildflowers near Goblin Valley were a delight for all of our students... talk about burning through large capacity memory cards! There was so many things to shoot and the bright, Spring greens on the trees and grasses were an absolute stunning addition to the red rock of the desert!
The ever image hungry group soon found itself at Arches NP where Balance Rock was waiting for us. Jean and Matt quickly took the group through some creative framing ideas for this icon showing a few spots for our crew to set up and decide on compositions. The weather was pleasantly warm and many shots capturing the late evening alpenglow were achieved. After shooting was over we headed to our hotel for a short night of sleep to be sure our students were up and ready for the next morning of Southwest shooting.
Most people are sound asleep at 3AM, but not when epic sunrises are waiting to be shot! We arrived at Mesa Arch and hiked through the pre-dawn hours under a canopy of stars. More lessons were taught before sunrise as our students shot with the moon and stars and the class also got to play with some light painting effects. No one was around when we arrived, but literally just as the sun was about to rise, four huge busloads of tourists from San Francisco suddenly showed up! The place was packed! There was a large bank of clouds right over the LaSal Mountains just where the sun was expected to rise. Incredibly and at the very last minute the sun broke through and cameras furiously clicked away to capture the beautiful sunstar in the eye of the arch. Good thing we arrived early because everyone came away with beautiful pictures of this wonderful sought after event!
The afternoon was spent sleeping and recuperating from the long hours of travel and short hours of sleep. We got back together in the late afternoon under dreary monsoon skies which included a high wind advisory and headed up to Delicate Arch. The skies grew darker and more menacing, but then something amazing happened as the clouds suddenly parted. In what Jean liked to call the last minute "Hail Mary Pass" we suddenly had an incredible sunset lighting up Utah's famous landmark and coloring up the clouds to the west. It was downright exciting and everyone had the biggest smiles for this conquest!
After so much work and dedication, we took a morning off to sleep in just a bit. Everyone was well rested and ready for the mile hike to the ancient ruins known as House on Fire. When shot the right way and with the right settings, this place really does look like a fire is blazing above the granaries. The group also took some time to photograph the pictograph handprints of the former inhabitants of this place in a nook just round the corner. We call the prints "The Hands that Built House on Fire," though we don't know if they really had anything to do with it.
The early afternoon was cool as the group enjoyed a nice picnic lunch at a false kiva, then it was off to Muley Point for a panoramic view over the San Juan River goosenecks and valley. Speaking of valleys, we then headed off to the majestic Monument Valley where the stone giants stand silently. Just before Mile 13 and our chance to get the famous "Forrest Gump" shot, we had to wait for a car commercial being filmed. As soon as cars were allowed to pass, we quickly pulled over and had the most comical scene of our students dashing into the street to get their shot between streams of oncoming traffic and before security came to clear the road. Not wanting to let the afternoon monsoon clouds go to waste, our group made an extra stop at Agathla Peak finding it beautifully lit by the desert sun and framed by the large white billowing stratus. Our crew then had an early dinner at The View restaurant enjoying local Navajo entrees before lining up with their tripods to shoot the famous Monuments at sundown. As the alpenglow light faded some of the class shot long exposures to make the cars headlights in the valley turn into long streaks of wandering light trails.
The following morning found us in Page, Arizona. The group split into two groups, one that woke up early for sunrise at Horseshoe Bend, which features a large "u" shaped portion of the Colorado River. The second group opted to wake up later and explore some slot canyons nearby. Everyone came back with awesome images and incredible experiences! By now the class was shooting with very little instruction and after so many days, were getting their creativity and skills dialed in. Experience is the best teacher!
Back at the hotel after a short midday rest some of our group gathered in the hotel lobby for a short lesson in Lightroom and Photoshop for a few tools to shine up their images for presentation. When that was done everyone got back into the ApCab 1, a 15 seater Mercedes Benz, and drove to the Rim Rock Hoodoos. The oddly shaped sandstone towers capped off with heavier red rock were an interesting subject in the late afternoon light while wonderful displays of Spring wildflowers covered much of the area. We all then headed back to Horseshoe Bend so our entire group could get shots at sunset. A lot of people were present for the event when we arrived, but in true elegant behavior we do not ever seek to dominate any location and play well with the other photographers. We were so proud of our class! Earlier in the day as we were heading away from the Bend, Matt told one of the participants that the canyon was calling him. Only a moment later our student's phone rang. Turns out it was a happy birthday wish from a friend. Our entire group happily celebrated his birthday later that evening over delicious pasta and a few local beers.
The canyons were calling however... the slot canyon known as Antelope! Deep in the desert floor is a narrow passage through corridors of sandstone featuring many shapes carved out by centuries of water and wind sculpting them. The class had a blast shooting the various shapes, light beams, and even each other standing in the beaming light. It all ended too soon after a mere two hours, and even with all the great shots our students came away with, we could have taken pictures there all day!
What could we ever possibly do to outdo a small canyon? The answer, obviously, is the Grand Canyon, or as Matt likes to say, the Granz Canyon! We arrived in time for sunset and the brooding sky over the great abyss was dramatic and beautiful. The group landed at the Desert View location, featuring expansive vistas and the Desert View Watchtower. The heavy clouds kept sunset colors to a bare minimum, but the drama of this incredible place was not to be outdone. The night grew cold with April rain and snow in the morning forecast. The students decided to enjoy their last morning in leisurely fashion sleeping in and having a quiet breakfast while Jean and Matt took one last look at the canyon rim in hopes of giving our photographers a possible lesson shooting in the harshest conditions. Not going to happen as the instructors found themselves in blizzard-like conditions being pelted by freezing ice flying by at 40mph! As it was almost time to leave anyway, the decision was made to return our amazing group of friends and rockin' Southwest Landscape Photographers to Las Vegas in time for their flights and other adventures.
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