To most, the desert southwest is a dry, hot and inhospitable place. It’s understandable given summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. And, if you were to drive one of the long straight roads across the desolate landscape you would be even more convinced this is not a place anyone would want to spend anytime...unless you know its secret. The American Southwest is full of one-of-a-kind photographic locations...some previously explored...many yet to be discovered.
Late fall of 2015 a group of photographers gathered in Bluff Utah for just such an adventure, to head out into the desert and off the beaten path. The locations we would visit have been seen by only a few...and photographed by even fewer.
Our first morning out we headed to a remote canyon on the Cedar Mesa Plateau. The 800-1000 year old Anasazi granaries are just a short 1 mile hike from the dirt road and are one of the most preserved set of ruins in the four corners area. Famously known as "House on Fire", this location provides photographers with an amazing "flame" pattern in the sandstone that overhands the alcove that these ancient Puebloan ruins are nestled within. After an hour of capturing a variety of compositions we photographed the near-by Anasazi handprints before moving on to our next stop, Butler Arch.
Butler Arch is a highly photographic location...known by few. It's tucked away in Butler Wash and hard to find if you don't know where you're going. After hiking to the arch we captured the arch with the fall colors as a backdrop in the valley below. Given the extreme near/far of this scene we took multiple exposures with a variety of focal points so that later we could create "focus stacked" images. This would ensure maximum depth of field and the sharpest possible image throughout the frame.
After a full morning of hiking and photography we headed to the nearby town of Blanding for lunch and a break. Then, it was off to our 3rd stop and final location of the day...Fallen Roof Ruin.
Fallen Roof Ruin is one of my personal favorites...three small Anasazi granaries tucked into a tiny alcove adorned with a stunningly beautiful rock formation ceiling that looks too cool to even be real. Yet it is, and you can see the layers of sandstone are slowly but surely given way to gravity and the hot and cold elements. Giant slabs of stone lay on the floor of the alcove. You can see them like giant puzzle pieces and where on the ceiling they once were. While the ceiling is slowly collapsing, it's with stone centuries old, evidenced by the ancient native handprints still visible on portions of the stone ceiling.
We spent nearly two hours at Fallen Roof Ruin before we started the hike back to the van. With about a half-mile to go the sun had fully set and we finished the hike with out headlamps. It was a great way to end a fantastic day of photography.
The next morning we left Bluff and headed back up to the top of the Cedar Mesa Plateau. We set out on a hike to visit and photograph a very large pictograph panel and a very photogenic granary dubbed the "Serpentine Room" -- named for the dark red pictograph remnant atop the wall directly above the granary door.
From there we headed off-road again, this time farther than ever before. After 30 minutes of very bumpy dirt roads we arrived to a small rock formation I've hiked from many, many times before. After loading up our backpacks and tripods we headed down into a giant canyon. The next stop would be two unnamed Anasazi ruins and pictographs. Unnamed because these locations are so special that I'm withholding their names to ensure they stay unknown to ensure their survival.
We spent the next 2 hours hiking, visiting and photographing these amazing locations before returning to Bluff for some lunch and a much-needed break. The next afternoon we made a short drive up to Comb Ridge to a well-known Anasazi ruin known as Monarch Cave. After a one-mile hike up to a giant pour off alcove we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring this giant area. From pictographs, petroglyphs, pottery shards, grinding stones, and petrified corncobs...Monarch Cave did not disappoint!
For our last in-the-field day we got up at 5am to drive down to New Mexico to photograph a giant rock monolith known as "Shiprock." This jagged rock towers over the flat desert landscape with two giant rock fins that stretch into the distance over 2 miles. The rock fins are natural, but it's hard to believe as they are so perfectly vertical you would think they were man- made. These fins made for a great leading line in our compositions for Shiprock itself. The light was low and warm and made for some great photographic captures. We also used telephoto lenses for telephoto compression to really exaggerate this amazing volcanic formation.
Our last hike of the day would be our toughest yet -- based on weather conditions (very clear) and the group’s eagerness for a final challenging location we decided to visit The Citadel. The Citadel is an Anasazi fortress located in a remote canyon, across a 100 foot long land bridge only about 20-25 feet wide. This was certainly a location the Anasazi used to ensure they could see anyone coming from a long way away. Photographically, the ruins are facing south (as most are) which meant we could include the North Star in our composition for some fantastic star trails. We also used a couple of lights to light paint the scene, which created a surreal feel to our images.
After we finished an hour of star-trail captures we spent some time photographing the Milkyway, which was now fully visible to the south. It was a great way to end the night before we started the hike back to the van, and make our 30-minute drive back to the paved highway and returned to Bluff for a good nights sleep.
For our last morning we all slept in a little and met for breakfast. We then spent the next 3 hours reviewing, organizing and processing the images captured during the workshop. We worked on focus stacking, star stacking and a variety of other post-processing techniques in both Lightroom and Photoshop to get the most out of our images.
A big thank you to our guests and Mother Nature for giving us great conditions and great light for photography!
Until next time,
Stephen, Phil and the rest of the ApCad team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.
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