Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Solo Photographer

Recently, I've found myself in several discussions with other photographers about the appeal of organized photo tours or impromptu shoots, versus individual photo trips. To my surprise, many of the others echoed my preference to do their photographic exploring (generally outdoor and landscape photography) on their own. Interestingly, they often described themselves as introverts. I thought it was just me.

I am an assistant organizer for a photography group through, a service that provides a web presence for interest groups of all kinds (check them out). The other organizers and I arrange photography opportunities that range from a few hours at a local event to a weekend at a distant location, and which may attract as many as 40 photographers or as few as 4. A frequent complaint from new members is that once we meet on location and get oriented, we then disperse to get our shots.  Some people buddy up or are part of a small group; others of us shoot alone. To me, shooting alone is normal. While I enjoy socializing before and after these events, I'm there to take photos and ultimately, that is a solitary activity, even if for just a moment. Being creative is generally done individually, whether it's painting, writing, or composing a symphony. 

This is not to say that I have to be isolated to enjoy photography or that I haven't enjoyed traveling and shooting with other photographers. It's just that when I travel alone, it's my pace, my preferences, my starting time (I'm an early bird), and my shutdown time, and I can change plans whenever I want, without explanation. I realize that that makes me sound selfish. Maybe I am, but it is my trip, my time and my money, and when I'm back home the images I captured will be mine.

I'll admit that there have been many times when I've wished that there were others with me to share a particularly beautiful scene. And, there have been times when I've been shooting with others and I've gotten good images by.following their lead and sometimes they've followed mine. On the whole, however, I prefer not to be part of the huddled masses and to march to my own beat, to mix metaphors.

Finally, I tend to talk to myself while shooting, and nobody wants to hear that.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Planning a Photo Trip

I enjoy traveling, I enjoy photography, and I enjoy planning my photography trips. I admit, I'm a compulsive planner when it comes to travel, though not elsewhere in my life. I've learned how to wring the absolute most out of my trip; this is the planning process that works for me. 

First Steps
Pick a location: I have a list of places I want to shoot, a list that only gets longer. I have found that photographing a location makes me appreciate it more than if I just visited.  I fell in love with the Southwest after I went to Arizona for a conference and had a free day to shoot in the Tucson area. I had been to the Southwest a number of times, but having a camera helped me really see it.

Pick a time frame: Most people take vacations in summer; I prefer to travel when most others have to stay at home (i.e., after school starts). First, it will probably be less expensive. In many areas hotels want to fill empty rooms and they offer attractive rates during the off-season. Since lodging may be my single greatest expense, this can make a real difference in my travel budget (my hotel bill is often half what it would be during high season.)  Airfares may be a bit lower as well, although I'm not sure I save much. Car rental rates are usually lower. Finally, and maybe most importantly, popular destinations will often have many fewer visitors, which can mean better photo opportunities and quieter locations.

The cooler seasons provide other advantages. Winter skies are usually free of haze and the days are shorter. That may sound like a disadvantage; however if I'm shooting sunrises, sunsets, and throughout the day in between, it's nice to have a shorter day. Otherwise, I'm getting up at 0400 to catch the sunrise and returning to my hotel sixteen hours later after sunset and maybe some night shooting. I've done it, but I prefer a more leisurely day. Finally, because the winter sun is lower on the horizon I can get some interesting light and shadows, and backlit scenes that would otherwise be flat and uninteresting. 

Android: Terrain Maps
One of SunSurveyor's Screens
Finally, I take a look at the lunar calendar as I usually try to time my visit with the full moon. I use The Photographer's Ephemeris to get moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset times for any place on earth, any day of any year and visually show me the location of both sun and moon at any time. I have an app on my Android phone, SunSurveyor, which is a great on-site and planning tool. (There is a iOS version as well.) It shows me the locations of the sun and moon at any time, and the times of the golden and blue hours. There is a virtual mode that lets me see in real time where the sun and moon will be while I'm on location. You have to see it to believe it. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Shooting the Lower Antelope Canyon

The Antelope Canyons in the Page, Arizona area, are hugely popular with photographers, and for good reason. They offer unique opportunities to capture the colors, shapes and textures of the sandstone walls and overhangs. The colors change as the sunlight, filtering down through the narrow slots, changes in angle and intensity. The canyons have become something of a cliche for outdoor photographers, but there's no escaping their beauty. If you're in that area, they are definitely worth your time.However, popularity creates problems. Others had warned me how crowded it could be, and I saw them literally trucking in visitors to the Upper Canyon, even in mid-December in freezing weather, so I decided not to shoot there. However, I did enjoy the Lower Antelope Canyon, which is located nearby but which is an entirely separate operation. Go about 11 AM for the best light. A two-hour photographer's pass is $36 and well worth it. You must show them your DSLR camera and a tripod; a point-and-shoot condemns you to touring with a guide and perhaps 8-10 others, all of whom are getting into each others' (and your) way. They are strict about the two-hour limit, but that's enough time if you keep moving.

Shoot with a wide-angle lens at fairly high ISO (400) and don't plan on switching lenses in the canyon: it's very dusty and the sand is extremely fine and can get in everywhere. (One gentleman who was shooting at the same time as me, inexplicably removed his lens and accidentally dropped it onto the sand. We did what could to blow and brush the sand out, but I think he was looking at a professional cleaning.) Take a rocket blower and brush in with you and check your lens occasionally. I used a 12-24mm (DX) lens and was very pleased with the quality of my images. However, a tripod is a must and I recommend a cable or IR remote. Of course, shooting RAW is a good idea, as it usually is elsewhere. Look up, look behind you; walk a few yards and repeat. The possibilities are endless. It's impossible to take too many images.

You'll be moving through some tight spaces, so travel light. I foolishly carried my photo backpack into the canyon, but should have left it in the car. My vest would have been sufficient to carry the few items I really needed. There is some climbing up and down metal stairs and ladders, but if you are careful you can manage them while carrying your camera and tripod.
I processed my images in Lightroom. Because of the variations in light, there can be a large tonal range and lighter areas can quickly blow out. I did not shoot HDR (I'm not a big fan) but Lightroom really did a good job opening up the shadows and toning down the highlights.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shooting Monument Valley: Tom Phillips (Keyah Hozhoni) Tours

West Mitten at Moonrise
I made a long-planned photography trip to Northern Arizona and planned for two days at Monument Valley. Some research convinced me that Tom Phillips’ tour business, Keyah Hozhoni, was ideal for me. (Note: they are also known as Tom Phillips Photography, after the late Tom Phillips, who established the business.) About a month in advance I confirmed with Carlos, one of the owners, that I could do a sunset tour on one day and a sunrise tour the next morning. A couple of days prior to my arrival I emailed and confirmed. (I would have been happy to have paid a deposit, but they did not request one.)

I arrived at the View Hotel at 1:00 PM and met Ray Begaye, Tom Phillips' nephew and my guide. It was just the two of us and we set out for the sunset tour. (It being December, sunset comes early). Ray drove me around the 17-mile loop, but took me into restricted areas that only Navajo guides and local residents are allowed to access. Ray knows photography and has guided some well-known photographers, so he not only gets you to places, he makes suggestions about composition and exposure. He’s also very friendly and open and will educate you about the Navajo tribe, Monument Valley, and anything else you ask him. He was a great guide: patient, helpful and good at keeping us on schedule so we could make the most of the tour. The next morning, three others joined us at 5:45 AM for the sunrise tour and he drove us around the park for ideal shots of the sunrise and the morning sun lighting up the buttes and rocks. 
The Eagle
Don’t even think about driving the 17 mile loop in your vehicle unless it’s a high clearance 4-WD vehicle and you’re willing to take the chance of damage. It’s physically demanding to drive, as you’re dealing with potholes, rocks, and very rough road, and it will take your full concentration, which means you can’t enjoy the scenery until you stop. One wrong move (especially in the dark) and you can have real problems. Moreover, some of the best views are available only from restricted areas where only a guide can take you. Finally, you can't access the area before sunrise or after sunset without a guide.

If you’re serious about photography I strongly recommend that you call Ray. It will cost you more than driving the 17-mile loop on your own (which I do not recommend) and you’ll see areas you would not otherwise have access to. Any money you save will quickly disappear if you damage your personal or rental car. You’ll also learn about the people, the Navajo culture and the history of the Monument Valley, something you won’t get on your own. Finally, you're supporting the Navajo tribe. Altogether, it’s a full experience. And, if you break down the cost per hour ($250/8 hours + a well-deserved 20% tip), it's really no more expensive than most of the non-photography tours and you'll come home with images you'll treasure. So, if you're serious about your photography, go for the tour.


  • Take a tripod and remote. You’ll be shooting some long exposures. 
  • Take an extra camera battery and, in winter, keep it warm in your pocket.
  • A polarizer is a good idea. 
  • I suggest one wide-angle lens and one mid-range zoom. I shot with a 12-24mm and 18-200mm (DX format). 
  • Dress warmly in winter. It will likely be in the teens or colder before sunrise and it gets cold quickly after the sun goes down. Top and bottom thermals and heavy socks are a good idea. 
  • I also recommend good hiking boots. You'll be doing some climbing and hiking on the sandstone can be tricky.
  • The altitude (5,000-6,000 feet) will tax you a bit, but it's not that strenuous. 
  • Take a bottle of water and some snacks. You’re going to be burning the calories.
  • Ray can be reached directly at (928) 429-0042. I recommend you contact him with questions and to arrange a tour.