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.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Upper Mattaponi Powwow

Warrior Portrait
I had never been to an Indian powwow before, but was asked to lead a meetup at this one, held in May 2013, near Richmond. Being unfamiliar with the etiquette for such an event, I emailed the tribe and learned that photography was fine, unless the MC, who essentially runs the event, announced that it was not permitted during certain ceremonies. We were also asked to request permission before taking photos of dancers and to not touch their regalia. These were reasonable guidelines and, as it turned out, the dancers graciously allowed photographers to take their pictures. I took most of mine while they were actually dancing, hoping to capture more natural expressions and motion. The dancers were friendly and one called me "brother" when he learned that my great grandmother was Navajo. 

I was unfamiliar with the traditions of Native American drumming and dancing. Fortunately, the MC, who was from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington,  explained what we were watching and hearing, making the experience culturally enlightening. The drumming was compelling and watching the dancers was almost hypnotic. The colorful regalia (they make a point of saying that they're not "costumes") are beautiful, brightly colored, finely-crafted works of art. Next time, I want to talk to a dancer and learn more about his/her regalia. I was too preoccupied with the photographic opportunities this time.

Shooting such an event isn't always easy. The dancers dance within a sacred circle set apart from the audience (experienced guests bring lawn chairs and stake out their claims at the edge of the circle) and as they dance they circle clockwise. If you set yourself up at a spot the dancers will come near you several times during each dance. Some dancers are languid and relaxed; others are vigorous and energetic. I found that I got the best shots with a telephoto, isolating the dancers from the background with a shallow depth of field. That means that focusing is critical. I was trying to take informal portraits of the dancers, and I was pleased with the outcome. 

Some tips: 
  • It is important to learn the tribes' expectations regarding photography and to respect them. The powwows are held on Indian property and the ceremonies are considered sacred, so it is only right that guests honor their rules.
  • Go with the expectation of learning, as well as photographing.
  • One advantage of shooting with a long lens was I not stepping into the dancer's personal space. I made it a point to shoot only when they were dancing and to not intrude when they were talking with friends. If I had more time I would have tried to get to know some of the dancers better, but they were busy when they weren't dancing, so I was content to capture them while they danced.
  • Do some research on the tribe or tribes that will be hosting or attending the powwow. They have web sites and Wikipedia is very helpful. I felt a bit more knowledgeable and at least knew enough to not embarrass myself.
  • Being respectful simply means having good manners. The dancers, chiefs and leaders were friendly and happy to answer questions.  I talked to several dancers and was impressed with how open they were. 
The powwow dances and ceremonies were moving reminders of their heritage, and I'm looking forward to attending more powwows in the future. 

You can see some of my images here: Upper Mattaponi Powwow.