Quick Guide to Photographing the Moab Area

I wrote the following short article for the 2011 Moab Guest Guide.  I thought I’d re-post it here in the event someone needs a quick and dirty primer on photographing the Moab area.  It’s certainly geared more for the casual point and shooter, but you just never know whose reading this stuff.  Enjoy!

Creating memorable photos in Moab is almost as easy as pointing your camera in any direction and pressing the shutter button.  Towering sandstone spires, massive natural arches, breathtaking canyons and even alpine splendor all compete for your attention and will quickly fill camera memory cards.  Use the following tips and you’re sure to return home with photos that will fill your family and friends with envy.

Get Up Early and Stay Out Late – The single best way to improve your photos is to shoot at sunrise and sunset.  The light is richer and the long shadows cast by a lower sun reveal details in the landscape not evident in mid-day light.

Composition, Composition, Composition – Equally important, take your time composing a dynamic scene.  Include a foreground, mid-ground and background to give your photo depth.  Don’t place your primary subject dead center in the frame.  Use the “rule of thirds”: imagine lines drawn on your image that divide it into thirds horizontally and vertically.  Place your main subject at the intersection of these lines to create a more pleasing composition.  Try different perspectives instead of shooting everything from standing height.  Get down low or seek a higher vantage point.

Blue Skies Aren’t Always Best – Bad weather doesn’t equal bad photography.  Actually, some of the best landscape photographs are made as a storm approaches or breaks up.  Ominous clouds in the sky add interest and potholes in sandstone filled with rainwater catch ephemeral reflections.  Be safe, though: Don’t enter slot canyons when thunderstorms are imminent and return to your car when lightning is present.

Tell a Story – Include people in your photos for scale.  It’s easy to get sucked into panoramic vistas, but small scenes are just as interesting.  Colorful flowers, gnarled juniper trees and striated sandstone all make wonderful subjects that nicely compliment your grand landscape photographs.

Stability is Critical – Any pro landscape photographer will tell you their single most important piece of gear is the tripod.  Without it, you can’t expect sharp photos in low light at sunrise and sunset.  Even a small, inexpensive tripod like the Gorillapod will hold your camera steadier than you can.  Remember to use the camera’s self-timer to release the shutter.

It’s Not About the Gear – Don’t discount the power of a point & shoot camera.  You don’t need expensive cameras and lenses to create stunning photos.  Use the tips above – shoot in good light, develop good compositions, go out in bad weather, tell a story and use a tripod – and you’ll return home from your vacation with a dozens of images to brag about!

The Best Photography Advice I’ve Ever Received

Sunset on Sandstone Fins, Utah

Over the years I’ve received much great advice that has contributed significantly to my growth as a photographer.  While guiding a photographer last week who was only bitten by the photo bug a few months ago, I offered a simple piece of advice: “Sweep the edges of your viewfinder before making an exposure.”  It was something I learned ten years ago while reading a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways.  At the end of the day I was happy to hear her say that she learned more during our few hours together than she had in several months on her own.  I always find it rewarding to help other photographers learn and grow as artists.

On the drive home I began to reminisce about all the little nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned in the past eleven years.  Some came from books, others from magazines and even more from other photographers.  Regardless of their origin, each one has benefitted me in some way.  Like many of you, I never want to stop learning.  No doubt, the advice below is only the beginning of what will surely be an even longer list in another eleven years.

Sweep the Edges - Since I mentioned this one in the introduction to the article I thought I’d start off with it.  It’s also one of my favorites and something I do every time I compose an image without even thinking about it.  Very simply, once you have composed a scene in your viewfinder do one final visual sweep of the edges of the frame before depressing the shutter button.  You’re looking for little distractions.  It might be a branch intruding into the frame, a bright spot in a corner or even the foot of your tripod creeping into the bottom of your composition.  This will also force you to slow down and spend more time crafting a deliberate composition.

Don’t Forget to Turn Around - I read this very early in my career in a “how-to” book published by Arizona Highways that seems to have been discontinued.  The author’s point is simple: no matter how awesome the scene before you is, always remember to glance over your shoulder because it just might be even better behind you.  I follow this advice on nearly every photography outing and it has netted me some of my favorite images.

Don’t Forget to Look Down - I learned this lesson while viewing Tom Till’s image of colorful desert wildflowers pushing through cracks in mud.  The placard next to it explained that while Tom was photographing a grand landscape he happened to look down and found a scene far more original and interesting than the one he had intended to photograph.  You just never know what you’ll find if you keep an open mind!

Include People in Your Photos - This one certainly won’t apply to everyone.  However, it’s a valuable tidbit of advice that has certainly been favorable to my bank account.  My good friend Todd Caudle, who has been one of the most generous and inspirational pro’s for the entire length of my career, is responsible for this one.  While photographing wildflowers at Lost Dutchman State Park about ten years ago, Todd suggested that I consider including people in my photos.  Todd suggested that photographing my girlfriend at the time while hiking, climbing, canyoneering and mountain biking would open doors to some of the outdoor magazines.  I didn’t take his advice seriously until I met my wife, Melissa, a few years later.  It’s a shame I waited.  Had I immediately began following Todd’s advice I surely would have been published much sooner.

Look For and Exploit Reflected Light - We’ve all seen photos of Antelope Canyon’s sculpted walls glowing neon with reflected light.  Until I gathered this piece of advice from uber-talented photographer and friend Guy Tal, I wasn’t aware that reflected light was so prevalent in nature.  And, it even happens on a grand scale.  Clouds reflect light back down on to the landscape and massive cliffs bounce light all the way across the Colorado River canyon near Moab.  Snow reflects light into shadows.  Once you learn to identify reflected light you can easily use it to your advantage – even when photographing in mid-day.

Don’t Immediately Set Up Your Tripod - I can’t remember where I learned this but it’s made a huge difference in the quality of my compositions.  Upon arriving at a location spend some time exploring the area before you plant your tripod.  Experiment with different vantage points.  Try getting low to the ground or finding an elevated perch.  Maybe you’d originally intended to go wide angle but a more interesting scene in the distance demands a telephoto?  Even a few steps to the left or right of you’re standing could make a dramatic difference.

Bad Weather = Good Photography - Another great piece of advice whose origin escapes me.  Bad weather often creates the most dynamic conditions for photography.  Menacing clouds, storm light, fog, rain and snow can all contribute to amazing photography.  Or they can flat out suck.  That’s the chance you take when you wander out on a stormy day to make photographs.  But instead of bemoaning the fact that rain is in the forecast, get excited by it.  Overcast?  You couldn’t ask for better light for intimate landscapes.  Fog?  If it’s winter you might find hoar frost.  Summer?  Look for features in the landscape playing hide and seek behind a veil of fog.

Adapt to the Conditions - This one ties in nicely with the one above.  Most of us have probably taken a trip to a far off location with the intent of photographing our hearts out only to find lousy weather upon our arrival.  There is alwayssomething to photograph.  It may not be what you came for, but if you stay positive and learn to adapt you will be able to make images.  I don’t remember where this one came from but it’s advice I’ve learned to follow.  Bonus: Not only do I get to make photos regardless of the conditions, but I’m much happier and less stressed out, too.

A Bad Day in the Mountains is Better Than a Good Day in the Office - This one comes to us from Todd Caudle.  And you know what?  He’s right.  Wouldn’t you rather hike ten miles into the mountains to photograph sunrise at an alpine lake only to be defeated by a dull gray overcast than spend one stinkin’ minute staring at your computer monitor?  I would.  I will add one small caveat: A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day in the office – so long as you don’t have to cut off your own arm!

Certainly you’ve all received some sage advice over the years.  Why not share it with us in the comments section below?  I, for one, am always open to good advice!

Six Mistakes I Still Make and How You Can Avoid Them

Last week I wrote about the best advice I’ve received from other photographers during the last 12 years of my career.  This week I thought I’d go the opposite direction and share a few mistakes that, after all that time in the field and great advice, I still can’t seem to avoid.  Some are humorous and others are just downright annoying.  What mistakes do you find yourself making over and over again?

That Pesky Damn Lens Cap - I can’t tell you how many times I’ll put the viewfinder to my eye only to see…nothing.  Yeah, I forget to take the lens cap off all the time.  Fortunately, I realize the error before pressing the shutter button.  I don’t feel too bad about this as years ago I read that Ansel Adams once forgot to put film in his camera during a workshop he was teaching.  Okay, so the great one only made such a silly mistake once.

Invincible Tripod Syndrome (ITS) - We’ve all done this.  Some of us learned from our mistakes while others (me) still haven’t.  We set up our tripod, mount our camera and expensive lenses to it and then walk away.  Do this enough times and eventually gravity will rear it’s ugly head.  I’ve had cameras blown over in the wind, knocked over in the water and I’ve even tripped over my own tripod leg.  I saved that one from near death.  I know the consequences and yet I continue to roll the very expensive dice.  That qualifies for stupid, right?

Image Stabilization Times Two - What is a tripod?  It’s image stabilization.  There’s no such thing as too much image stabilization, right?  Wrong.  Most lenses that feature built-in image stabilization/vibration reduction are likely to produce blurry images if you leave the IS/VR turned on while your camera is locked tight on a tripod.  You see, when your camera is secure in a ballhead and IS/VR kicks on, the movement of the gyro inside the lens is enough to introduce vibrations that may result in blurry images.  I’ve blown more images than I care to remember because of this bonehead move.  Whether or not the IS/VR will cause blurry images is a function of luck, shutter speed and the lens you’re using.  Why chance it?  Make it a habit to turn off IS/VR before using a tripod.

The Dust Magnet - Sensor dust is the bane of every digital photographer.  Most modern DSLR’s have some kind of ultrasonic cleaning mechanism that does a remarkable job of keeping sensors virtually dust free.  Still, it’s never wise to leave your camera turned on when changing lenses – especially in the field.  Doing so exposes what is esentially a magnetically charged sensor to the environment, thus inviting dust to take up residence inside the camera.  I don’t do this often but every once in a while, when I’m rushing, it’ll happen.  It’s usually followed by a string of self-deprecating expletives.

Lens Envy - An illness I’ve never been able to overcome is gear envy.  If only I had that new lens/camera/computer/software/backpack/filter/truck my images would be soooooooooooo much better.  In fact, I’ve pretty much given up on even trying to beat this one.  I’m a gearhead.  Always have been, always will be.  I just need to realize that I don’t need to justify a purchase by pretending to believe it’s going to make me a better photographer.

More is Better - In compositional terms, more is rarely better.  And yet, I find myself cramming more and more into a composition until it loses cohesiveness.  I’m usually able to realize this in the field and make adjustments on the fly to resolve the issue.  Occasionally, I don’t discover the error until I see the images on my computer monitor.  The best compositions and thus, photographs, are not usually those which contain everything.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Now that I’ve bared my soul it’s your turn.  Share some of the mistakes you still make.  I bet you’re not alone and perhaps we can all learn from them.

Rediscover Your Creativity with a Self-Assignment

Pink Sky Above Three Sisters, Utah

Last week I read a great article on friend and photographer Gary Crabbe’s blog about the reality of working a photo assignment.  Gary’s article, and my own experience last year on assignment in Goblin Valley State Park, inspired me to write about a technique you might try next time your creative fire needs a little stoking.

If you’re lucky enough to land a photo assignment, it means that someone thought enough of your work to pay you to create photos of a specific subject for them.  The key word at work in that sentence is photos – as in more than one.  Perhaps there are exceptions but every assignment I’ve ever worked required that I provide a healthy collection of images to the client upon completion of the job.  Adding to the pressure to deliver is the fact that you are likely given a short time in which to make the images.  You’re probably charging a day rate.  Unless you’re a brilliant negotiator your client probably didn’t tell you to take as many days as needed and to send a bill when you’re done.  No, it is more likely that you’re told that there’s only enough money in the budget for a couple of days.  This means that during the “couple of days” you’d better be able to fill some memory cards with enough images to satisfy your client’s needs.

If your natural style of photography contradicts the “spray and pray” method, filling memory cards can be quite challenging.  Although I use a D-SLR I feel my style is more contemplative, not unlike large format photography.  I make far fewer images in a typical day of photography than most, but for the Goblin Valley assignment I had to maximize my time in the area to ensure I delivered enough images to my client.

In the field I discovered that I was taking more chances than usual.  I was staying out past sunrise, photographing all day long and not heading back to the truck until well after sunset.  Knowing that I had to produce forced me to look at the world around me through a different set of eyes.  And, I had to find ways to make compelling images in the middle of the day.  Fortunately, some nearby slot canyons solved that problem.  I found other things to photograph, too.  Grand landscapes, macros, abstracts, intimate landscapes – I found myself burning through memory cards creating all sorts of images.  If there is such a thing as forced creativity, this was it.

Consider this: Your creativity is in the trash and you’re stuck in a rut.  Your mojo is on hiatus.  Why not give yourself an assignment?  Find a local park or nature preserve, or even do something totally different and try your hand at photojournalism.  Pretend that you’re on assignment for a prestigious magazine and you’ve got to deliver images to your client or you’ll risk losing out on future business.  Find ways to photograph mid-day.  Shoot a variety of compositions – some grand, some intimate, some abstract.  Change hats and imagine you’re the client.  What types of images are needed for the project?  Do you need to tell a story about the place?  If so, how are you going to create a visually compelling story with your photographs?  Immerse yourself in your environment and you’ll begin to see differently, with increased sensitivity and regard for your subject.

Give yourself an assignment some time.  I think you’ll find the challenge to be fun and rewarding, and it may just help you claw your way out of the creative doldrums.

Have you ever tried a self-assignment?  Do you have any tricks to share that have helped you find your creative spark?  Please leave a comment!

Escaping the Crowd Mentality at Colorado’s Maroon Bells

So there I was, standing on the shore of Maroon Lake on a chilly autumn morning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  To my left, about a dozen photographers were lined up with their lenses pointed at the Maroon Bells, which towered over my right shoulder.  I had chosen a spot I’d scouted the evening before, one that was away from the small but growing crowd of shutterbugs.  The morning was calm and the twin pyramidal peaks couldn’t have been reflected any clearer in the perfectly still lake.  I was about a week early for prime fall colors but there were plenty of golden aspens decorating the hillside below the Bells.

Just as the sun began to rise a light breeze rippled the water, destroying that crystal clear reflection.  I’d been to the Maroon Bells to photograph fall colors once before, in 2000.  I had no idea what I was doing then and every one of my photos…well, they sucked.  They sucked bad.  And they were shot on print film.  I’d wanted to return and now, 10 years later and with a little bit more talent behind the lens, here I was.  And the wind was ruining the whole damn moment.

As shutters whirred to my left, I made exactly two exposures of the celebrity peaks before me.  When the wind failed to abate I turned around to check the light on Sievers Mountain.  As I did, I caught a glimpse of a little frosted red plant growing low to the ground and surrounded by a group of it’s less colorful siblings.  Oh mama, this is good!

I grabbed my tripod and camera and ran (I may have skipped in joy, I can’t remember) to the little plant.  There I lowered the tripod and pointed the lens straight at the ground as I worked out a pleasing composition.  The landscape paparazzi stole a glance every now and then as they made exposure after exposure of the Bells.  I made a few images, packed up my gear and started back down the trail to my waiting motorcycle.

I still don’t have a great photo of the Maroon Bells in autumn.  What I do have is a photo that will likely never be replicated.  I have the satisfaction of knowing that when it appeared Mother Nature wasn’t cooperating, she was actually offering a gift to those willing to accept it.  I’m proud of this photo, but I’m even more proud that I was able to adapt to the conditions I was offered and come away with an image that only I saw.  When everyone else was single-mindedly machine gunning exposures of the same thing as the next guy, I was busy creating a truly unique image.  It’ll always be a reminder of my growth and vision as an artist.

Frosted Fall, Colorado

A Photographer’s Guide to Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park

Wandering around Goblin Valley State Park in the winter is likely about as close as one can get to taking a stroll on Mars.  It’s cold, desolate, weird, red and you’ll feel like you’re the only person on the entire planet.  It’s a strange feeling but give it some time and you’ll settle into it.

The park derives its name from thousands of whimsical sandstone hoodoos, or goblins, of various shapes and sizes that haunt a long, narrow desert valley in the San Rafael Swell.  There is no trail through the goblins.  You leave the parking lot, with Wild Horse Butte towering behind, and descend a steep but short bluff into the alien landscape.  From there, you’re free to roam at will.  While the formations near the trailhead are interesting, you’ll find the most fascinating and photogenic scenes at either end of the valley.

The southwest end of the valley provides views toward the Henry Mountains, which are typically snowcapped from November through April, and can be framed through windows in or between the goblins.   The northeast section is a shorter walk and I find it to be the most interesting part of the park.  The valley abruptly dead ends at a cliff where your only options are to go back the way you came or scramble down a small pouroff that leads to a trail taking you back to the parking lot.  At this end of the valley you’ll find amazing views of a prominent butte named Molly’s Castle rising from a small but pretty section of badlands.  Some of the taller goblins also reside here and they make fantastic subjects for silhouettes against a colorful sunset sky.  Just don’t stick around too long as I’m convinced those goblins spring to life when the lights go out and march all around their domain!  Seriously though, this would be a great area to practice your light painting and star trail technique.

The Three Sisters is the most popular formation in the park, and with good reason.  Visible from the road that leads from the entrance center or campground to the main parking area, the Three Sisters offer numerous options for photography.  I visited in the winter and foreground subjects were few and far between.  However, I saw evidence of very large mules ear plants whose prolific yellow flowers would be amazing foregrounds in the spring.  I still managed to eke out a couple workable foregrounds as I found a well placed clump of Indian Ricegrass in one spot, and some fascinating ribbed rocks in another.  On the evening I photographed this formation I had some fairly dramatic storm light early in the afternoon and an insanely awesome sky at sunset.

I was in Goblin Valley on assignment, creating photographs that will illustrate a new naturalists guide and a welcome sign at the visitor center.  I wasn’t there to make my own images.  I had only two days and my client needed more “grand landscapes” than “intimate landscapes”.  Still, when the opportunity presented itself, I had to give in to the impulse and photograph some intimate landscapes.  Several small sand dune areas offer some interesting opportunities but my favorite image from my time amongst the goblins was found within a small wash, where patterns in the sandy mud practically begged for camera time.  A little black and white conversion and voila – an abstract, somewhat surreal vision comes to life.

Wild Horse Butte borders the western edge of the park and makes for an interesting subject when the right conditions collide.  Sweet light (at sunrise or sunset), a killer sky and perhaps some colorful wildflowers would make for an ideal situation.  Even without this trifecta, you might find workable compositions from within the valley, using a couple goblins to frame the striated form of Wild Horse Butte looming above.

As wonderful as the park is, don’t forget you’re in the San Rafael Swell, which is chock full of slot canyons.  The most popular, Little Wild Horse Canyon, can be combined with Bell Canyon for a challenging hike that requires some scrambling to successfully navigate the entire loop.  Some areas of Little Wild Horse Canyon are so narrow that you can’t even stand with you feet side by side!  As with all slot canyons, the best light is found mid-day when the sun is high and light bounces from wall to wall, getting warmer and more intensely colored as it reaches deeper into the canyon.  Every one of these slot canyons is subject to flash flooding.  Be sure to check the weather forecast for the area up-canyon before beginning any canyon hike in the Swell.

Nearby is Temple Mountain and the Temple Mountain Town Site, which now consists of a few old buildings in various stages of disrepair.  You’ll also find some interesting Native American rock art if you know where to look.  By now you’ve probably determined that there is no shortage of subjects to photograph in the area.  If so, you’d be right.  And, this isn’t even an exhaustive guide.  Just be sure to arrive with fully charged camera batteries and a couple extra memory cards.  You’re gonna need ‘em!

This Blog Is Moving

UPDATE: The new blog is live! I fixed the incorrect links below and all should work properly now. All new content will be posted to themes blog site. Thank you for your continued support!

If you’re a regular reader of my blog and one day soon find this link inactive it’s because I’m moving the blog. The new Bret Edge Photography Blog will be online within 10 days. Bookmark it at http://blog.bretedge.com. All of the current content will be imported to the new blog…or so they say.

On another note – epic conditions in the Tetons this morning. Been shooting for 2.5 hours non-stop. Can’t wait to share some images with y’all.

Have a great week!

Give the Bird to the Rule of Thirds

If you’ve ever read a photography “how to” book you are no doubt familiar with the rule of thirds.  If not, here’s a brief explanation.  Imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines running through your viewfinder, dividing it into equal sections.  Where those lines intersect are the sacred “sweet spots”.  If you were to compose an image using the rule of thirds you would place your main subject at one of those intersections.  Simple enough, right?

Back when I was a newbie photographer I obsessed over the rule of thirds.  Never would I compose an image with the main subject smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Blasphemy!  But here’s the thing: the rule of thirds is a guideline, a suggestion.  It is not an absolute. 

I’ll be the first to admit that more often than not using the rule of thirds as a compositional aid will result in the most dynamic photo.  I no longer obsess over it but I’ve been at this photography thing for 11 years now and building compositions is a lot like breathing – it’s just automatic.  I arrange the elements within my images such that main subjects are right there in the “sweet spot”, even though I didn’t make a conscious decision to put them there.  Every once in a while though, I get a little rebellious.  Every now and then, I’ll center my main subject.

When is the right time to give the rule of thirds the bird and create a centered composition?  I don’t really know.  The best answer I can offer is to say, “When it just feels right.”  Yeah, I know – how very new age of me.  The reality is that photography is not a science.  It is an art.  Even in today’s high tech digital world, where cameras are nothing more than small handheld computers, what comes out of them is art.  By it’s very nature, art is subjective.  We all see the world through different eyes and what I think is a masterpiece, you may consider a master piece of crap.

I think the best way to learn when the time is right for a little breaking of the rules is to experiment.  When you’re working a composition try using the rule of thirds.  Then break the rules and place your subject in the center.  Most of us use digital cameras and it doesn’t cost a single penny to click the shutter.  Be liberal with that sucker!  The more you photograph, and the more you experiment, the more adept you will become at recognizing when a centered composition is the right choice.

Take a look at the two images in this post.  What do you think of the compositions?  Was centering them the right choice?  If so, why?  If not, why?  What would you have done different?  Let’s get a lively discussion going.  Maybe it’ll give a newbie the inspiration to offer a middle finger salute to “the rules” and start experimenting with centered compositions?

Jackson Hole, Here I Come!

Hey folks,

In a few hours I’m headed out to Jackson Hole for two weeks of photography, hiking, camping and fun at our workshop June 10 – 13.  I won’t be active on the ol’ blog while away but I do have a post scheduled to go live next week.  Be sure to check back as it’s a good one.  Well, I think it’s a good one.  Guess I should leave it to you, my readers, to ultimately make that decision.

I’ll most likely post a short trip report here when I get home and have a chance to dig through all my images.

Until I return, may the sweet light be with you!

Sneak Peek – iFotoGuide: Grand Canyon

Dan and I are almost finished building iFotoGuide: Grand Canyon!  We were fortunate to partner with tremendously talented photographer, former Artist-in-Residence at the Grand Canyon, and all around nice guy Adam Schallau to produce this guide.  Adam’s intimate knowledge of the Canyon’s many moods and locations combined with his breathtaking photos have allowed us to create a photography guide that virtually guarantees you’ll make amazing images on your next trip to the Grand Canyon.

We expect iFotoGuide: Grand Canyon to be available for download for $4.99 in the Apple iTunes App Store in late June.  This price includes lifetime updates that will include new locations, discounts on photo gear and services from some of the biggest names in the industry, and more.  All iFotoGuide apps function on the iPhone and iPod Touch.  You can learn more about iFotoGuide here.

Currently available in the Apple iTunes App Store are iFotoGuide: Arches (on sale for $2.99) and iFotoGuide: Yosemite ($4.99).

Here’s a sneak peek at what we’ve been up to over the last few weeks.