Thoughts on Image Value and Effort

Rain Fingers Above the Bonneville Desert, Utah

How often do you see photos posted in online forums or hanging in a gallery, accompanied by a description wherein the photographer recounts the miles hiked, grizzly bears fought off, violent storms encountered and years of preparation before they were finally able to create the image before you?  I see it on a regular basis.  Usually, I have no doubt about the authenticity of the story.  Other times, the claims are a bit dubious.  Regardless, a recent experience left me wondering whether the effort expended to create an image is somehow tied to the value viewers place on an image.  Is a photograph made deep into an inhospitable wilderness more inherently valuable or artistic than an image where the greatest physical effort expended was simply pressing the shutter button?

The image you see above was not photographed in a wild and remote location.  I didn’t backpack 30 miles wearing a 100 pound backpack in stinging rain with lightning crashing all around.  No, all I did was pull to the side of I-80 so my son could go pee.  I saw potential in the cracked mud, mountains and ominous sky so I casually strolled to my truck (in flip flops) where I reached in, grabbed my camera and tripod, then walked 30 feet to the very spot where this image was made.  My biggest challenge was wrangling a persistent 2 year old who was intent on peering through the viewfinder and making his own photo while I tried to nail the composition before the fast moving storm in the distance was upon us.

I posted this image on flickr and, to date, it has received 793 views, 41 favorites and 21 comments after flickr added it to the explore page.  If you’re familiar with flickr you’ll understand that 800 views is nothing compared to what truly popular images receive.  For me, it’s a bunch.  I didn’t mention that I made the photo mere feet from a busy interstate with cars and semis whizzing by at 80 MPH.  I wonder if I had, would the photo have received so many likes and comments?

What are your thoughts?

Pixels Vs. Prints: Which Do You Prefer?

Until last year I had never enjoyed the thrill of making my own photographic prints.  When I needed a print, I’d send off a file (or slide) to whatever lab I was using at the time and they’d ship the print directly to me or my client.  With only a few exceptions my image viewing experience consisted of staring at a photo on a computer monitor.

Then, I bought an Epson Stylus Photo R2880 printer and everything changed.  If that sounds like a dramatic statement – it is.  It’s also quite true.  I started making my own prints.  Whenever I wanted.  On whatever paper I wanted.  It didn’t take long and I was addicted to the smell of fresh ink on photographic paper as a new print rolled off the printer, landing ever so gently in the catch tray.  Is there a difference between viewing an image on a computer monitor and holding an actual print, that you made, in your hands?  You’d better believe it.

As an artist I like to have complete control over my work from start to finish.  While it is true that you maintain a degree of control when you do all the post-processing on your photos before sending them off to a lab, you’re really not closing the loop.  The ultimate control comes when you conclude the image making process by crafting your own print.  Today’s inkjet printers are capable of producing professional quality archival prints that rival and, in my opinion, exceed those made using more traditional methods like Cibachromes.  They’re sharper, more detailed, just as colorful and can be made using a diversity of papers.

While difficult to quantify, there is a certain pleasure and satisfaction in handling an honest to God hand-crafted print.  It is a tactile experience.  You feel the weight of the paper, the texture.  Unseen details emerge.  Perhaps you feel pride in the knowledge that the print you are holding was born of your own creativity, and that without your vision and skills it would cease to exist.  I get none of this from viewing an image on a computer monitor.

I’ve also noticed that people react differently when viewing my photographs in print.  On the computer (or iPad), they quickly flick through the images.  When I hand over my portfolio book I’ve noticed that they linger on each image.  They don’t madly flip from one page to the next.  Do people, even non-photographers, appreciate a fine art print more than they do an image on a screen?  It would seem so.

Five Things Every New Adobe Lightroom User Should Know

I’ve been using Adobe Lightroom as my RAW converter and photo editor of choice since version 1 launched a few years ago.  Until last year I still relied on Photoshop to complete the bulk of my editing work.  Why?  Because I was stubborn – an old curmudgeon who didn’t want to change.  Looking back, I wish I’d taken the advice of my friend and Lightroom guru Nat Coalson, who for years has been extolling the virtues of completing as much work as possible within Lightroom.

Finally I got smart and listened to Nat’s advice.  I now do about 90% of my processing within Lightroom, only using Photoshop to blend multiple exposures or for complicated cloning – both of which just can’t be done in Lightroom’s current version.  Even then, I import the finished product back into Lightroom so my entire image collection is in one place and easily searchable.

Lately I’ve noticed that many of my landscape and nature photography workshop clients are just now diving into Lightroom.  Many of them are doing so with trepidation.  Some of them are taking the plunge because I’ve badgered them into it.  Regardless, if you’re new to Lightroom I’ve got a few tips to share that are guaranteed to save you time and effort down the road.  These tips come from my own hard won experience.  I hope they help you find Lightroom bliss.

Keyword From the Start

You may not be a professional photographer or even have any aspirations to become one.  It doesn’t matter.  Metadata is king and you should keyword your images from the very beginning.  I also recommend that you enter a title and description for each photo.  Why?  If you ever plan to upload your images to flickr, your own website or any other photo sharing sites, the title, description and all of your keywords will automatically carry over.  I didn’t keyword from the start and as my stock photography business grows, I’m really wishing I had.

Buy A Lightroom Reference Book

The Adobe engineers did a remarkable job of designing Lightroom to be extremely powerful while remaining user friendly.  Nearly every adjustment in Lightroom can be accomplished through the use of sliders.  However, some of the terms may be confusing to those who are new to Lightroom.  Clarity, vibrance, black point – huh?  Additionally, there are keyboard shortcuts, presets, camera and lens profiles, catalogs, collections, ratings and more that aren’t exactly intuitive.  A good reference book, like Nat Coalson’s “Lightroom 5: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process” will save you get you up and running with a minimum of time and frustration.  There are also several fantastic websites with tons of useful information.  One I visit regularly is The Lightroom Queen.

Keep It in Lightroom

This one took me a while to adopt.  I really wish it hadn’t.  I use Lightroom for 90% of my processing, switching over to Photoshop only to do exposure blends, complicated cloning and image prep for print.  Until Lightroom offers layers and a better cloning tool I’m forced to use Photoshop for these techniques.  However, Lightroom does have a powerful printing module that I simply haven’t yet explored.  I will soon.

Why keep everything in Lightroom?  Lightroom’s database capabilities are second to none.  By cataloging all of your images inside Lightroom you’re ensuring that they’re always easy to reference.  You can search for images using a number of variables, including keywords.  If you’re a stock photographer this is especially important as it eliminates the hassle in trying to find images for photo submissions.  All of your images under one roof?  Nice!

Back-up Your Lightroom Catalog Early and Often

This is probably the single most important advice I can offer.  We all know the value of backing up our data yet not all of us do it as often as we should.  I’m guilty of it in some regards but not when it comes to my Lightroom catalog.  Luckily, Lightroom makes it stupidly simple to ensure you never forget this critical step.  Lightroom can be set up to prompt you about a back-up every time you quit the program.  At that point you have the option to back-up the catalog or just close the program.  Take it from someone who learned this lesson the hard way: back up your catalog every time you close Lightroom. In my early days of using Lightroom I was far too lax about this.  My catalog became corrupted and, because I’d never backed it up, I lost all the work I’d done on every single image in the catalog.  All of it.  Hundreds of hours worth.  Don’t let this happen to you.

Presets Speed Up Your Workflow

Lightroom allows you to create presets for certain functions, such as exports and keywords.  Generally speaking, you’ll save quite a bit of time and effort if you set up presets for commonly used actions.  For example, if you spend a lot of time photographing in Arches NP you can create a preset containing keywords that apply to all images from Arches.  One click and the keywords are automatically populated.

I also frequently use export presets.  A recent photo submission consisted of almost 200 images that needed to be at a specific size and in jpeg format.  First I added all the images for the submission to a “collection”, then I created an export preset, selected the entire collection and started the export.  A few minutes later the entire submission was ready to be burned to a CD and shipped off to the client.

Bonus Tip: Plug-ins Are Your Friend

No, you don’t have to use plug-ins to really benefit from Lightroom.  But, I find that they make my life much easier.  Unless you’re new here, you already know I’ve got a love affair with Google’s Nik Collection.  There are dozens of other plug-ins that allow you to work faster and smarter, some of which are even free.  This link to the Adobe Lightroom website will give you an idea of what types of plug-ins are available.  If you find a few that work for you, you’ll soon realize just how much of a timesaver they are.

So, there you have it.  My five – okay, six - tips for new Lightroom users.  If you’ve got a tip to share I hope you’ll do so in the comments section below.  I’m certainly not a Lightroom expert and would love to hear how you’re using it to speed up your workflow!

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!