There comes a point on a map where Utah and Arizona seem to blend into one place that should be its own state or own Country. AriTah or UtiZona. This place between Kanab, UT and Page, AZ links different timezones, liquor laws, and is in between amazing geographic features. Sadly as I write this in early 2018 some of this area is at risk of losing critical Federal protections.
The ability to chase waves in the desert doesn’t involve peyote or mescaline or LSD. But it does require a-lot of planning and more than a little bit of luck in terms of getting the right permits and timing the weather. In this guide I will share with you a few tips from my time exploring Coyote Buttes North (The Wave), Coyote Buttes South, White Pocket, and Wire Pass/Buckskin Gulch.
Located as the crow flies only miles apart many of the features in these areas remain geologic mysteries in terms of how they were formed. It is not disputed that water was involved as much of the area was at one point underwater. Hence why we will ride some desert waves.
Gear & Accessories
The camera gear you need depends on your personal preferences but I have not used my filters or zoom lenses much in all of my adventures in these environments. Most of the landscapes are so wide open (The Wave) or closed in (Slot Canyons) that you don’t need to zoom and the desert light is so muted in the mornings and evenings that filters tend to take away vs add unless you are capturing water movement which most of the year is not there in the desert.
Keeping in mind that all of these places are long walks over exposed ground and harsh terrain.
It is shocking how sandy it gets in the canyons. This has become much better than a lens cloth to blow off the dust and sand. Most places this stays in the car, but in this environment it is on me at all times. http://amzn.to/2BLvLFC I actually prefer red as the color of choice as black seems to blend in with the rest of my gear.
For the slot canyons it is crucial to have a robust tripod and easily adjustable ball head. The canyons are much darker than you would ever think and if you are trying to get the sky in your shot you will need to bracket which is made really tough to do handheld.
Camera specific backpack.
Something that can protect your gear and attach a tripod for ease of carrying. You will need your hands free at times to scramble over and around obstacles and at other times the hiking is so long that you don’t want to be carrying your gear in your hands or over a shoulder. I really like the Manfrotto Off Road hiker Backpack http://amzn.to/2kFCont
Guidebooks & Maps
Photographing the Southwest by Laurent Martres is great guidebook with excellent photography inspirations. The only downside is your have to buy both Utah http://amzn.to/2BLGHmD and Arizona http://amzn.to/2BNu1vC as you are crossing over into both states but the upside is there is a multitude of other amazing photography locations and tips that are detailed in this book. Many features don’t show up on the maps for the areas but you do need a general reference map. Paria Canyon, Kanab from Nat Geo http://amzn.to/2zcaNNj is a great reference map.
But neither the map or book substitutes for the BLM field office in Kanab https://www.blm.gov/office/kanab-field-office. Tons of information about local conditions, words of caution from the local rangers, and other details that change too much from day to day to try and cover all scenarios in a blog post.
First light on White Pocket
Weather & Time of Day
Avoid the summer. Yes its doable to be out there in the summer months. But it is a desert for the reason. Its hawt, hot, HOT! My favorite time of year is the fall. If you go in winter or spring you risk rain and snow which can modify your plans somewhat as these roads can turn to a muddy mess pretty quickly. When it comes to the time of day, for the Wave it actually photographs best around mid day. Otherwise your shadows are too long and you will have too many dark areas in your shot.
For other places like White Pocket it is best in the Golden Hours as once it is light the details in the rock get washed out really quickly. For slot canyons it is best around mid-day when the sun is overhead and reflecting off the walls or penetrating the depths more. So that becomes a nice thing. You can often times shoot 3 times in a given day depending more on the amount of energy and distance you want to cover.
Last Light at White Pocket
For White Pocket I scouted in the middle of the afternoon and used PhotoPills to try and predict where the light would strike as the sun began to set. From there I planned my shots out to move how I thought the light might be moving as the sun began to set. After missing the first set badly I was right on my next two and got really nice light as the shadows crept in for the night and the desert took on its familiar golden hour glow.
Finding the composition
The other thing that I really tried to focus on was leading lines. I had many places where I had to walk around the shot for several minutes to try and figure out how to establish some scale to what I was looking at. Sometimes the lines were very evident like in this shot but I ended up laying on my belly to get this just right with no shadows behind me. Many of these types of shots were better in the brighter light as the low sun would create shadows and you would lose some of the color variations that makes the sandstone here so incredible.
If you can focus on not getting any sky into your slot canyon shots they will probably turn out better and with less frustration and work in post processing. If you need sky to make the shot you will need to bracket. Heavily. 1 stop is not enough to capture the contrasts between the canyon walls and the blue sky overhead. Once again you will be very surprised how dark the slot canyons can be and the more popular ones like Antelope Canyon are excessively crowded you won’t be able to use your tripod unless you pay for a more expensive photography tour. While I would still recommend going to see Antelope, I found much more solitude and hence had much more time to figure out my shots in Wire Pass / Buckskin Gulch.
Waves of Buckskin Gulch
Glad you are still reading. Hopefully you don’t think I am all over the board. Because my camera settings when shooting in the desert are all over the place. Literally. So what do I lock down and not change? I shoot a Nikon D810 which has a great dynamic range and I have found that I can go to an ISO of 800 and still have good image clarity. For my shots I still I lock my ISO in at 100. With one exception. The slot canyons. I will switch to AutoISO if I am shooting handheld as I have found that slower than 1/50 of a second I will get some blur if not on a tripod.
I have found through other experiences in the narrows and other slot canyons that a low F below 6 does not give enough depth of field to the shot. I had an epic day in the Narrows where I foolishly did not break out my tripod and take a "proper shot" and as such only 2 of my images were usable as my depth of field with the high walls and long canyon was not right. I would have been much better with a higher ISO than a low F in this setting.
F-8 is certainly my sweet spot on my lenses but if I don’t want to break my tripod out or in this case couldn’t break the tripod out I will start creeping my F down a little. For this shot I ended up at F-7 at 1/50 Sec and and ISO of 640. I have this as a large print and the quality was great.
For the Wave "Shot"
Buckle up kids. Things are about to get fast. 1/640 of a second on the shutter. F 8.0, ISO 100. I bracketed but 1 stop was too much, so stepped it back to .7 stops. Even then I didn’t use the bracketed shots as the highlights were blown out. What I did find helpful was as my angles changed the exposures would dramatically shift and sometimes my bracketed shots that didn’t work in a previous shot were the right exposure now.
I took over 300 pictures at the Wave as I knew my chances of getting a permit to come back again were not guaranteed. It was much better for me to have shots that I could delete later than to have completely blown a shot. The area was wide open but the exposure would change dramatically as you changed heights and angles. I have to say while I took the time to enjoy the amazing landscapes with my 3 friends I did spend a-lot of time looking at my histogram.
Planning is absolutely vital
Unlike National Parks or more trafficked areas you have to plan ahead when going into these desert landscapes. The biggest reason for the Coyote Buttes North and South is because there is a lottery system to go there. The Wave which is a top destination for people worldwide gets somewhere around 1,000 applicants a day for 20 spots. There is a walk-in lottery the day before where your odds are slightly better but still not great (Where we won). Additional details on the lottery process is located on my website or on the BLM site.
The second part of the planning is making sure you have a 4WD vehicle and also be prepared to get stuck, lost, or break down. Which means bring extra water and food. There is very limited cell coverage in this area and at times of year there is not many people.
White Pocket Waves
Check out some of the side trips.
Your odds of getting a permit for Coyote Buttes South (The non wave) are pretty good. And while this area is not as spectacular as its much more famous cousin Coyotes Buttes North (The Wave) the area has some rock formations of intricate lace I have not seen anywhere else. I certainly would love to return for some night shots here and to spend some more time setting up abstract framing of the patterns. Your permit is good for 24 hours here and I only saw one other group the entire time I was in here.
Fine Lace Waves
Its no secret that shooting in the desert at night is great as there is very little light pollution. But the greatest thing about these remote areas is not the light. Its being so remote. After shooting with almost a hundred others at Mono Lake this summer where you had to time shots with others lights and the lights of cars it was refreshing to have the entire area of White Pocket all to myself. I was able to set two cameras far apart from each other to shoot time-lapse, North (Polaris) Star, and Milky Way with no other lights in my frame besides the hundreds of airplanes that criss cross the desert skies.