Monument Valley, Utah

In Jessie and I, Thoughts & Theory, Travel by David30 Comments

Sitting in a quiet restaurant in Taos, New Mexico. We’ve got one more day before we need to be in Albuquerqe. Some of you have expressed anything from wonder to shock to consternation at how fast I’m travelling. It won’t always be this way. Sadly in order to do this trip at all I needed to front-load some of the travel and that means less time in some places that deserve much more time to explore, like Taos for example. We’ll eat, we’ll breeze through. Anyways…

One of the constraints of this trip is the incredibly limited time I’ve got at locations that deserve much, much more time. One of those places is Utah’s Monument Valley, nestled in Navajo country on the border of Arizona. Like so many places in the Americas the location itself is iconic, seen in so many films you feel you know the place by sight even if you’re not sure you can name it. The downside of such little time in one place is simply the lack of time to go deep, to really see and experience, but I’m not convinced the solution to that is to simply put your tripod in the same holes as others and resort to the postcard shot from the so-called viewpoint or lookout that inevitably sprout up around these places, most often within a couple feet of the parking lot.

A couple nights ago I had one evening to photograph in Monument Valley. So I focused not on my options but my constraints. I knew I wanted to shoot well into twilight hours, and I knew I wanted to photograph one of the more iconic spires. I also knew I wanted to use my 24mm tilt-shift and get well beyond the throngs I suspected would show up if the sun cooperated, which was looking iffy. So I wandered out into the desert on the marked trail and eventually ended up only a few meters from the trail, but a good kilometer away from the viewpoint, which as it turns out gathered quite a crowd of tripods and expensive gear and people making the exact same photograph. I found a great tree after doing iPhone test-shots with a couple others, and hunkered down for close to three hours. I took a chance. I might have wandered and found nothing at all and gone back to the truck without even the postcard shot the others got. But more and more that postcard shot doesn’t feel worth taking to me, so it’s no real loss. It’s the same reason I didn’t go to Antelope slots canyon. I’ve seen some gorgeous light there in hundreds of beautiful photographs, but I’m not sure I’m going to bring anything new to the table.

This trip is teaching me a great deal, not the least of which is the revelation of what it is I really want to be photographing. It’s giving me the freedom to leave the rest to others.

I had a funny moment in Death Valley; we were alone on the Racetrack playa and I was sitting down at my tripod after working for an hour or two to find and frame one photograph for which I was still awaiting the light, when one of the only other people within miles walks up to me, put his camera literally over my shoulder and fires off a frame. He chuckled and said his best shot of the day might just be the one I was taking. No sh*t it was, with an approach like that. But rather than make me angry it made me laugh and reminded me of the difference in approaches. For some people it’s enough to buy the gear and put their tripod in the holes of Ansel Adams, for others it’s a process that involves discovery, risk, and great reward. These days I’m happy with one single photograph from my time out in the field, if that; I’m learning I’m happier with that one hard-earned frame than I am with 20 mediocre photographs I rushed to get.


  1. Gorgeous shot and wonderful column. You nailed this topic and did so in a very inspiring way.

  2. Its been wonderful traveling along with you via blog and seeing some familiar places through other eyes. We’ve had snow,snow and more snow and I wished I was south especially Monument Valley… BUT inspiration from the pdfs on “Winter Photography” and also “Close to Home” now has me searching for old views in new ways.
    Keep safe.

  3. I guarantee the guy who took that shot over your shoulder took a shot that wasn’t even close to what you made – that’s why that never bothers me. There’s so much else to put into making a good photo than just pointing the lens in a general direction!

  4. I’m so glad that I read this today, considering that tomorrow I’m going to Angkor Wat. As always, thanks for the inspiration. Even from across the globe you keep on making me grow.

  5. Yes, the copycat syndrome, sad but true. I volunteered at the North Rim Grand Canyon one summer. It is very far from anywhere – 67 miles in from the nearest anything. Some people drove all the way in, took one look (maybe) at the canyon and got their passport stamped – “I was here”. The didn’t want to SEE, they just wanted a stamp from every national park.

    It seems to be the same for many photographers. But, then, some of the contests reward the same old things with wins. A recent contest had 5 of 7 winners/honorable mentions that were sunset shots. I guess one of the judges loves sunsets! Plus, at least one photo magazine a month seems to have a “how to shoot like Ansel Adams” article.

    I travel extensively in my RV, and usually stay in one place for a week or two, and there are lots of beautiful sights out there worth photographing other than those we’ve seen a million times.

    We can do the same-old, same-old, or continually reinvent what photography is and could be. Happy shooting!

  6. Should have front loaded it with a drive down the coast to sunny socal for a cold one…next time:)

  7. I know exactly what you mean about taking the postcard shot everyone takes. I noticed that a few years ago and now, if I’m somewhere that I don’t have time to go off the beaten path and find my own thing, I just put my camera away and experience it in the moment. 🙂

  8. Very nice shot. What was your “vision”? What was it about this place, that compelled you to capture this image? Was it the tree or the orange rock? Did you use the tilt-shift?


  9. Nice to know you’re in NM. There are way too many places to visit in a few days so hopefully another time you’ll have longer.
    Enjoy your stay and if you go through Gallup on the flip side, wave fast! It’s only about 10 miles from end to the other. 🙂

  10. Death Valley, late evening, Devil’ s Golf Course. Long exposures, I can guarantee you no one was around. Very unusual place to be at night. Got a little weirded out.

    If in Albuquerque, send an email, I am just west in Corrales. Even if just to say hi.

    Be well


    p.s. Monument Valley , Jan.2002. Wow the clarity.

  11. Somthing to be said about the process, a skill I am still trying to nail down…when I’m on a shot where someone is paying me I have a much harder time “relaxing” and waiting and finding THE shot…I do so much better with that when I am on my own watch (and pocket book)

  12. Really like the approach you’re taking here. I’m in Santa Fe, so if you’re there tomorrow – Fri – I’d love it if you’d give me a shout if you’ve time.

  13. Hey David,
    If you get to Ft Collins, CO and want to have a beer/coffee/water and do a small tour (Microbrew Capitol of the World, btw :-), be happy to hook up. Paul 9705565945

  14. Thanks for explaining about your speed of travel, as for me it takes some time to visually see a location, so as to find all the subjects around the main attractions. By this I mean it takes time to look and observe carefully. When I do this I always find more subject matter than I ever imagined. Time at a location opens new subjects to photograph. Too bad you have to breeze through some of these amazing locations.

    Completely agree with the concept of 1 or 2 really good images with every shoot. It is important to edit down the best and really have no expectations in making images. This freedom allows creativity to better show through.

    An Ansel Adams quote comes to mind: ” Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

    Not sure I agree with the number, especially in the digital age, but I completely agree with the concept of low top quality numbers from our shoots.

    All the best on your continued journey.

  15. Monument Valley is a jewel! And like most jewels, it’s hard not a capture an image that hasn’t already been shot. I am fortunate enough to have family connections there in Navajoland. Some are just miles away from Monument Valley. It is such beautiful backdrop for capturing the beauty of the people and their culture. It is a wonderful reminder of just how little we are and how brilliant the Creator is. I hope you’ve enjoyed your Southwest US trip! Even if you had to breeze through it!

  16. that’s a gorgeous image. your story of death valley reminds me of an experience in venice, when i took my camera off tripod and crouched down to change lenses. i surfaced to find someone actually balancing their camera on my tripod! and “did i mind”? ‘ “no, you go right ahead and i’ll just wait till you’re sure you’ve nailed it” why bother to get angry? people have no idea what i”m seeing, what lens, dof, etc etc i’m using. if they think that pointing in the same general direction gives ‘the same image’ then go ahead, and if that’s their goal, too bad. the number of times i’ve found a line up behind me taking “the same picture”, doing a quick snap, and moving on smugly…much better to laugh than waste valuable energy on anything else.

  17. Spot on! (he says quickly shuffling his viewpoint photos to the bottom of the pile!)

    I have dozens of these shots and the urge to ‘snap’ (using that word on purpose btw 😉 them is somehow irresistible but I never never return to those shots; they’re the one star meh shots that collect virtual dust in Lightroom, they don’t define me. So WTF do I still feel compelled to take them lol?!

    Fortunately I’m maturing and trying to find something different and know they don’t define me, and it certainly is the love of something original and compelling – in the ‘this moves me’ sense rather than the ‘I need to collect this so all those people really believe I saw the Eiffel tower’ sense – that motivates me.

    Do I always/often get it right? NA, but at least I’m aware right?

  18. Man you nailed it with this phrase – “For some people it’s enough to buy the gear and put their tripod in the holes of Ansel Adams, for others it’s a process that involves discovery, risk, and great reward.”
    It was a moment of transformation for me when I began to realize that it was nothing to compose like Ansel Adams, light like Greg Hisler and post process like Dave Hill. The recipes are posted everywhere; Follow the Google brick road and the next thing you know you are in Oz with a portfolio full of powerful imagery that’s still leading you and your viewers in the well worn circles of limited vision. It’s an immersive commitment to a lifestyle of image making that allows true artists to tell a unique visual story in a way that stops people in their tracks and engages them in a retinal stimulation they can’t get anywhere else. The distinction between a photographer and a human version of a technically impressive copy machine is the ability to envision, compose, edit and publish a personal story in a personal way, a way that engages others in the nuances of your own vision and style. When I begin to see the touch of many masters in MY images, that was the day it started to come together for me and the challenge of making art, instead of copies, started to seem within reach. I’m still stretching, but every day I find a little more of myself reflected in my lens.

  19. Wow. I’m not sure what I would have done if someone came along and shot over my shoulder. I guess laughing about it was the best way to deal.
    I’m with you on passing up the postcard shot. I went to Monument Valley with a friend who desperately wanted to photograph the ‘Mittens’. I asked him why and he said they were the most photographed spires in Monument Valley. All I could think was “Then why would you want to photograph them?”.

  20. Well, that Monument Valley shot is a fantastic example to make your point!! Great shot and one I’ve never seen before.

    I totally agree with your perspective. I also have no desire to shoot the Antelope Slots, for the same reason!

  21. Enjoyed your Death Valley experience, and I can follow along with what you were writing about. That attitude of slowing down and looking is the primary reason I shoot large format, and never shoot digital. Large Format requires a totally different way of working, one that requires pre-visualization, rather that reaction.

    Enjoying reading about your trip.

  22. With so many people with cameras it’s definitely difficult to get a unique shot of a popular place. For me, it’s about being there. Cameras only record sights. I take moments to enjoy the sounds, touch, and smells of a place trying to absorb as much as I can. I credit the camera for getting me out there to experience that.

  23. On a U.S. Road trip now too armed with an iPhone camera and a cat. Right now in Farmington, NM. If near, stop at the Something Special Bakery, 116 n. Auburn, WA 505-325–8183

    Happy trails,
    Annie from Seattle

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.