Friday Foto Talk: Lessons from the Field   11 comments

The day begins in southern Utah's desert.

The day begins in southern Utah’s desert.

I had quite an eventful day yesterday.  I don’t normally spend a lot of time blogging about the goings-on in my life.  This isn’t reality television after all!  But I’m going to make an exception because of how the day unfolded as a cautionary tale for any nature photographers out there.  Amazingly enough, all three parts of my day (sunrise, mid-day and sunset) contain lessons relevant to photography.  It might be instructive to take a look at how yours truly sometimes does things, if only so that you might learn what not to do!

Lesson 1 – When to Challenge Yourself

This is something that was brought home to me while shooting sunrise yesterday.  I was camped at Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  It was my second visit.  As far as I know, the place is relatively unknown amongst photographers.  But I think it has a lot going for it.  Beautiful reddish & smooth sandstone with fascinating patterns overlooks a pretty canyon.  Atop this so-called slickrock lies a collection of white, mushroom-shaped sandstone monoliths, with views that include the La Sal Mountains.

On the first visit to Bartlett I was a bit late for the dawn light.  And having walked up to the white sandstone monoliths, I had trouble finding a good composition.  Even though it’s obviously an interesting place with plenty of photographic potential, it is also challenging.  The main trouble comes when trying to find good shooting positions (or points of view).  Some of the best compositions are found from atop the mushroom monoliths, but some of them are far from easy to climb.  And which one to climb?  It’s a bit confusing.

Dawn from the "mushroom monoliths" at Bartlett Wash.

Dawn from the “mushroom monoliths” at Bartlett Wash.

On the contrary, the reddish slickrock below is not only easier to get to, it is chock full of leading lines and other strong patterns.  It’s much more a gimme than the mushroom rock above.  So on this second visit, I told myself I would be early and make sure to shoot the reddish sandstone in the best light.  I woke early enough alright, but something made me go up to the mushroom rock.  I spent the time of best light up there, again getting frustrated looking for good compositions.  By the time I got around to the red slickrock the sun was well up and the light a bit harsh.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

Classic cross-bedded sandstone slickrock in southern Utah.

I don’t know about you, but I often go for the more challenging photo  subjects, even when I know a more-certain option exists.  The red slickrock was there for the taking.  I saw plenty of strong compositions which don’t involve any real challenge; you just walk right up to them.

But here’s the thing: it’s not at all clear that it was worth the extra effort to bang my head (metaphorically) against the white mushroom rock.  It may or may not have yielded the best images at Bartlett.  But the fact that it’s more challenging up there drew me.  And so I missed good light in the more certain photographic terrain of the red slickrock.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

The mountain-biking terrain at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Only you can decide which path you will take when presented with similar options during your shooting.  It may depend on your mood.  I don’t know if it’s very smart for me (a non-morning person) to pick the more challenging path for sunrise.  But without thinking about it that’s what I did.  You might be better able than me to see where the better pictures are to be had and go there without regard for challenge.

In fact, it makes more sense to save the more challenging terrain for a time without the extra stress of quickly passing dawn light.  The idea is to find the good composition at leisure and then return for it in good light.  That would be the logical way to do it.  Sometimes I am not the most logical person.  But I’m sure of one thing: the process of tackling challenging photographic subjects in quickly changing light can definitely make you a better photographer.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

This juniper tree appears to lean against a sandstone monolith at Bartlett Wash, Utah.

Lesson 2 – Be Prepared

This one isn’t tied directly to any photographs I took, but it’s certainly relevant to photography.  In mid-morning, after the sunrise shoot (see Lesson 1), I decided to do a short mountain bike ride at a place called Bartlett Wash in southern Utah.  Or that was the plan, to play on the slickrock there for just an hour or so.  By the way, slickrock is smooth sandstone that is perfect for off-trail hiking and mountain bike riding.  The Moab, Utah area here is famous for it, but it occurs throughout the American desert southwest.

While riding, I became intrigued by the slickrock terrain on the other side of the wash from where I was riding.  Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, and the slickrock is always smoother!  Finished and back at the bottom, I saw a little sign I had not noticed, pointing to the area I had been curious about.  It said simply “3-D Jedi”.  I had not heard of that ride.  Bartlett was in my guidebook but not this one with the fascinating name.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

Views of canyon country: the Book Cliffs, Utah.

So instead of heading back as I should have done I biked up onto the slickrock.  I told myself I would just check out the first mile or so, but you know how that goes!  The thing is, since I was only out for a little bit, I didn’t bring any sun screen or sunglasses (the day started out cloudy).  I also didn’t bring a repair/patch kit or bike pump. And crucially, I had no map and no water.  Yep, you heard it right, I was out in the desert with no water.

Stupidly, I kept going..and going.  The ride turned into a 5 hour ordeal (I mean ride!).  Though I never saw another soul, a set of bike tracks was visible in places, plus sporadic rock cairns marked the route.  So I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting lost.  I kept wanting to head back but the thought (hope?) that I was riding a loop kept me going. For over a mile the “trail” skirted a narrow ledge with a truly dizzying drop on one side.  Needless to say I walked my bike on the narrowest parts.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

View from the Jedi area near Moab, Utah.

When the route finally descended onto more great slickrock and dropped onto a jeep track, I saw my first sign at a junction.  Though the sign didn’t say 3-D or Jedi, I guessed the left fork would lead me back to where I came from.  Deep sand had me pushing my bike for a good while, and the sun came out in force.  I was THIRSTY!  Then my luck turned: I saw a sign that said 3-D with an arrow pointing ahead.

When the sandy jeep track crested a ridge I recognized the canyon.  I was back in Bartlett!  The surface grew firm and I raced down the twisting trail.  I had made it!  I almost attacked the water back at camp, and in fact had to rein myself in.  You can get very sick drinking too much water at one time.  It even has the potential to kill you.

Slickrock makes the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Slickrock makes for the finest riding surface for biking around Moab, Utah.

Lesson 3 – Go slow to go fast

You might have heard this expression before.  If you don’t take your time enough to do things right, even under stressful conditions when hurrying is important, you will pay the price.  You’ll spend much more time either fixing mistakes or regretting not having been more careful.  This was brought home to me during my sunset shoot yesterday.

After the big bike ride, I realized I had time to go somewhere for sunset.  I felt I had played Bartlett out, and it’s best for sunrise anyway.  There’s an area I also like near Moab, one that also doesn’t see photographers.  It’s great for sunset, with a grand view of the La Sal Mtns.  There is one hitch though – access.  You either need to do a rough 4WD jeep trail or hike in from the other side.

The hike up the wash toward my sunset spot.

On the hurried hike up the wash toward my sunset spot, I paused just once for this shot.

The hike (which takes about an hour) goes up a canyon.  Then you need to climb out of the canyon up onto the rim.  There are only a couple reasonable routes, the rest being cliffs.  I explored this area awhile back for the first time.  When I started out sunset was 55 minutes away, so I was in a hurry.

Almost at the top, I glanced over to the La Sals and saw beautiful light beginning to hit them.  There was one more 10-foot ledge to scramble up, and I was determined not to miss the light.  I stepped on a huge block of sandstone that I should have been suspicious of.  It shifted and came smashing down on my ankle.  I wrenched my leg away just in time then came a mad dash for safety as the huge rock began rolling.  Luckily it didn’t go far and I was able to get out of the way.

I lay there on my back in some pain.  Looking up into the sky I saw the clouds turning orange and pink.  But suddenly that didn’t matter.  I gingerly rotated my ankle.  Amazingly it seemed okay.  The real test came when I got up and put weight on it.  Yes!  It seemed to be only bruised and cut.  To shorten the story, I made it to the spot I had in mind and got some nice shots (bottom).  After the sun set I made my way down.  Though I had my headlamp, it’s somewhat nerve-wracking to pick your way down a steep rocky descent in the dark.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it's like to still be on the edge as darkness falls.  Car headlights trace the park road.

On a different hike in Arches National Park, I decided to capture what it’s like to still be on the edge as darkness falls. Car headlights trace the park road.

That night as my ankle swelled up, I thought about how stupid I had been.  Go slow to go fast!  It’s even more important advice when the light is pushing you to hurry. Though it’s important not to waste time getting set up (the light won’t wait after all), over-hurrying often results in mistakes that show in your pictures.  Bad photos are one thing; always remember that much bigger disasters are possible when you’re in a big rush.

So think about what you’re doing when out photographing nature.  It’s a real excursion, and you are the only one responsible for your safety.  Go prepared.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  Take your time.  It’s important to come back with the best pictures possible.  But it’s even more important to come back!

Thanks for sticking with this long post.  If you’re interested in any of these images (which are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission), please contact me.  Click on any of the pictures to go to my galleries.  Thanks for your interest.  By the way, my ankle is sore but just fine.

The view from "almost broken ankle point" in Utah.

The view from “almost broken ankle point” in Utah.

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11 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Lessons from the Field

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  1. yeah,not television.

    nooralfurqan2014
  2. Gorgeous photos. 🙂

  3. That image from’almost broken ankle point” is really stunning – just glad you survived in one piece.

  4. If you want something really bad…then you go for it, I guess. Beautiful shots of an amazing country — and pieces of good advice of course. I think I’ll have to look at them again, and again, and…

  5. Crazy man!! I am glad you survived because I can now look forward to more of your utterly superb photos. 🙂

  6. Wonderful shots of the Slick rock country. I loved the Cross-bedded sandstone shot.

    Ron

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed your story that culminated in that amazing lost photo. One message about your personality came out loud and clear – you are truly driven.

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