Photographing Mesa Arch–at Sunset

_D503346My second trip to the Moab area was largely disappointing. The weather for my December 2014 trip had been essentially perfect: cold and clear, even some snow to keep things interesting. When I photographed the iconic Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park at sunrise, incredibly I had the place to myself. I’ve heard of dozens of photographers showing up for sunrise.

However, the weather for my December 2016 trip was overcast and dreary. A few clouds add texture to the sky, but this time it was low ceiling and gray. For two mornings in a row I was at the arch, hoping for the clouds to lift just enough for the sun to break over the horizon, and I wasn’t alone. Both times seven or eight other photographers were with me, lined up tripod-to-tripod.  I didn’t mind sharing the space–everyone was cooperative and there was just enough room for all us. I was less happy with the ceaseless chatter. When I go to a beautiful place, I want to enjoy it in silence, not listen to constant yammering. The other photographers will probably remember me as the guy who never said a word.

Conditions improved slightly throughout the second day, and as I got ready to leave Canyonlands for the last time, I decided to stop at Mesa Arch to see if it could be photographed at dusk. Unfortunately, the arch was already in shadow; but at least I was alone and there was no chatter. I lowered myself and looked under the arch, where I saw the full moon rising over the La Sal Mountains.

I wish I could say this shot was planned. As Louis Pasteur said of his seemingly serendipitous scientific discoveries, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” In my case it was pure good fortune and a bit of desperation.

Gear Snobs, Photography Edition

If you have ever been a regular visitor to an online photography forum, you have undoubtedly encountered a Gear Snob. Usually a “he,” he is happy to help you spend your money on only the best equipment, because that’s what he has.

I encountered my first Gear Snob about ten years ago at an outdoor photography workshop. The leader was demonstrating his Really Right Stuff tripod with RRS ball head and L-bracket. He reassured us we needed to buy an expensive rig in order to be successful outdoor photographers. Never mind that his equipment cost close to $1,000 (as he pointedly reminded us). He was clear: this truly is the Right Stuff and if you settle for less, you’ll be sorry. (I agree that a $69 Walmart tripod is a waste of money, but there are many other excellent options to consider that cost far less than his.)

Fast forward to the present, where Gear Snobs lie in wait for innocent questions about purchasing tripods, cameras, lenses, and camera bags. When a new user asks for buying advice, the Gear Snob reflexively recommends only the expensive option. Why? Because that’s what he has. Never mind that there are probably less expensive options that are perfectly suited to the user’s needs. The Gear Snob emphasizes that one should only invest in the best if they’re serious about their photography. Often, their argument is, “If you buy X, you’ll eventually outgrow it and end up spending money replacing it.” True. I did that with my first car (and many cars thereafter) and my first house and subsequent homes. I also sold those cars and houses when I “upgraded.” And, I bought cars and houses I could truly afford and that fit my lifestyle and needs. Silly me.

Ultimately, the Gear Snob isn’t really interested in being helpful, he wants to boast that he has premium lenses, the most expensive camera model, the best camera bag, and other top-shelf equipment. Nothing wrong with that, but the user doesn’t want to be your Mini-Me. They wanted to know what features or brands were worth the money, and which were optional or could be passed on. The Gear Snob should have asked, “What’s your budget?”

There is an argument to be made for spending more money on better equipment. However, most of us gradually upgrade as we can afford and need to, and sell our old equipment to someone who can get good use from it. Most of us have other spending priorities and budget considerations. So, Gear Snobs, join us in the real world and concentrate on the photography, not the accessories.

Photographing the Begays: Monument Valley

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Mrs. Y. Begay, Monument Valley, UT

Before my second visit to photograph Monument Valley, I asked Phillips Tours, if they could arrange for me to photograph some residents, rather than limiting myself to landscapes. They agreed and, as it turned out I was able to photograph my guide, Ray Begay’s mother and father at their winter camp in Monument Valley. Ray had guided me three years before on sunrise and sunset photography tours of the Valley. During our tours we talked about life in the Valley, which extends far beyond what visitors see in the Tribal Park from the loop road. I was very pleased to travel with him again.

I was not completely comfortable with my request. I did not want the Begays to feel they were on display or were objects of curiosity. Instead, I wanted to capture who they were as people, if only for a few minutes. They live in the Valley closer to Kayenta, and have two camps, each with a hogan and pens for sheep, goats and horses. They move between them from summer to winter. Although they are within walking distance of each other, the two locations experience different weather during the warm and cold seasons. Mrs. Begay is a medicine woman and healer, and she advises Navajo visitors from all over northwest Arizona. Mr. Begay is a retired uranium miner and told me he was a cowboy. He chuckled when I complimented him for being a “handsome cowboy.”

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Mr. R. Begay, Monument Valley, UT

We met at their winter camp, where a fire in the small stove warmed the hogan to a comfortable temperature in the December chill. Mrs. Begay was working on a basket and I began shooting. A hogan is a small structure, maybe 20′ in diameter, and I decided to shoot with the limited natural light that came in from the door (which always faces east) and the stovepipe opening. I shot at ISO 2000 and came away with some good portraits. Mrs. Begay concentrated on her work and after about an hour I moved outside to photograph Mr. Begay, who was dressed in his finest clothing and turquoise jewelry.