Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Night in Monument Valley

Last spring I had a chance to take the VW bus to Monument Valley with hopes of getting some night photography. Of course some sunset photos would be in store, but they seem pretty cliche. Pretty, but cliche. I have a theory about cliche photos. Although everybody has taken the same (or similar) photograph, or tried to emulate a famous photograph (a la Ansel Adams), the image may be considered cliche. I only consider it cliche if I have taken the same photo, without adding any additional element personality or processing. The drive there was long, and although the weather called for clear skys, we were having a particularly windy spring. 50 -60 mph winds seemed the norm around there, and as far as Flagstaff. It lasted for a month and a half, and we were not spared from the wrath during this trip. The first night we checked in to the primitive campground, and found a spot down and along the edge of the rim. We were so close to the edge there was no way any campers would be parking in front of us. We poped the top and a couple of beers, and settled down with a perfect view of the Mittens.

The rest of the campground had views of us ( how rude huh?). In reality we were in a bonefied site, with a fire ring et al. It's just the 30 ft deisel pushers couldn't dream of driving to where we were, and we had gotten there early enough to claim such a spot. I roamed around a bit, trying out different compositions for the night shots I was planning once the sun set. We were getting hungry once the sun started hanging low in the sky, the wind was blowing maybe more than gently. After dinner I set up for sunset and grabbed a couple of 'cliche' shots, shooting until the sun was at the horizon, lengthening the shadow of the giant monuments, and bathing the scene in a red glow. After sunset I set up a shot I thought would be great for a star trail shot. I grabbed my favorite wide angle, a Vivitar Komine A1 f2.0 close focus 28mm lens. It is one of those legendary lenses from the full frame film age, for the Pentax 35mm camera. Crystal clear and wide opened I took the first of my frames after the sun had set and the first stars were visible. Leaving the shutter open for 5 minutes at that time, referred to as 'civil twilight,' captured the Mittens with a bit of glow on them. This left some detail in the foreground and on the rock face, so I might blend it later in Photoshop. I poped open a couple more beers and waited until 'astronomical twilight' arrived. This is when there is no light refleced off the atmosphere, and when the stars will be the brighest. enter the irony. Although I was situated at the furthest campsite to the edge of the canyon, I wasn't going to be alone. Some Asian campers pulled up at this time, and parked thier overloaded Ford Escort about a foot off my front bumper. They began unpacking thier gear and walking down the hill each with ther own headlamp shining and bouncing up & down. This was, of course happening while I was shooting. I guess karma got me back for parking in front of all the big motorhomes, detracting from thier view. Each frame had headlamp trails streaking through them. I kept shooting, knowing that photoshop might be able to save me. The next day we drove through the park, on our self guided tour, scoping out possible additional star trail photo ops. There was the three sisters, Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei , The Thumb, and of course the Valley floor. I decided to start with Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei, and see what I can fit in from there.The sun went down and the wind kicked up.

 It was blowing at a pretty good clip, stirring up dust into huge clouds. I set up on the leeward side of the van, and threw caution to the wind. I took ten 5 minute shots, not worring about the dust getting in my weather sealed Pentax (just don't try to change lenses). I didn't know that the end result would be a capture of dust clouds, and intermittent star trails. It was an effect that I couldn't have re-created if I wanted. It just goes to show that any kind of weather can help make an interesting image. It probably wouldn't have been as cool without the dust clouds. It reminds me of the Tv series "Land of the Lost". The cable relase got kind of gritty, but a session with the rocket blower seemed to fix it. With that session 'in the tin' I moved on looking for my next subject. Then the wind started to blow. And blow. The wind was blowing so fast that the dust from my tires was passing me. I decided to bunker down for the night. We slept in the van, being shaken all night by the gusts. After a few hours of disturbed sleep I got up and moved to get a better view of the valley for sunrise.

I found a nice vantage point, and shot a number of different comps. My favorite was a large red rock that sort of mimmicked the contour of the valley monuments. The day broke and the wind never let up. We pulled up stakes and made our way to Page, as we had a tour booked for Antelope Canyon. That drive was interesting. It was more like floating a boat, than driving. That is a story for a different day .

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