Great American Southwest 9-Day Photography Workshop - October 2013 | Sojourn Series, Aperture Academy

Great American Southwest 9-Day Photography Workshop - October 2013

Great American Southwest Photography Workshop class

A total of nine days, seven hotels, three states, five national parks, one state park, three Navajo tribal parks, a few roadside stops, miles of hiking, nearly 1500 miles driven... and more than 20 shooting locations in all! The Great American Southwest Sojourn is like taking a jam-packed, whirlwind family vacation, only without the family, because it's all about great photography in some of the most beautiful and iconic areas the American Southwest has to offer!

DAY 1 - Our incredible adventure began at 7PM on a lovely, warm Las Vegas evening. Scott Donschikowski and I met our ten students at Dick's Last Resort at the Excalibur Resort and Casino. With some beer and wine, we spent a bit of time getting to know one another amid the hootin' and hollerin' of this lively setting.

After our introductions, everyone gathered at one of the hotel entrances and prepared for a nice walk around the city for some night photography of some of the famous landmarks. The Sphinx and pyramid of the Luxor Hotel were our starting point, then long exposures of car lights on the strip, details of brightly lit architecture, and of course, the Bellagio fountains were all explored. Scott and I helped students with the best camera settings at each of the locations visited. While some were tired from their trip to Las Vegas and returned to the hotel, others opted to continue late into the night capturing as many spectacles as possible.

DAY 2 - We all enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel buffet, then checked out and met at the ApCab van, where we had our first foray into loading all of our camera gear and luggage to begin the first full day in our Great American Southwest adventure. Scott did an awesome job of arranging and securing the luggage and everyone found room for their camera gear on the back shelves of the van.

The morning was clear and slightly cool as we headed north on I-15. While still recovering from the government shutdown, which closed our national parks, we were forced to go to "plan B" skipping our first intended location and opting for the beautiful Zion National Park, only recently re-opened by the State of Utah. As we made our way to the park, we were greeted by a lovely array of fall color complimenting the red rock canyons.

After reaching Zion, we settled ourselves into the hotel, then headed out for a sunset shoot along the Virgin River near the famous bridge. Though skies were clear, the fall colors and orange glow of sunset on the Watchmen peaks framed the river and gave everyone a chance to capture some beautiful shots.

Scott and I drove our group back into town to enjoy dinner and camaraderie at a couple of the great restaurants in Springdale before returning to the hotel for a good night sleep.

DAY 3 - Up before dawn, we drove into Zion with hopes of catching a nice sunrise at the Court of the Patriarchs. The shuttle buses hadn't started their run, but we knew we couldn't leave the van at the bus stop. Scott had to drop us off, go park the van, and hike about two miles back to meet us. It was a bit of a chilly fall morning, but we had the entire area to ourselves as the light began to hit the peaks.

We then explored the river side, capturing golden leaves and the cascades of waterfalls. After spending a long and productive morning, we caught the shuttle back to the van, returning to town for a nice breakfast. Afterwards, we gathered ourselves once again to begin our next journey over to Bryce Canyon National Park. It was a lovely drive and we made a quick photo stop at Red Canyon for some hoodoo shots.

We all had a short break at the hotel before heading over to Inspiration Point for sunset. There was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and capture the final light of the sun bouncing off the hoodoos at canyon's edge. I so enjoyed the ooohs, ahhhs, and even tears, from those of our group having never seen this grand spectacle of the Southwest. The awe and excitement became even more palpable as the full moon rose over the distant mountains, framed by a thick band of blue and pink of Venus' Belt on the edge of our atmosphere. Scott and I had great fun running between students, helping them with compositions and exposures to make the best of this fabulous event before the darkness overcame us. With a few more incredible images on their memory cards, we drove the short distance back to town for dinner and sleep in preparation for our next morning's adventure.

DAY 4 - Bryce Point was our morning destination, where the wide views of the amphitheater and golden morning light did not disappoint as it danced across the hoodoos. Back lighting from the sun created an almost candlelight glow on the brighter tips of the sandstone spires which all of our students captured beautifully.

Scott and I continued to move about helping them with their compositions, apertures, shutter speeds, and white balance in the changing morning light. It was a bit melancholy having to part with such an inspiring place as Bryce Canyon, but we had a long drive ahead of us on the next leg of our sojourn.

Breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, fruit, protein bars and juice was served on the run, in the van. We weren't going to waste any time getting to our next destination! We had the pleasure of viewing the most beautiful diversity of the state of Utah as we traveled along highways 12 and 24, from the red rock deserts to high pine and aspen covered mountains.

Soon lunch time rolled around, so we picked up some sandwiches in the small town of Torrey, and took them a few more miles through Capitol Reef where we stopped for a roadside lunch and giving our student's a chance to capture fall colors and petroglyphs along the Fruita Historical District. There were so many great photo ops along this route, it was hard not to stop for more, but we needed to get to Moab in time for a sunset shoot at Arches National Park.

We rolled in with just enough time to check into our hotel, rest for about thirty minutes, then head off to the park for sunset at Balanced Rock. The air was still warm and there were just a few wispy clouds... enough to pick up some lovely pinks in the sky as the sandstone took on the glowing orange and red of sunset. Scott and I helped our students find a variety of spots to shoot from in the area as they all enjoyed short hikes and exploring compositions from Balanced Rock to the low, twisted junipers of the landscape.

With even more memory cards filled, we drove to town finding a couple of nice restaurants for dinner, then back to the hotel, as we all needed a good sleep for a very early rise the next morning.

DAY 5 - We met in the lobby of our hotel at 4:00AM. Breakfast items and coffee were already available for the hearty souls ready to take on this new challenge. It's about a 40 minute drive over to Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, but we wanted to get there while the stars were still in the sky and the waning full moon was still lighting up the arch and canyons below.

It worked beautifully, and we were the first to arrive, giving Scott and I enough time to help everyone set up and get test shots, check focus, compositions, and finally shoot the stars through and above the arch with the canyons lit below. As the stars began to fade and the light of dawn approached, it was time to move everyone closer to our subject and get the iconic shot with a rising sunstar between the arch. By now, about three or four other photographers were on scene, but there was room enough for everyone shoulder to shoulder and tripod legs entwined.

Once again, everyone got exactly what they had come for as camera shutters clicked furiously over the course of a few minutes and the most amazing images were seen on the backs of their cameras with the iconic glowing orange arch and sunstar beyond. Happy with their conquest, our group gathered at the van for a picnic-stye breakfast and shop talk before the short drive over to Dead Horse Point State Park.

More amazing views of the Colorado River, Goosenecks, Shafer Canyon Trail, and Potash Road below could be seen and captured as our students enjoyed wandering along the mesa in the cool morning air.

Scott and I drove everyone back to the hotel with instructions for a good long rest as we had a bit of a hike up to Delicate Arch for that evening's sunset. We made it back into Arches National Park with time to spare as our group began the 1-1/2 mile hike up the slick rock at their individual paces.

Our students all found spots they liked, and set up for what was looking like a lovely evening amid a large crowd of families and photographers looking forward to the sunset event as well. Once again, it did not disappoint as the arch and terrain took on the gold and orange of late evening and clouds in the sky blushed with pink. From wide angle to mid-range zoom shots, students enjoyed their captures of the glowing arch with the snow capped La Sal Mountains in the distance.

Everyone was so proud and happy with the long day's conquests, our crew decided a very nice dinner at a very nice restaurant was in order. Boy, were we hungry, and we did not skip on dessert, either! After a lot of good laughs and camaraderie it was time once again to retire to our hotel rooms and prepare for yet another full day of adventure through the beautiful Southwest.

DAY 6 - We began this day sleeping in just a bit, then packed up the van in record time, for by now our group had it down to a science of what went where and how. We stopped at a local market for lunch items, then headed south of Moab to our first of the day's outings... to House on Fire.

I was afraid we'd spent too much time shopping and thought we might be too late getting to the ancient granaries before the sun got too high so I hiked quickly ahead...and missed the trail up to the ruins! Thankfully, not everyone was as far along as I, and within a few minutes we were all back at the ruins with plenty of time to shoot in just the right conditions.

There were only two other photographers there and our group was instructed on etiquette, which allows the first on the scene to set the stage and to work around them. Scott and I helped our group in capturing the fiery orange glow of the textured sandstone, setting the appropriate white balance and using a wide angle lens to help draw out the "flames" so famous at this location. Before leaving, I was also sure to point out the pictographs of the "hands that built" House on Fire.

The sun was warm and the air still cool as we made the one mile hike back to the van and drove just up the road for a picnic lunch in the shade of a kiva exhibit. Once on the road again, we made a stop at Muley Point, and though the afternoon sun worked against us, it was still a great view and our hearty group of Southwest photographers found plenty of opportunity for compositions on the mesa with the iconic Monument Valley in the distance.

The final leg of our trip for the day included driving down the graded switchbacks of the Moki Dugway as we made our way to the valley. It was another lovely afternoon and The View Hotel was welcoming. This time we didn't have to hike or travel anywhere for sunset and following a bit of rest, we all met at the iconic boulders just off the parking lot. We managed to get another shot with most of our group before finding their chosen compositions along the mesa.

We only had clouds to the west, which grew pink in the fading light, when I noticed the most amazingly rare occurrence as anti-crepuscular rays began to frame the Mittens and Merrick Butte. They started out faint as I rushed around instructing students to lengthen their exposures with low ISOs and small apertures to bring out the rays, then they grew stronger, beaming above the earth's shadow, allowing everyone to capture this amazing event. Beautiful images appeared on camera displays until the final light faded and we all gathered for another great dinner together to cap off another successful day of Southwest landscape photography. While some chose an early bedtime, others ran out into the night to catch the stars and moonrise behind the iconic buttes.

DAY 7 - Monument Valley provided a low-key morning as we met again just outside the hotel. The eastern skies were clear, and the sun rose quickly beyond the vast expanse of red rock desert, but everyone was treated to sunstars of gold and yellow behind Merrick Butte at the dawning of the day.

Scott and I had promised our group the now famous "Forrest Gump" shot at mile 13 just outside the Navajo Tribal Park... and I'm so glad we did it. Our students captured the long road leading to the famous buttes in the best morning light with beautiful clouds in the distance. Everyone had fun running on and off the highway getting their shots, and some even seemed to enjoy playing "chicken" with the passing motorists while I played traffic cop.

Back at the hotel, we relished a leisurely breakfast before packing up again for our journey over to Page, AZ, and saying good bye to the beautiful state of Utah. Being well rested, the chatter in the van was jovial with conversation running the gamut from photography to the many adventures we'd experienced so far along our Sojourn.

Beating our check-in time, we stopped again for lunch items and had a picnic at the Wahweap Marina overlook, just past the Glen Canyon Dam. The blue waters of Lake Mead sparkled in the afternoon sun as we enjoyed our company on a warm and breezy afternoon. Getting settled into our hotel and having a little time for rest, everyone was ready for our next great outing just a few miles down the road at Horseshoe Bend.

This is a difficult place to photograph even in the best conditions, but without the clouds at sunset, our students still managed to pull it off, getting some wonderful shots of the huge gooseneck carved by the Colorado River. Getting on the edge with a super wide angle lens was a cake walk for some, while others chose to stay back just a bit. Scott and I were there to help our students make the best of the conditions at hand, and ultimately, everyone achieved some nice shots and appreciated yet another fantastic experience.

Celebrating their accomplishments yet again, we all dined at a great Mexican restaurant (with really funky chairs) with excellent food and sublime conversation. Nearing the final stage of our Southwest Sojourn, the margaritas and mojitos flowed and added enjoyably to the boisterous ambiance.

DAY 8 - Our one last day to sleep in just a bit, we then packed up the van and checked out of our hotel, driving a few miles south of Page, AZ, before entering the amazing Lower Antelope Canyon. Scott and I assisted students with white balance and composition while pointing out some landmarks in this fabulous slot canyon maze of colors and textures.

Jaws dropped upon entering, and most people find it difficult to get past the first 25' without finding a multitude of compositions, as the light is constantly changing. Near the end of our two hour exploration, we gathered the group to capture a classic beam of light by the formation known as the Lady of the Wind.

Scott scooped up handfuls of sand to throw into the air along the beam to help it stand out as a wonderful glowing mist against the warm colors of the sandstone. Shutters clicked away and happy yet again with their accomplishments and experience, we drove our amazingly talented photographers to our final destination along the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Once in the park, we had our last picnic lunch at the Desert View overlook, then drove to the town of Tusayan to check in to our hotel. Our rooms were not ready, but this intrepid and resourceful group gathered themselves and prepared for the cooler temps of the high plateau as we returned to Desert View for what turned out to be one of the richest sunsets Scott and I had ever seen here!

Polarizing and graduated neutral density filters were used to maintain details in the shadowed Colorado River Canyon while capturing the deep orange and reds of sunset bursting through the clouds. It was insanely beautiful and everyone in our group achieved some truly noteworthy shots for their final sunset on this grand adventure. Just one more morning to go and it was back to town for a final dinner and sleep for our nearly exhausted crew.

DAY 9 - We were up early for our last morning shoot at Mather Point in the Grand Canyon. It was very cloudy with a few patches of blue and a few sprinkles of rain, but our students were undeterred and hiked out to the point. Light began to peek through the clouds in the east and although it did not produce the drama we had hoped for, some lovely pink carried through highlighting patches of virga hanging below the storm.

A few questions and assistance were still addressed, but this fabulous group of students had found their groove getting the desired comps and exposures as they spread out over the rim to achieve just one more Great American Southwest image over a pastel morning landscape. We had time enough for a leisurely breakfast before gathering our belongings and loading up the ApCab van one last time as we then drove everyone to the Flagstaff airport.

Because we had become good friends during our shared adventures, the good-byes were bittersweet... but we all planned to keep in touch and continue to share images of our wonderful adventures together.

Scott and I thank each and every one of you for your patience, resilience, and great humor! We had so much fun with all of you and were so happy to see the many wonderful shots you came away with under some fantastic conditions in some of the Southwest's most beautiful locations. We are also very pleased we could share and experience them with you!

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