Photographing Monument Valley

Monument Valley has been the embodiment of the American Southwest in the popular culture since John Ford began making his Westerns there (starting with Stagecoach).  And the visual impact of the place has been drawing photographers even since. To fully access these unique shoot locations, a tour is a necessity.

The landscape photographer Josef Muench photographed the area in the early days and throughout his career with Arizona Highways magazine. Muench’s images of the place were what Harry Goulding used in the 1930s to convince John Ford to shoot his next film there. Ansel Adams photographed there. David Muench (Josef’s son) just put out a nice Monument Valley photo book that’s a useful overview for anyone who wants location ideas.

There are several unique shooting spots to Monument Valley: 1. the “View” location is on the hilltop where the hotel of that name is located. 2. The dirt road that goes into the tribal park takes general visitors to several other classic spots including John Ford Point (below). 3. Monument Valley tours go to places like Big Hogan and Ear of the Wind not on that main tourist road. 4. Locations like Mystery Valley, Tear Drop Arch and Agathlan are not in the main valley but are equally representative of this sacred place. For more images of Monument Valley.

Key Park Areas

The View

The View, Left Mitten, Right Mitten and Merrick Butte

John Ford Point

The dirt road into Monument Valley as seen from John Ford Point.

Big Hogun

Big Hogun, a location that’s covered on many of the tours.

Mystery Valley locations (above) are just south of Monument Valley in a separate section of the park. This area includes that has some of the best ruins, ones originally built by the ancient Puebloans. This area also requires a tour to access.

Creative Approach

Creatively, the sweet spot for Monument Valley is to break the shot down to its simplest visual components, earth, monolith, sand, sky. Then remove every extraneous element.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Essentials of Monument Valley, monolith and sand.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Totem Pole Silhouetted by Sunrise

Three Sisters, Looking West

Three Sisters, Monument Valley, Sunset. Shot out the back of the tour jeep.

None of these compositions is too complex. But hopefully, the visual journey is clear. The huge stone columns and buttes carry much of the visual interest simply by being so iconic. That’s one reason so many of the structures seem recognizable, the Sisters, Totem Pole, Mittens, etc. Because each is so definitive, even archetypal, when strewn across this ancient valley.

Of course, the photographer has to bring their own vision to the Valley, put elements into relationship, throw the monoliths into relief as light works its magic. Part of this skill is just showing up when the light is more distinctive, part is weighing the compositional elements thoughtfully.

Framing the Chess Pieces

To me, Monument Valley is like a chess board populated by monolith, butte, mesa. As you cover the park, different elements come to the fore or retreat into the middle distance. Your work is to put these archetypal monuments into the context of a composition.

Cedar and Sunset

The sand dune section, just west of Totem Pole, has the softest textures in the Valley, especially at sunrise or set.

With photograph above, I found a spot where the mesa anchored a line of buttes receding into the sunset.  To balance that relationship off, I shifted my location to include a twisted cedar, rooting the foreground into the composition.

Agathan, After. Breaking down the image not components, clouds, mountain, road and fence, field. But using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Agathlan. To emphasize the compositional elements (clouds, mountain, fence, field), I used differing LR tools for the differing sections.

Agathlan, a volcanic plug on 163 between the Valley and Kayenta, has its own quiet power. I used the fence line and a simple Rule of Thirds structure to provide context.

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Here the foreground is a flat sand dune juxtaposed with receding monoliths. The sunset  side-lighting adds depth.


The Valley is high desert and if you go in the spring or fall, you’ll often find one “weather event” after another bearing down on you in the course of a day. That can make for less comfortable photo experience, maybe even damp clothing (oh, no). But harsh weather makes for a far more powerful image than the typical summer day — the image emerges out of wind, snow, light.


Snow blows off Merrick Butte

This shot of the Valley “View” and the image of Ear of the Wind (below) take on some mystery because of the stormy conditions.


Bare tree branches tear into a foreboding sky at Ear of the Wind.

The image below is a solid composition but the dark clouds focus the eye towards the direction of the sunset, as does the play of light on the sand dunes and buttes.

Bending towards Sunset

The storm blew over just soon enough to get a few images with attitude.


Lightroom: Painting with Textures

One of the great challenges of photography is to add range and dimensionality to 2-D digital images — and more challenging, to Raw images that already have a flat appearance.

I have a whole section on how to add dimensional complexity to landscape photos in my new book, Photographing Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks. And I’ve continued to explore this tool set in my latest images, taken in Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Here are a few examples:

Agathlan: The Flatness of Midday Light 

Everyone knows that mid-afternoon light is deadly. Sure, the best solution is to be at a spot when the light is right.  But lots of times, that’s when you’re doing a tour or seeing the sights. Lightroom can’t totally solve the problem, but the image elements can be given far more texture and physicality with a few tricks.


Agathlan, Before. Raw image straight out of the camera. I like the composition but the mid-afternoon light flatness everything out.

This image (above) is a decent composition but without as much visual interest as it might have. So I broke the composition down into it’s key elements: the volcanic peak, field, fence and road, afternoon clouds. And I came up with this LR variation.

Agathan, After. Breaking down the image not components, clouds, mountain, road and fence, field. But using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Agathlan, After. Breaking down the image into components. By using differing LR tools for the differing sections, the structural elements take on their own unique dynamism.

Obviously the sky has been darkened using one of the “Big Sky” presets I got from the Kelby folks. But there’s more happening. Look at how the cumulous have pulled away from the background cloud cover.

Now compare the textures in the mountain, how each outcrop has more depth and rawness. I could get some roughness in the rocks by doing a global Clarity adjustment in LR. But it wouldn’t have been as nuanced that way and a global adjustment would have also given the field an edgy quality and I didn’t want that.

So with both clouds and rock, I selected an area and essentially painted the internal elements of that feature with the Adjustment brush. Lots and lots of little brushstrokes that have extra Clarity, Contrast and Sharpness. I did something similar with the barbed wife fence since I wanted that leading line to have more visual impact. But for other elements, I actually backed off the Clarity and added a tiny amount of Contrast and Saturation.

Monument Valley: Selective Impact

I used a similar approach with the view you see going into Monument Valley. Instead of the standard vista you get as you drive into the Valley, of Left and Right Mittens, I went for a shot you don’t see so much, of Left Mitten and, to its right, King on Throne and the Castle. Here’s the original Raw image.

Left Mitten, King, Castle

This alignment of the bristly pine and the three buttes was what I wanted but the sky and books had gotten flat.

I used a preset to darken the sky to where it should be. Now you can actually see the thick rain clouds that were blowing through. I also gave texture to the pine  with the Adjustment Brush and my usual mix of Clarity, Contrast and here, negative Exposure. It’s a great foreground element and it needed presence to compete with the Mitten.

I also did some Adjustment Brush work on the three buttes — but not as a whole unit. Instead, I treated each piece of each monolith as a separate column. The eye still has a clear direction into the image — from foreground pine to Mitten to King to Castle. But each element has been give far more complexity and the eye ends up exploring far more.


Left Mitten, King on Throne and Castle. These Monument Valley features got a similar treatment as Agathon in order to deepen the mood and add impact.

In a way, I’m just pulling out more information about the different visual elements here, especially the blown out sky. But these adjustments are doing more than “fixing” something. I’m telling the eye, these are the key elements that you should include in your journey. And by treating each element separately, the sense of space between each butte becomes more defined. And I’m doing it in a way that is closer to the reality of that stormy moment than the camera was picking up.

Adjusting the Light

I’m using the same technique here. But in this image, most of the elements are too dark — which mutes color and hides the compositional dynamics.

A storm front coming in at sunset flattens the rich colors and hides too much of.

A storm front coming in at sunset flattens the rich colors and hides too much of.

I lightened up the fields and highway, added texture to the butte and added contrast to the sky, all with local adjustments. I also eliminated some of the buildings on the left so the highway lines are cleaner.

Monument Valley

Rainy Day in the Valley



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