My Two Books on Photographing the Utah National Parks Are in Print

The ebook I wrote on getting good photos is now available in print. For the print version, I broke the material down into two books, one on Photographing Zion and Bryce Canyon, the other for Photographing Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef.

These two aren’t coffee table books, there’s tons of detail on shot locations, composition, trails, etc., and publishing all that material on high grade photo paper would have cost $50+. So separating the content into two books got the price down.

I did take the opportunity to do some rewrites and to enhance the resolution on the ebook versions. But most of the work was just getting my print on demand publisher, Xlibris, to understand that a photo-related book requires more in the way of thoughtful layout and big images than the average novel or non-fiction.

Those of you who are into landscape photography of the Southwest will know how unique these Utah parks are. Each has tons of marquee locations that are worth a few hours of your time. And many of these locations really pull out the best in you as a photographer. That’s who so many photo master classes go to these spots.

I don’t try to make either book a comprehensive guide for the parks that are featured. There are plenty of books that list every little photo location. I am going for something more in-depth. I chose 6 or 8 locations at each park that will yield the most kick-ass shots. So for each location, I talk about the photo-related issues you’ll deal with to get an image you’ll be proud of.

The two books will be useful for anyone who is into photography regardless of the equipment they’re packing. And I avoid the tech-talk. Instead, each book reads like a conversation you might have with photo enthusiasts on a photo tour. But instead of a photo tour guide who has done all that research, I’ve pulled together the details.

Images from the book (plus alternative shots)

Zion National Park

 From Arches NP

Bryce Canyon

Additional Images 

Calf Canyon, near Escalante, Grand Staircase National Monument

Calf Canyon, near Escalante, Grand Staircase National Monument

Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands

Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands

Buck Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands

Buck Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands

Cathedrals of the Sun and Moon, Capital Reef National Park

Cathedrals of the Sun and Moon, Capital Reef National Park


To order from Amazon:

Photographing Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks

Photographing Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks


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.


The latest

Lots happening right now. In October, I did a research trip for a new book idea that would cover the classic Navajo Nation parks, Monarch Valley and Canyon de Chelly, and several Pueblo reservations in New Mexico. Going in the October/November time frame allowed me to get shots you can’t get at any other time of the year:

But in the middle of that work,  I had a conversation with one of the self-pub/epub vendors., ExLibris. Their sales rep caught up to me when I was on my way to Arizona. I’ll get to that later….

Print On Demand & eBook Publishing

Some of these self-pub companies take a fairly aggressive approach. And I have no issue with them for being sales-driven. There are probably a hundred competent publishers in the US self-pub/ebook marketplace now. The biggest publishers are subsidiaries of Amazon and Ingram, the print distribution giant. The rest of the publishers do what they can to survive.

For a narrow-cast writer like me, working with a big-five publisher can be a bad match (and yes, an improbability). So I need these independent publishers. I like the variety of business models they use. Some publishers who’ll do it all for you (except the writing). They do copy edit, layout, cover art — the stuff that gets the book in print, in eBook format, on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Nobles ebook site, etc.

And the full serve folks don’t stop there. They will do the press release and distribution. They do marketing, special events. And if you pay them enough, you can get the royal treatment — and never cover your initial costs.

Or you can work with Amazon’s or Ingram’s folks. And they want you to do almost all the heavy lifting. Though they are slowly expanding into the more full-service approach now.

I do have years of background in business marketing and have no trouble calling and emailing media outlets for book PR. But I also want to off-load much of the grunt work to focus on the fun stuff, writing, travel and foto shoots.

So I’ve ended up talking to the more full service folks and leveraging specific services if they offer a good price.

Talking to Antonio  

Anyway, Antonio’s company had my number from before my first book was published (eBook only) by Bookbaby.

And Antonio got me talking about my experience with Bookbaby. I didn’t go into all the ways Bookbaby screwed up. Not a pretty story.  But I wanted the ExLibris guy to suggest how I could do a print version on my Sacred Southwest book project that would be cheaper than the $50 Bookbaby had wanted for my Utah book — the reason I never did a print on demand version of my book.

Antonio listened to my crankiness and suggested we start by fixing the problem with the first book — since it never got a print edition. “The first book on the Utah National Parks was too long (180 pages) to do on photo-grade paper. But if you had split it into two, maybe 80 pages each, well that’s the sweet spot.”

That got my attention. The writing and photography were already done. Covering the 5 Utah parks in two books gets the price down to $20-$25 each. Two books means double the total possible sales. (I’m still in the hole, kids.) And a glossy photo-paper version is way more likely to get newspaper and Internet exposure.

So I’m stoked to be able to finally get my book out in a print version. The challenge is now I need to do more copy editing and get the content into the correct format.

How the Sausage Gets Made

Now the question comes up, how to get the two Utah photo/guide books ready for a full print treatment. The basic cut and paste thing is what ExLibris and Antonio prefer. They just want to get it out and move on to the next project. And with a basic approach, the obvious choice is Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in book one:

Then, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef (and Moab locations like Fisher Towers) end up in book two. That approach fits geographically, the two in Southern Utah and the three in central-east Utah. Plus that breakdown gives me books about the same length.

Both books will have a pile of iconic locations. And even splitting the content in two, I have tons of details on the best shoot locations, trails, composition, lighting.

The plan is to keep the wording of the Intro section almost the same for both books. That’s mostly general info on landscape photography and the book format. The content for each park is totally different, so that part’s easy. The Lightroom section can be repeated in both but the example used will be appropriate for that specific park.

But I don’t want these new print versions to be just like the old book. Doing a quick cut and paste for book one and two wold be way easier. But I’ve been moving more and more into a more personal blogging style in the last six months (especially with my Sacred Southwest writing) and I want some of that thinking to inform my Utah book edits.

So in the last month, I’ve done a full copy edit on the text of both new books, an adjustment that is making the writing cleaner and more personal. And instead of that “explainy” guidebook style, the writing is getting more descriptive and personal — even in the photo captions.

I’ve also been doing a re-edit on some of the Utah photos. Very minor touches in terms of Lightroom, a few little tweaks that give the shots more of a 3-D feel. And I’m thinking how these shots will need to display in a print book that’s landscape mode.

I should be able to keep both books in the $20 range even with 80-90 pages to the book. And if you’ve got great photos, why not sprinkle in as many as you can. I’ll probably add a few more trail shots as illustrations.

And in the end, these first two books could become my first steps into a new style of blog post. Kinda exciting.

Shooting Zion: The trail up to Subway

The Subway slot canyon is one of the iconic locations for American landscape photographers and I made it one of my core Zion recommendations in the Utah parks book. But there are lots of great shots on the trail up to Subway that give a sense of the area — and that I couldn’t fit in the book.


“If you want to shoot Subway, be prepared for some serious hiking. The park literature says, “This strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike requires route finding, stream crossing, and scrambling over boulders.” That description doesn’t begin to cover it. Essentially, you’re following a stream up the canyon to Subway. But this is a wilderness area, the trail isn’t marked….”                      from the book

At the beginning of the hike, you head several hundred feet down a steep trail till you get to the stream at the bottom of the hill. This bottom area is a canyon with bit of a trail on one side of the stream or the other leading up-valley to the Subway slot. And as the park literature tells you, there is “route finding” involved in figuring out the easiest was up this canyon. Classic understatement.

The bottom section of the hike wasn’t as interesting for me as a photographer. But in the last third of the hike, the canyon narrows and the only way up trail is over one or another of the numerous waterfalls — like the one above. I’m using the word “trail” here but by now, there is no trail. You’re walking up the stream bed for most of this section.

So the bottom line is, expect your shoes to be wet a lot. But also expect some excellent photo locations. The quiet spot below was a bit of a dead end– there’s no easy way over the boulders. But it was a nice detour.


This spot is closer to Subway:


By now the valley walls are too steep to hike so you have to make your way carefully over the algae-covered rock layers of the stream.

When you get to the spot below, you’re at the “cave” entrance.


Notice the way the walls curve at the bottom. That’s the reason Subway gets its name — because the erosion has carved a Subway-like groove in the rock.

It may not be obvious from the picture but the valley floor is all stream bed. At this time of year (mid-October), the water’s only an inch or two deep. In spring, water flow cranks up and can be an issue for hiking.

On the right side of this section of stream bed there’s a long fissure in the rock bottom that is a popular landscape photography subject. I chose a shutter speed of 1/10 sec at F-4 in order to enhance the sense of flow:


Now you’re ready to enter the slot canyon and start the shoot:


The guy with the tripod is standing in the general area where most Subway shots are taken from.

Here’s one of my alternative Subway shots:


The image I use in the book is a more abstract rendering of this unique slot canyon. But this version gives a better sense of the environment within the cave and the way the slot curves into the light.

My book version is here:

You can see David Muench’s shot of Subway as at the bottom of this page in his portfolio:

My new book goes into far more detail about the Subway trail, best time of day to shoot and the various composition issues. And I do similar treatments for 6-8 shooting locations in each of the Utah parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. But that’s all you get in this shameless teaser.

Expect the book in May

Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

The new travel/landscape photo book I’m doing is focused on getting 6 or 8 of the classic shots in each of the Utah National Parks: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. That meant that many of the lovely photo locations couldn’t be included. Zion in particular has a number of locations that are a bit off the beaten path. Here are a few.

Big Bend Area


Just west of the Big Bend bus stop is a grassy field between the river and the road. This shot (above) looks south towards the Weeping Rock area. The trail up to Observation Point and Hidden Canyon starts off up that mountain just left of center.

Same area (below) but looking south west towards the Angels Landing  area.


Heading down pass this grassland towards the read rocks gets you to the Virgin River. Looking south and down river:


Looking upriver towards the Temple of Sinawava:AN8A0336

Hidden Canyon

There’s also a fun hike that starts off at the Weeping Rock bus stop. You start off on the trail towards Observation Point but part way up that first set of zig-zags, take a right and follow signs for Hidden Canyon. It has a bit of vertical elevation but is far easier than doing Observation Point.

Shot from Hidden Canyon trail. Parts of this trail have an iron chain you can hold onto. But its never a nose-bleed hike like the one to Angels Landing.


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Zion NP: The Road Less Traveled

While preparing the Utah parks book, I discovered all kinds of photo locations that are a bit off the radar screen.

I did an entire evening light session with Seth Hamel, a photo guide working in the Springdale/Zion area. Here are a couple of spots he took me to. Far side of the Zion River Valley:


This spot didn’t make it into the book because I try to focus that project on photo locations that aren’t hard for the photographer to get to on their own. And this spot requires a bit of travel on a 4-wheel vehicle, it’s on BLM land. Just for reference, Utah Route 9 runs along that plateau and adjacent to those low peaks on the far side of the valley. So Hurricane, Utah, is in the area off to the far left.

This shot was taken in the hills just east of Springdale, Utah. From Route 9 heading towards Zion, you take one of the roads off to the left and head up and past a residential area.


Those of you who’ve been to the Zion Valley may recognize the view. These peaks are what someone at Court of the Patriarchs would see on the west side of the Valley.

I did an extensive interview with Seth Hamel for the book. He has some great insights on how to shoot the Valley and on composition in general. Here’s a few of his thoughts on shooting the area:

Shooting Zion can be a challenge, especially the contrast issues with the bright canyons and the shade. It’s tough for an outsider to know where the light will be good and when. I can be precise as to where to be and when to shoot – the time of day, the right season.

Another thing is, Zion is getting a world-wide reputation. So pros and advanced camera folks have Zion images in their portfolios. That means a lot of locations are overdone.

And as the local pro, I know some obscure areas, locations with great scenery that no one else is shooting. And having a quiet place to shoot gives the photographer an intimacy that changes the quality of an image.

After all, photographers want that emotional connection to a spot. And that’s easier when you’re alone and not stacked up next to 5 other tripods.

Seth and I also did a day-long photo session in The Narrows. And having someone along who knows where the best light is for that time of year was a huge help. His experience meant I just needed to focus on getting the shots I wanted.

I will do a blog on the ins and outs of working with various photo guides — including the great landscape photographer David Muench, in a few days. I have a 4 day session with David starting this Sunday. Some of his iconic shots can be found here:


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Utah Parks Book: Notes on Adjusting Shutter Speed for Shooting a River

Zion is the most popular of the Utah National Parks. And the classic location of the Virgin River and Watchman is likely the most photographed. When shooting a river or stream, the flowing water can evoke various moods depending on how you adjust your shutter speed.

Getting There: Zion NP is in southern Utah about 40 miles off of Interstate 15. You get onto Utah Route 9 and at the far end of the resort town of Springdale, you’ll find the park. For most of the year, the park is accessed by the park buses. So park at the Visitor Center, hop on the shuttle and get off just after the Canyon Junction bus stop (just past the bridge over the river). Walk back to the bridge and set up on the south side and away from the road.

The shot is of the river below, and in the distance, The Watchman, one of the iconic Zion peaks. The best time for the shot is sunset. If you just want the picture, you don’t need a tripod. But if you want to play with shutter speed, you kinda need a tripod and a cable release (or you camera’s timer function).

So let’s assume we’ve found a spot on the bridge and gotten a composition and zoom level we like. (I talk about lighting and composition in the book and that’s too much to put into a blog post.) What might our initial shot look like with no special shutter speed chosen:


Focal Length-32mm, F-6.3, Exposure 1/40th of a second

Notice that at 1/40, the stream is totally frozen, no discernible blur. You’re getting lots of colors in the water from the trees and sky. And every little ripple and detail of that stream is clear.

Now let’s crank up the shutter speed to half a second:


Focal Length-40mm, F-5.6, Exposure .5 second

Now, don’t look at the photographer who wandered into my shot. And I won’t tell you what all the photographers on the bridge were saying while he stood there for 20 minutes. We’re just looking at the water.

And at half a second, the water no longer has as much detailing. You’re eye doesn’t get as caught up in the minute ripples. But there’s still plenty of detailing in the surface of the stream. In fact if I hadn’t added the shutter speed setting, the viewer would assume this image is pure stop action.

Now lets go long.


Focal Length-32mm, F-22, Exposure 8 seconds

Obviously 8 seconds is a lot. And you can’t make this shot work if there’s any wind. But the river still looks like a real river. All the standing waves are there as are the reflections. But the minute texturing of individual waves is gone, especially in areas without rocks.

Essentially what we’re doing is showing the eye how a river looks in time. In fact, we could take a shot with a 60 minute shutter speed and we’d still see the same set of standing waves. And subjectively, the shot does evoke more of a timeless feel than it did with a faster shutter.

Is the shot as “honest” as one with a fast shutter? Is a slower or longer shutter speed more true to life? That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question is, how does the viewer respond to a given image. If the change doesn’t seem weird or “fakey” to the viewer then the photograph will work for them. — The willing suspension of disbelief, to quote Aristotle.

The second question is, what’s the effect I’m going for? That’s ultimately what matters. I go back and forth on how much I want to push the shutter speed. For some river situations, a slow shutter focuses too much attention to the turbulence. But in a slow moving river that’s not an issue. Generally most viewers don’t mind the effect.

But this is just one element in a larger set of artistic considerations. In this shot I was trying to capture a feeling I have about Zion, that when I come, I’m in a timeless place. And the image gives me some of that feeling– a tranquil river flowing through a place that has been this way always.

But each of us has to make that shutter speed choice (and all our compositional issues) based on the mood we want to share in that shot. And there’s nothing wrong with exploring your choices.

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