Blue Moon at Monument Valley

A once in a blue moon event! A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month, and it is doubly rare that this December it falls on New Year’s eve. I was at Monument Valley to shoot this rare occasion. I was out at sunset and waited for the moon to rise over the horizon. As this was the first time I tried shooting a moonrise, it was quite an experience. I had to shoot at one place, and then every minute or so I had to move about 3 feet down to follow the moon’s path over the Mittens. I had to do this shoot-move-shoot sequence many times over the course of an hour or so. You can call it “chasing for the moon”!:-) Yes, it was cold to be out shooting with temperatures in the 20s (deg F), but what a way to end the old year and welcome the new.

Peace, happiness to all in 2010!


Arizona Perspective IV – Slot Canyons

A slot canyon is a narrow deep canyon formed by water and wind. That’s the geological definition. For the photographer, it is a subterranean theater of light where a play of shifting sunlight and shadows cast purple, orange and red hues on sensuous canyon walls.

On my road trips to North Arizona, I visited 3 slot canyons located on the Navajo Reservation, just outside Page – Upper and Lower Antelope and Canyon X. The three canyons are part of Antelope Creek which drain into Lake Powell. Each canyon is unique but all are equally captivating.

Upper Antelope Canyon

The Navajos call Upper Antelope, Tse’ bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through rocks”. Its entrance is at ground level so it is easy to walk into the canyon. Hence, Upper Antelope attracts quite a crowd, especially in summer.

This was the first slot canyon I had been to and I was overwhelmed by the towering sandstone wall rising some 120 feet (37 meters) above me. It took some time before my eyes adjusted to the shifting light and multicolored layered rocks.

One of the highlights of my December visit happened just when we were leaving the canyon. Our Navajo guide, Davon took out his wooden flute and played. Suddenly, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen and immerse in this magical moment. His music, raw and pure, echoed through the canyon, haunting and melodious. A beautiful and timeless moment!

Lower Antelope Canyon

Carolyn Lim: Other Scenes - USA &emdash; Entrance to Lower Antelope

From above Lower Antelope is a long crevice in the ground. From this unlikely entrance, you descend into its gallery of sculptured light.

Known as Hasdestwazi, or “spiral rock arches” by the Navajos, Lower Antelope is made more interesting by its many twisting canyon passages. You need to do some climbing up and down metal stairs and at times, squeeze through narrow passages.

Antelope Canyon is so called because pronghorn antelopes used to graze and roam in the area. For Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, you drive to the entrance gates and wait for the Navajo guides and pay the admission fees. For Upper Antelope Canyon, a Navajo guide will drive you from the carpark to the canyon in their 4WD vehicles. For Lower Antelope, you simply hike from the carpark to one of the several points where you can climb down into the canyon. For more information and admission fees to Antelope Canyon, click here.

Canyon X

This is a more remote and less visited slot canyon as Overland Canyon Tours is the only outfitter allowed to bring groups into this canyon. The number of visitors entering the canyon at a time is limited to 6-8. Going into Canyon X starts with a 30 minute drive from Page through rugged rocks and sand. It takes more effort to get to this canyon as you need to hike down a steep trail and walk along a wash before reaching the slot. Charley Moore and Jackson Bridges of Overland Canyon Tours are wonderful photography guides as they know when and where the light is streaming through the canyon and will bring you to the appropriate section.

Shooting in a slot canyon is challenging. At times, there are other visitors and you have to be patient and wait for them to pass. By and large, most visitors are courteous and will wait for you to complete your shot before moving through. It is also neck breaking as most of the time you are shooting up in constrained places. Here are some photography tips I learned from my slot canyon experience:

  1. Use a tripod
  2. Bring your cable release because of long exposures
  3. Look for patterns, shapes and forms
  4. Avoid very bright areas of the rocks in your compositions
  5. Bracket your shots
  6. Deactivate the auto flash
  7. Use a camera cover to protect your camera from the fine sand (a shower cap does the work too)
  8. Bring plenty of patience

Note: Visiting a canyon can be dangerous if you are not careful. Always check the weather report for storms as a flash flood can a deadly hazard turning the otherwise dry desert into a raging torrent of water. In August 1997, 11 tourists were killed in the canyon during a flash flood. Keep a lookout for scorpions and rattlesnakes which are commonplace in this desert habitat. Also be respectful of the place as slot canyons are hallowed and sacred grounds for the Navajos.

Sculptured by water, wind and light, the slot canyon walls are stone tapestries of nature’s handiwork, always changing, always different. So take your time to explore and let the rocks speak to you. You’ll be surprised by the patterns you see in the rocks.

If you would like to view more of my slot canyon photos, click here.

Arizona Perspective III – Paria Plateau

It was a cold early December start at 4 a.m. for a 2-hour drive into the back country to the Paria Wilderness. It snowed the night before so the wilderness was layered with fresh snow. I was thrilled even though it meant braving the cold freezing temperature. I had seen photos of the Paria Plateau but nothing prepared me for what I was going to see at first hand.

The access road to South Coyote Buttes area is known for its deep sand and many vehicles have been stuck especially during the summer season. Since it was winter and the ground was frozen, we had no problems. Even then, driving the road (if you can call it a road) in the dark can be quite challenging. But Charly, from Overland Canyon Tours, knew the area like the back of his hand. We made it to South Coyote Buttes without any mishaps although there was a harrowing moment when Charly had to skilfully negotiate the SUV between huge boulders that had fallen on the narrow House Rock Valley Road and the cliff edge.

Nevertheless, we made it to South Coyote Buttes with plenty of time to spare to catch the first light on the Cottonwood Tepees.

I hiked into the Paria Wilderness, braving almost zero degree temperatures and wind chill. I was awe-struck with the swirling, twisted red sandstone that contrasted with the white snow. At times, it seemed eerie with the blowing wind and snow flurries dancing across the deserted bizarre landscape. No words can adequately describe this wild land. This is raw nature at its best!

Later at midday, Charly drove to another breathtaking location – White Pocket. Carved by wind and water, the whole area is a mosaic of colorful swirling sandstone, checkered board rocks, hexagonal bedrock that is almost brainlike – an amazing cacophony of rock shapes, patterns and colors! Photographer Gary Ladd aptly described the area as preposterously photogenic. For me, it is simply out of this world!

Charly Moore, the guide of the day, is quite a character. A tattoo artist and owner of the outfitter company, Charly has an intimate knowledge of and is passionate about the area. For the day trip, Charly did not provide just a brown bag lunch. He prepared a delicious spread of tuna salad, pumpernickel bread, cheese, lunch meat, green apples, and piping hot chocolate. Quite a gourmet meal for dinning in the outback! I can’t wait to sample Charly’s fillet mignon which is on his menu for an overnight camping trip.:-)

The only thing that spoiled an otherwise perfect day in the Paria Wilderness was seeing the pristine area dotted with black lumps. Can you guess what they were?

Yes, there were dung…cow dung all over! It seems that the authorities have allowed free range cattle to roam the area. Ironically, the area is protected and restricted to limited visits by people (read about the permits here) which I feel is the right thing to do as the area is very fragile should be kept in its pristine condition for many generations to enjoy its beauty. But who is going to pick up after the cattle? Some cow sense!

We stayed until the earth shadow appeared on the horizon and the low winter sun cast its last light. I was reluctant to leave this extraordinary place.

In his book, Arizona, photographer David Muench noted that “we need wild places where we will not see houses, cars, fences, signs, bullet casings, or even trails. We need places where there is no trace of human interference, because these places will then serve as a standard. We need these places because they cleanse us. Whatever pressures and frustrations we have in our lives in the cities, we can lose them out there. When we walk in beauty, all the garbage in our lives disappears.”

This was exactly how I felt after spending a day walking the Paria Plateau. I was so absorbed in its immense beauty that time stood still and all my cares of the moment went away. What a wild, timeless and spiritual place!

Arizona Perspective II – Tucson

A friend recently commented, “Why aren’t there any photographs of cactus. Aren’t you in the desert?” She was right. The iconic towering saguaros are nowhere to be seen in my photo gallery or this blog. So it is about time I correct this oversight.

Where can you find more than 1.6 million individual saguaro plants growing in one area? At the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, of course!

The Saguaro National Park is home to 25 species of cactus ranging from the towering saguaro cactus to the tiniest of cactus. A saguaro cactus can live up to 150 years or more. When the saguaro reaches 50 to 70 years of age, it will grow branches (arms). It begins to produce flowers when it reaches 35 years of age. The saguaro blossom is the state flower of Arizona. If you are at the Visitor Center be sure to ask the rangers the whereabouts of the crested or cristate saguaro. These saguaros have a fan-like top. There are several theories on how these are formed, ranging from genetic mutation, lightning strikes and freeze damage. But no one really knows what causes its unusual shape. Although these cristate saguaros are rather rare, there are about 25 such saguaros in the park.

For sunset, Signal Hill is a good spot as you can frame your shots with petroglyphs in the foreground. And if you time your visit, you may even watch the moon rising above the saguaros.

A favorite sunrise location is at Gate Pass, just outside Saguaro National Park. Go there early and compose your shots and wait for the moment when the morning light bathes the field of saguaros in a warm glow.

You cannot leave Tuscon without taking a walk in the historic Barrios. Barrio is the Spanish word for neighborhood. The flat-roofed adobe houses with their bright multi-colored facades are distinctly Spanish/Mexican. Some of Tucson’s oldest buildings can be found here.

Some of the buildings have been restored and are converted into private homes or offices – like this church which is now a house.

And while you are in town, make a visit to San Xavier del Bac Mission or White Dove of the Desert as it is affectionately called. Its architecture style has been described as a mix of Moorish-Byzantine style. San Xavier was declared as a national historic monument in 1960. There was restoration work being carried out at the time of my visit and one of the white domes was obstructed with scaffoldings.

On some weekends and public holidays, at the open ground in front of the Mission, there are stalls selling tacos, fry bread and Native American trinkets and souvenirs. Just round the corner from San Xavier Mission, you will find the Tohono O’Odham Cemetery.

After a day’s shoot, the famous El Charro restaurant is a great place to relax with Mexican food and a margarita. Their carne seneca is simply delicious!

Arizona Perspective I – Grand Canyon

It is that time of the year when the rain, cold and the gray weather put me in a reflective mood. It is that time to look back on the journeys I have taken and look forward to the exciting new ones that I will be exploring. This coming January will mark my third year in Arizona, so it is timely that I write a series of Arizona Perspectives – each highlighting my photo journeys here. If anyone had asked me three years ago whether I ever thought that I would take photographs such as these, I would shake my head in disbelief. Just Imagine That! 🙂

Arizona is known as the Grand Canyon state, so it is appropriate for the first Arizona Perspective to be on Grand Canyon – South Rim. On my first visit, I was led to the edge of the Canyon, eyes closed. Even though I had seen photos of the Canyon before, nothing prepared me for the grand view when I opened my eyes. It was just impossible to absorb the whole scene all at once. When it was that close and personal, it was just uncomparably breathtaking!

The Grand Canyon has been described as the grandest of all canyons. Carved by the Colorado River, it is a geological wonder and nature’s masterpiece. The Canyon strata depict an epic time travel through billions of years.

The weather is the key to getting good shots of the Canyon. Ironically, many photographers hope that they get bad weather as it provides a dramatic backdrop. Unfortunately, all my Canyon visits coincided with almost perfect weather. Nevertheless, my favorite sunrise spots are the overlooks at Yaki and Lipan Points along Desert View Drive.

For sunset, Yavapai Point offers the flexibility of framing different compositions in one location.

If you feel energetic enough to walk down the Canyon, try hiking the Bright Angel Trail – a popular one-day trail. Do take precautions when hiking as it is more demanding than it looks, especially for the hike back up. Remember to carry sufficient water and dress appropriately.

At the eastern end of the park, Desert View has a replica of a 70-foot prehistoric Indian tower. The interior murals of the Watch Tower were created by a Hopi artist. If you have time, walk up the tower to get a panoramic view. Be sure to look out for the reflectoscopes to get a different view of the Canyon.

Desert View is one of the overlooks where you can see and even hear the rapids of the Colorado River. You can also see the Palisades separating the Canyon and the Painted Desert with Navajo Mountain at a distance.

A final note: Try to catch the canyon at the first light or last light or both. Skip the free breakfast at the hotel because by that time you would have missed the canyon light and there will be loads of tourists jostling for a spot. So wake up early, set up in the cold wind and wait for the magic moment when the sun rays move across the rocks, slowly illuminating the canyon, revealing its colors and beauty. Only then, you will see why it is known as the ‘Grand’ Canyon!

More Fall Colors

I was one of the hundreds of “leaf peepers” who descended on Oak Creek Canyon in Sedona at the end of October when the fall colors were at its peak. At popular trails like West Fork, the car park was full by 9am and many had to park 1-2 miles along the scenic Oak Creek Road.

There was much to stop for and stare, and shoot while walking along the 3 mile marked trail. Here are some of the highlights:

The best photo spot of the day was by the creek. It was a perfect day with overcast sky and still air to shoot the reflection of the canyon wall and trees. You can stay put at this one spot and shoot different compositions, try out different focal lengths and angles. The only challenge is that you have to wait patiently for people to boulder hop across the creek at the far end, and on crowded weekends, it can be quite a wait.

Photographing fall foliage can be a challenge as one has to find good compositions with a pleasing bokeh. If there is a breeze, the fluttering leaves can be an issue for shutter speeds and exposures. On hindsight, a day trip was too short to cover all of West Fork’s fall colors. With the shorter daylight in the canyon, I never made it to the end of the 3 mile trail. But then, there is always next year… 🙂

Final fall impressions.