During our two week trek through what I respectfully refer to as The Great American Southwest, we spent one night in Monument Valley. The Valley is owned and managed by The Navajo Nation, and was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
We checked into the one and 1/2 year old The View Hotel, built and run by the Navajo Nation. It was beautiful, with every room facing east and the three most familiar buttes of Monument Valley: the two mittens and Merrick’s Butte. It’s easy to see why so many western films were made here. You can’t look out on the Valley without seeing cowboys and Native Americans, John Wayne, and the Cavalry.
For our one morning there, we set our alarms for 6am, as sunrise was to occur at 7:16am. My wife watched from the balcony of our room, while I ran (without a hint of coffee in my veins) to the terrace behind the gift shop and restaurant to the point known as Photographer’s Point,
with my camera, a few lenses and a tripod, to capture the sunrise. This terrace faces east and overlooks the vastness of MV, so it’s a perfect place for photography. Within seconds of my “capturing” that coveted spot, I was surrounded by many other photogs with the same intent. Interesting to note that while a few people were using point and shoots, most of my fellow early birds were serious shooters based on their gear. All were sporting tripods, so it quickly began to get crowded on that terrace, and I was very happy I had set that alarm!
I used my Nikon D90 and Nikon 18-200 lens for most of these shots. I had also brought a Tokina 11-16 UW zoom, (courtesy of Rey), which I used for some shots. I also used a remote to trigger the shutter so as to minimize shake.
Starting out in near darkness, with only the ambient light from the as yet not-opened coffee shop to assist, I began shooting in aperture priority, wide open, with about 25 sec shutter speeds. I was spacing my shots about two minutes apart, and watching as the first hints of light crept over the horizon and began painting the sky while the buttes were silhouetted.
After taking a look at my first three shots, I saw that although the sky changed slightly in each, the exposure remained the same – I had expected to see some brightening in the images, as the sun’s light continued to increase. And then “light dawned” on me, just as it was on the Valley – by shooting in aperture priority, my camera was doing exactly what I told it to do: compensate the shutter speed to expose based on the aperture I had chosen. So naturally, all three shots looked the same! (Did I mention I hadn’t had any coffee yet?).
Switching to manual exposure, I now had control of the situation and continued taking shots at two minute intervals, at various apertures and long shutter speeds. I reduced the shutter speed and aperture over time to keep the exposure right.
In all, I shot 93 images in a little over an hour. While they were all beautiful, the last 1/3 were the real keepers as by then, the sky was full of amazing colors and there was that final sunburst from behind Merrick’s Butte.
I had read some time ago, that if you are looking at a scene that you find interesting because of the natural lighting (think sunrises and sunsets), then do a 180 – turn around, as you may be pleasantly surprised by the scenes around you, as that light that has you focused straight ahead, might just be making some magic behind you. Sure enough, once the sun had broken the horizon, I turned to look at Elephant Butte, and captured this. Thank goodness I turned to look.
So, if you have the pleasure of visiting Monument Valley, and I hope you do, please plan on shooting a sunrise. To recap:
- Make your reservations early for The View Hotel. This is the only hotel within the Navajo Nation-run park, and gives you spectacular east-facing views from every room and the terrace. It books up many months in advance.
- Check on what time sunrise will be and set your alarm for a good 75 to 90 minutes before that.
- Try to get situated at or near Photographer’s Point.
- You must have a sturdy tripod and a remote is recommended. If you don’t have a remote, plan to use your self-timer.
- A wide angle lens is a must, and a zoom will also be helpful.
- Shoot in manual mode, open your aperture to a wide setting and experiment with long exposures. I started at about 25 seconds and then reduced that as the sun came up.
- Slightly underexpose to make the colors in the sky as rich as possible.
- Turn around to watch the light come up on Elephant Butte and the hotel itself.
- Get some coffee and have fun!
Good luck and if you haven’t been already, try to get out to this magnificent valley. Your travel will be rewarded with enduring memories and spectacular images. To view more of my images from The Great American Southwest, please visit this gallery.
– Posted by Ed