Shooting the Sunrise: Monument Valley

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.

Monument Valley

The two Mittens and Merrick's Butte

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,

Photographer's Point, MV

Photographer's Point, MV

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.

First shot: Sunrise MV

First shot: Sunrise MV. F2.8, 10 sec (SOOC)

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.

Merrick's Butte Sunrise, MV

Merrick's Butte Sunrise, MV. F8, 1/160 sec

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.

Monument Valley Sunrise: Sunburst

Monument Valley Sunrise: Sunburst. F14, 1/160 sec

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.

Sunrise on Elephant Butte

Sunrise on Elephant Butte. F8, 1/20 sec

So, if you have the pleasure of visiting Monument Valley, and I hope you do, please plan on shooting a sunrise.  To recap:

  1. 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.
  2. Check on what time sunrise will be and set your alarm for a good 75 to 90 minutes before that.
  3. Try to get situated at or near Photographer’s Point.
  4. You must have a sturdy tripod and a remote is recommended.  If you don’t have a remote, plan to use your self-timer.
  5. A wide angle lens is a must, and a zoom will also be helpful.
  6. 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.
  7. Slightly underexpose to make the colors in the sky as rich as possible.
  8. Turn around to watch the light come up on Elephant Butte and the hotel itself.
  9. 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


About Ed Spadoni "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
This entry was posted in Images, Learning, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Shooting the Sunrise: Monument Valley

  1. arthill says:

    Wow, you got a lot of great stuff. I just don’t know how you pulled it off without coffee. Next time you go be sure to shoot RAW + JPEG 🙂

  2. 2guysphoto says:

    Some extraordinary photos, Ed. And fantastic advice regarding the perils of autoexposure shooting. The metering system of today’s cameras will work overtime to balance/average your lightening, which may or may not be what you’re looking for. Another option is to bracket all your shots. When you’re in a situation such as this – rapidly changing lighting conditions and a likelihood that you may never pass this way again… it pays to take a number of exposures, particularly as you’re on a tripod and using a remote shutter. Given the low cost of memory these days, I sometimes bracket 5 shots at intervals of +/- .5 EV. The interval is greater if I’m going to use the photos for HDR blending later.

    Posted by Rey

  3. Amazing photos! I totally agree about underexposing a bit to get the color. I’d have to have a bottle of Starbucks Frappe or a can of Diet Dew in the refrigerator to grab on the go! Seriously, awesome shots and a great write-up making me wish I was there.

    • 2guysphoto says:

      Thanks Maryann. I highly recommend the trip – take the boys in a few years. It will be truly memorable. Ed

  4. Pingback: Daily Photo Phix: Art imitating life | 2 Guys Photo

  5. Terry Doyle says:

    Another trick (this from ace Scott Kelby) is to set white balance to cloudy day and warm things up. Am currently in MV and watching a dust storm outside. Last night’s shooting from the View Hotel was great but the gate was closed this morning (only open 8-5 during the “winter” which is Oct. to May, I believe) and so no interest in driving in a raging dust storm right now. Made the mistake of opening the window to take an android shot and filled the car with dust. Hoping camera is not suffering.

    Your tips are great and I only wish we had the same opportunities. Still and all a beautiful spot to be in.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Hi Terry. Glad you could make the trip to see this wonderful scene. Sorry about the dust though – that sounds like a bad idea for your camera gear! Would love to see your images, send us one or two. Safe travels, Ed

  6. Pingback: Monument Valley - Southwest USA Road Trip (Blast from the Past) - Super NoVA Wife

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