Monument Valley – it’s been featured in numerous advertising campaigns and movies, including Back To The Future and Forrest Gump. It is by far, one of the most beautiful and recognised landmarks in all of America.
It was one of my more memorable shoots on this U.S road trip, not because I walked away with the most amazing images, but because I got to experience one of the most amazing sunsets and displays of colour that I’ve ever seen. I also didn’t feel pressured to take a million photos; instead, I soaked in the afternoon vibes and enjoyed being absorbed into the moment.
Located along the Arizona and Utah border, the surrounding landscape of Monument Valley is barren and the earth, heavily saturated. There is very little wildlife to be seen, but scattered throughout the region are giant sandstone monoliths referred to as buttes. Over the course of thousands of years, they have been carved away by the forces of nature and been a constant source of inspiration for many photographers and artists to visit.
Unlike most of the surrounding lands in Arizona and Utah, the territory along the Utah and Arizona border is owned by the Navajo Nation. To the Navajo people, the land is considered sacred and although I don’t usually get sentimental, the scenery here is not only breathtaking, it does feel special with each passing minute that you spend there.
What I remember the most about my limited time in monument valley was how the conditions changed throughout the day. From the photographic conditions being harsh and cloudless in the early afternoon, to the atmosphere being painted with the most dramatic light that I’ve ever seen in North America.
The Valley Drive/Loop Road
A great way of getting up close and personal with the buttes is to drive along the seventeen mile loop road. It’s an unpaved road with terrain that can vary from very fine dust, to undulating with many exposed and slippery rocks. I had no issues in a Subaru Outback, but I did see a couple of Mustangs and other low suspension cars that would have had to have taken it very carefully to complete the circuit unscathed.
There are other trails for both vehicles and hiking, but require a guide to access them. There is also private land which you’ll drive by, so be sure not to trespass during your trip.
During the loop road, it will be apparent as to how large the mesas and buttes are. You’ll also see many rock pinnacles resembling huge towers that have been formed from erosion and fragile rock, falling away from the main body of rock.
The changing conditions throughout the day
I arrived at Monument Valley at around lunch time after a sleep in at Page; something that I regret as the morning light was going off. I thought the beautiful cloud cover would continue into my journey to Monument valley, but the further east that I headed towards Monument Valley, it was apparent that it was potentially going to be an unspectacular sunset.
It wasn’t until I started the loop road, that I realised the high cloud forming. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was actually cloud, as it seemed as though the vapour trails from the planes above weren’t dissipating, and leaving a blanket of very high and wispy cloud coverage. By the time I was finished with the loop road, I knew that I was in for something special.
By the time the sun had set and the moon had risen, the entire valley atmosphere had transformed into an moody magenta tint. At that time, I was at the viewing platform where most of the images of Monument Valley online are taken from. Usually I would be running around like a mad headless chicken, trying to capture as many compositions, but on this day I did the opposite. After taking two sets of panoramas, I pulled up a stool and watched the colours transition from the warm golden hour, into the blue hour. It was such a pleasure to sit back and enjoy it for over an hour.
Tips for photographing Monument Valley
Ideal times to shoot
There isn’t a right or wrong time to photograph at Monument Valley. Both early morning and late afternoon will present a variety of scenes. The only thing to keep an eye out on will be the direction of the sun and the issues of shadows.
Highway 163 mile marker 13 aka the Forrest Gump road – Made famous in the movie, Forrest Gump, this is the classic image that you will see all over the internet. You can’t come and not take a photo of it. The morning light will illuminate the scene more evenly than an afternoon shot.
Another disadvantage with shooting it in the afternoon other than exposure issues will be traffic as it is usually busier in the afternoon, sunset and early evening. Whereas in the mornings, you can hear any oncoming cars from behind you at least thirty seconds before you need to move out of the way.
The shot at this location is best taken using a telephoto lens to draw the distant background closer into the shot.
Artist Point – Save the classic valley view from the visitors centre for sunset and head to Artist Point. It’s located at the far end of the loop road, so give yourself at least thirty minutes to get there. If you decide to visit it in the afternoon, then you will have a lot of shadows in your images.
Nothing is going to beat the classic valley view as the sunset. If there’s a full moon rising then there will be a variety of opportunities to capture a number of shots with a telephoto lens and have a moon perfectly composed against the buttes.
If you have time to return the following day, or race off after taking the classic Valley View, try taking the loop road again down the the hill so that you are closer to the same elevation as the buttes.
If the sky is clear and dark, consider staying back into the evening to capture some star shots.
Where to stay
Accommodation options are quite limited in Monument Valley. The View Hotel offer the most convenient access to the sites where you can literally walk outside to see the valley view. It’s also the most expensive as well.
It is possible to camp nearby as well, but plan accordingly, as temperatures can drop dramatically due to the elevation and seasons. Instead of driving all the way to Moab that night, I chose to stay at the Gouldings Lodge about ten minutes away.
Another thing to note is that the dining options in the area are very limited, so come with a packed cooler if you have an dietary restrictions. Also, if you enjoy a beer or wine at the end of a photo session, you should have this packed with you as well. Due to the liquor laws imposed by the state, the nearest liquor store is approximately thirty miles away. If you’re coming from from Arizona, it’s best to make a quick pit stop before crossing the border.
My equipment list
- Nikon D610 – My main workhorse for shooting
- Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 VC – For both wide, close up and panorama images.
- Tamron 70-300mm F4-5.6 VC – For the Forrest Gump road shots
- Olympus OMD EM5 with 40-150mm F4-5.6 lens – Used for telephoto shots when I had the Nikon body on the pano head.
- Sirui Carbon Fibre Tripod – Required when shooting panoramas and getting your images tack sharp.
- Lee Filters – Mainly 0.9 (3 Stop) Soft grad neutral density filter.
- Novoflex Panorama kit – Make perfectly accurate panos every time.
- Adobe CC – Lightroom and Photoshop for colour and contrast correction, and panorama stitching.
- OnOne Perfect Effects v9 for the finished look.
- Warm clothes – It’s freezing in the mornings during November!
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