Sunrise in a beautiful place is a photographer’s dream. To be in just the right spot when the first glint of light breaks over the horizon! Pure joy. Let’s travel back in time, and I’ll share a story.
Before I called Arizona my home, my friend David Bowyer was an emerging filmmaker in Los Angeles. In the mid-1980s he traveled to Monument Valley following his passion for capturing the tall monuments and met several of the local Navajos. He showed me footage of a traditional Navajo family that had befriended him. Native American flute music played from his stereo in the background. After multiple trips his film began to take shape, and “My Country: A Navajo Boy’s Story” became the first of his over fifty documentaries.
As an emerging photographer myself with an interest in capturing The West, David knew I would like this special place, too. We planned a trip together, and he knew just how to introduce me to Monument Valley. We arrived tired and in the dark after the day-long drive from LA. He parked in a dirt lot, and we slept in the back of his truck. The next morning arrived quickly. He woke me, telling me to grab my camera, and get out of the truck. It was numbingly cold outside, my head was groggy, and I procrastinated before leaving my warm sleeping bag.
The sky was rich purple. The cold hit me hard as the color slowly began turning deep pink, and then vibrant orange. The Mittens stood as black towers against the immense, colorful sky. And then the magic happened—in one of those moments you never forget. Directly between the two rock formations a pin pricked the deep colored sky. A crisp, clear light broke through like the glint of a diamond. Growing brighter, the curved top of the sun slowly climbed over the horizon. Transfixed, I captured my first photo of Monument Valley.
I’ve returned to Monument Valley dozens of times, photographing from horseback, finding ruins with a Navajo guide, and taking the ominous 4×4 route to Hunt’s Mesa where I shot a cover for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Plans were being made for a private photo workshop that I would lead this September. Thirty years have passed since I first saw The Mittens at sunrise. It was time to recreate that magical moment for someone new.
Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris, an application that maps sunrise, sunset, and moon phases, I began to plot our camera position months in advance. The ideal vantage point was found by moving a red pin across the map until sunrise centered perfectly between The Mittens. The spot could be accessed by hiking the Wildcat Trail, a self-guided route into the valley. I was getting closer to recreating my same shot that was eventually published on the “My Country” video cover.
Just as vital to knowing where to stand according to an application’s map is scouting the actual terrain. During our one-on-one workshop the two of us explored the area as we prepared to photograph sunset the night before. We checked possibilities for foreground, and found where a juniper tree got in the way, and where the steep-sided arroyos could be a hazard in the dawn light.
The next morning, an hour before sunrise, we headed straight to our spot hiking in the soft sand, and then waited. We set up our tripods, set our cameras to f/18 to give sharp focus near to far, plus, a small aperture creates a nice star burst with the sun. I suggested a slight overexposure, sunlight coming directly toward the lens fools the light meter, and pictures will come out too dark.
It seemed like forever, but finally the sun sparked to life between The Mittens, and we captured the moment, just as we had hoped. The sun continued to rise, of course, angling upward and to the right. We jogged across the landscape heading left, and repeated the spark of breaking sunrise in several locations. For a grand finalé we landed in sand dunes with honey-gold light beginning to gently caress the valley.
Our goal was achieved, not by luck, but by several stages of planning. I was able to give this moment to an emerging photographer, the same favor I had received so many years ago. There I stood, once again, sharing the pure joy of a perfect sunrise in Monument Valley.