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Tips for Photographing the Southwest United States
Travel Tips & Tricks

Tips for Photographing the Southwest United States


Before I get started, I want to introduce myself – my name is Andy Austin. I’m a guide and the lead photographer here at Austin Adventures. About a year ago, I went to photograph Southern Utah with Austin Adventures for two weeks. Southern Utah is a photographer’s dream and with or without experience you’re guaranteed to leave with some great shots. I’m not going to talk specifics of gear or settings, but if you have any specific questions feel free to leave them in the comments below or email them to me ([email protected]). Here are a few tips for photographing in the Southwest:

1. Rise before the Sun


Yes it may be early, but getting up before sunrise is absolutely worth it. Southern Utah is famous for its unique features, especially Bryce Canyon National Park’s hoodoos. As seen in the photo above, the Bryce Canyon amphitheater slowly lights up with sunrise, and believe me this is not a sight to miss. Now of course this rule doesn’t just apply to getting up before sunrise, but also being out there before sunset as well. The main reason is to catch the “golden hour,” which is roughly the first and last light of the day, when the light is softer. This hour varies by season and your latitude. You can easily figure out when the golden hour is by visiting websites like golden-hour.com. There are also great cell phone apps that help you to figure out the best time to be out there. This soft gold color can really make your images pop, as the sun gets higher in the sky the light becomes harsher and so do the shadows. For example, Thor’s Hammer (below) appears to glow in the early morning light.

Thor’s Hammer in the early morning light, giving it more of a glowing appearance.

2. Patience, patience, and more patience


Shooting in the Southwest, like shooting anywhere, is all about patience. You might be out and looking at the clouds and determine they aren’t going to produce a nice sunset. But the clouds can change quickly in the Southwest and those same daunting storm clouds that you thought would ruin your sunset end up making it better! Take for instance the image to the left. This was taken at Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park after waiting for four hours. There was rainy weather that whole week and I was craving a sunset. The storm clouds weren’t promising and an area that is usually filled with photographers when the sun is setting turned into a ghost town as photographer after photographer left to go tuck in for the night. Only a few of us ended up staying and witnessing one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. While I don’t necessarily recommend camping out in one location for four hours, don’t give up on a scene right away! This photo brings up my next point…

3. Don’t shoot right at the sunset

IMG_2817This is a common issue I see with beginner photographers (and instagramers) – they point their cameras right at the sunset and snap away while completely missing the best part. Cameras don’t work like our eyes do, they have a hard time capturing “dynamic light range” a.k.a. the light and dark parts of a scene. Shooting right at a sunset will likely produce one of two scenes: either you expose the photo for the foreground which causes the sky to be totally blown out or you expose for the sky and the foreground ends up as a silhouette. There are a few methods to overcome this. One of them is to shoot High Dynamic Range, or HDR. HDR utilizes taking multiple exposures (both under and over exposing the image) and then combining them later in a specialized computer program. HDR is a blog on its own, so I won’t go into too much depth. But there are some great resources on the internet. My general tip for using HDR is, if you can tell it’s HDR, you’ve gone too far – try and keep the shot as natural looking as possible. I enjoy shooting away from sunsets. You can catch the light from the setting sun (like the image to the above/right) or you can catch the light bouncing off nearby clouds. In the Green River Overlook shot from the previous tip, the setting sun was out of the frame to the right. Like all photography “rules,” they can be broken. I have taken some great shots pointing right at a sunrise/sunset.

4. Do something unique

IMG_2766The Southwest is incredibly photogenic, but this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to take a bad photo there but it’s also difficult to take a unique photo. It’s important to create an image that is your own, whether it be finding a totally different angle or something else, it’s up to your creative mind to discover what will separate your image from the rest. Below, you will see one of my favorite ways to make a location unique: photographing it at night. The below images were captured in the Windows area of Arches National Park with a beautifully clear night sky. The Southwest has some of the best star gazing in the country.

IMG_3682 IMG_3714

5. Go with guides

IMG_2642Having traveled alone and with Austin Adventures, guided groups can help you get away from the main attractions and enhance your experience. Guides get you off the beaten path and can help you see sides of national parks that you might never find on your own. Which, of course, means more unique photos. With a group, you feel more motivated to get out of bed and hit the trails early. If you go with a group, you can see more, do more, learn more, and hopefully, you end up with better photographs.

There you have it, some quick and easy tips on how to take pictures in the Southwest. The most important tip to remember though is to have fun, this is your vacation after all. I hope you enjoyed these tips and that they help you on your next trip to the red rock country. When you get back I would love to see your photos, so please share!

Happy shooting,

Andy Austin



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