As a kid that spent most of my childhood and early adult years in the Southwestern United States, I took for granted just how special it can be in terms of the the natural landscapes and clear night skies. I have so many fond memories of that part of the world that I have wanted to go back and spend time in Northern Arizona/Southern Utah for years.
I had just that opportunity last summer to revisit that wonder through a Jason Weingart Photography workshop (http://www.jasonrweingart.com) out in Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. I learned an immense amount about astrophotography, landscapes, long exposure and HDR. Even managed to make a couple of new friends along the way.
Upper Antelope Canyon is a one of a kind place, and is generally packed with tourists - over a million people a year from all over the world make the stop in northern Arizona. The canyon was carved out of the rock over millennia by rainwater and flash floods and has that sense of chaos to it when you venture inside. The winding path through the slot canyon, the lines on the walls, and the colors that seem to shift with the light, make it an almost spiritual experience to walk through, even more so at night.
Using some HDR techniques I learned while I was at the workshop went a long way in helping me bring out the unique colors and textures of the walls within the canyon.
HDR when used in manner that doesn't oversaturate your subject can really enhance the details in a photograph. I think the trouble with HDR in many instances is it is overdone and not used just to enhance the naturally occurring colors and contrasts within an exposure. In reality if it is used simply to enhance the light within the exposure, it can have a beautiful and profound effect without making the end result look over edited or cartoonish.
Finding ways to better emphasize what the eye sees in a photograph is a never ending task. HDR can be an amazing tool in that endeavor. I believe that the tools offered in the Nik Collection (https://nikcollection.dxo.com/) are well worth the investment. They used to be free, but are now at a cost - although it is a single time purchase.
We also had the unique opportunity to spend an evening in the slot canyon, and play around with various artificial lighting techniques since the clouds and stars wouldn't cooperate. Our guide was incredible at helping us make the most of our time, and we walked away not just with a few decent photos, but getting to spend several hours just the three of us, in the canyon. That experience alone was worth the trip.
Seeing how well the canyon is managed in terms of preservation and maintenance was very uplifting. The Tribe does an immaculate job of minimizing the impact that a million people have on the canyon every year, and are ensuring it is preserved for generations to come.
I also had the chance to visit Monument Valley for a couple days during this trip, on both the Arizona and Utah sides of the park. This is where I got a lot of good practice in with astrophotography. Working through settings, foreground lighting, and editing were the focus for several days. I feel very lucky to have been able to just focus on this for a week and get a bit better at it.
Starting with an ISO around 3200, aperture of f/2.8, and a shutter speed of 15 seconds, I went back and forth trying to find the settings that worked best for the situation I found myself in. Whether wide open skies with almost no light pollution out in the valley, or Chimney Rock which suffers from significantly more light pollution on the near horizon, there is not set of static settings. You have to play with it and figure out what works best for the particular scenario you find yourself in.
The use of a external flash to light of the foreground during a long exposure (Usually at about 1/64th sec), can make the photograph much more interesting than just a night sky with a pitch black foreground. I recommend taking the time to experiment with the lighting and take as many exposures as you can. This will help you settle on your style, and only make you better through repetition.
Overall I had an amazing 7 days traversing the high desert and learning more in that short span than I had been able to teach myself in the previous several years. I also remembered that when you want to see incredible and awe-inspiring landscapes, you don't have to leave the States to do it. We are truly lucky to have all the natural wonders we do right in our own backyard.