Photographing Arizona Part 1, Tips and Techniques

August 17, 2013


The Wall, Waterhole Canyon, Page, Az


Photographing Arizona often makes it onto a photographer’s bucket list at some time or another.  When one thinks of Arizona, however, the desert area around Phoenix or the Grand Canyon is often what comes to mind - but there is so much more if you know where to look and have the time.

The diversity, vastness and natural beauty of Arizona has made this an ideal location for numerous films and as such, has a lot to offer the photographer.  When it comes to desert photography, however, there are some challenges. Where to go, what time of day, what season, what to bring, and so on are questions that are often asked.  That is a lot, but for now, I will focus on two areas that may interest most photographers - the more iconic locations; and tips and techniques on how to capture those locations.

This, the first part, focuses on some of the tips and techniques that may help you separate your photographs from ‘snap shots.’  The accompanying article focuses on some of those iconic locations for which Arizona is so well known, when to use some of the techniques covered here and also answer some of the other questions mentioned above.

If you are not interested in reading the Tips and Techniques below, you may still find a few of the images interesting...



Technical Tips & Techniques




Starburst Effect


Studhorse Point, Page, AzStud Horse Point, Az

One of the most dramatic effects in photography is the starburst.  The starburst effect can add punch, draw focus to a specific area of the image and add a bit of the wow-factor to any otherwise average shot.  

When I refer to starburst, I am referring to the wonderful spoke-like effect that can be caused by a bright light as captured by a camera.  Although there are starburst add-on filters that are designed for that purpose, we can obtain a very effective result through a simple camera technique. 

First you will need to stop your aperture down to f/16 or preferably f/22.  Next, you will want to start shooting when the sun is just about to get blocked by an object (rock, horizon, etc.)  As you have a very bright sliver of light coming into your lens, the large f/value should result in the capture of a nice starburst.  (The number of rays depends on the number of blades in your lens - the more blades, the more rays.)

When working with dynamic objects such as the sun, timing is extremely important.  You will need to take a few practice shots first to get your position and exposure settings ready.  You will need to start clicking away as the moment approaches - often you don't get a second chance.  Be sure to compensate your exposure (shutter speed and ISO), with the fixed f/value, as the light begins to fade. (You may wish to set your camera in Aperture Priority Mode to fix the f/value).

In that you will be shooting directly into the sun, you may get ghosting (flare) in your image.  You will also may need to do a tad of ‘shadow adjustment’ in post processing to compensate for exposure issues in the shadowed areas – or better yet, shoot a series of bracketed shots and assemble as an HDR image (more on this later.)



Rule of Thirds


Watering Hole, Page Az

The Rule of Thirds is actually a technique that has been used by artists for hundreds of years. In essence, the Rule of Thirds states that an image should be divided into nine equal parts – two horizontal lines and two vertical lines.

The four areas where the lines intersect are ‘points of interest’.  In the image to the left, you can see how photo is divided into the far right open area, the detailed area in the center, and the tallest area to the left.  As we move from top to bottom we have the structure at the top, the waves in the center and then some plants at the bottom for a well balanced image.



Take advantage of natural angles and curves to entice the eye to be led around your image.

Keep key objects directly out of the center of your frame to add interest. And try never to have the horizon split your image in half.  Either have more sky or foreground to emphasize vastness.

That being said, rules were made to be broken and this rule may not work in every case – art is subjective.  Give it a try and decide what you like.  For more information on the Rule of Thirds, please see Photography Talks's more in-depth discussion:



Depth of Field (DOF)

Canyon-X, Page, Az


Depth of Field (DOF) is basically what is in focus between the nearest and the farthest subjects in your image.  Having a shallow DOF can give a very pleasing blurred background effect when trying to emphasize a subject – whether it is a person or an object.  This is especially useful in portrait photography.

Landscape photography can be somewhat different.  Here you may want both the foreground and the background sharp.  For this you will need a deep DOF.

For the iPhone user, two good apps to consider are Field Tools from Brad Sckol Photo & Video and SetMyCamera DF – Essential Tools by Bluestone Pond.  Each of these apps will help you determine, based on your lens and f/value, your near focus and far focus points.  After a while, this will become natural - but it never hurts to have a few tools at hand for reference.  Many cameras also have a 'preview' button to show the DOF that will result from your aperture settings.

When you are using an ultra-wide angle lens you will want to include some foreground for interest and perspective.  Knowing what f/value to use, based on your focal length, will help you capture the main subject and control what else is in focus. 



Controlling DOF is most important when you are shooting inside the slot canyons and the side walls are just a few feet away. Always be sure that the closest point is in focus when going for that nice perspective shot.




Grand Canyon, Az As you set up your shots, always keep composition in mind.   Poor composition cannot easily be fixed after-the-fact in post processing - other than simple cropping and straightening. Take time to walk around the shooting area to come up with the best location and Point-of-View (POV) for your subject.  Look for foreground objects that may frame your subject or add interest.


Again, art is subjective, and what may look good to one person may not look good to another.  Composition is often a subject for controversy. But what is most important is that this is your image and you have to like it.  Often the way we take our shots - compose and expose, becomes our signature.



Point of View (POV)

Point of View can often make a difference between a good shot and a great shot.  Providing a low perspective, unusual angles, including interesting objects in either the foreground or background – all takes planning (or some really good luck). Sometimes it is good to isolate a subject and have a nice blurred background (bokeh).  Sometimes it is good to get down low to show depth using a wide-angle lens. Emphasize leading lines and make use of natural angles and curves whenever possible.



The locations that are to be visited in Arizona are loaded with opportunities for a creative photographer. 


Think out of the box and have fun trying some more untraditional shots.  


It may even mean getting right to the very edge of a canyon rim (within reason of course) to get that special angle.






Black and White By Choice or To the Rescue



There are times that some images may be more artistically appealing when presented in Black and White (B&W) rather than in color. Ansel Adams may have agreed with this statement.  Contrasting levels of blacks, whites and mid-tones can bring both drama as well as romance to many scenes. When shooting desert and mountains scenes, B&W often can convey the tone of the wild west.  And if your colors are off – there is always B&W to the rescue.

For a different look, B&W can add interest to seemingly abstract works of art captured when you are in the Slot Canyons (as seen above).  And the best part with digital cameras, you don't have decide color or b&W when you capture the image.



Cropping, Image Placement and Leveling


As discussed earlier, try to keep the subject off center and remember the Rule of Thirds. It is also important to allow extra room around your subject to allow for any straightening and your final crop.

Cropping, due to poor image placement or straightening can adversely affect your final image. Always check your level (hot shoe bubble or built-in) before each shot.  If your viewfinder has a grid, turn it on to act as a visual overlay of the scene.

And, you are never locked into a ‘standard’ crop – be creative.  Most frame shops will custom cut a mat to fit your cropped image whatever size it may be (for a modest fee of course.)




Understanding the Histogram

Any time you take a photograph you should check your histogram to determine whether the exposure is properly balanced and does not contain 'clipping'.  The histogram displays the tonal range of the image, from dark (pure black) to bright (pure white).

By reviewing the tonal range, it is possible to see if an image is properly exposed or little flat as the result of low contrast.  By looking at the far right of the histogram we can tell if the highlights are ‘blown out’ or clipped.  

Clipped detail cannot be recovered.  The histogram helps us determine what the eye cannot – good exposure.  Without viewing the histogram it is very possible to take poorly exposed images and never know it until too late.

Most cameras can be set to display the just captured image beside the histogram allowing you judge both.  A ‘smooth’ bell-shaped curve is not necessary and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ histogram.  Histograms represent the scene and every scene is different.  It is important to remember to use histograms as a guide and look at both the histogram as well as the image to determine if the exposure is working as expected.

Upper Antelope Canyon, Page, Az


It should noted that images that are underexposed (curve shifted to the left) can often be adjusted in post processing, such as Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), and by as much as +/- 3 stops – assuming you have taken the images in RAW format rather than JPEG.

Having a properly exposed image will become even more critical when you shoot bracketed images for High Dynamic Range (HDR) as discussed later.  If the base image has clipping, the bracketed images may become unusable the more they deviate from your base image.

The histogram for the image to the left is shown above.





High Dynamic Range (HDR) Processing

HDR processing, (using bracketing), can help bring out a scene more realistically. In general, today’s built-in meters work for the majority of scenes we try to capture and provide us with acceptable exposures.  But what if a scene contains a very wide range of light to dark areas?  The camera’s sensor is fixed and we need to make choice of exposing for either the bright areas, dark areas or take an average reading in-between.

The eye for this situation, however, reacts dynamically by adjusting the iris in proportion to the variants of light. As the eye sees bright, it closes the iris somewhat, as the eye sees dark, it opens the iris.  The HDR process mimics these steps by capturing, in bracketed exposures, what the eye sees when looking at bright areas and then looking at dark areas.  

The number of bracketed exposures often dictates how close the final image will be to the original scene.  And, the more bracketed images taken will aid the HDR software with additoinal information to evaluate. The goal is to first capture a baseline shot and then capture a number of bracketed exposures (1-stop) above and below the baseline to be merged and processed.  All HDR shots need to be taken with a tripod and using the same f/value. Again, HDR is used when you encounter a high dynamic range of light and is not applicable for every lighting condition.

Once we have our bracketed images, we use special software, (HDR Efex Pro2, Photomatix Pro, Photoshop, etc), to ‘blend’ them together to yield the full dynamic range of light. Using HDR software takes some training, and often the results can look unnatural and almost cartoon-like.  Over-processing HDR images is quite common and has made HDR the subject for controversy.

However, when used correctly, the final image can be amazing and often undetectable.  Most of the better images in the slot canyons are HDR processed – otherwise delicate light beams become burned out or dark areas will become black. You certainly can shoot in the canyons without HDR processing – but the end result will look a feature rich.



Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, AzOak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Az






A number of images were taken using a Circular Polarizing (CP) Filter to enhance the sky, control reflections or reduce exposure.  

Rather than go into a lengthy discussion here about the CP Filter, I will refer you to my other article on using the CP-Filter.





During the bright mid-day, a Graduated Neutral Density Filter can help rescue an almost washed-out  sky. These filters, unlike screw on filters, require a special holder and slip onto the front of the camera (requires removing the sunshade).  With today's software, the use of these filters is not as popular as they were when film was king.  However, by using them correctly, the final image will be much cleaner than if it had been post-processed. But that to is open for discussion.

For sunrise/sunset, in lieu of resorting to post processing software, a Reverse Graduated Neutral Density (ND.9) is very useful to help balance the contrast of the bright sky around the sun with a dark foreground.

Whereas the Graduated Neutral Density Filter goes from dark (top) to clear (bottom), the Reverse starts dark at the center and fades to lighter density to the top and the bottom is clear.

Camera Protection
When working in the desert, one thing you can count on - dust.  Dust on your tripod, dust around your camera and even possibly dust in your camera.  A few things to keep in mind: 
When using a tripod, be sure to extend the bottom most section a few inches to keep the dust/dirt/sand away from the locking mechanism.  Keep a rag handy and wipe off any debris clinging to the leg before retracting it. Sometimes the sand is deep and only the tip of the tripod and leg should be covered by it - not the locking mechanism.
Camera Exterior
Use an air blower, like the 'rocket blaster', or compressed air to blow off any dust that has made it's way onto the outside of your equipment.  In the slot canyons, you should cover your entire camera with a dust cover such as a Rainsleeve, shown to the right, (or plastic bag).  The Upper Antelope Slot Canyon is especially prone to air-born dust.  Indian guides will toss sand into the air to bring out the iconic light beams. That, plus thousands of tourists kicking up sand all day, can make for a nice coating of dust on your equipment.  Be sure to inspect the exterior of your lens.  Dust that has built up on the outside can easily work its way inside to the focusing and zoom mechanisms - an expensive repair.
Camera Interior
The first rule is to never change lenses in one of the slot canyons.  Never!  Even protected, air-borne dust can work its way into the camera and, once the shutter exposes the the sensor, the dust will cling to the surface.  At the end of day, it is worthwhile to remove the lens and blow out the interior by holding your camera with the opening pointed down so the dust will fall out when you force air inside.  
I also use a loupe, such as "SensorKlear" from LensPen to inspect the sensor (the camera requires a full battery charge - select "mirror up" feature on camera.)  For really stubborn dust specs I may have to clean the sensor with a "Sensor Swabs" and a few drops of Eclipse Optical Cleaning Fluid. (Never clean the sensor with a dry swab.)
For seriious photography, a sturdy tripod is a must.  A entire article could easily be devoted to tripods and the various types, heads, etc.  There are also the issues of traveling with tripods and TSA restrictions.  For the purposes here, be sure that when you take a photo of a spot at a shutter speed below 1/60sec and then take several subsequent shots, the subject has not moved whatsoever in your captures.  This is an exercise you should conduct before you take your trip to determine if your tripod is going to be sturdy enough for the camera/lens combination that you will be using.
In the slot canyons you will have fairly long exposures that will be be overlaid with others during HDR processing.  Each image not only has to free from any 'camera shake' but also must be of exactly the same location as the others in the series. 
Shutter Release - Hands Off

There will be times that even the slightest camera movement will result in camera shake for exposures exceeding 1/60sec.  Just pressing the shutter release on your camera can be a contributing factor at these slow shutter speeds.  A remote shutter release, wired or wireless, is highly recommended.  In a pinch, you can always use the built in timer function to trigger the shutter release.  

Some cameras can be programmed to fire multiple shots from the timer.  This can be very helpful during bracketing.  Set your camera to bracket 7 shots and then set your timer to take 7 shots accordingly.  Press the shutter release when you are set up and stand back and wait.  The bottom line is try not to touch the tripod or camera during a long exposure.



Now that some of the basic tips and techniques have been covered, Part 2 of this article will focus on some of the iconic locations in Arizona and what you can expect to come back with in terms of 'keepers'.  I hope some of these tips you will find useful.



The camera used for this article was a Nikon D800 and 14-24mm f/2.8 , or 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.  (I also am not associated with any of the manufactures/vendors mentioned in this article and have received no compensation whatsoever.  I just listed what I have used.)


Image Descriptions
Feature Image Grand Canyon, Mather Point, Az
Image 1 The Wall at Waterhole, Page, Az
Image 2 (Starburst) Studhorse Point, Page, Az
Image 3 (Rule of Thirds) The Wall at Waterhole, Page, Az
Image 4 (Depth of Field) Canyon-X, Page, Az
Image 5 (Composition) South Rim, Grand Canyon, Az
Image 6 (Point of View) Horseshoe Bend, Page, Az
Image 7 (Black and White) Cactus at Hoodoos, Page, Az
Image 8-9 (Histogram) Upper Antelope Canyon, Page, Az
Image 10 (HDR) Upper Antelope Canyon, Page, Az
Image 11 (Filters) Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Az
Image 12 (Filters Circular Polarizing Filter
Image 13 (Camera Protection) Rain sleeve Dust Cover
Image 14 (Tripods) Inside Upper Antelope Canyon, Page, Az


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