Images of the World from Andrew Johnston

My Grand Circle Tour

What Worked and What Didn’t

I’ve just completed a photographic holiday following roughly the traditional “grand circle” of the American South West. We didn’t visit the Grand Canyon South Rim or Bryce Canyon, but otherwise our tour took in most of the traditional sites, and several less traditional ones as well. As a service to fellow photo enthusiasts, here’s my views on what worked well, and what less well.

F/11, 1/30s, ISO 200, 17-85mm lens @ 17mm (All photos Canon 350D unless otherwise stated)

88 Photographing the Southwest, Vols 1 & 2, by Laurent Martrès

These brilliant books guide you to the very best locations, some well hidden. Sometimes the author even tells you which rock to stand on. His guidance on timing is also pretty accurate. Follow his instructions carefully, and you’ll usually get good results, although he’s not infallible. It’s also great fun shouting “snap!” when you realise the only other souls in some lonely location are also clutching a copy of the book.

Read my more detailed review here.

22 Grand Canyon West

The Hualapai Indians are desperately trying to open up “Grand Canyon West” as a tourist location, following their admirable investment in the Skywalk, a glass platform which allows you to walk out 4000’ above the canyon.

Unfortunately the current experience is appalling. For a start it’s a real challenge to find, not marked on any map, and with one inadequate sign on the main road from Las Vegas. If you’re lucky, you’ll drive about 40 miles on dirt roads, but depending on your approach and next destination 100 is quite likely.

When you get there, the activities are at once slow and rushed, disorganised and over-prescriptive. The Hualapai want to sell you a costly and complex package of activities, when all you really want to do is walk on the Skywalk and see the canyon.

The Skywalk area is a photography-free zone. I knew they didn’t allow cameras on the Skywalk itself - fair enough, although I’m not convinced by any of the excuses given and suspect the real reason is a determination to sell their own photos. What I didn’t expect was the jobsworths who were absolutely determined to stop you photographing the Skywalk, canyon or an attractive “eagle” rock formation they actually draw your attention to, even from the car park. This despite the fact that they cheerfully allow unrestricted access at Guano Point (which gets a 8).

This isn’t a hotel review, but I must mention the Hualapai lodge in Peach Springs, which gets 22222! First, despite what’s implied on the web site it’s nowhere near Grand Canyon West - you’ve got a 50 mile drive on unsurfaced roads. But the big problem is the freight trains which pass about 50m to the rear of the hotel, every 15 minutes throughout the night, each sounding their horn several times. Forget sleep.

It’s non-PC, and may not survive the translation into American, but the best summary of our Grand Canyon West experience is “what a bunch of cowboys!”

88 Antelope Canyon

After the disappointments of Grand Canyon West, we were a bit worried about an “organised tour” of Antelope Canyon, but with absolutely no need. We took the two-hour photographic tour run by “Chief Tsosie”, and it worked brilliantly. Despite the cramped conditions and a large number of visitors (I’d guess well over 100 at mid-day) the various guides did an excellent job of both marshalling people and pointing out what to shoot. We even managed to get a few clear floor shots. Admittedly you have to work fast - I joked that you have more time to compose shots of the Red Arrows (the RAF’s display team) - but the results are promising.

Our guide, an Indian lady called Vera, was wonderful. In addition to guiding she helped less experienced photographers with their cameras, and also played the flute, sending soulful music echoing through the canyon. Very spiritual. Highly recommended.

F/5.6, 1/4s, ISO 400, 17-85mm lens @ 85mm

8 Glen Canyon Park

Good for an hour’s drive, but you have to be lucky with the light to get great shots.

8 Navajo Bridges, Vermillion Cliffs and Lees Ferry

This is an interesting drive, with dramatic panoramic scenery. The twin Navajo bridges are fascinating and make a great wide-angle shot. We were a bit unlucky with the weather - overcast skies and drizzle - but still got a couple of decent shots.

F/18, 1/25s, ISO 100, 17-85mm lens @ 17mm

2 Coyote Buttes

Yes, I know the Wave is 8888, but I still haven’t worked out how to get a permit if you’re unlucky in the lottery and only in Page for 2 days. Maybe next time...

8 Horseshoe Bend

This is a dramatic and easily accessible location, but not terribly easy to photograph at sunset. There are only a few spots with a good view of both sides (I was lucky here), but you have to use a very wide lens and shoot straight into the sun, so dynamic range and flare can be a problem (or an artistic opportunity). Sunrise might be easier, but I got a couple of reasonable shots using HDR techniques, or making artistic use of the flare.

F/11, HDR composition from three exposures: 1/6s, 1/25s and 1/100s, ISO 100, 10-22mm lens @ 10mm

88 Monument Valley

We were in two minds about going back to Monument Valley, as Martrès’ book and other things I’d read said it was becoming over-commercialised. In the end we bit the bullet, and were very pleasantly surprised, with none of our fears realised. We got onto a jeep tour at less than an hour’s notice, and in the end had the guide and vehicle to ourselves. Our Navajo guide, Jimmy, was informative, and understood my photographic needs well. In one case he pointed out an X marked on the rock - stand there and you get a beautifully framed shot of The Ear of the Wind.

We took the 2 hour tour which includes the areas only open to guided tours. At only $10 more per head it’s great value, and extends the usual experience with some interesting arches and pictographs. Our enthusiastic guide even sat and entertained us with Navajo music under the cover of the “Big Hogan”, an enormous natural sound stage. Another delightful experience.

2 San Juan Goosenecks

Interesting to look at, difficult to photograph. (And we had rather dull light!)

8 Natural Bridges National Monument

The bridges themselves are rather difficult to photograph from the road, although there is some great detail in the form of rocks and trees, and you really have to allow enough time to hike down to one or more of the bridges. We had time for one, and chose Kochino Bridge. This was slightly disappointing, in that you have to be prepared to wade in the stream to get really close, and it would be impossible when the river is higher. However I got some nice views with autumnal trees from slightly higher up. Overall the park is well worth a couple of hours.

... Nothing to do with photography, but if you’re driving up to Moab make an hour for the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, which has a fascinating collection of dinosaur sculptures and movie memorabilia as well as some good fossils and scientific displays.

8 Arches NP

Don’t visit a busy park at the weekend, and especially not the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend. OK, I’d already worked this out in theory, but I mistakenly thought Arches would be less crowded than Canyonlands. The reverse is true.

That said, we managed to park at each location, and I got some reasonable shots of all of the main attractions, but not without some frustration at the selfishness of some visitors, systematically ignoring instructions like “don’t hog the arch” and “don’t walk on the cryptobiotic soil”. Worst was probably Delicate Arch, where a group of Germans insisted on smoking a cigarette in the middle of the arch, and then practically exploring the number of permutations of five people, one camera and two arch legs. English-speaking landscape photographers were starting to remember The War, some quite loudly.

I’d give most of the park 8 for a daytime shoot, but Delicate Arch really is 88 under any low-German conditions!

The Ranger-led walk around Fiery Furnace is an excellent way of understanding more about the geology and the parks, but don’t expect time for more than snapshots.

F/11, 1/100s, ISO 200, 17-85mm lens @ 17mm

8 Dead Horse Point and Grand View Point (Canyonlands NP)

Both great to look at but a challenge to photograph well, and I’m not entirely satisfied with my results despite catching quite a nice sunrise at DHP. Pray for an interesting sky.

8 Canyonlands NP: Aztec Butte

A good short hike with some nice photographic opportunities, but make sure you have Martrès’ book in your hand, as otherwise you’ll miss the best ruin, as I did.

88 Canyonlands NP: Mesa Arch

Great under almost any conditions, but if you catch a good sunrise, as we did, it is one of the most uplifting as well as photogenic experiences of the whole tour. It’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph as the rising sun lights the arch from underneath, but the dynamic range is quite high, and you’ll have to either compose to avoid the sky, or take a range of shots and combine them later.

F/11, HDR composition from three exposures: 1/50s, 1/200s and 1/400s, ISO 400, 17-85mm lens @ 22mm

By the way, don’t expect this to be a serene, solitary, spiritual experience. It’s a popular location - “tripods at dawn” sums it up better!


What the coffee-table books don't show
Note the row of freezing spouses (spice?)

88 Canyonlands, False Kiva

Solitude is more likely at this simply stunning location. The Parks Service have an oddly ambivalent attitude to this site. They don’t put it on any maps, but the rangers will happily confirm the directions in Martrès’ book, and if you do find your way there’s a visitors’ book in an old ammo can at the back of the alcove!

Follow the directions carefully, look for previous footprints, take waypoints, and the hike is actually quite easy. At an average of one group of visitors per day you’ve got a good chance of being alone, but we collected another couple sporting "the book" who’d lost the trail. We then had quite an enjoyable time exploring together.

You quickly appreciate why ancient Indians made this a holy site. I defy anyone not to be moved by its beauty.

F/11, 1/200s, ISO 200, 10-22mm lens @ 10mm

28 Flight over Canyonlands

It’s difficult to take much from a small aircraft, through plastic windows, but you may get some decent aerial shots of things like The Confluence and The Maze which otherwise are almost inaccessible. Portfolio-grade images are unlikely.

88 Fisher Towers

The Colorado riverway north-east of Moab is generally scenic, but the peak is definitely the Fisher Towers at sunset. I went for a location suggested in Martrès’ book where you can get a reflection of the towers and the mountains in the river. It works well, but note that the rock you stand on in the river is much nearer the cattle grid than he suggests.

F/22, 1/2s, ISO 200, 17-85mm lens @ 47mm

8 Goblin Valley SP

This is an odd, magical, fun place which sends you straight back to childhood. You may decide not to bother with your camera, but just to play hide and seek, and I wouldn’t blame you. That said, the rocks have remarkable, amusing shapes and you should take some fun photographs even if you don’t have the best light. Enjoy!

8 Scenic Route 12, Utah

From Harding to Red Canyon this road is a string of dramatic, changing scenes, including a section of Capitol Reef NP and the jumping off points for several other locations. It’s a wonderful drive, but a bit frustrating for the photographer. The problem is that stopping places usually coincide with grand panoramas which are difficult to photograph, while inspiring potential images are often gone behind you before you can stop. Photographically it would reward spending more time, but don’t expect great pictures from a single drive.

88 Devil's Garden, Escalante

Another tiny park full of wonderfully-shaped hoodoos, many reminiscent of Easter Island statues. The very colourful banding in the rock strengthens the similarity, and lights up wonderfully if you’re lucky at golden hour.

8 Kodachrome Basin SP, Utah

Just a few minutes off SR12, this is worth a visit, but lacks the charm of some of the other stops on the route.

88 Grosvenor Arch

F/11, 1/160s, ISO 200, 10-22mm lens @ 13mm

Carry on for a few miles down the dirt road heading south from Kodachrome Basin, and you reach a much more dramatic location. Without much warning a great yellow limestone cliff rears up out of relatively flat ground, in some ways a little like Ayers Rock. Even from a distance you can see the great double arch in its centre.

The view from a distance is great, and the path from the car park is sympathetically laid to support symmetrical wide views. However the best thing is to get up close, with a wide angle lens, and get really dramatic pictures of this great natural architecture.


8 Zion NP

Maybe because it’s only a couple of hours from Las Vegas, Zion is becoming very crowded. We were there in the third week of October, but the car parks were full each day and there was little room to move at the popular stops, especially on the Sunday. Zion doesn’t seem to have many “intermediate” hikes. Destinations like Angel’s Landing and The Subway are quite hard and take several hours, otherwise you’re tripping over kids, wheelchair users and groups of gossiping women!

More than some other Grand Circle locations, to get great photographs of Zion needs a good understanding of where and when light is expected to fall, supplemented by a fair chunk of luck. For example almost everyone, from holiday snappers to Tom Till, photographs The Watchman from the same place on the bridge, but Martrès admits it took him several visits to get the right combination of light and seasonal colours. Another example - the side of the Checkerboard Mesas facing the road probably only gets the best light at summer sunrise and sunset, and is in shadow much of the rest of the time.

We were also surprised at the lack of Autumn colour given our late October visit, but that was a common problem in many places this year, on both sides of the pond.

That said, I got a couple of great shots in the Court of the Patriarchs (follow Martrès’ instructions for the best viewpoint), and at a couple of stops on the East Road. However next time I’ll focus on the areas away from the madding crowds.

F/11, 1/80s, ISO 200, 10-22mm lens @ 15mm

8 Las Vegas

OK, it’s not strictly a Grand Circle location, but most visitors’ tours will begin and end here.

Carry a small SLR, or a good compact, and you’ll get some worthy pictures, especially after dark. For strong diagonals, visit the Luxor!

88 HP iPaq 4700

The best of the “pure play” PDAs, this is a great photographers’ tool, and it’s criminal that HP haven’t really replaced it in their range. It has a clear, bright 4” display, both CF and SD card slots, and strikes a good balance of performance and excellent battery life. The built-in HP Image Zone software is excellent for reviewing photos and deleting the duffers, while the standard Pocket Office tools are good for location and processing notes. A combination of Pocket Loupe and my own RawQuest software provide DoF calculation and RAW file handling.

We developed a routine of reviewing each days’ shooting over dinner each evening - a great way to end each day and a good chance for your non-photographing partner to contribute to how the shots are developed.

Combined with a simple card backup device, a PDA like this means you don’t need to carry a full sized laptop at all.

88 Canon 350D

Although it may not deliver quite the ultimate quality of its larger and more expensive brethren, this flexible and capable camera produces some decent results, belying its “entry level” tag. Probably half of all cameras I saw on this trip were 350Ds or 400Ds, so I’m not alone in this belief.

I don’t understand the complaints about the 350D’s “handling”. Maybe I’ve just got used to cameras of that physical size (its predecessors were equivalent Canon film SLRs), but I don’t find it fiddly. On the converse, its small size and light weight mean I can wander around indefinitely with it held in one hand, even with an image stabilised telephoto zoom attached. Try that with a 1Ds mk II!

Talking of lenses, I took around 95% of all my shots with the Canon 17-85mm IS zoom lens. The 10-22mm wide-angle got a few outings. My 70-300 telephoto almost never left the case.

Dust wasn’t a problem, although there was a lot of it about, especially in Monument Valley. I went heavily armed with an Arctic Butterfly and Sensor Scope, but my main solutions were wet wipes (for the exterior), and a can of compressed air purchased at the first Radio Shack on route. I suppose it helps taking most photos with the same lens...

How could Canon improve the camera? Well three of the top items on my wish list, better noise management, live preview and custom shooting modes, have just turned up in the 40D, and I look forward to seeing them trickle down to the 400D’s successor. In addition a three colour histogram or clipping warning would be really useful. With strong light on red rocks it’s too easy to blow the red channel even though the “white” histogram looks OK. Canon, and Canon users on their Grand Circle tour please note.

2 Canon Digital Ixus 850 IS

It’s a great shame, because I really wanted to like this camera, but I just can’t live with its limitations. I like having a compact camera to supplement my SLR, and my worthy old Powershot S40 was getting a bit long in the tooth, so I replaced it with this. On paper, and in several reviews, it looked promising with its 28mm wide zoom and good optical performance. I do like the design, it’s genuinely pocketable and it sits well on the belt when climbing.

The optical performance is good. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Despite having built-in image stabilisation, I lost a lot of shots to camera shake (something to which I’m not normally prone). The camera doesn’t tell you what shutter speed will be used, and you can’t just increase sensitivity as noise performance at ISO 800+ is really unacceptable, beyond Noise Ninja’s repair abilities. The camera does have a histogram and exposure compensation, but with no clipping warning and no RAW mode it’s still too easy to blow the highlights.

I don’t know why, but the major manufacturers seem to have abandoned the idea of a high-spec digital compact with full manual control. Maybe they were worried about cannibalising DSLR sales, but such cameras are often bought by enthusiasts in addition to an SLR, not instead of one. For over a year Canon haven’t had a single compact with RAW support. While the G9 addresses that and is getting good reports, with a wide zoom equivalent to only 35mm it’s not going to do much landscape duty.

Oh well, perhaps I can find a Powershot S70 on eBay...

88 The Grand Circle

F/11, 1/80s, ISO 200, 17-85mm lens @ 17mm

I don’t know anywhere else on earth with the variety and sheer volume of great scenery and photographic opportunities packed into a relatively small, accessible area as the American South West. Indeed, there’s too much to do in a short visit, so be selective rather than overambitious. We had 19 days, which is a good length for a visit, but left feeling we’d only scratched the surface.

We found Arizona and Utah very welcoming, with a very few exceptions noted above. The hospitality is good, but if you’re used to a diet with lots of green veg be prepared to risk scurvy!

We were impressed by how well the National Parks Service and the Utah state authorities are managing these international treasures in the face of dramatically increasing visitor numbers. Without going to the “no roads, no cars” extremes suggested by the likes of Edward Abbey and Ansel Adams they are managing the human and traffic well, and striking a good balance in most cases.

Several of the stops are home to galleries featuring the work of great landscape photographers. These can be very inspiring, but also a bit intimidating, if you want to emulate their work. You can visit the same locations, but unfortunately there’s no guarantee of comparable light. Even semi-predictable events like the Mesa Arch dawn don’t work every day.

The big difference between the professional and the holidaying enthusiast is time - in a typical holiday you’ll be there on a schedule, with no chance of visiting the same location many times, or camping out for two weeks just waiting for the perfect moment.

My advice is don’t expect 100%, and you won’t be disappointed. If you’re unlucky, then don’t worry about the camera - just enjoy the scenery with the two human imaging devices which adapt to all conditions. But when you’re lucky, you’ll have some photographs to treasure.


4 Responses to My Grand Circle Tour

Chris on 22 June 2010 at 21:21

Very well done and very informative! Great shots.
We visited Zion, Bryce, Page, and the North Rim last September and we’re currently planning a return visit in the fall. This year we plan on adding Arches, Canyonlands, and Monument Valley so it was a treat to read on these locations. Thanks for the honest outlook and getting Delicate Arch at sunset and Mesa Arch at sunrise.
Once again great work.
Chris – …we have some similar shots :)!

Lester on 22 June 2010 at 21:21

[Re the pic of Horseshoe Bend] How did you get 3 pics for you HDR? Did you used a tripod? I have been there and the only way I could take a picture is to put the camera over the cliff and take the picture and check it on the LCD for placement.

Also, if you move about 10 feet to the left, you will miss the rock on the right hand side

Terry on 22 June 2010 at 21:22

Thanks for the great editorial and fantastic photos. I made most of this trip last fall. We drove from Louisiana to Alaska and back (19,000 miles in all) and did this trip on the way home. We had mostly great weather, but did get some snow at Cedar Breaks, Arches and north of Zion. I plan on going back for 4-5 weeks this fall and enjoying it again, but this time with more leisure time.

If you go back to this area, I would also suggest you spend at least a little time at the Kolob Canyon part of Zion.

I would also like to thank you for the comments on the Canon 350. I just added it to my inventory to replace an older Canon S45 point and shoot. I also carry a Minolta Maxxum 7D, but it gets a little heavy at times.

Andrew on 22 June 2010 at 21:29

The reason I used that spot is that from that point you can see both sides of the bend equally with a reasonably wide lens, and then you can put the camera on a tripod and get three identical pictures for HDR.

If you'd like to comment on this article, with ideas, examples, or just to praise it to the skies then I'd love to hear from you.

Comment on this article

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