In September of 2017 I had an opportunity to photograph Horseshoe Bend, an iconic location that I had wanted to photograph properly since I saw an Ansel Adams print of it over a decade ago.
I knew that I wanted to be at the Horseshoe Bend before dawn and that I could sleep in my truck in the Walmart parking lot the night before. But I didn’t want to waste an evening that I knew was going to yield excellent light and weather. I had been watching the weather patterns for a week prior to the trip.
After expanding the map of the area I was researching, I found a place called the Toadstool Hoodoos about 45 minutes north of Page, AZ across the Utah border.
With these two destinations in mind I planned for the rest of the trip.
Thankfully the trip fell in the middle of the week so traffic wasn’t an issue and the drive went smoothly.
Four and a half hours after leaving my house, I arrived at the trail head that leads to the hoodoos. Storm clouds were gathering overhead. I couldn’t have asked for better weather! Grabbing my camera, tripod, water, and a snack, I set off down the trail to find the hoodoos.
The trail quickly turned into a wash. For any who doesn’t know, a wash is very sandy terrain that’s created by flooding due to rain and can be very dangerous, even deadly if you’re caught in one when a flash flood happens. And those can happen even if the rain is several miles away.
After hiking through loose gravel and sand, some inclines and switchbacks for about a mile, I came to a fairly level shelf occupied by several hoodoos.
As I rounded one of the first formations, I noticed that the sun was lower than the tops of the hoodoos and this gave me the idea to create a sun-star, the optical/mechanical trick used to make the sun’s rays so apparent in the final piece. Now, I just had to find the right hoodoo!
It didn’t take that long. When I saw the boulder in the right foreground I immediately saw the relationship between the shape of the rock and the sun. As I continued around the previous hoodoo, I saw the two bushes and their circular shapes perfectly resonate with the boulder and the sun.
The composition in the frame started with a horizontal perspective but as soon as I began thinking about the image, I quickly saw those patterns that emerge only after a sufficient amount of looking and studying.
As I lowered the camera to include some of the reddish sand a triangle was formed by the implied and invisible lines created when the eye jumps from boulder to bushes to sun and back to the boulder. This triangle mimics the shape of the hoodoo perfectly creating another compositional layer.
The last layer took a bit coaxing from me in post processing to get the image how my mind saw it. In the original file, there was a separation of sky and land and they didn’t look like they belonged in the same frame. I played around with the individual color channels in Adobe Lightroom and added some red to the clouds. This unified the image with an undertone of reds. Lastly, I darkened the clouds on the right side by dropping the exposure values a little. Now with some added “weight” to the clouds on the right, a balance is struck between the ground and the sky. In addition to the sense of balance, there is another effect caused by darkening the sky, another implied line is created and leads the viewer’s eye down the clouds to the sun-star.
This completed the building of the composition. All that was left to do was lighten the shadows, bring the highlight values back down to a printable level, darken the blue values of the sky to make the clouds look like they’re floating, burn the dead bush to bring my black values back down, and clone stamp out some of the sun flare because it was a bit too distracting.
It only took a few more hours of work.
While I was on location, I enjoyed visiting the hoodoos for a couple more hours. Eventually the clouds thickened and darkened. The storm that was headed my way when I arrived, had finally gathered above me. Soon after, it began raining and I started on my way down through the wash to get back to my truck. My pace quickened with the rains intensity and soon I was jogging. It’s best not to be in a wash when it’s raining.
I arrived at my truck shortly after and without incident. By this time night had fallen in full, the rain was heavier, and I was close to being soaked, so I headed back to Page, AZ for dinner and to prepare for my Horseshoe Bend photoshoot in the morning.