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Monument Valley is one of those iconic locations that became popular after countless Western movies were filmed in the area.

I have had the good fortune to visit the area a few times, though it would seem that my relationship with Mother Nature has not always been as complete and happy as I would like.  I say this because I have a vision of how my images “should” be composed and the final result.  All previous trips were met with cloud cover or less than stellar light conditions.

While in Phoenix during the days prior to the trip, spending some time with my parents, I considered my options for the drive back to Denver.  I always look for photography locations I can visit when traveling from place to place.  Like many photographers, I have a laundry list of “to-shoot” locations as well as places I must return to, to re-shoot and try to improve upon what I have already created.

Based on a spectacular sunrise a couple days earlier

SCW Sunrise

I thought that Mother Nature may be nice and give me that one day of shooting in Monument Valley Tribal Park where I would be able to create the awesome images I have envisioned.  I was also thinking the weather may be such that I could get some really awesome night-sky images with the Milky Way, so I booked myself a premier star-view room at “The View Hotel” for a single overnight stay from Friday 05 December to Saturday 06 December.

As I was booking my room, I was hoping that the heavy rain that was falling in Phoenix would blow on through and the storm front would blow completely beyond Monument Valley.  Friday morning came along and I was feeling a bit melancholy.  The week with my parents was coming to an end yet again.  I did take solace in the fact that I would be back in a couple of weeks for Christmas.  My 4Runner was all packed up and after saying goodbye, I headed to top off fuel and get moving North.

Leaving at 10am on a Friday definitely has it’s benefits as the traffic heading up I-17 was relatively light.  I made good time to Flagstaff and before I knew it was in Kayenta.  I filled up with fuel, grabbed a couple of items in the C-Store and continued rolling North to Monument Valley.  The goal was to get checked into the hotel, get my duffle bag put in the room and then head down into the valley so I could scout locations for a sunset spot.  Yes, I had done my usual shot planning with The Photographer’s Ephemeris and The Photographer’s Transit though I will usually still scout spots to make sure that I find the prime spot.  Often, what I research and plan is pretty much spot on, though there have been a couple of occasions where my research and planning were a bit off or some new bit of nature had come into play creating a more unique and special image.

Upon getting checked in and looking at the view from the deck, I was really hopeful for clear skies, as night-sky photography would be pretty awesome from right there!  Headed into the valley to scout and was happy that the cloud-cover was a bit less than I had anticipated.  What I had not taken into account was the sun angle was lower due to being December (oops).  After about 15 minutes of driving around looking at the spot I had researched and also looking at other options, I returned to my primary spot, grabbed my gear and trekked down a short hill.  Once set up, I started composing image.  Even though sunset was still an hour away, the sun was already started to go behind the hotel.

Monuments & Contrails

Since the sun was behind the hotel already, I thought I would put my LEE “Big Stopper” (10 stop neutral density filter) in the filter holder along with my circular polarizer and see what creativity came about.  Still a lot of experimentation to do, to really create the images that I have in mind while using the Big Stopper, so what I created was a good start!

Ten Stop Mittens

Back to normal configuration (3-stop soft GND and circular polarizer), about ten minutes before sunset, I noticed the moon starting to rise between West Mitten and East Mitten, so I set the camera up and created.  Just above the horizon, you can see the moon rising.  One of the better images from the evening, in my opinion:

Big Red Buttes

Sunset was pretty lackluster (at least to me) and while I was composing and creating, the images were not really doing much for me.  Twilight approached and the image that came about was one of those that made me happy, as well as hungry to return next Summer when light and cloud-cover might be less, to re-shoot again.

Monument Valley Twilight

After twilight passed, the clouds started to roll in even more, so I headed back to the hotel.  I had not really had much to eat so I decided to go to the restaurant and have dinner.  What I discovered in the process of having dinner was that the chef(s) really knew how to cook!  The main course was not a difficult meal to prepare, but steamed vegetables always seem to be a crap-shoot.  These vegetables were absolutely perfect!

Back in my room, I pulled my camera out, put it on the tripod and went out on the deck to see what I could create with the pitch black.  Much as I wanted to have clear skies, Mother Nature really wanted to have clouds (accumulating moisture, which will eventually dump snow in the mountains of Colorado, so the ski areas were going to benefit which is a good thing).  I did use the available light to create a neat silhouette image:

Butte Silhouette's

After a semi-restful sleep (I did get up twice to look outside and see if the cloud cover was present, for night-sky photography), I got up at 5:30am to shoot morning twilight and sunrise.  The cloud cover was breaking up a little, so there would probably be a little light but I was not going to hold my breath for one of those magical sunrises.  Driving the 17-mile road in pitch black with a few areas still wet & soft from the soaking rains from a few days earlier was interesting to say the least.  I made it to where I wanted to shoot sunrise with about ten minutes to spare.  I used the time to shoot a few sample images and see how things were composing.  Liking what I saw, I crossed my fingers for a break in the clouds for sunrise…

…Unfortunately, no luck, but still a beautiful scene!

Monument Sunrise

With my sunrise image in the bag (so to speak), I decided to do another “Big Stopper” image to see if I could capture the cloud movement and use the natural saturation to enhance the image.  The settings called for a three and a half minute exposure, but I wanted this one to be a little moody, so I stopped the exposure at three minutes and was very happy with the results!

Three Minute Butte's

Moving locations to get a little better angle, the clouds were breaking and allowing more light into the scene, for which I was treated to A Palette of Color:

A Palette of Color

The location was hiding West Mitten behind Merrick Butte (so named for a prospector that was mining silver in the area, but was killed by rogue Ute indians).  The light, however, was pretty awesome, revealing a gorgeous image of Merrick Butte and Sentinel Mesa:

Merrick & Sentinel

As much as I wanted those optimal conditions, I know that the norm is “you get what you get,” so I took the challenge of the conditions and made the most of what I was provided by Mother Nature and the Navajo Spirits.

Yá’át’ééh! Dííjį́ yéego hózhǫ́ dooleeł!  (Loosely translated Navajo for: “It is good, with much intensity.  Make it so!” (or more literally “Hello! Have a great day”)