Monument Valley, Arizona

From the north, you can see it coming from a long way off. The spires and monoliths peek above the horizon to give you a preview of the awe inspiring landscape you are about to encounter. The landscape here is unique. Perhaps not geologically, but visually it is different from anywhere else on earth. And, it is recognizable due to its connection to the movie industry. So, making images of the valley that are fresh can be a challenge.

Forest Gump
Driving towards the valley on U.S. Highway 163, We stopt a couple of times of the iconic “Monument Valley road shot” – you may also recognize this as where Forrest Gump ends his cross-country run.

Entering the park
We entered the Monument Valley from Highway 163 on the Utah side of the park, stopping at a toll booth to pay the $20-per-car entrance fee. Visitors to Monument Valley have two choices when it comes to exploring the park: they can either drive the 17-mile loop road on their own, or they can book a spot on a Navajo-operated tour. The Loop road that snakes through the valley is unpaved. It ranges from smooth sand to brutal potholes to slick rock and will seriously test the suspension of your vehicle. We were in a large 4X4 SUV with plenty of clearance so we had no problems. I watched one guy in a nice new Mustang creep his way out of the valley – that must have been one slooooow drive.

After entering the park, first thing you’ll probably do once you get out of the car is walk over to the overlook of the Mittens and the Valley. They are quite irresistible

Private residents live in the valley itself and you’ll pass their homes on the loop road so be careful not to accidentally trespass on private property. If you book a Navajo-operated tour you can acces some of these restricted areas. Sometimes that’s is worth the money!

The scenic drive (loop) is open from 6 am to 8:30 pm (May 1 to September 30) and 8 am to 4:30 pm (October through April).

If you have at least a couple of days to explore my suggestion is that you go on your own the first day and explore as much as you can. Then make arrangements for a private sunrise photography tour for the next morning. Guided tours can be arranged at the little booths sitting at one edge of the parking lot. We booked a tour in advanced true internet. Something it can be quite busy, especcialiy if you want to due a photpgraphy tour. We ended up going on a tour at 4:30 in the morning to catch sunrise at the Totem Pole. I think this was money very well spent, as the restricted area has many amazing spots that, whether you are a photographer or not, will enjoy seeing.

John Ford’s point
Sometimes you just need to go with the flow and make a photograph that’s been made a thousand times before. This is one of several photographs I made at John Ford’s Point. The first one showing a horse and rider moving away from the point under some clouds is more spontaneous.
Sunrise at Monument valley
We booked a tour with We met our tour guide at the View Hotel before 4.30 AM and two other photographers. We boarded a de 4×4 car and headed up to our first location.
Our first stop was to shoot the iconic Totem Pole at sunrise.  When we arrived at our destination the eastern sky was still dark but slowly began to show signs of life and the Totem Pole was visible in silhouette.  Exposures were long. J , but they were shortening by the minute as ambient light levels increased. The sunrise was nice but could be better. There were quite some clouds in the sky and the sun had a hard time to break through the clouds.
After some time we headed up to our second location. This place I particularly wanted to visit. We moved on to photograph the Totem Pole from a different perspective, using reddish sand dunes as a foreground. Just after sunset…. The rocks and sand becoming more orange by the minute. Untouched sand dunes, ripples accentuated in the low sun. This is what I was looking for… I setup my camera and began to shoot. I was feeling very grateful that we booked this tour. The tour guide brought us here, off the official tourist roads, to this special, unspoiled place.

Recommended Equipment
Monument Valley is mostly about big landscapes, so to me this mostly means wide angle lenses.  The lens I found myself using the most is the super wide angle Nikon 14-24 f/2.8. It’s also worth bringing longer focal length lenses (whether zooms or primes), to get close ups of rock features and specially petroglyphs.
As for filters, I would definitely bring the polarizer. Since you’ll find yourself trying to photograph very high contrast light situations I would also suggest bringing ND grad filters. When I visited Monument Valley I was using Lucroit filters. If you are into long exposures in daylight to get blurred clouds. Bring along your tripod!

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