Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Landscape painters begin with a blank canvas (although, if truth be told, today they often use photographs as inspiration for their paintings). Landscape photographers, on the other hand, start with the landforms in front of them. You might think that means that all landscape photographers can do is make a mechanical rendering of the scene in front of them. If that were so, I would long ago have lost interest in landscape photography. What keeps me fascinated today, after nearly 30 years of full-time landscape photography, is imagining new images I can create on the canvas nature has already provided, then setting out to capture them.
Here's an example. In 2017, I shot a sunrise panorama at Brimhall Point, a stunning viewpoint overlooking the Maze and the south fork of Horse Canyon, in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The Maze is one of the most remote destinations in the Lower 48. Reaching it from Highway 24 south of Green River, Utah, requires driving 46 miles of washboard gravel road, then bouncing over 30 miles of nasty four-wheeling. Four years later, as I was thinking about images I might want to make after teaching my Moab in Spring workshop in late April 2022, I suddenly realized that Brimhall Point could be an ideal vantage point for a Milky Way panorama. I had shot my sunrise panorama looking east – precisely the direction of the center of the Milky Way arch at the right time of night in late April. My sunrise panorama stretched nearly 180 degrees from left to right, about the same angle of view required to capture a Milky Way panorama. And my sunrise panorama showed two curvaceous canyons that would complement the arc of the Milky Way beautifully. I had visited the Maze three times, but never thought of this possibility. With careful planning, I hoped to paint a new image onto a familiar canvas.
I reserved two nights at the Maze Overlook the instant the reservation window opened, four months in advance of my trip, and almost immediately began berating myself for not booking three nights. What if it was cloudy for two nights? I went back to the reservation website to book a third night. No luck: within minutes of the reservation window’s opening, every night at the Maze Overlook’s two campsites had been completely booked for the next three months.
I resigned myself to making the best of the time I would have. Four days before my Maze trip, I drove to Moab and started teaching my three-day Moab in Spring workshop, where my students, with my help, shot two sunrises and two sunsets in a row. On the same day that workshop ended, I taught a Milky Way workshop for a private student at Grand View Point. In the spring, the Milky Way is most photogenic in the wee hours of the morning, which meant leaving the hotel at 11:30 p.m. and returning around 4:30 a.m.
With my teaching duties behind me, I had one more night in Moab before heading for the Maze. To stretch my legs that afternoon I hiked the short trail to Corona Arch. During previous scouting trips I’d concluded that Corona Arch doesn’t get moment-of-sunrise or sunset light at any time of year. But what about the Milky Way? I’d never considered that possibility. Using Sun Surveyor and a handheld compass, I soon discovered that in late September you can shoot the Milky Way through Corona Arch if you choose exactly the right vantage point. I had found another fresh image I could etch onto an already formed slate someday.
That night I left the hotel at 11:30 p.m. and returned to Grand View Point. Fortunately, the night was once again clear and calm. I shot several compositions of Monument Basin and a solitary weathered Utah juniper I nicknamed the truffula tree (with apologies to Dr. Suess). For one image, I set up a Really Right Stuff PG-01 multi-row panorama rig atop an iOptron SkyTracker Pro star-tracking device, creating a distinctly Rube-Goldberg-looking contraption that actually worked well for shooting a two-frame panorama with the 14mm lens I needed to get adequate depth of field.
After returning to my hotel and catching a few hours of sleep, I headed for the Maze. The 4wd road proved to be even worse than I remembered it, and I raked the body rail of my 4Runner over a big rock during a steep descent. By the time I finally arrived at the Maze Overlook, it was late afternoon. I shot sunset at Brimhall Point and used a compass to double-check all of my map calculations for my Milky Way panorama. Everything looked good to go if only the clouds filling much of the sky would disappear.
My alarm jarred me awake at midnight. Forty-five minutes later I was set up and shooting my first Milky Way sky sequence at Brimhall Point using a Sony 14mm f/1.8 lens and an exposure of 15 seconds, f/1.8, ISO 6400. The galactic center was only 4 degrees above the horizon – well under the 10-degree altitude I consider to be the beginning of the best shooting window – but persistent clouds along the horizon made me nervous. After each panorama sequence I scrolled through the images, looking for clouds. Slowly they began encroaching on the Milky Way. At 1:20 a.m. the galactic center reached an altitude of 10 degrees. I shot another sky sequence and saw that clouds were just about to begin covering the Milky Way. I shot sky sequences for another half-hour, but each subsequent sequence showed more and more clouds obscuring the Milky Way. At 1:50 a.m. I gave up trying to get a clean sky sequence and began shooting the land using an exposure of 59 seconds, f/1.8, ISO 6400 – two stops greater than the correct exposure for the sky. For each camera position I shot four frames focused at infinity so I could stack the images in Photoshop and use Stack Mode>Median to reduce noise. If the edge of the cliff was visible from that camera position, I then shot four more frames focused on the cliff edge so I could combine the two images in Photoshop and create better depth of field. Finally, with clouds covering the sky, I called it a night, returned to my campsite, napped for a couple of hours, then forced myself to get up to shoot sunrise. It was a bust. I returned to my campsite and went back to sleep.
I checked the forecast on my Garmin GPSmap 66i when I awoke around 9 a.m. The forecast called for gusts to 40 mph in the afternoon. I thought about staying in camp, firing up my laptop, and trying to assemble a rough edit of the panorama I shot the night before. I had just one more night to shoot, and I would have to decide whether to re-shoot the composition I just shot or try a different composition nearby. Although stitching a test panorama would have been the best way to decide, I opted instead to do a long hike in the Maze that I had wanted to do for years. I packed hastily, zipped the tent (or so I thought), and started down the intricate 4th-class scrambling route that leads to the bottom of the Maze. Once down, I followed the trail towards the Harvest Scene, a spectacular pictograph panel, until I was directly east of the Chocolate Drops, four spectacular towers arrayed along a sandstone ridge high above me. From there I climbed a tough 4th-class scrambling route, unmarked on the map, that led up to the Chocolate Drops.
The wind was building by the time I reached the Chocolate Drops. I followed the marked trail south along a sandstone ridge with spectacular views. Soon the wind became a gale. I had anchored my Bibler tent well, with heavy rocks at all four corners and two more heavy rocks anchoring the guy lines on each side. Nonetheless, I was worried. After four miles, I reached the 4wd road that traverses the Land of Standing Rocks. The “trailhead” for the trail to the Chocolate Drops consisted of three rows of small stones that marked the three sides of a rectangular parking area just big enough for three cars. There were no signs indicating it was a trailhead, much less a trailhead for the Chocolate Drops. Finding the trailhead for Horse Canyon one mile west along the road looked like a challenge.
I headed west and began searching for the Horse Canyon trailhead. After 20 minutes I found three rows of small stones marking three sides of a rectangle. Again there was no sign, nor any visible trail. Only a solitary cairn marked the beginning of the descent into Horse Canyon. I was only one-third of the way through the hike, the wind was still screaming, and storm clouds were building. I had not seen a soul since leaving my campsite.
At its southern terminus, Horse Canyon splits into multiple small sub-canyons, and the route down into the canyon proved to be incredibly intricate. The trail (really just a cairned route) would drop down through a break in a cliff band, traverse into a completely different finger of the canyon, drop down through another cliff band, and traverse back to the original finger of the canyon. Eventually I reached the canyon bottom. There was no evidence that people had ever passed that way. I was hiking as fast as I could, but the canyon twisted and turned endlessly. Eight hours after leaving my campsite, I finally began the climb back out of the Maze. Part way up, I encountered two backpackers descending. They were the first people I’d seen all day.
At last I reached the rim and began the short road walk back to my campsite, which was out of sight behind a small knoll. As I crested the knoll, I caught sight of my 4Runner. Another few steps, and I expected to see my tent.
It was gone, along with my sleeping bag, foam pad, inflatable pillow, and travel alarm clock. It looked like the wind, still blowing hard out of the northwest, must have ripped the tent loose from its many anchors, carried it over the cliff and out into the Maze. I walked to the rim and peered over, scanning the slopes below for scraps of shredded yellow fabric.
“Are you looking for your tent?” called a voice from the adjacent campsite.
“Yes!” I replied. The campers next door had spotted my tent tumbling through the sagebrush, driven by an errant gust from the southwest, and rescued it before it took off for Kansas. It was battered, with one pole poking through a hole in the fabric and numerous gashes and cuts in the tent canopy. My sleeping bag, foam pad, and alarm clock were still inside. Only the pillow was missing. The door was partially unzipped, and I began to suspect that I must have left it that way when I departed for my hike. With the door fully zipped, the tent is quite wind-resistant; with it open, however, the tent acted like a sail, scooping up the wind, which was blowing straight into the opening. It was the first time in 50 years of camping, backpacking, and mountaineering that my tent had actually blown away.
I thanked the campers profusely and stuffed the broken tent inside my truck. It was starting to look like rainbow weather, so I grabbed a tripod and my a7R IVa and walked over to the rim.
Heavy rain was falling over the Abajos and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. If the sun dropped a little below the dense clouds to the west, direct sun would hit the curtain of raindrops and create a rainbow over the Maze. Alas, it didn’t happen. I made a few consolation shots of the last rays of sunlight kissing the Chocolate Drops and finally started making dinner around 8:30 p.m.
I decided to shoot a different Milky Way composition during my last night at the Maze, this time with my 35mm f/1.4 lens since I didn’t plan to have any foreground. The 35mm f/1.4 has tremendous light-gathering power, but very shallow depth of field when shooting wide open. I slept in till 2 a.m. and was shooting less than an hour later. This time the sky was almost completely free of clouds. I shot multi-row panoramas until 4:30 a.m., a few minutes before astronomical dawn, and returned to camp.
With a long drive home ahead of me, I skipped sunrise and slept till about 8:30 a.m. An hour later, fully packed and ready to roll, I called my wife Cora. “I’m about to leave paradise,” I said. She laughed, told me to drive safely, and I hit the road.
For the next two and a half hours I gritted my teeth and eased the 4Runner over one sandstone ledge after another. “Did I really drive over this on my way in?” I thought to myself more than once. The guide driving the sag wagon for the mountain bikers camped at the other Maze campsite was just ahead of me. We pulled over at a wide spot in the one-lane road to let an oncoming vehicle get by and chatted for a minute. “I must admit I’m impressed by what a stock 4Runner can do,” he said. “Of course, it has a good driver.” I thanked him and replied, “It’s been said that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. There has definitely been some bad judgment along the way.” He laughed. I should have added that my 4Runner wasn’t exactly stock. It used to have running boards. Then I drove it through Teapot Canyon, one of the toughest roads in the Maze, and battered the running boards so severely that I had to do an emergency four-wheeling upgrade while still in the backcountry. I crawled underneath the truck with a wrench, unbolted the running boards, and threw them in the back of the truck before my dreaded but unavoidable rematch with Teapot Canyon on the way out.
On this trip I had reached the Maze via the Hans Flat Ranger Station and the Flint Trail. Coming out I took a different route that I thought would be faster and easier. I was wrong. This road, which led to Highway 95 near Hite, also seemed to have deteriorated since I last traveled it. The road was a teaser: every now and then, I could get the truck up to 20 miles an hour for a hundred yards. Then another washout would appear and I would slam on the brakes to avoid smashing into a narrow, six-inch deep trench. The cycle repeated, over and over, for a maddening two and a half hours.
After five hours of driving on dirt, I finally reached pavement. A smooth road -- what bliss! Thirteen hours after leaving the Maze, I made it home. The eight-day trip felt like it had lasted much longer.
Had I succeeded in making the image I envisioned? Certainly I had come close. In an ideal rendering of Milky Way Panorama from Brimhall Point, the arch of the Milky Way would be higher and a bit further to the right, so it was centered over the squat tower in the middle of the frame and terminated to the right of the Chocolate Drops. In retrospect, I should have re-shot my first composition on my second night. I’d painted a new image onto my sandstone canvas, but there was still room for improvement. I had a perfect excuse to retire my 2008 4Runner, buy a new one, put a lift kit and some tall tires on it, and return to one of Utah’s most awe-inspiring places for another try.