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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Shooting Central Arizona

Sunset outside Phoenix

Leaving the vast, classic Western landscapes along the Utah/Arizona boarder, my photo expedition had me heading south, closer to mass civilization while still hunting for the wild lands. This is the third and final post recapping my photo expedition in Arizona and covering the time I spent in Sedona and Phoenix.

After so many days up north, I was on a time crunch to reach the Improve Photography 2017 Retreat in Phoenix. Yet, everyone had told me I needed to make a stop in Sedona since I was in the area. So I carved out just enough time to spend a 24 hour period in Sedona. Driving down, I rolled into town late afternoon.

Classic Cathedral Rock Reflection

Having already done my location scouting homework best I could before arriving, I headed for Crescent Moon Picnic Area in the Coconino National Forest. This is the area for some of the iconic photographs of Sedona. A variance of compositions featuring Cathedral Rock with a reflection in a pool of water at Red River Crossing.

Photo Tip: Especially when tight on time, pre-plan your locations and shots the best you can in order to expedite and maximize shooting. Have backup locations if any of your primary locations are specifically weather dependent.

When I first arrived, I was worried it was going to be a bust as the area had not received any rain in several days, nor was the river anywhere near flood stage. Lucky for me, there was still some water left in the crevasses of Red River Crossing. This is another location that it is important to get to earlier than you would expect, to set up and shoot sunset. Not only is it a very popular location, but in times of reflection puddle scarcity, you will need to claim a spot. Also, the fore- and mid-ground areas are thrown into deep shadow 20-30 minutes before actual sunset due to the topography and vegetation along the river.

I know I have said this before, but patience is a virtue in this location as you are likely to encounter a large number of general visitors and hikers crossing the rock in your composition. Be mentally prepared for this and have a plan to deal with it. For me, I chose to just wait it out and grab an image in the few moments no one was in my shot. Others may choose to do multiple shots and remove the ever changing pattern of bodies. I have found that while many people are unaware of their surroundings, if someone goes to plant themselves directly in your shot and you ask the polity to move just a bit, they most likely will acquiesce. Some may even strike up conversation with you and it can be an opening to a new friend or business opportunity.

After the sun had slipped low enough that everything but Cathedral Rock was turning to shadow, I packed up and started making my way back to the car. In no rush, I started looking for the small scenes or the intimate landscapes, as fellow photographer Dale Rogers of Photo Rangers in Australia has termed them. (Fully suggest checking his work out and if you ever find yourself down under, sign up for one of his workshops. Cant wait until I have the opportunity to do just that!)

Photo: "Night Falls" Coconino National Forest, Sedona, AZ

The walk back runs along the banks of the river and, as there were no clouds in the sky, the sunset was uninhibited in its fiery colors, a common occurrence which makes Arizona so famous for its sunsets. That being said, the orange and gold were reflecting off the now almost black from shadow waters. It made for an interesting contrast which I immediately loved. Not having much time to work with as light changes very quickly during this time of day, I set up my tripod and camera, quickly composed and tripped the shutter for 2.5 seconds. This allowed the camera to pick up the fading light as well as movement of the water. Personally, this is a favorite of mine with the various subtleties of the water currents over the rocks and how the light emphasizes the nuances across the surface.

The following day, I woke to cloudless skies and decided to do a bit of hiking in the morning. That afternoon, I was contacted by some fellow IP Retreat participants who were in town from New York. These two guys decided they wanted to see Sedona from above and invited me along. Heck yes! So the three of us were able to charter a helicopter for a quick flight over the unique formations that make up Sedona's landscapes.

Photo Tip: Take the helo ride!

Sedona from above

After the awesome helo tour, it was time for me to roll out once again. Onward to the Improve Photography 2017 Retreat. The first day was actually a pre-conference workshop taught by Dale Rogers (see notes above). Just one of the many reasons to attend retreats, workshops and/or conferences is to continue learning and working on one's craft. For me, I was super excited to be taking a workshop specifically geared at teaching us (photographers) to see the intimate landscapes we tend to walk by when in pursuit of the epic landscape locations.

Series of four desert detail images

Phoenix was awash in green with pops of colors as we were there just in time for the spring desert bloom. Dale lead a great workshop that really got me looking at details and considering how much they add to the overall story of a trip into nature. Yes, we all love those awe-inspiring vistas, but the tiny details that lead to that view are very much a part of the experience.

Desert flowers

This is were things start to merge a bit in my mind, as once these type of conferences start, sleep is the last item on the schedule. Utilizing social media, a group of attendees had been planning a late night meet-up to do some astrophotography. Due to the phase of the moon, we had a very narrow window in the early hours of the morning to actually capture the Milky Way before dawn started encroaching. This image is one of my first serious attempts at astrophotography. Big thanks to Aaron King and Brendon Porter (Photog Adventures Podcast) for setting it all up and helping the newbies like myself have an awesome experience and create some memorable images!

"Stellar Saguaro" Picketpost Trail

With the official kick-off of the retreat starting a few hours after the above image was taken, things just started to whirlwind, in a good way, as I attended all sorts of classes on various aspects of photography taught by amazing mentors and leaders in the industry.

"Standing Tall" Picketpost Trail sunset

At the end of each day, however, participants and speakers alike would break into groups to go shoot. For me, there was nothing better then going into the desert, trying to stretch my skills for new and better images.

Photo tip: Not all subjects need to be big. By using a wide-angle lens and getting a foreground subject close, it will make the subject appear larger. These cactus were no more than six inches tall on the largest barrel. Using camera positioning and natural leading lines, they were the perfect subject to pair with this sunset.

Over the course of the retreat, we spent most of our field time on the eastern side of Phoenix. Several features made it just an excellent shooting area. Just east of the city lie the Superstition Mountains and Lost Dutchman State Park. It is an absolutely amazing state park. Clean, quiet, beautiful, and not far from the city center. With a wide range of shooting options, this park is ideal for photographers (watch for rattlers though).

Photo: "Sunset over the Superstitions and Saguaro" Lost Dutchman State Park, AZ

BTS at Lost Dutchman

Everyone went home with a series of images from the park if they tried at all. The image above was taken the last night of the retreat with several of the conference participants present. A little Behind the Scene (BTS) image. This sort of group shooting also shows how many ways there are to interpret a scene. Aaron King did a video to show some BTS video footage along with some final image results. Click here for the video. Spoiler - I had a few seconds in the spot light as well (6:06)! My final image is the one above and was taken from the tripod you see here on the left.

Also, in case you are not familiar with desert cactus, those pictured below are called cholla, specifically jumping cholla cactus. At no point should jumping and cactus be in the same name, and yet here we are. If you are shooting these, please be ever so careful where you stand, kneel, sit or place your bag. They are no joke and I found out that the spines will even come through your boots. On the flip side, all those spins just light up so beautifully in the setting sun!

"Cholla Sunset"

I wrapped up my stay at Lost Dutchman State Park by camping overnight in their campground. A wonderful facility, it had very clean bathrooms with showers, large sites and you cant beat having photo subjects like this in your camp site. This huge saguaro just called to have its picture taken and I thought it was a good time to practice the astrophotography skills I learned earlier in the week.

Photo: "Star Gazing Saguaro" Lost Dutchman State Park, AZ

Photo: "Migratory Black Necked Stilt" Gilbert, AZ

While camping at Lost Dutchman, I was tipped off by a local birder I happened to meet on the trail to a small municipal park in Gilbert, AZ (suburb of Phoenix) called Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Here, there are a series of ponds, both natural and reclaimed water, that act as a great source of food and moisture for animals in the area. It is also a natural stop over point for those birds migrating through the area. Since I was there in March, I was lucky enough to be able to see a variety of migratory wading birds in the middle of the desert.

As my last stop before heading back to Las Vegas, I was thrilled to have been able to work some wildlife into the trip. Especially migratory birds, much like wildflowers, they are a seasonal specialty and are not guaranteed any particular year.

Photo tip: Carry a selection of lenses when on extensive trips, as you may encounter unexpected subjects.

Three images of wading birds in AZ

Overall it was an excellent trip. Central Arizona has shown that it too, has an amazing array of photogenic sites, running the gambit from astrophotography to wildlife and all sorts of options in between. I clearly did not have enough time to explore other central locations such as Prescott or the Tonto Basin range. Guess that will be for next time.

Speaking of next time, my next blog will start shifting the topics to international locations, such as here in Japan. Cheers!

High contrast black and white of a flock of flying birds.

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