Adventures in the Desert – A photography tour around Northern AZ and Southern UT
By Tom Kingsford
It’s not always pretty, despite the photos you see on social media. Weeks of planning and months of communication with partners and sponsors all lead up to a giddy feeling of anticipation a few days prior to departure. Sorting and packing the camera gear, charging batteries, loading the van, planning meals, and scouting shooting locations are all necessary steps to prepare for a multi-week adventure in Arizona and Utah.
The original plan was a grand tour from Denver, through Moab to Sedona, then back through the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Monument Valley and back home. Given this is February in Colorado, it’s been cold and snowy for a few months now, and a taste of warm sunshine is not far from my mind. I pack the cold weather gear, as always, but also throw in a pair of shorts and flip flops, just in case we land some of that warm Arizona sunshine.
I depart on a Friday morning, in a haze of dense fog and freezing drizzle. Visibility along the Front Range of Colorado is less than 100 yards as the ice begins to freeze both my windshield and my mood. “Is a little sunshine too much to ask?” Keep the faith, I say to myself. I’m headed out to the desert, where I am sure to find warmth and sun. I drive on toward Moab, with the clouds parting and sunshine hitting the windshield. As I approach Moab, clouds move in once again, and little did I realize what was in store for me. I would experience one of the longest stretches of cloudy weather in recent memory. A major low-pressure system sat spinning off the coast, throwing clouds and moisture into the entire SW region of the United States. For three straight weeks, I counted just 3 ½ days of sunshine. It wasn’t the pretty sunshine we’d hoped for, but despite the gloom and cold, we pulled off an outstanding trip, found little known treasures, and made it home with some fantastic content.
I’m a planner, first and foremost. At times, it can border on OCD, however I believe it is this attention to detail that makes these types of trips successful, despite weather and uncontrollable circumstances. In order to accomplish this, it requires a thoughtful approach, patience, lots of communication, and specialized gear.
Scouting new locations is one of the trip planning tasks I truly enjoy. Google Earth has become such a great tool in today’s photographer’s toolbox. This allows an early vantage point into sun angles, access to locations, possible camping spots, astro-photography options, and more. Do as much pre-work as you can to understand the best time of day/night to shoot, what your best access points are, and how you will travel in and out of your desired location. Regardless of the planning you do, always be prepared for the unexpected. In this trip, the weather was a very real limiting factor to our original shoot plans. Low hanging clouds prevent visibility for wide open vistas. Rain and snow present challenges for both your gear and you. Wind, oh the wind. This is a significant challenge in the desert, often blowing sand into your hair, mouth, eyes, shoes, and ultimately, your sensitive camera equipment.
Every person I’ve met has different criteria for selecting their gear. This includes both camera gear and adventure gear, which I classify as packs, outerwear, etc. For me, that gear must be reliable and lightweight, as each pound counts when carried across great distances on my back.
Let’s begin with adventure gear, as this is essential to personal comfort. If you are not comfortable [or safe] the photography is secondary and often either doesn’t happen at all or suffers because you as the artist are cold and miserable. During this trip, to manage the incredible variance in temperature, I utilized layers for warmth and as a heavy-duty shell to guard against the elements, wind, rain, snow and sand. Often in the morning I was shooting in a base layer, an insulating mid-layer, and a shell jacket. On the warmer days, I oftentimes found just the insulating mid-layer to be enough. I always had an extra layer and the shell with me for those instances when the weather did indeed move in quickly.
Camera gear is another area of selection that can be debated. My personal guidance is to find quality gear and invest in those pieces. They will pay huge dividends when you are out in the field. For this trip, I wanted a sturdy foundational base for the camera, portability, light weight and reliability. I left some of my heavier gear at home, to help with mobility. Mobility was imperative to explore the narrow slot canyons for hours. I packed a Sony A7Riii body, my go to lens [Sony 24-105mm], tripod, and a host of accessories all placed in a backpack I could haul around with relative ease.
Just a few of the necessities:
- Tripod – sturdy, light and portable. With the wind on this trip, I was incredibly grateful for the solid foundation provided by the RRS TQC-14: Quick-Column Series 1 Tripod. This is a big investment, which will pay huge dividends in the long run. Often during this trip, I used a hang-bag to create even more stability, by filling a stuff sack with some larger rocks and hanging this from the center column.
- Backpack – this is another critical piece of gear in my kit. I need to carry heavy gear across many miles of difficult terrain, often at high altitude. During this trip I packed my camera gear and outdoor gear in a mid-size backpack, which allowed me a balance of weight and mobility.
- Lenses – here, versatility, sharpness, and consistency are my criteria. I need to keep my kit lightweight, and therefore a single lens with a single use is not very likely to make the trip. My most used lens is my Sony 24-105mm F/4, as it covers a wide range of shooting scenarios while delivering consistent results. During this trip, I captured all my images with this lens.
- Plates + Brackets – this is your cameras connection to your tripod. Don’t try to cut corners here. I’ve gone with a slightly heavier solution here, due to the absolute importance of this connection. I’ve used the RRS bracket, RRS ballhead, and lever release clamp system for years. It is rock solid, holding my camera on the tripod with 100% confidence. Even in the biggest winds of this trip, I had complete confidence in my camera’s secure connection to the tripod.
Behind the Scenes – Capturing:
I’m often shooting alone and prefer that at times. It allows me to take my time, scout an area, and compare it to what I saw online. This trip required a bit faster movement, with less planning and more flexibility. In capturing some of our adventure photos, especially while being deep in these slot canyons, we did not have time to setup a tripod. It was hand held shooting primarily, so I needed to manage higher ISO settings to preserve a fast shutter speed. As the slot narrows, light becomes more challenging.
This desert trip required all of the tricks mentioned above, and even more. Managing the weather challenges was something that plagued almost every planned shoot. As such, it required creativity, ingenuity, and help from others we met along the way to produce the content we aimed to capture. As mentioned above, it isn’t always pretty, and most often things do not go as planned. However, these hardships can sometimes be what makes the most memorable part of the trip. While I wished for more sunshine and warm temperatures, it was the forced creative vision that really allowed for some otherwise unexpected photos.
Tom has been fascinated with adventure and beautiful landscapes his entire life. An accomplished traveler, explorer and photographer, Tom works tirelessly to capture the magic of our natural world. Specializing in outdoor, travel, adventure, and lifestyle subjects, Tom creates powerful images that are punctuated by wild landscapes. His drive has allowed him opportunities to work on global campaigns, speak in front of hundreds of people, influence product development, educate, and connect with amazing people.
Before becoming a photographer, Tom ran sales teams for Technology Giants and startups alike. After a 20 year professional career working for companies such as Apple and NetApp, Tom has turned his passion into a lifestyle. In 2012 he began to discover his passion for photography, idolizing the timeless work of Jimmy Chin, Tim Kemple and Chris Burkard. After moving to Colorado in 1999, he has spent as much time outdoors as possible. Nothing makes him happier than being in the mountains with his family, climbing, skiing and creating images. Today, Tom lives in Boulder, Colorado with his family.