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Sedona, Arizona: Photographic Challenges and Rewards

Some say Sedona, Arizona, is a magical, even mystical place. There are several businesses and organizations that support the mystical, with new-age energy vortices and spiritual influences.

sedona_s1 For me, Sedona was another one of those Western US locations that I had bypassed several times. Now a reformed explorer, I no longer chant my former mantra: "next time." So, after leaving the desert in southern Arizona, I headed for the land of Red Rocks. I spent the month of June and a week of July in the area. The climate was more than tolerable with humidity at a very low two to six percent. When it is 90 degrees in the sun, it's still quite tolerable. In the evening it is common for the temperatures to drop into the high 60s. At the time, much of the rest of the country was cooking in 100-plus degrees and sweltering at the same time with humidity above 60 percent. My point of this little meteorological dialog is to assure you that in mid-summer, many of the in-the-know tourists come to this high-desert location to escape the heat.

sedona s2Photographers will have almost unlimited opportunities and perspectives to photograph the unique red sandstone sculptures that pushed up from the earth's crust millions of years ago, then weathered into their distinctive forms when the ocean receded from this part of the northern hemisphere. You will encounter three challenges to photographing the Red Rocks, one of the more common terms applied to these monuments, many with fittingly grand names as Cathedral Rock and Castle Rock.

First is the challenge to come up with different and compelling compositions that have been overlooked by the gazillions of other photographers.

The second challenge is to compose these immense structures in the cloudless, deep blue skies that prevail in the early summer. As a general rule, if the sky is not adding to the composition, you want to minimize its portion within the image. Until the clouds appeared, I did just that and was generally pleased with the results. If you wait until the onset of the monsoon season, early July, the clouds can significantly add to the drama of the landscapes. Ideally, having a week on either side of the onset of the monsoon season will offer the best of both conditions.

The third challenge is the light. Sunrise and sunset are more about the sun rising above or sinking below the ridge lines of surrounding mountains and hills thirty - sixty minutes after official sunrise or before sunset. So, depending on where you are photographing, the warm glow effect is replaced by a line of shadow progressing up or down your subject with the movement of the sun passing over distant ridges. Because the sandstone soaks up light, the lack of sunlit surfaces make for low contrast images.

Here is the good news. As they say, "make lemonade out of lemons." All of these conditions offer opportunities in addition to their challenges. Again, the real challenge is to find different perspectives in one of the more photographed regions of the West. I found side lighting to be my favorite. The shadows created by the convolutions in the vertical surfaces added much more interest and character than with direct lighting. I tend to shoot long shots, 300 to 600 mm focal lengths. Consequently, I look for setups where the foreground adds character to the composition and leads my eye to the formation at the end of the path. Of course, managing depth of field is critical.

Sedona is advantageously located close to the Grand Canyon and Page, Arizona, the latter being popular for the slot canyons. I described Canyon X in the previous issue. Additionally, there are many places to explore within 20 miles of Sedona that offer their own photo opportunities: Cottonwood and Camp Verde to name a couple. If you have the opportunity, don't bypass Sedona; you will miss a region with truly unique character.

I offer a big thank you to those who sent in their suggestions for photographing in this visually stunning area!