I’m a geologist by training. So it comes as no surprise that I like taking photos of rocks. And no surprise I like taking trips to the American Southwest, which has some of the best rock formations in the world. Of all the rock exposures in the Southwest, the Bisti Badlands, perhaps, contains the best of the best. The Bisti Badlands are part of the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM describes the wilderness as:
… a remote desolate area of steeply eroded badlands which offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the Four Corners region. Time and natural elements have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations and fossils. It is an ever-changing environment that offers the visitor a remote wilderness experience.
And let me tell you, the BLM isn’t kidding with that description. The place is full of hoodoos, spires, and other badland features. You could spend a year to explore the place fully, but even then you wouldn’t be done. The landscape changes with each rain storm, as erosion creates new hoodoos and destroys others.
Bisti is fairly easy to get to. It is perhaps an hour south of Farmington, New Mexico, about 2 miles off (along a good gravel road) of highway NM 371. At least that gets you to the wilderness’ only amenity – a parking lot (two actually). That’s it – no campground, no picnic tables, no restrooms, no shade, no water; just a parking lot and a trail registry.
If you want to be there for the golden hours, you either have to drive in the dark or set up a primitive camp, which is what Tanya and I decided to do (more my decision than hers; I’m sure she would have rather slept in a motel than camping on a dried mud bed). We camped just off the gravel road, about 1/4 mile from the parking lot (see below). Not the best site, but it did allow me to get into the wilderness for some good light.
With a trail registry, you might think there would be trails. You’d be wrong. No trails either. This makes it somewhat difficult to navigate in the badlands. A GPS is recommended, especially if you want to find some of the most photogenic spots (GPS coordinates for some of the formations are available in Laurent Martes‘ book Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and at several websites, such as this map provided by Isabel and Steffen Synnatschke); and of course, I don’t own one. In my research about Bisti, several sources describe how easy it is to get lost there. Being a geologist, I usually don’t worry about getting lost (most geologists I’ve known, myself included, have a built-in sense of direction); but I thought it can’t hurt to have the topographic maps for the region, so I downloaded them before the trip and promptly forgot to bring them.
Undaunted, Tanya and I tried to follow the directions from the parking lot to some of the interesting formations listed in Martes’ guidebook. Since we weren’t planning on coming back until after sunset, Tanya was a bit concerned about getting lost, but I assured her we’d have no problem. And we didn’t get lost, but we did have trouble finding the formations described in the book. Luckily there are lots of photo opportunities besides the book’s listed attractions. However, next time I go there, I’ll bring a GPS.
We did stay out until sunset, then with darkness settling in, headed back to the car. It was fairly easy to find. Since we were there relatively close to the autumn equinox, the sun set almost due west. So I knew if we headed straight toward the sunset, we should find the road, if not the car, without problem. As we got close, the only other person there (another photographer) reached his car and turned on its lights – perfect, a guiding beacon for us! We thanked him for the light when we got back and talked about how hard it was to find noted landmarks. He was using the same book as us, and had a GPS, and still had problems (which made me feel a little better). However, he was spending several days in the area (driving out each day from Farmington), so I assume he eventually found the spots he wanted.
We were only there for one night. The next morning, I decided to photograph west of the road, which is described in the book as an area with interesting hoodoos that is impossible to miss. Sure enough, about a ten-minute walk west of the parking lot, it was hoodoo city! I communed with the rocks through sunrise and eventually headed back to help Tanya pack up.
Bisti is a fantastic place for landscape photography. If you go, take a hat (there’s no shade), take lots of water, and take a GPS (or at least remember that the sun sets in the west).
Breaking from my blog series on the American Southwest, I’m posting something completely different. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I am the chairman of the Photo Committee of the Tacoma branch of the Mountaineers. We occasionally have field trips to photograph instead of our regular meetings. Earlier this month, I led our group to downtown Tacoma to try some night photography. Unlike a similar trip earlier this year (described in this post), I did little light painting, mostly relying on existing light (with one exception, in the image of the Pantages Theater below, I used a flash to light up the sculpture in the foreground).
Photography at night is a special experience. Things always look different, and it isn’t always obvious how the camera will see the available light, especially if long exposures are used. Skies that are black to the human eye can pick up a tint, typically orange in urban areas (from sodium vapor street lights). Other lights may give off a more yellowish -orange (tungsten lamps) or greenish (fluorescent bulbs) tones. Then there are neon lights of all colors. Changing the color balance when processing the images can add new twists to the color.
Besides showing colors the human eye can’t normally see, I love long-exposure shots for another reason – they compress time into a single instant. Car lights become red and white trails, people can become ghostly shadows, objects that move into a frame during an exposure can seem half there. These are more results that are not totally predictable.
Here are some shots from one November Tacoma night (even though taken on a single night, I thought the title “Tacoma Nights” sounded better than “Tacoma Night”; a little literary license); I hope you like them.
I’m not sure I’d ever heard about Chaco Culture National Historical Parkprior to researching where I wanted to go on my Southwest trip last September. But as I did my research, I became excited about this place. What self-respecting travel photographer, or at least those who like to get off the beaten path, would not want to go there! And off the beaten path it is. Is there any other national park in the lower 48 with vehicular access that requires driving at least 21 miles off the highway, with 13 or more miles of, to quote the Park Service, “rough dirt road?” That may not seem very far, but when you are traveling the road in the late afternoon in hopes of getting a camping spot (in a campground with only 49 spots and nothing else even remotely nearby), that 21 miles seems longer.
Because it is so remote, the night sky is incredible there (the nearest town of any size if Farmington, New Mexico, about an hour and half drive from the park). The park has an observatory and hosts a night sky program help visitors appreciate the astronomy visible there. In fact the night sky at Chaco was declared a critical natural resource in 1993. I’d like to show you the images I took of the night sky at Chaco, but I made a rookie mistake. When shooting a star trail shot from our campsite, the battery run out on my camera! Lesson learned – always have a fully charged battery when doing star trail images (leaving the aperture open for hours tends to suck up a lot of battery life).
The park wasn’t created for the sky though, it was created to preserve one of the largest collections of ruins in the Southwest. It is on par with Mesa Verde National Park, but built in a shallow canyon instead of on cliff walls (making access to the ruins much easier). Here’s how the Park Service’s website describes Chaco:
From AD 850 to 1250, Chaco was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area–unlike anything before or since. Chaco is remarkable for its multi-storied public buildings, ceremonial buildings, and distinctive architecture. These structures required considerable planning, designing, organizing of labor, and engineering to construct. The Chacoan people combined many elements: pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping, and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture–one that still awes and inspires us a thousand years later.
The place is so full of ruins there are even some within the campground. We only spent one night there, but could have easily spent several days. The park contains many major excavated (or partially excavated) sites along the loop road, and more if you want to hike. If you only have a little time when visiting there, such as we did, be sure to go to Pueblo Bonito, the most excavated of the large ruins. Many of the images featured here are from that site. Pueblo Bonito was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1150. It covers over 3 acres, was four and five stories tall, and contained more than 600 rooms. It is shaped like a large “D” and contains two plazas and dozens of kivas. The place is amazing and quite photogenic.
In addition to ruins, there is canyon and desert scenery to be shot. And wildlife as well. Amazingly, the park is home to an elk herd (who visited us in the middle of the night at the campground). Coming from Washington State, where elk frequent the forests, it was hard for me to believe they also like this place with high summer temperatures and no trees.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is worth the drive. Check it out the next time you’re in New Mexico.
During our Southwestern trip, we spent three days in Santa Fé. Both Tanya and I decided this place is magical, at least it seemed so when we were there. Maybe we were fooled by were we stayed, in a bed and breakfast in the old section of town. And of course the weather was great, but we thought this would be a great place to live. Of course, the city is a haven for artists, and perhaps that had something to do with my liking it. Reportedly, Santa Fé has more art galleries per capita than any other city in the United States. It is seemingly chock full of museums as well.
And if you like southwestern cuisine, this is the place to go. The official state of New Mexico question is “Red or green?” For those not in the know, this refers to the kind and color of chile sauce (usually just called “chile”) served with your meal. I usually preferred the green, but you can always ask for it as “Christmas” and get both!
Though we spent three days there, I actually didn’t take that many photographs there. I wish we more time in Santa Fé, it is really a great place for travel photography. Here are few highlights of images I did capture in Santa Fé. As always, any comments are welcome.
I’m continuing my series of posts about my trip to the Southwest with a look at New Mexican churches – adobe churches in particular. I’ve always enjoyed photographing churches, at least those with classic architectural styles. And in New Mexico, there is nothing more classical than adobe.
If you are interested in seeing churches such as these, I highly recommend traveling the high road between Santa Fé and Taos. There are a number of highly photogenic churches along this route, many described in Laurent Martes‘ excellent book on photographing the natural landmarks of Colorado and New Mexico (okay, I know churches aren’t natural landmarks, but the book is titled Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Colorado & New Mexico and does mostly cover natural subjects). By traveling this road, you’re bound to come up with at least one or two decent images – there is always at least one church with good light upon it.
My biggest question concerning the adobe churches I photographed was how best to portray them – in color or in black and white? I leave it to you to decide, providing most images in this post with both versions.
I think they look good both ways, but if forced to make a choice, I’d generally chose the black and white versions. There are exceptions, of course; ever photograph is different. In the examples given here, I do like the black and white images better; they generally do a better job of conveying what I want the to convey. I love the look of a cross on a church really standing out – and that works well with these images except for the image of the San Juan de Los Lagos steeple and black cross, there the color version portrays my vision better. I also love the high contrast of the black and white images. However, I’d like to hear your comments – color or black and white?
For those who care – these black and white conversions were all done rather quickly in Lightroom. If I get serious about any of these, I’ll probably redo the conversions in Photoshop. I like both programs for how easy they make black and white conversions and the ability to adjust the brightness of each color in the images separately. This makes it very easy to turn an all blue sky dark (and make those crosses really stand out).