Taking the shot in Upper Cathedral Valley

Behind the scenes in Cathedral Valley

Just one of those “What goes on behind the scenes” posts.

Sunset my first night in Upper Cathedral Valley had me giddy. Besides being my first time in this place I had a nearby campsite overlooking then entire valley and saw exactly 5 other human beings all weekend, it was all mine.
The remote Cathedral Valley campground has only 6 sites, but only 2 filled up the early summer weekend I was up there. And 30 minutes up the mountain is tons of National Forest camping if you do need a backup.

Anyway I spent the evening I arrived scouting the area and noticed this would be a great site for taking pictures at sunset.  I used the android app “Sun Surveyor” to give me a compass direction where the setting sun would split the 2 “cathedrals”. After making dinner at camp it was a 20 minute dirt road drive to my spot.  Then it took a little bit longer than anticipated wandering 400ft onto the plain to setup the shot because I was avoiding patches of Biological Soil and tufts of desert grass that have a hard enough time surviving without being stomped by a hiking boot.  Desert environments are some of the most delicate in the world so stick to trails as much as possible.  If you’re out in the back-country where trails don’t exist stick to slickrock, animal trails, and dry washes.  It may involve some zig-zags and backtracking but it keeps the terrain looking untouched for the next photographer.

Taking the shot in Upper Cathedral Valley
Photographing the Cathedrals of Cathedral Valley

Sometimes you just end up enjoying yourself so much you can’t handle it.  That’s how taking pictures this evening was.  I took about 50 pictures of the same thing it was just so beautiful, I had a hard time stopping. Every moment seemed better than the last.  I had to take a picture with my phone of me taking pictures I was having so much fun.

Upper Cathedral Valley Sunset
Needle Mountain Sunset in Upper Cathedral Valley

All of the pictures turned out great.  It was really hard choosing which one was best.  I tried a few different angles and compositions but when the subject material is so beautiful everything works.

The technical details?

I used a Depth of Field app on my phone to calculate the hyper focal distance for the picture and used that to set my focus manually (the camera Focus Peaking confirmed things were good to go).  The benefit of m43 is that the comparatively wide DOF means I could still keep my aperture in the lens’ sweet spot instead of jacking it up to f/22 where diffraction becomes an issue.

Shooting into the sun with a wide lens I knew the range of light would be difficult to capture (I notice I shoot into the sun a lot).  I tried to balance the exposure equally between sky and shadow with a bit more emphasis on the sky.  I didn’t mind if some shadows stayed inky black and mysterious.  The OMD-EM5 II has an onscreen historgram but also an option that colors pure whites and pure blacks red and blue respectively on the screen in real time. So it was easy to balance the amount of black shadows I had in the image.

The OMD also has a programmed HDR button that basically turns Exposure Bracketing off and on.  I have it configured to (-1,0,+1).  The 3 exposures were blended using Lightroom’s new built in HDR module.

I’m also using the fully articulating screen; with wide angle shots like this I like to get in low and close to the foreground.  Having the screen kept me from bending over, contorting, or laying on the ground to look through the eyepiece.  It really limits your impact on the environment when all you leave is 3 Tripod holes and 2 foot prints instead of trampling everything within 4ft.  Many large camera makers still consider articulating screens the realm of consumer cameras.  I think they should be standard on all cameras above the prosumer level for how helpful they are in landscape work.  The amount of stress they save your back from crouching into weird positions is too valuable.

The last and most important part of taking the shot was that I had a small bottle of bug repellent on me.  The flies and gnats were out in force as soon as I stopped walking.  If I hadn’t had that emergency bottle in my camera bag I wouldn’t have had the patience to wait the 20 minutes for the light to work for me.


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