A Different Way to Tour: Photography in Monument Valley

Sunrise Totem Pole.  Monument Valley

I have always had more than a passing interest in photography but I have never mastered the nuances of today’s digital cameras. In college, I majored in Mass Communications and was the photo editor of my university’s student newspaper. Back then the process was: point, focus and shoot. Then rush back to the newspaper office, develop film, print the photo and get it to the layout team.

I knew how to operate the film cameras of the day — from  4 X 5 graphic reflex’s to SLR’s. Today there are hundreds of settings within a digital camera (computer) and no split circle focusing aid. Most of us set all of them, including focus, on ‘auto’. While ‘auto’ is a place to start, I want to learn more.

Phillips Photographic Photo Tours

Knowing we would be at Monument Valley, I booked a couple of photo tours to open new insights and develop new knowledge. I selected Phillips Photographic Photo Tours. I really wanted to shoot a midnight Milky-Way image and I needed help. Unfortunately, the time I would be at Monument Valley was during a full moon, so the midnight Milky-Way image wasn’t going to be possible.

It was just the third day of this summer’s adventures. Having just crossed the Arizona-Utah border meant that my 3:30 am alarm for the sunrise tour would seem like 2:30 am Arizona time. I guess I was serious about this opportunity to “risk blossoming” and learn.

Carl Phillips

I met Carl Phillips, a Navajo who grew up in Monument Valley, in what seemed like the middle of the night. Soon we descended into the dark valley with three other ambitious photographers. Carl made his first stop close to  a formation called the Mittens, saying, “let’s do some night photography.”

Carl Phillips posing at "Eye of the Eagle Warror", Monument Valley, photography by Tim Bateman

Carl Phillips posing at “Eye of the Eagle Warror”, Monument Valley

I had no clue but Carl suggested an aperture, an ISO setting and a 25 second exposure. He had us set our manual focus based on about 400-yards by focusing on a light at the lodge in the opposite direction. Next we had to set up our tripods and adjust our cameras in pitch darkness. He was going to find out who the real photographers were. I fumbled along before we headed to our next night spot while wondering if it was ever going to get light.

Night Photo. East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte at Monument Valley. Photography by Tim Bateman

Night Photo. East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte at Monument Valley.

Someone Left Their Tripod!

As Carl drove away, he looked back to where we had been shooting and blurted out, “someone left their tripod”. After a moment of panic on our part, we all laughed. Carl was a kidder. We continued to drive around in the dark. It was intriguing way to see Monument Valley for the first time. All of the monuments, iridescently lit by a heavy cloud cover which was illuminated from behind by a nearly full moon.

We were now off the main 17-mile loop where tourists are restricted. Carl was seemingly driving anywhere he wished while chasing the coming sunrise. Somehow, the subject of prairie dogs came up at which time Carl informed us Navajo’s eat them while drinking Mormon tea to prevent diabetes. For good measure, he added that in the fall, they eat horse meat to prevent the flu and winter colds.

The Sunrise Shot

Sunrise at Totem Pole. Monument Valley - worth getting up for in the middle of the night, photography by Tim Bateman

Sunrise at Totem Pole. Monument Valley – worth getting up for in the middle of the night

Shortly after sunrise, I got what I paid for. Carl had us in front of a small sand dune and about 200 yards from Totem Pole. With a heavy cloud backdrop, the sun peaked through a small hole for about 45 seconds and gave us some majestic sunrise light. I got one of my best shots ever using some of Carl’s manual setting suggestions.

We ended this morning session around 9 am. After we had all gathered our equipment and walked at least 20-yards away form Carl’s suburban, he suddenly yelled, “somebody forgot their tripod.” Needless to say, we all stopped in our tracks before we realize he had gotten us again!

Searching for the Moonrise

I returned back for more of Carl’s instruction late that afternoon hoping for the perfect moonrise photo. It was one day before the true full moon so the sun would still be providing daylight to illuminate the foreground. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. Heavy clouds negated both the moonrise and the sun’s illumination.

A Study in Black and White. Monument Valley, photography by Tim Bateman

A Study in Black and White. Monument Valley

Carl invited me back the next afternoon. With Deborah arriving that morning, he allowed her to ride along. I was going to get sunset photography instruction and she was getting an back-road tour of Monument Valley. 

Frick, Frack & Photography

We had two other gents on this tour whom I will call Frick and Frack. They were life-long buddies who communicated like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. They were my age and told us that way back when, they married two gals who were both TWA stewardess, and like them, also best friends. When Deborah inquired how that worked out, Frick said his wife had “left him for another guy.” Frack interrupted to say, “No, she didn’t leave you for another guy, she left you for any other guy.”

Early Afternoon. Monument Valley, photography by Tim Bateman

Early Afternoon. Monument Valley

Carl, Continued.

The afternoon was entertaining but lacked clouds needed for sunset photography. Carl offered a little more insight into his life. He began photography much the same as I had. He shot pictures for his high school yearbook. As he put it, in his spare time, he had the school camera and all the school film he wanted to shoot. He would just drive around Monument Valley and take pictures.

Backroads of Monument Valley, photography by Tim Bateman

Back roads of Monument Valley

Viewpoints and Perspectives

He admitted that back then he took Monument Valley for granted. Now, he said, he sees so much more. I learned that lesson when he stopped for a view of West Mitten . This is a point and shoot destination with a parking lot full of tourists clicking away from the same vantage point in front of their cars. They were all were capturing the same distant view. 

West Mitten, Monument Valley, photography by Tim Bateman

West Mitten, Monument Valley.

I thought, why am I paying to stop here? Then Carl lead us a mere 100 feet from the far end of the lot, around a small dune with windswept lines. The low sun was at a 90-degree angle and I got an image quite unique from those up in the parking lot. An image I would have never seen without Carl’s help. A different perspective led to a new angle and another LESSON LEARNED.


As the sun set and the full moon rose I tried but was unsuccessful at a moonrise shot. Carl helped with special settings but it was a day or two late for what I wanted. At his suburban, I said my thanks and we all said good-bye. I wasn’t even 20-feet away when Carl yelled, “You left a lens!” In a panic, I instantly stopped in my tracks and turned around before pointing at Carl and laughing. He had gotten me again.

Deborah and Tim.                                          Photo Credit: Carl Phillips

Deborah and Tim.                                          Photo Credit: Carl Phillips


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