When Photo Shoots Fail (2)

Mysterious Sanctuary | Beebower Productions

Every professional photographer experiences failure. Sometimes we spend a lot of money to travel to a fantastic location for a limited amount of time and a giant storm hits tanking our plans. Maybe a crowded photo hot spot with lots of restrictions makes it challenging to get one photo much less multiple show stoppers. Occasionally the wildlife we drove hours to photograph decides to play hide and seek. Or maybe the mirror fell out of our camera halting all photos (true story).

Plenty of things can make photography stressful. What happens when photo shoots go awry? Do we give up and go home? Nope. We turn lemons into lemonade.

Plan B or C or D

When a shoot goes sideways, Dad and I take a step back to assess the situation. How bad is it really? We try not to get stuck in our preconceived shots and panic. We look around for a “Plan B”.

Take my situation at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur, California. I’d planned a sunset shot at the beach but a giant fog bank rolled in five minutes before the big show. I’ve done enough outdoor shots to realize things don’t always work out.

So when I arrived at the beach, I scouted out my sunset spot and then proceeded to explore other photo opportunities. Golden light bathed the entire coast in beautiful color, making it the perfect time to shoot other pictures. I photographed some unusual rocks and then I found one of my favorite photos, Footprints in the Sand.

Footprints in the Sand | Beebower Productions

It pays to ask, “What if this photo doesn’t work out? What’s Plan B or C or D?”

Because I remained flexible and I exercised the “what if” scenario, I walked away with a multitude of photos. I even shot the original sunset photo. It wasn’t the glorious explosion of color I’d imagined, but the cool, sinister look drew me in anyway.

Fog rolls into Monterey Bay often. Because it interfered with my planned shots so frequently I learned to use it in my photography. When I set out to photograph Asilomar State Beach, I envisioned beautiful sunrise colors and light hitting the rocky coast. But a giant fog bank rolled in early that morning. So I combined the fog and a long shutter speed to create Mysterious Sanctuary (the photo at the top of this blog) where the waves and fog blend together giving the photo a soft, enigmatic look. The muted colors add to the mystique.

Garrapata Trio | Beebower Productions

Just like me Dad experienced weather issues in his quest to shoot a spectacular high country elk hunt for a client. He’d traveled to Northern California’s Mt. Shasta. A blizzard shut down his location scouting. But the next day dawned clear and snow free.

Unfortunately when the crew arrived at the mountain clouds enveloped in the peak completely. Dad’s “Plan B” involved turning around. Directly behind him was the perfect spot for his elk-hunting photograph. Had he remained locked in to his original plan, he would have run way over budget and his client would have lost confidence in him.

Dad said, “You certainly have to be flexible, sometimes almost instantaneously. One minute the area looked great and the next minute a big cloud covered up the mountain. The art director was getting nervous. But I always try to have something, a Plan B. Sometimes that ‘something’ actually might be better than the original, if you’re lucky.”

High Country Elk Hunt | Beebower Productions

That mentality helped Dad out years later when he traveled to Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur. He loved the photos he’d seen of a shaft of light blasting through the arch. But that phenomenon only happens for a limited time in December. Due to other circumstances, he couldn’t be there in December. That didn’t deter Dad though.

He shot the arch and sunset at the same beach, but separately. Then he used some Photoshop magic create a piece of art in his own unique style.

As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

That requires staying flexible and alert for new possibilities on every photo shoot. Thinking outside the box doesn’t hurt either.


Keyhole Arch | Beebower Productions

Stack the Deck in Your Favor

Consistently making great photos entails being adaptable on location. However, a little preparation goes a long way in a successful photo shoot.

If you’re going to a new-to-you location, do the research. Find out things like the weather patterns for that time of year. Discover what challenges exist there. Find out about photography permits. Unearth sunset/sunrise charts and tide charts. Pinpoint services like gas stations, grocery stores and camera shops. See what other photographers share from shooting at that same location. And get reliable directions so you don’t miss the event because you’re lost. GPS coordinates often save the day.

If you’re photographing animals, learn all you can about that specific species. Dad and I delved deeply into the lives of hummingbirds before planning a shoot at Madera Canyon, Arizona. We learned their food preferences, including specific flowers, migration routes and times, behavior around other hummingbirds and where different types hung out in the United States.

That helped us narrow down a shooting location to Madera Canyon. Then we researched other photographers’ experiences in the canyon. That led us to the Santa Rita Lodge. We knew that the lodge kept year round bird feeders and that thousands of birds migrated through the area each year. We put ourselves in an area that had lot of the animal we hoped to photograph. Dad took one of his all time favorite bird photographs thanks to our diligent research.

When we go on a photo shoot, we know that it might take more than one day to shoot what we really want. Wild animals don’t necessarily cooperate and Mother Nature often throws us curve balls. So when possible we try to build in enough time at a location to work around those things.

We also realize we may need to return another time. We spent a week at Madera Canyon on two different trips. I returned to Asilomar State Beach five times before I shot Mysterious Sanctuary. Persistence, patience, and determination play a huge role in successful photography.

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell | Beebower Productions

Test that Gear

While research sets us up for victory, our gear can literally make or break our photo shoots. We test and retest our gear before heading out in the field. Obviously that won’t prevent a mirror from falling out of the camera, but it does do two things for us.

First, we can quickly see if everything’s functioning well. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, I recharged my camera batteries before heading out to sea. Normally I test all of the gear before leaving, but I was in a hurry that day. If I’d run a quick camera check, I would have noticed the batteries weren’t holding the charge well. I could have purchased new batteries instead of sweating bullets and doing photo triage. Lesson learned.

Second, we know how to operate our gear without thinking so we don’t miss a shot. That confidence comes from lots of practice when the pressure’s off. When we’re in the middle of a shoot, we don’t have time to think about how to set our camera’s white balance or how to cut the power in our flash. It needs to be automatic so we can focus on composition and capturing the moment.

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly | Beebower Productions

Take a Chance

Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, things don’t turn out as you expected. Case in point: Dad’s trip to Antelope Canyon in Arizona. He’d researched and decided to pay extra for the “photography tour” because photographers supposedly got more time to shoot in the canyon.

Unfortunately other tours ran through the same space at the same time, so it was a sea of humanity. Dad traveled light with one lens and a monopod. But even with that limited amount of gear he couldn’t maneuver well because the tour guides packed them in like sardines.

My Dad’s a perfectionist. So these conditions caused him to itch like a bad case of poison ivy. He knew he had limited time in the slot canyons. He also knew he wouldn’t be back in the area for a long time. So even though he really needed a tripod for a long exposure, a few hundred less people walking through his picture and something to keep the blowing sand off his camera, he took a chance. He hung back from the tour group, braced himself on a wall and waited for a two second break to snap this photo. He didn’t even have time to bracket before people started flowing through again.

If you know this is your one chance to capture an image but the conditions aren’t exactly right, take a chance. You might just be surprised at the results. Dad was.

Antelope Canyon | Beebower Productions

Sipping Lemonade

So the next time a photo shoot doesn’t work out as planned, take heart. We’ve all been there. Get creative, come up with a Plan B or C or D and take a chance. A positive, can-do attitude goes a long way in photography. These character-building situations create wisdom and confidence in dealing with future “failures”. Plus you might just get some tasty lemonade out of those lemons.

When Photo Shoots Fail

Pfeiffer Beach Drone | Beebower Productions

We arrived early and staked out our spot on the beach.  We waited patiently with other photographers for sunset at the magical Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in California. 

Then we heard it.  A distinct hum filled the air and the heads of 12 photographers swiveled to and fro searching for the source.  It was… it was a drone, the bane of still photographers.  Most of us assumed the drone operator would be polite enough not to fly through our shot.  Flying above us was fine, but not through our scene.  We were wrong.

By now the sun had begun its slow descent into the ocean, so our gaggle of photographers, including Dad and I, quit looking at the drone and focused on capturing the moment.

Not two seconds later, that hateful little drone sped in front of the arch and zipped down the beach.  I heard a few muttered curses as our fellow photographers realized what was happening to their beautiful sunset shot.

I, meanwhile, focused on a rock formation far down the beach.  I thought I was in the clear.  I, too, was wrong.  The drone raced toward my rock.  Sure enough, it flew right through my photograph.

For anyone that possesses Photoshop skills, removing the drone from the image isn’t a big deal. I readily admit drones have produced some amazing footage never seen before.  But they’ve also annoyed a lot of people.  In this case 12 angry photographers kept shooting while plotting the drones’ demise.

So what happens when photo shoots go awry?  Do you give up and go home?  Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons photo shoots fail.  Next week we’ll show you how to turn lemons into lemonade. 

Garrapata Trio | Beebower Productions

Mother Nature’s Grumpy Side

Everyone talks about the creative and nurturing Mother Nature.  Photographers give her credit for stunning sunsets, beautiful rainbows and amazing fall colors.  But this venerable lady has a petulant side.  It’s not pretty.   Mother Nature can ruin the best-laid photography plans.

Dad needed a spectacular backdrop for an elk-hunting photograph. A blizzard in California nearly spelled defeat.  Semis slid off icy roads, wet snow fell and one team member lost his wallet full of money as they scouted locations.  Things just kept getting worse.  Route 5 near the border of California and Oregon shut down one hour after Dad’s crew found a good spot for the photo.  Mother Nature forced the team to hole up at a hotel and wait for the calm after the storm.

Mother Nature’s bag of tricks includes other elements like fog.  When I planned a sunset shot at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur things looked great.  A few puffy clouds floated above the ocean, suggesting a spectacular sunset with the colors of the sinking sun brushing the sky in rich hues.  I could see a fog bank way out in the Pacific, but it seemed so far away that I didn’t think it would be a factor.  Wrong.   That fog bank hopped the express train to the shore and completely blacked out the sunset.  I took a few shots anyway, but they were duds.

Coastal California’s winter storms pack an even more debilitating punch than fog.  High wind gusts knock down trees and giant waves wash away parts of the coastline.  After these storms Point Lobos State Park often shuts down until the staff gets things cleaned up.  I frequently found myself patiently waiting for the gates to open.

Closed Point Lobos Beach | Beebower Productions

Even after getting in the park, one beach remained closed every single time I tried to visit.  A storm washed out the staircase down to the beach and then harbor seals used the beach for pupping part of the year. Over the entire two years I visited the park, it never opened.

Photographers have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature.  But she’s not the only force that can sabotage your photos.

McWay Falls with People | Beebower Productions

People Creating Problems

If there’s a rule, people love to break it.  I, along with about 20 other photographers, waited on the cliff high above McWay Falls in California for the sunset.  My mouth hit the dirt when I saw a group of people scrambling down the cliff toward the waterfall. 

Every two feet there’s a sign stating the beach was closed for safety reasons.  Not only that, the giant gaggle of photographers stretched from one end of the overlook to the other.   Obviously they were trying to shoot the waterfall.

This group of people walked right up to the waterfall and began a private photo shoot on the beach. I know they are hard to see this small version of photo but if I blew it up for a large print they are definitely visible.  Like the drone shot, the people could be removed in Photoshop.   But it was rude.

Sometimes the problem isn’t respect rather a lot of people crammed into a single small space.  One summer Dad found himself squished into the mass of humanity touring Antelope Canyon in Arizona.  The elder Navajos consider the canyon a cathedral where one should stop and prepare to be in touch spiritually.  While Dad was in awe of the slot canyon’s grandeur, it was hard to be in sync spiritually or photographically due to the sheer number of tourists running back and forth. 

The enormous traffic jam stretched through the entire narrow, winding quarter mile canyon.  Dad realized it was going to be mighty tricky to capture a decent photo without folks stepping into his picture.  He also battled sand that blew down from the rim on to his camera gear and mixed lighting that made him wish for a tripod.  But the rules said no tripods.  He would have to work very hard to capture even one image.

Whether they’re photo bombing pictures or squeezing photographers out of a prime shooting spot, people often force photographers to be more creative and work harder to get the shot.

Hugh on Monteray Bay | Beebower Productions

Animals on the Run

Like people wild animals can be downright uncooperative.  Recently our whole family embarked on an adventure to photograph elk in Pennsylvania.  After a lot of research we developed a very solid plan.  We’d stay in a cabin near a known elk hang out.  The cabin came with a built-in photography blind plus we’d be able to use the van as a rolling blind.  We tallied the odds heavily in our favor.

Unfortunately we got stuck in traffic and then took a meandering detour, so we were running late for our check in time.  We blew past a herd of elk on the way up the mountain.  Turns out those would be the only elk we would see on this trip.  Yep.  Not a single elk for two days.

On another adventure I took Dad on a whale-watching cruise in Monterey Bay, California.  I planned it during peak whale season, so a photo should have been pretty easy to come by.

I’d sailed with the Sanctuary crew before and always returned home with some treasure: photographs of a whale, a dolphin, sea lions, harbor seals, something.  Dad wasn’t so lucky.  We stayed on the water two and half hours.  Zilch.  Zero.  Nada.  Dad’s never looked at whales the same since that ill-fated trip.

Wild animals often disappoint photographers.  They are, after all, wild.  Capturing images of them requires persistence and patience.  But it really hurts when your gear fails you.

Variegated Fritillary Butterfly | Beebower Productions

Gear, Gadgets and Disasters

Beautiful light hit the flowers perfectly.  The butterflies flocked to my garden with the warm summer air.  I was getting great stuff.

The tinkling, clinking noise totally caught me off guard.  It sounded as if it came from inside my camera.  With dread I removed the lens and realized the mirror had completely detached and fallen out.  Thankfully it wasn’t broken but it did need a trip to Canon’s repair center for some TLC.

A couple years after the dreaded mirror incident my rechargeable camera batteries began playing mind games with me.  Unfortunately I first noticed the problem while bobbing on a boat in Pacific Ocean.

I’d diligently recharged my batteries the night before my big boat trip.  In fact, I had five batteries charged and ready.  So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed the low battery icon flashing on my camera display.  I’d only taken five photos.  It was strange, but I swapped out the old batteries for new and focused on shooting.

A few minutes later, the low battery icon flashed again.  What in the heck?!  Every battery did the exact same thing.

I was forced to shoot a frame and turn off the camera. Then I’d turn it on briefly with a fully charged battery to shoot another frame before the display began blinking again.  Not ideal.  I missed shots.  I got angry.  Then I drove home and bought five new batteries.  Rechargeable batteries do have a shelf life.

The Bottom Line

Nobody likes to discuss it, but there are plenty of reasons photo shoots fail—even for professional photographers.  But you don’t have to give up in defeat.  Next week we’ll take those lemons and tell you how to turn them into lemonade.

10 Fall Color Tips

Packhorse Rider in the Fog | Beebower Productions

Every year fall’s rich color palate creates a stampede of photographers looking for “the” shot. Over the years Dad and I learned a few lessons that helped us track down amazing fall displays.  Save yourself some time and use these tips to create a memorable fall photo shoot.

Location, location, location! 

As with any photo, location really makes a difference.  Parts of the country stand out as fall color hot spots.   Well before fall rolls around, we do a lot of research before we even think of picking up the camera. 

First we study the potential locales, both well-known spots and off-the-beaten path. California’s Sierra Nevadas, Colorado’s San Juans, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the entire state of Vermont, to name a few, offer wonderful autumn hues. 

Our research includes photography-specific information such as key spots to photograph, permit applications, sun positions, weather patterns and hiking guides.  We also scope out hotels, restaurants and transportation.

Timing Is Everything

We pare location intel with websites and social media for leaf color reports.  Even if you know where to go for fall color, timing really is everything.

Just because the leaves in the San Juan Mountains hit peak color the first week in October last year, doesn’t mean they will this year.  Temperature, soil moisture and sunlight influence fall foliage displays.  An early frost, a drought or even a windstorm can change or curtail autumn’s pageantry.

Thanks to the Internet many areas provide fall foliage reports in real time.  Several I find useful include:



Shenandoah National Park’s facebook page




Don’t over look local connections like chambers of commerce or message boards from that area.  All of these sources help us to pick the perfect time to shoot while capturing the maximum amount of stunning color.

Colorado Aspens | Beebower Productions

Stormy Weather

Once we find an ideal location and know when to hit the road, the fun begins.  You might think shooting at sunrise and sunset produce great results.  They do, but don’t overlook cloudy, stormy or foggy situations. 

An overcast day works like a giant soft box, allowing details that would normally fall in the shadows to be seen.  It extends your shooting time from just a couple of hours to all day. 

A stormy or rainy day helps to super saturate those fall tones.  Water drops on leaves also can make an interesting close up.

Fog helps create an air of surreal mystery and really makes the colors pop.  Dad made good use of fog in the photo at the top of this blog. 

So don’t overlook those less than stellar weather days.

Fall Meets Winter | Beebower Productions

Use the Light

Backlight or sidelight shining through a leaf really makes the color pop.  It also shows off the veins and texture of the leaves. 

If you’re not convinced this duo creates zing in fall photography, slowly walk around a tree and observe the light.  Backlit and side lit leaves will glow with color while front light flattens the color.

Golden Aspen | Beebower Productions

Leaves and Other Stuff

Don’t limit your photographs to just trees.  Include the surrounding landscape. Mountains help give context to the size of the color displays.  Lakes, rivers and ponds create beautiful reflections of that autumn color. 

Additionally a myopic focus on trees might cause you to miss the smaller shrubs and grasses that are also changing color.  Don’t overlook including those in your photograph.  They provide layers of interest for your photo.

Lundy Beaver Pond | Beebower Productions

Change Your Perspective

To create a unique image, change your perspective.  Look up.  Look down.  Don’t just fill the frame with row after row of trees shot at eye level. 

Dad created a memorable image by getting down on the ground and shooting up into these aspens with a wide-angle lens.  The tree trunks lead the viewers’ eyes straight to the explosion of color at the top of the trees.

Glowing Aspens | Beebower Productions

Isolate Colors and Details

Fall photos don’t have to be all about the trees or shot strictly with a wide-angle lens.  Use a longer lens to create an intimate image.  Isolating the leaves and the colors can be very effective.  The lack of color in these leaves allows the one colored leaf to really pop when shot with a 70mm lens.

The Remains of Fall | Beebower Productions

Use Complementary Colors

Artists often use the concept of the Color Wheel to create striking images.  The wheel literally shows primary colors on one side and their complementary colors on the opposite side of the circle.  For example, orange complements blue.  Green complements red.

How does that help in foliage photos?  The complementary colors give the photo contrast, creating energy in the picture.  In this photo, the blue of the sky and the orange colors of the aspens stimulate the viewer’s senses.

Fall Aspens | Beebower Productions

Use a Polarizing Filter

A polarizing filter helps with the reflective nature of leaves.  A waxy coating called the cuticle covers the surface of most leaves.  The coating helps plants retain water and protects it from infections.  But when sunlight hits the leaves, the wax creates a reflection.  Photographers see one of two things, sometimes both:  glare or dulled color. 

Polarizing filters cut through the glare, allowing the true colors of the leaves to really pop.  They also remove glare from water, another element you might be dealing with on your fall photo adventure.

Dad and I love the Singh-Ray LB warming polarizer.  Not only does it remove the glare, it adds a punch of warm color to the scene.

Fall Aspens and Cowboy | Beebower Productions

Use a Tripod

Most of the time shooting during the day doesn’t require a tripod.  But every once in a while it does.    

Using a filter, any filter, cuts the light reaching your camera.  That affects the exposure, often slowing down the shutter speed.  If you’re shooting water with your fall foliage, that slower exposure can look fantastic.  Depending on the water’s rate of movement and the length of the time the shutter stays open, the water can look silky to foamy.

In any case, a tripod and camera pared with a cable release help make sure you don’t ruin a great photo because of human error like camera shake.

Little Sur River | Beebower Productions

So there you have it, our 10 best tips for capturing fall color.  We hope you enjoy your fall foliage adventure.  Let us know what you learn along the way.

Saddlehorn Pueblo

Saddlehorn Pueblo | Beebower Productions

The picture on the wall caught my attention immediately.  Of all the places we could visit at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, I knew this spot shot to the top of our list.  The rock looked just like a monster-sized horn on a cowboy’s saddle.  I’d never seen anything like it!  The rock sheltered Native American ruins under its ledge.   Bonus.  Major bonus.

Dad and I continued our photographic exploration of Colorado after wrapping up an art festival in Ridgway.  Two days of exploring the Canyon of the Ancients, a relatively new park founded in June of 2000, awaited us.  First, though, we stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.

Canyon of the Ancients contains 176,000 acres of high desert and more than 6,000 Native American sites.  These include cliff dwellings, kivas, dams, entire villages and rock art.  Visiting the park allowed us to hunt for these treasured vestiges of the past.  Many of these gems hide in plain sight, blending into the arid desert landscape and cliff walls.

While these jewels abound, the rugged landscape makes exploration challenging if you aren’t familiar with the land.  So our stop at the Heritage Center helped us nail down what to see and how to get there.  In addition to information, we found their exhibits top notch. 

On the Trail

But we chomped at the bit to reach our destination, the Saddlehorn Pueblo.  A sweltering, 100-plus degree August day sidelined us until the next morning, though.

We loaded our gear in the van at first light and headed for the southern end of the Sand Canyon Trail.  The path traverses 6 miles of parched desert landscape. Twelve miles makes a round trip. 

Our interest stopped at the first mile because that’s where the Saddlehorn Pueblo stands.  More ruins waited on the next five miles of the trail, but the unique rock formation combined with ruins really made Saddlehorn stand out.

The Sand Canyon Trail starts out on an uphill slickrock sheet.  Actually three trails split off shortly after leaving the parking lot, so pay attention and stay to the right.   As far as hikes go, the one-mile jaunt to Saddlehorn is easy.  But a lot of nifty things pop up along the way.

Sand Canyon Rocks | Beebower Productions

Erosion shaped the rocks along the trail into unique and curious shapes.  I saw mushrooms, castles, pointy-hat gnomes and the aforementioned saddlehorn.  Sand Canyon begs you to let your imagination loose to play for a day.

After the short hike, we spent some time just staring at the rock.  Wow.  It was cool.  And big.  Plus other rocky cones crowded around the formation.  They might just erode into another saddlehorn one day.  Looking at the site, it’s clear ancestral Puebloans mastered using geology to their advantage.

I wondered about the people who lived all along the Sand Canyon Trail, but especially the ones who built the structures in the saddlehorn.  Archeologists determined that the Puebloans used the two buildings under the horn from about 1250 A.D. to 1285 A.D.  The rooms may have been used for cooking or sleeping.  Other buildings may have served as a lookout.

Archeologists also found the remnants of a kiva on the slope below the saddlehorn.  Ancestral Puebloans used kivas for ceremonies and religious events.  They partially submerged these circular structures.  Participants entered the kiva by a ladder in the roof.

In the 1980s the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center excavated part of the kiva and then backfilled it to preserve the structure for future generations.  The backfill makes it difficult to see the kiva, but there’s plenty of visible architecture to see at Saddlehorn.

Shooting the Scene

Once we finished gawking, we got to work capturing this unique treasure in photographs.  As you can imagine, these ruins are not only fragile, but also sacred to modern Native Americans.  That somewhat limits where you can photograph. We didn’t have any trouble abiding by the rules and getting nice images, though.

Using a variety of lenses, I explored Saddlehorn visually.  I especially enjoyed using the wide-angle lens to include some of the other formations adjacent to the actual saddlehorn.  Additionally I used a Singh-Ray polarizing filter to enrich the colors in the rocks and sky.

We spent most of our time waiting for the light to break through the clouds.  Early morning light bathes the entire scene with a nice glow, assuming the cloud cover is lighter than our morning.  Our patience paid off, though.  We took home our photographic treasure of this gem.

If You Go


  • Start your trip at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.  Rangers and volunteers dole out maps, advice and tips for hiking, biking and riding the trails.  They can also bring you up to speed on camping possibilities.


  • To actually see the treasures of Canyon of the Ancients, you really need to get out on the trails.  Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are allowed.  Ask the rangers for specifics.


  • All of the hiking trails are remote and rugged.  Wear clothes for hiking, not a casual stroll.  Take plenty of water and snacks.  Wear a hat and sunscreen.  Watch out for wild animals like snakes and mountain lions as well as creepy crawlies like scorpions.


  • Temperatures easily soar over 100 degrees in the summer and snow accumulates in the winter.  Spring, fall or early in the day make for the best hikes.


  • Directions to the Sand Canyon Trail:  From Cortez, hop on US 491 south and turn west on County Road G. Go 12 miles and look for the parking area on the right hand side of the road.


  • Slickrock covers the entire unmarked parking lot.  Park where you can, but do not park along the highway or on private property.


  • If you happen to be on the trail or in the parking lot during a rainstorm be careful around the slickrock.  It was appropriately named.


  • Pay attention to the trail markers when you start out at Sand Canyon.  The footpath disappers thanks to the slickrock. 


  • You must stay on the trail in Sand Canyon.  Off trail use is prohibited.  Respect the cultural importance of this area to the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.


  • Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.  Clean up after your pet.

Ship Rocked in New Mexico

Sunset at Ship Rock | Beebower Productions

It soars 1,700’ above the vast desert floor.  Folks report seeing it on a clear day from 50 miles away.  Over the years it captured the imagination of Native Americans as well as settlers and explorers. 

Today Ship Rock garners the interest of the Navajo people as well as geologists, tourists and photographers like Dad and me.  During our wanderings across the Southwest, we hoped to catch a dramatic sunset photo of this iconic rock found in San Juan County, New Mexico.

We easily found Ship Rock, after an hour’s drive from our base in Farmington.  I knew explorers christened the formation “Ship Rock” in the 1870s because they thought it looked very much like a clipper ship. 

Starring at the rock from our spot along the highway, we could kind of see the clipper ship.  The longer we stared at it, the more our imaginations created other possibilities, like a cathedral or a medieval castle on a mountain.  We had plenty of time to ponder and nothing to distract us.

After all, it was the only thing for miles. That isolation made us wonder how this pile of rocks got here.

Explosive History

Geologists say volcanic activity created the ship-shaped rock about 30 million years ago.  Actually volcanic activity created many of the delightful features of the Southwest like Sunset Crater, Picacho Peak, the Superstition Mountains and Petroglyphs National Monument.

Today’s Ship Rock started off as the neck of a volcano.  Over time, the rock surrounding the neck eroded leaving the uniquely shaped pillar known as Shiprock, Shiprock Peak or Ship Rock (depending on which map you consult).  Typically the plug or neck material resists erosion more than the surrounding rock.  Thus only Ship Rock remains of a once large volcano.

Six dikes, or ridges, radiate outward from the neck.  These formed when hot lava cooled in the long, narrow depressions.  The earth’s surface once covered these ridges.  Over time erosion exposed them.

The Navajo Nation

Perhaps even more interesting than the geology of Ship Rock are the legends surrounding the formation.  The Navajo people believe the rock is sacred and call it Tse’ Bit’a’I or “the winged rock”.

Ship Rock lies at the northwestern edge of the Navajo Nation, a sprawling 27,000-acre chunk of land that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Harrison Lapahie, Jr., a Navajo Nation member, tells the well-known legend of Ship Rock:

“A long time ago the Diné (Navajo) were hard pressed by their enemies. One night their medicine men prayed for their deliverance, having their prayers heard by the Gods. They caused the ground to rise, lifting the Diné, and moved the ground like a great wave into the east away from their enemies. It settled where Shiprock Peak now stands. These Navajos then lived on the top of this new mountain, only coming down to plant their fields and to get water.

For some time all went well. Then one day during a storm, and while the men were working in the fields, the trail up the rock was split off by lightning and only a sheer cliff was left. The women, children, and old men on the top slowly starved to death, leaving their bodies to settle there.”

Thus the Navajo consider the peak sacred ground and prohibit any climbing of the rock for fear their dead will be disturbed.

The Navajo have many other traditions associated with Ship Rock.  You can read more about the Navajo culture at Lapahie’s website. 

Hugh at Ship Rock | Beebower Productions

Shooting Strategies

Legends aside, Dad and I had just one chance to photograph this unusual location.  We’d kept our eyes peeled all afternoon, hoping for some monsoon storm activity to spice up our shot.  But we were out of luck.

We pulled “Plan B”, a sunset photo, out of our back pockets. We left our hotel with extra time for navigating the roads around Ship Rock.  We never know what surprises we’ll run into, especially the first time we visit a place.

We arrived well before sunset, set up and waited for the magic to happen.  Occasionally a car whizzed down the highway with the driver honking at us.  Otherwise we only heard the silence of the desert.  We enjoyed a snack, fiddled with our gear and soaked up the solitude.

And then the moment we’d waited for happened.  All of that planning and waiting for a five-minute span of great light.  It was the stuff of legends.

If You Go

  • Ship Rock is part of the Navajo Nation.  Respect their laws and private property signs in your quest to shoot pictures.  Climbing Ship Rock is illegal.
  • Plan ahead as there are no services close to the rock.  That includes bathrooms, food or gas.  
  • Cell phone service can be spotty depending on your carrier. 
  • The closest town with hotels is Farmington, not the town of Shiprock.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Farmington to Ship Rock.  Depending on the time of day, U.S. Highway 64 can be crowded.  Plan accordingly.
  • Sunrise and sunset make nice photos of Ship Rock.  Monsoon storms create some of the most dramatic pictures, if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time.
  • You can shoot Ship Rock from a variety of locations.  From the north you can see it along US Highway 64 or south of the town of Shiprock on US Highway 491. To reach the base of Ship Rock turn west off US Highway 491 onto Red Valley Road / Route 5, south of the formation. Route 5 actually passes through the south dike and connects with multiple dirt roads that will lead you to the base of Ship Rock. Keep in mind that these roads intersect private property.
  • Take a variety of lenses.  If you go to the base of Ship Rock you’ll want a wide angle.  If you stay on one of the main roads anything from a 70-200mm lens will create a nice image.
  • Don’t forget your tripod and cable release.  Filters will also come in handy.

Deserted Valley

The sun bakes Hovenweep House (foreground) and Hovenweep Castle (background) in the Utah desert.

Hovenweep Castle | Beebower Productions

The absolute silence struck me as I stepped out of the van.  Looking around I saw nothing but desert.  And more desert.  The desert even swallowed up the Native American ruins Dad and I sought. 

Dad and I drove, literally, to the middle of nowhere. After a busy art festival in Ridgeway, Colorado we were really ready to have fun shooting pictures.  We eagerly set off on our desert adventure.   

A stiff breeze and a distant rumble of thunder were the only things to break the silence.  A summer monsoon storm threatened to cut short our exploration of Hovenweep National Monument in Utah.  

Little Ruin Canyon 

We took the Little Ruin Canyon trail, a 1.5-mile hike around and through the ruins of an ancient village.   The stifling 100-plus degree heat ensured we didn’t dawdle.   

The remains of Hovenweep’s Square Tower Group rose up out of the desert floor, soaring along the edge of Little Ruin Canyon.  Some buildings even perched on top of large boulders.  The builders’ skills impressed us. Ancestral Puebloans created most of the structures about 1200 A.D.  At one time about 500 people lived in this village. 

In 1874 photographer William Henry Jackson first named the collection of abandoned villages along the Cajon Mesa “Hovenweep”.  That’s Ute for “deserted valley”.  It’s an apt name because civilization–and a hotel–is about 55 minutes away.   

But 700 years ago, the villages bustled with activity.  In addition to hunting, the residents also gathered plants and eventually grew corn, beans, squash and amaranth.  They created stone dams to trap sediment and water during storms.  They terraced the hillsides for planting crops.  It’s a little hard to imagine all that looking at this rugged, parched landscape today.  Multiple granaries suggest the ancestral Puebloans succeeded, though.  

These ancient people built the pueblos, kivas, storage buildings and towers that dominate Little Ruin Canyon. The towers are particularly interesting because their windows allowed shafts of light inside perhaps to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  These shafts of light would have served as a calendar, letting the people know when to plant and harvest their crops.  It’s possible they also used the towers for line-of-sight signaling or for defense. 

But this community of skilled masons wasn’t alone.  Six villages including the Square Tower Group dotted the Cajon Mesa.  The mesa’s canyons and their streams that emptied into the San Juan River provided water for each of the farming villages.  Each settlement laid just a day’s walk away.   

For some reason, perhaps a drought or due to warfare, around 1300 A.D. the ancestral Puebloan people left the Cajon Mesa and moved south to New Mexico and Arizona.  Their amazing buildings at Hovenweep gradually fell into disrepair and returned to the desert. 

Shooting Tactics 

I took pictures quickly knowing that the monsoon storm drew closer by the minute.  Unfortunately we had just one day for exploration at Hovenweep.  So it was now or never shooting the Square Tower Group.   

Local rocks formed the main walls of Hovenweep’s buildings and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints.

Hovenweep Mansonry | Beebower Productions

Local rocks formed the main walls of Hovenweep’s buildings and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints.[/caption]

I looked for wide-angle shots showing the girth of the structures as well as detail shots.   The builders used meticulous masonry in construction.  Local rocks formed the main walls and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints. If the light is soft enough, the masonry in the walls makes for interesting close-up photo, as do the doors and windows.

We took about two hours at Square Tower, walking and shooting.  Cutthroat Castle and the Horseshoe Group, nearby settlements, were also on our shooting list, but that storm I mentioned loomed overhead.   After taking a look at the dirt road that led to the next village, we decided to skedaddle.  A van loaded to the gills with art and a rough, muddy road were a bad combination.  Monsoon storms pack a pretty serious punch in the desert even if you have 4-wheel drive. 

Despite interference from the storm, we saw great potential for fantastic photos at Hovenweep National Monument.  We just needed a dry day and more time to explore. 

  • Hovenweep Castle gives us a window into the lives of the ancestral Puebloan people.

Hovenweep Castle Window | Beebower Productions

If You Go

Hovenweep patiently waits in the desert, ready to share its secrets.  If you decide to go, you’ll need to know a few things:  

  • You’re headed to the middle of nowhere.  Fill up the gas tank; take plenty of food and water.  There are no stores for miles. 
  • Do not use a GPS to find Hovenweep.  Instead, follow the directions on the National Park’s site at https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/directions.htm 
  • Hovenweep is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Nonetheless, you should check for any closures before heading out.  
  • Trails open at sunrise and close at sunset. 
  • Entry is free.  Camping costs $10 per night. 
  • Desert temperatures can range 40 degrees within a single day.  Summers heat up quickly (think 100 degrees or higher) with monsoon storms.  Winters temperatures plunge, with lows averaging 0 to 20 degrees.  Occasional ice may make roads impassable. 
  • The road to the Square Tower Group and the visitor center is paved.  All other roads are dirt.  It is best to travel the dirt roads with 4-wheel drive.  Pay attention to storms (summer or winter) that may make these road and trails treacherous.
  • If you’re looking for some place to crash after exploring, you can stay at the campground near the visitor center. Check https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/eatingsleeping.htm for details.  Otherwise you’ll need to travel to Bluff or Blanding, Utah or Cortez, Colorado for a hotel. 
  • Cell phone coverage is spotty to non-existent.  Plan accordingly.
  • Dogs may explore Hovenweep but must be kept on a leash at all times. 
  • Take a variety of lenses.  You could easily shoot wide angles of the buildings as well as close up masonry details. 
  • Sunrise and sunset provide warm light on the ruins.  However, you may get interesting photos before and after storms (summer and winter) that blow through the area as well as shots showing good detail mid-morning.  Look for unique clouds to add interest to your image. 
  • The park occasionally holds special star gazing events.  Check with the rangers for times and dates.  Participants must stay in the visitor center parking lot and campgrounds.  Unfortunately you can’t see the ruins from either location. You can, however, request a special photography permit.  Apply several weeks in advance and expect to pay a minimum of $180 application fee and then additional fees depending on what you plan to shoot.  For complete details visit https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/night-photography.htm

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