For the untrained eye, the snappy, jerky, almost frenzied clicks around a map of the United States may appear random, without aim, but I assure you, this is part of the professional process. Zoom in, open Google Earth, go to the same spot and look at it in 3D, A thought goes off at the very back of my mind, the foliage won’t really be out yet. Zoom out, more clicks, more zooms, pans, we fly past different parts of the Pacific Northwest; any storms blowing in around Mt. Hood? Mt St. Helens? How does it look for an overnight this weekend up toward Mt. Baker? The weather all looks like a solid gray. Okay then, it is going to be travel weekend, I conclude with myself. I pack the standard gear for a timelapse/photo/aerial shoot that night because, why not?
Later that day, the mouse wanders further south, a bit further east; eventually I land on the southwest of the United States, looks like potential thunderstorms over the Bonneville Salt Flats, good, more wandering, all the way down to Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona state border it looks like some interesting weather will be blowing through there too, excellent. With any luck and a lot of multitasking I may be able to make a film out of this trip, I think. I debate a bit with myself, should I use my miles this trip or make sure I accumulate a bit more so I hit MVP status this year? I elect to accumulate a bit more and land on Salt Lake City as my entry point, a quick nonstop flight to one of my favorite medium-sized airports in the United States.
The weekend arrives (I paid $50 to upgrade to a first class seat, woo! Warm cookies and champagne… how is this even work?) “We’re landing soon” they say. I put the finishing touches on a photo I’ve been editing, send it to my phone so it's ready to post when I land. Wheel’s touch down, luggage gathered, I drive my sparkly, clean, shiny Dodge Grand Caravan (the seats lay flat, that is key for the whirlwind adventure photography weekend rental vehicle) straight to the Wal Mart Supercenter where I get enough water for three days of water bottle refills, Tapitio Doritos, a big bag of small apples, a couple sandwiches and I’m outta there. Oh wait, and some beef jerky. And some Red Bull (I’m not proud of it, but energy drinks can be life-savers when you’re driving until 4am each night). Okay I’m outta there. First stop: the Bonneville Salt Flats - the plan is to snag a panorama of the Milky Way right when I get there, then get a nap in before sunrise. It is about 2:30am when I step out of the van into the summer night air on the flats
I try to make the absolute most out of a weekend trip, that means very little sleep. Getting a lot of content in a short period of time is all about inertia and multitasking. It's about getting to work right when you get there and staying on the move. After I’m confident I have a milky way panorama I let the incessant waves of need sleep wash over me and I pop my tent up on the salty playa for two and a half hours of dreamless time travel. I always cross my fingers for a beautiful mirror sunrise across that shallow, still water on the flats. This trip the flats deliver and the pre-dawn light paints the high clouds and casts beautiful blues onto the honeycomb patterns beneath the water.
I quickly set up a camera for timelapse, tweak my exposure settings for what I think the light will do as the sun comes over the horizon, ack don’t forget to focus it and set the lens to manual, Will! Then I quickly grab my drone gear and begin flying passes over the water as the light gets special.
After the sun is too high to be good light any longer, I pack it all in and look at how many hours it will take me to drive to the best weather on the Utah/Arizona border, looks like it will be Page, AZ; I make that the target and fire my minivan at it. 7 hours later I’m in Page, just south of the Utah border. I decide on a shoot at horseshoe bend.
Pro-tip: photography weekends work because for the most part photography is best shot during golden hour, most of the day is not golden hour which means it's prime time for travel and audiobooks… and Tapatio Doritos (or Sweet Chili Doritos if you’re in Iceland, I swear they are fresher there).
At Horseshoe, the clouds start to roll across where the sun is going to set, and I start to internally cross my fingers that I’ll get a glimpse of the sun just before it hits the horizon. For whatever reason when almost all hope is lost, a TINY hole in the clouds perfectly times out, blows over the sun just as it touches the horizon and I’m able to grab this panorama shot with my D810 and 14-24mm 2.8g lens
I take several bracketed, vertical photos covering the area, making sure to expose a bit toward the brighter end, in the back of my head I’m thinking, it will be easier to bring up darks and I want as much detail in the lights as possible to get the most out of these clouds/sun.
From previous trips to the area, I have a few priority spots that I have mentally tagged as places I’d like to shoot. I grab a few winks of sleep and after I have some wits back in me I pull out one of those mentally tagged spots, Monument Valley, it is really close to the Utah/Arizona border -- instead of sleep I decide to drive there that night to catch sunrise the next morning. Never having been there I drive through the area in the dark and hope against hope that where I am when light starts to creep into the sky will be photo-worthy.
As the first blue light scrapes across the dry landscape and the land gains some relief it turns out I’m in a great spot for aerial views, I set up a few timelapses with all three of my cameras and then do some 4K flights back and forth with my DJI Inspire 1 Pro.
After making myself a cup of coffee and starting up my brain for the day I browse the weather outlook on my phone with a few different apps and sites, clouds are moving into the area and I want to make sure I’m at a good place to catch the light, I make a snap decision to drive back to Page. I do, and as I sit in a Denny’s munching on an okay breakfast, reviewing photos, editing one for my daily Instagram post, I realize that it's getting too grey outside, I check the weather again and, after having driven a 100+ miles for a Denny’s visit all the way from Monument Valley, I decide the weather looks better back over there for sunset. I can just make it. So, me and the Grand Caravan dash back over just in time to enter Monument Valley park. In between intermittent monsoons and fast-moving thunderheads I am able to grab a few photos and some timelapses
The sun sets and, still wanting more content from Horseshoe bend, I make the dash AGAIN across the border, the desert and the night. I catch a nap and wake myself up before sunrise in the dirt parking lot for Horseshoe Bend State park.
I drive a bit further south outside the state park to grab a few aerial views
Exhausted from the morning of shooting, I make it back to the van and let my head hit the sleeping bag. I let the heat of the day wake me up after a couple hours, pack my things and head for the SLC airport, dust and sand in everything, hair is static-frozen up like I’ve been electrocuted, I drive, wishing I had a day or two to hit Moab. I tag it in my head, Next trip for sure.
So, what was that about making something in 70 hours? Well, it turns out I was able to make that film, and, after a couple hundred hours of editing, here it is!
What gear I use most for landscape photography and timelapse:
Nikkor 14-24mm 2.8g
Nikkor 70-200 2.8g
Sony A7R II
Zeiss Batis 25mm
Novoflex Nikon f-mount to e-mount adaptor (for use specifically with my Nikkor 14-24mm, doesn’t work with all Nikon lenses)
LEE Superwide Filter Holder for 14-24mm Nikkor Lens
Glass ND and Grad ND filters
What app I use for planning: