View looking northwest at sunset from the point at Tsegi Overlook, Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Looking for something to do this weekend?

I honestly can’t think of a bad time to visit, experience, and photograph Canyon de Chelly National Monument, but in late October and early November, this culturally and geologically rich place gets even more beautiful when a splash of autumnal color outlines the canyon floor below soaring Navajo sandstone cliffs.  Fall has come a little late to this area – as it has across much of Arizona this year – so this weekend would be the perfect time to see the finale of fall colors here!

Throughout the entire canyon, the cottonwoods are peaking as we speak, so no matter which overlook you stop at, you’re bound to bring home the beauty of this park on your memory cards.   My favorite place to shoot sunrise is from Junction Overlook, looking into the sun as it rises above Canyon de Chelly.  Great places to put your tripod at sunset are Tsegi Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook looking west at sunset.

Photographing Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto from the south or north rim respectively can make capturing a “correct” exposure difficult, even at sunrise and sunset.  Direct light skimming across the canyon on clear days tends to cast odd-shaped shadows on the walls and floor, resulting in a sharp contrast between highlights and shadows.  With such dramatic difference in the tones, U-shaped histograms are common…even in low light…

Pre-dawn light at Junction Overlook

If a blue sky is overhead, pull out your telephoto lens to isolate patterns and lines of trees at the bottom of the canyon.  Look for compositions that fall entirely within a deep shadow to capture more even lighting across the scene.  Cloudy days or during civil twilight (the 30 minutes before a sunrise and after a sunset) provide the best opportunity to record saturated colors.  Both types of light enable beautiful directional, but more even illumination across the canyon…making exposures much easier to manage!

If you have the time, hire a Navajo guide to take you inside the canyon for a magical experience during the day.  Depending on your tour, you’ll see the photogenic Antelope House Ruin, White House Ruin, and Spider Rock up close and personal.  Look for ways to include the yellow leaves of the changing cottonwood trees as a framing device to help create the illusion of depth in your photograph.

The Day Use area at the entrance to the Cottonwood Campground near the Thunderbird Lodge offers an unlikely, but outstanding place to photograph within a massive grove of colorful cottonwood trees.  Emphasize the height of a single tree or a group of them by getting close to the tree trunk(s) and pointing your widest angle lens upwards.

For more information about this national monument, visit www.nps.gov/cach.  Before you visit, consider also checking the Photographer’s Ephemeris tool (available at photoephemeris.com, where you can get a free computer download, $8.99 for the iPhone app, and/or $4.99 for the Android app).  This software program allows you to pre-visualize the light’s direction at a location using Google maps, which helps save you time when you arrive on-site.

Happy shooting,

-Colleen

Fremont cottonwood grove at the Day Use area near the Cottonwood Campground

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