Seeing and photographing some awesome icons in the Southwest

by Rob Tiller


I just got back from my nine-day southwestern photography trip, which started and ended in Las Vegas. Vegas did not enchant me. It reminded me of an upscale shopping mall interbred with Times Square and Disneyland. Leaving aside some public near-nudity and drunkenness, it didn’t seem very extraordinary, much less alluring or sophisticated. Gambling in smoky casinos was not my thing, and I wasn’t much in the mood for a show.

But walking the Strip on my last night, I was impressed with the sheer size and busyness, and I liked all the glowing neon. The service personnel I encountered were surprisingly warm and friendly.

My real objective was to take in some of the iconic rocks and other features of Utah and Arizona and learn more about landscape photography. I went with a group of eight photographers organized by Aperture Academy and led by Scott Donschikowski and Phil Nicholas. We drank in and photographed Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Lower Antelope Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

It was amazing! Photographs can never do complete justice to these landscapes, which may be why, even knowing there are so many previous pictures, we keep on trying. I was moved, awed, and inspired. The forces of nature that made all this – primordial minerals, oceans and rivers, tectonic plates, hundreds of generations of flora and fauna, sun, rain, and wind – brought to mind geologic time – tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years. It made me feel at once very small and incredibly fortunate. The beauty is powerful.

I learned some very practical things about photography. For instance: there’s stiff competition to stake out a position for your tripod at the most famous sites, and so you have to get there really early. We were out the door and on our way as early as 3:30 a.m. for sunrise shots. We traveled in the middle of the day, and then set up at a new site for sunsets and shot until they were done. We got tips on composition, learned about using various filters, and experimented with white balance, apertures, and shutter speeds. We also learned various post-processing techniques.

I made lots of mistakes, but learned from them. My teachers were generous with their support, photographic and otherwise. Phil helped me regroup after a fall on a steep hill at Monument Valley, and Scott let me use his tripod when I lost a critical piece of mine. We had good weather throughout, though as Phil and Scott noted, the clouds could have been a little more dramatic in places.

My fellow shutterbugs were friendly and supportive. We were not all in agreement on the question of Clinton vs. Trump, which at first concerned me. Every day there was new news of Trump’s deep flaws, and the Trump supporters were clearly accomplished, intelligent people. I gathered that they had managed to filter out or suppress the information about his dishonesty and other unethical behavior, and greatly magnified the supposed negatives of Hillary (Benghazi! The emails!). And in spite of their apparent security and prosperity, they seemed very worried about crime and immigrants.

It was good, though, to be reminded that people with some disturbing opinions can also be knowledgeable, wise, considerate, and ethical. And good to be reminded that we can agree on many things and help and enjoy each other, even when we disagree strongly on others.