I recently spent some time photographing locations in Valley of Fire State Park, east of Las Vegas. This particular location offers some dramatic opportunities for red rock shooting and is located on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is the region defined by geologists which encompasses large areas of Western Colorado, NW New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Southern/Eastern Utah and South East Nevada. Although Grand Canyon National Park has a different look and feel than Arches National Park, the various locations within this region share one common theme and that is a landscape comprised of various types of red sandstone.
The Colorado Plateau is a mecca for landscape photographers but there are a few tricks that enhance the results of any photographic effort, whether by a professional, advanced amateur or casual shooter.
Time of Day
Be prepared to miss some breakfast and dinners. The best light is from pre-sunrise to a half hour to hour afterwards and likewise, from an hour or so before sunset till after dusk. There will be dramatic changes in light during those periods and a given location will have many different looks when photographically captured.
This period is pre-sunrise or dawn. It is identified by the pink/blue/magenta band of light that begins on the eastern horizon and travels westwards as the sun gets closer to sunrise. When the bands of color are overhead, the refracted light can create a warm, virtually shadowless look to landscapes. Your eye will hardly notice the color but with some experience, you can learn to recognize the brief period (5-10 minutes) that it exists at a given area. You will need a tripod to capture landscapes effectively during this period. It's beneficial to manually set your camera to a low ISO (100 or 200) to reduce noise and maintain resolution. But doing so will lengthen exposure time to well beyond what can be captured sharply while hand holding your camera.
The first few minutes right after sunrise or just before sunset is the time the rendered colors will be the warmest or reddest. Sunlight is traveling through a much longer atmospheric path at this time of the day and the blue/green portions of the light spectrum are dramatically reduced. The warm light will make red rock formations 'pop' at this time of day. But it is important for best results to shoot a subject or location at 90 degrees to the direction of the sunlight. Doing so creates more apparent detail and interest in the resulting image. If you shoot facing 180 degrees away from the sunlight, the image will be flat without much shadow relief, the result will often be a lifeless image without much apparent detail.
Towards the goal of capturing a pleasing image, this all means you need to spend a bit of time scouting or researching a location to determine sunrise/sunset based on the time of year. Guidebooks are one solution, such as the photographic guidebooks published by Laurent Martres. Google and Google World can also be extremely useful for scouting and to have a look at how others have captured images of a specific area. You may frequently notice when looking at images in Google, is that many are typical snapshots, taken midday with not a lot of thought about sun angle or the harshness of midday sun. The more interesting shots that become something more than a documentary shot, are usually those that taken early or late in the day.
I will be away for a few days photographing additional locations, including rock art and ruins, in the Cedar Mesa and Canyonlands areas of SE Utah. In the meantime, have a look at my new Valley of Fire Gallery on my website.