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The Road Tripping Photographer (Part 2)

(A continuation of Part I): After years of driving through the San Rafael Swell in central Utah via I-70 to Reno, I have always wanted to stop and spend some time shooting this amazing up-swell of rock formations in the high desert -- especially as morning light starts to hit the spires. I checked out of the motel in Green River before first light and drove west about an hour towards the Swell. Today was intended as an exploratory trip up through the Swell, then north around the Little Grand Canyon, east and south from Paine and back down to Green River before actually heading into the Canyon itself -- just looking for what might be out there. I set up at the the Wild Coyote exit overlook for a 4-frame pano across the full eastern opening of the Swell along I-70. I found the weather to be less dramatic than what I wanted, fewer clouds -- still okay.

With the sun up now, I headed further west, then north up Route 10 along several small communities in Utah, mostly agricultural in nature, with only limited subject matter that appealed to me. The light was an "ugly hazy" without a cloud in the sky. Following golden hour at dawn, I was growing less inspired with each passing hour. In trying to cover a lot of ground in a single day, I found myself looking at possible shots while driving instead of actually getting out of the car and walking around. I generally balance these two modes fairly well, but was clearly missing good options being too lazy not walking away from the vehicle. Walking allows me to interact with my environment better and move around possible subject matter with a better eye. One such location I did stop to see was what appeared to be an artist workshop called "Alien Crash Site" just outside Price, Utah. I was limited to where I could go on private land, but took some interesting test shots. The site hosts a sculpture garden of sorts throughout the property featuring wind machines compiled of old re-assembled machine parts, etc.

Rule 4: To quote Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it." Interesting photos are hard to spot from the car while moving. Granted, I see them all the time, but nothing compared to reducing my pace to something that allows me to contemplate my surroundings, interact with my environment, and explore perspectives and details. It's also safer to do this when not driving.

With uneventful driving back south to Green River, I grabbed lunch before heading down inside the Little Grand Canyon, up a dirt road called Buckhorn Draw. I passed up filling the gas tank, estimating I had enough to head in and back out again. The Draw was a marvelous road that meandered first from the high plateau gradually winding down onto the Canyon's floor, home of the famous Sinbad herd of wild donkeys. As fate would have it, I met 10 burros alongside the road just before reaching the lower campgrounds in the central wash, displaying the only green anywhere. This was so reminiscent of the dirt road explorations my father would turn us towards when I was a kid, always wondering what could be down this road or that road? So, in the "Spirit of Bob" I ventured onto the petroglyph site before rising out of the hot mid-day Swell onto the North Rim. It was hot and dusty along the whole route -- even smelling the chalky whiff of playa dust circulating in the breeze up from the dry creek bed near the wash. Even on a Friday, hardly a soul was in site -- a sure and beautiful sign of "undiscovered" desolation.

My intent was to scope out this upper rim of the canyon for the better views and possible shots in the future. I followed the signs to The Wedge along the North Rim. The midday sun was just too direct and high for any good shots today -- shadows were limited and the added harshness would simply wash out most any useful detail. This was, though, definitely a future panoramic shot. I did shot a video while a van-tour of church kids filed around along the rim. The raw feel of the canyon and exposed rim was a welcomed change from other more controlled tourist sites -- here we had an open rim with no guard rails or platforms anywhere.

I headed north, then east to hook up with Highway 191 back to Green River, but accidentally went too far north and headed east towards Red Cedar Recreation Area instead. By the time I realized my error, I knew that getting through to Green River would be problematic given the terrain. I turned the car around and head back to Cleveland on the west side of the Swell, barely getting there on a near empty tank of gas. On to Scipio, UT, for the night, getting there well after dark.

Rule 5: Don't trust your memory with the map or assume your phone will pick up an internet signal to supply the map needed to support your GPS signal. More to the point -- exploratory trips need to be well planned. Less spontaneity, less wasted time, and better options for good photographic subjects.

Starting the next morning at 4:30am, my intent was to travel up I-15 to Salt Lake City, shoot some architectural shots in the morning, in good light, meet some friends for brunch, then head west on I-80 towards Elko, then on to Reno the following day. By the time I got to south Salt Lake City, I found I was too tired to drive. I had to pull off into a mall parking for a fitful sleep of about 15 minutes, but enough to continue on.

I got into town, parked the car, packed all my expensive gear in a full day-pack and started hiking the inner core of the city, criss-crossing city blocks for the next five hours. Again, no clouds to add a dramatic element -- in fact the morning heat intensified well before 9am. Being a Saturday, early, most interiors were inaccessible, but the lighter traffic allowed for a more casual effort in stepping out in the streets to shoot for perspective. When photographing architecture I generally shoot with a standard zoom (24-105mm), or with a wide-angle (10-22) depending upon building size and the distance back with which to work. In almost all instances, due to building height, I have to make post-editing adjustments to vertical lines to minimize distortion and perspective, if desired. The exception is when the vanishing point of perspective lines provide a cool effect. I'm also less interested in simply taking postcard snapshots of full buildings, but try to find details from unique angles, involving some human interaction, or incorporating a juxtaposition with other buildings or environmental elements such as light and shadow.

The morning sun allowed many nice frames involving shadow, and though I was disappointed with most of the historic structures I had hoped would provided good subjects in Temple Square, it was the more contemporary buildings that caught my eye throughout the day. Many of these structures provided a good effort towards abstraction.

The two buildings I found most intriguing were the SLC Public Library and the City Creek Mall. The mall was graciously empty of people in the morning, though the open pedestrian areas were already accessible long before the stores were. This provided options for careful positioning for shots of a broad scope with fascinating lines and colors. The Library is an architectural wonder throughout, with airy atriums and vertigo inducing stairwells, opening up to floods of natural light in areas both intimate and expansive.

Following lunch, I headed west past the Great Salt Lake and across the Bonneville Salt Flats hoping to catch some late afternoon light on the playa, but neither the light or salt were accommodating with windblown salt in the air seriously obscuring visibility. Again, on a near empty tank, I filled up at Wendover, Nevada, paying more than $4/gallon for premium grade gas -- they were out of regular. I crawled into Elko's Thunderbird Motel for the night and chowed down on a Little Caesar's pizza, good for dinner and tomorrow's breakfast.

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