So you're planning a photography trip to Moab? Feeling a bit overwhelmed? With two national parks, one state park and over two million acres of incredible landscapes outside the parks it isn't uncommon to find yourself in the midst of a pre-trip panic attack. Take a deep breath and read on for a few tips that will help you to hit the ground running on your next Moab adventure.
The Four Seasons
First, let's talk seasons. At 4,000' in elevation, Moab enjoys all four seasons and each one has something unique to offer photographers.
Winter - December through February (and some times March) is what most locals consider to be winter in Moab. Tourists are nowhere to be found, the hotels are suddenly affordable and if you're lucky, snow may blanket the red rock landscape. If you're really, really lucky, you may even visit during an inversion and find fog wafting in and out of the arches, canyons and towers. Winters are generally mild with the exception of 2-3 weeks that generally land in January when the temperatures plummet to below zero at night and hover in the teens during the day.
Spring - March through May finds the temperatures warming, wildflowers blooming, cottonwood trees leafing out and tourists returning in droves. Wildflowers typically start to appear in late March and last through the end of May. Most years, the La Sal Mountains will retain their snowcap in the spring and compositions that include them (i.e. Delicate Arch) are highly desirable.
Summer - Moab is a high desert environment and as you would expect, summers are hot. June through August you can count on daytime temperatures approaching or even exceeding 100 degrees. Monsoon season, typically July & August, brings reliably dramatic weather and is one of Bret's favorite times to photograph the Moab landscape. Frequent thunderstorms hammer the area and the rain fills potholes in the sandstone that collect reflections of surrounding natural features. On the downside, the La Sals are generally absent of snow and frankly, they are not the prettiest mountain range when they're naked. Also, town is inundated with European tourists.
Fall - This is Bret's favorite season, which includes September through November. Tourist traffic is generally still high but colorful aspen and cottonwood trees and a return to cooler temperatures conspire to make for incredible conditions to hike and explore with your camera. Aspen trees in the La Sal Mountains usually deliver peak foliage in late September and early October. A month later cottonwood trees in the desert are decorated with brilliant yellow leaves. In late fall, snow is likely in the mountains and possible in the desert.
Bret regularly posts updates on photo conditions in the Moab area on the Moab Photography Workshops blog. Be sure to check in often to learn real-time information about wildflower blooms, fall colors, interesting weather conditions, important national park updates and more. No other website provides this level of current and comprehensive information!
Location, Location, Location
Moab is the gateway town to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dead Horse Point State Park, and is surrounded by well over two million acres of high desert and alpine landscapes every bit as incredible as the scenery you'll find in the parks. The entrance to Arches NP is a 10 minute drive from town. Dead Horse Point SP and Canyonlands NP - Island in the Sky district are each a 45 minute drive from Moab. Allow extra time to reach your chosen location as the times quoted are only to the park entrance. Canyonlands NP is divided into three districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and The Maze. Most photographers who base out of Moab do so to visit the Island in the Sky district.
Where and what should you photograph around Moab? That's way beyond the scope of this article. Here are a few resources Bret recommends to help you discover the best spots to photograph in the Moab area (these are all clickable links).
Photographing the Southwest - Volume 1: Southern Utah, by Laurent Martres
Be sure to check out Bret's images in the following online galleries as they may be a source of inspiration as you search for locations to photograph.
Alternatively, you can hire Bret for a half or full-day private photography workshop in the Moab area. Bret will personally guide you to some of Moab's most spectacular locations and will tailor the workshop to your own personal interests and abilities.
The Best Light for Photography in Moab is...Any Light!
Obviously, the sweetest light is typically sunrise and sunset, when textures and details in the landscape are revealed by warm, low-angled sunlight. However, photographers who limit their work to morning and afternoon are really missing out on all that Moab has to offer.
Keep your eyes open for reflected light - that is light that strikes one feature and then bounces onto adjacent rock. This light is most commonly associated with slot canyons such as Antelope Canyon but it's also prevalent in Moab. A classic example in the Moab area is Mesa Arch - the glow on the underside of the arch is created when sunlight bounces off the red rock cliff below the arch.
Some of Bret's favorite light occurs during a storm, when shafts of sunlight poke through angry clouds to illuminate various features in the landscape. This type of light adds tremendous depth to a scene and it only occurs when storm clouds fill the sky, which adds even more interest to nearly any scene.
Most landscape photographers complain about overcast skies. Don't be that guy/gal! These skies can be fantastic for black and white work and they're perfect for type of macro photography as the soft, diffused light is low contrast and allows your camera to capture the full range of tones in an intimate scene.
What about no light? Yep, night sky photography is hugely popular in Moab and for good reason; there is so little light pollution that on any given night the Milky Way is easily seen with the naked eye. Whether you enjoy light painting, star trails or star points - Moab is a perfect place for night sky photography.
What Gear Should I Bring?
There is such great diversity in the Moab landscapes that you are likely to find a use for nearly any lens with the exception of specialty lenses over 300mm in focal length - unless you enjoy wildlife photography. The La Sal Mountains support a huge population of black bears, elk and deer. There are also a few mountain goats in the higher elevations, as well as bobcats and mountain lions that range from the desert to the peaks.
Bret uses Sony equipment, currently the A7II camera body and 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4 lenses. He considers the 24-70mm lens to be the workhorse, with the 16-35mm lens in a close second and the 70-200mm lens a distant third. There are plenty of opportunities in the area to use longer focal lengths up to 300mm, especially in autumn when intimate landscapes abound.
Don't try to shave weight by not bringing a tripod. You WILL need it. Bret uses Induro carbon fiber tripods with Acratech ballheads. This setup is lightweight (4 pounds) but very stable and reliable. You don't have to spend a lot of money to acquire a good quality tripod and ballhead, but you can. As a rule, the more money you spend the less the tripod will weigh.
You'll need a comfortable backpack in which to carry all your photography gear. There are a few roadside photo opportunities but the vast majority of them require some hiking so come prepared to carry your gear in a backpack. Bret uses an f-stop gear Tilopa BC backpack, which is purpose made for landscape and adventure photographers.
A word about filters: the only filters Bret carries are a circular polarizer and a solid neutral density filter. If you use a circular polarizer for your wide-angle grand landscapes, beware that overusing it can result in skies that are unnaturally dark blue with a strange gradient through the sky. Bret recommends that you use polarizers at no more than 1/4 power for best effect. Solid neutral density filters can be used to create some interesting effects during long exposure photography including blurred water or streaked clouds. A 3 stop soft-step graduated neutral density filter can help to lower the dynamic range of a scene though Bret stopped using them in favor of hand-blending multiple exposures in Photoshop.
Other gear you'll need: extra batteries and memory cards, battery chargers, a sensor dust cleaning kit, remote shutter release and a microfiber cloth.
Where Should I Stay, Where Should I Eat and What Else Should I Know About Moab?
There are many hotel and restaurant options in the Moab area. To learn which businesses Bret recommends, as well as where to rent a car or Jeep and where to find additional information from various tourist websites, please visit our Resources page.