Top 5 Ritual Photo Shoots of the American Southwest


Any photographer who has visited the American Southwest will very likely have photographed one of the locations mentioned in this post.

While some will argue that other locations deserve a place in this list, I think these could reasonably be said to represent five of the most popular photo locations/events of the region. I say “events” because some of these shots are time specific: autumn (fall), to be precise.

Why “ritual” photo shoots? Others would call them ‘icons’. You might even call them ‘photographic circuses’. Whatever you call them, one thing is for sure – you won’t have the place to yourself. I think of these as “rituals”: you show up, often more than once, year after year, usually following the same routine (time of day, journey, parking location, hike) to see a sight you’ve probably seen before, and which thousands upon thousands have previously photographed.

Many writers ask aloud why anyone bothers when any images you shoot only reproduce what has been shot so frequently before.

I don’t see it that way.

For one, these locations are famous for a reason. They represent some of the most stunning views and scenery anywhere on the planet. At the right time of year and in the right conditions, the light can be breathtaking. Every lover of the outdoors will appreciate the chance to see them first hand. Like the student pianist who aspires to play a piece by Chopin, every photographer aspires to capture their own take on these scenes. (And every professional photographer can be sure to sell prints of their photographs too.)

Sure, if your time for photography and travel is unconstrained, and freshness and creativity are paramount, then look elsewhere. But for the rest of us, set your guilt aside and enjoy some photographic rituals!

Elbows at dawn: Mesa Arch

Sharpen your elbows for this one! Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah is a dawn shot in front of a spectacular sandstone arch. The light of the rising sun bounces up the wall beneath the arch, under-lighting it spectacularly as it frames the La Sal mountains to the east. This is pretty much a year round location, although you won’t get the best of the light when the sun is rising behind the La Sal’s. When there’s snow on the ground in winter, things look at their very best.

There is room for only around 15-20 photographers in front of the arch (and even that is a squeeze), so this one is a case of get there early and play nice with your neighbours!

The Amphitheatre: Delicate Arch

As you can see from the photo at the top of the page, there is a natural amphitheatre in front of Delicate Arch that comfortably seats over 100 photographers (there were at least that many there the day we visited).

The same La Sal mountains as seen from Mesa Arch can be framed by Delicate Arch at sunset, but you’ll need to get there early to get one of the few places that line up for that particular angle. The sun is probably best aligned with the arch around March/April or September. Too far into the summer and the sun is setting behind higher ground, so you lose the light earlier, plus you’ll roast in the desert sun while you wait.

Limited Parking: Oxbow Bend

Oxbow Bend, on the Snake River just south of Yellowstone National Park, lies right off the main road, Route 89. There’s a turnout with limited parking available. This view is beautiful year round, but is particularly popular in late September when the leaves are turning. Best to shoot here in the morning with the light directed at Mount Moran.

Safe Working Load: The Watchman

Where the Zion Scenic Road crosses the Virgin River, there is a bridge. I doubt the designers of this bridge ever envisaged it supporting such a high load of pedestrian traffic on the south side. Nonetheless, at sunset, the crowds of photographers gather, particularly around late October and early November, to try to capture the last light on dramatic formation called The Watchman.

A Migration to Aspen: The Maroon Bells

As surely as the wildebeest cross the Serengeti, photographers gather in herds at Maroon Lake in late September to capture Colorado’s most famous view. While the view is familiar, the conditions – and the success of a photograph – vary significantly. Finding the perfect combination of turning leaves, clouds, light and some snow on the peaks, and, mostly importantly, a calm lake, is tricky and far from assured. That’s one of the reasons I’ve gone back for the past few years.

In addition, you’re assured a sociable morning with many other photographers visiting from all parts of the US and overseas.

There’s room for many, so don’t hesitate to visit, but get there early for parking!