The Colorado Plateau is a vast high desert covering parts of the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, spreading into western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southern and eastern Utah, and northern Arizona. Much of the Plateau’s landscape is comprised of red rock sandstone that has been eroded and sculpted by flash floods, leaving behind a diverse assortment of domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons. One of my favorite parts of the Plateau is found in south-central Utah, a sprawling no-man’s land nestled between Capital Reef and Canyonlands National Parks. Comprised mostly of uninhabited land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the landscape is perfect for independent exploration and discovery of unique photo compositions.
The scenery here is quite stunning, but what I love most about this area is that it doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Quite often, I’m the only person around for dozens of miles. These are the times I like to fly my drone, so I know I’m not disturbing anyone who is looking for some desert solitude. The drone allows me to find interesting perspectives, and to explore photo compositions that are new and unique. I’m especially attracted to the interplay of light and shadow on the twisted and dramatic landscape below.
I waited for the last light of day before taking this photo from above, incorporating the mesa’s shadow as an important part of the composition. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/4, 1/320 second.
The area is characterized by extensive and colorful clay badlands. I made this photo during a stunning sunrise. I positioned my drone so that the sunlit mesa was in the background and surrounded by towering storm clouds. I vertically panned the drone’s camera between exposures, and later stitched the shots into a single vertical image. This allowed me to use the long ridges as leading lines, which compels the viewer deeper into the composition.
I vertically panned the drone’s camera to take several exposures that I later stitched into a single vertical image. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/4, 1/80 second.
I made this self-portrait while exploring a beautiful slot canyon called Leprechaun Canyon. Slot canyons are best photographed on bright, sunny days. The sunlight makes the rocks at the top of the canyon glow brightly enough to act like giant reflectors, bouncing the light deeper into the canyon. This is what gives slot canyons their famous glow. I chose a wide-angle composition that used the erosion patterns of the canyon as leading lines, directing the viewer’s eye to the most colorful parts of the background.
I used my camera’s 10-second delay, triggering the shutter then running into position for the photo. Canon 5DSR, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/4 second.
I spent much of my time exploring and scouting for interesting scenery and powerful compositions. I discovered this interesting butte one afternoon, and decided to return the next morning at sunrise when the eastern face would catch the early morning light. Once the light was bright enough, I flew my drone into a position that pinned the sunlit butte against the shadowed background, and then I set my exposure to ensure that everything in shadow was rendered as pure black.
The contrast between light and shadow exceeded the dynamic range of my camera’s sensor, so I chose an exposure for the sunlit butte, letting the shadows fall into silhouette. DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/4, 1/1600 second.
I’m always looking for ways to show people something they haven’t seen before. The Colorado Plateau has a diversity of landscapes and plenty of off-the-beaten-path wild places, offering many opportunities for finding unique compositions and perspectives. It’s the kind of place that can make any photographer feel like a kid in a candy store!
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About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and co-founder of Shuttermonkeys.