Photographing Monument Valley
I made a long-planned photography trip to Northern Arizona and planned for two days at Monument Valley. Some research convinced me that Tom Phillips’ tour business, Keyah Hozhoni, was ideal for me. (Note: they are also known as Tom Phillips Photography, after the late Tom Phillips, who established the company.) About a month in advance I confirmed with Carlos, one of the owners, that I could do a sunset tour on one day and a sunrise tour the next morning. A couple of days prior to my arrival I emailed and confirmed. (I would have been happy to have paid a deposit, but they did not request one.)
I arrived at the View Hotel at 1:00 PM and met Ray Begay, Tom Phillips' nephew and my guide. It was just the two of us and we set out for the sunset tour. (It being December, sunset comes early). Ray drove me around the 17-mile loop, but took me into restricted areas that only Navajo guides and local residents are allowed to enter. Ray knows photography and has guided some well-known photographers, so he not only gets you to places, he makes suggestions about composition and exposure. He’s also very friendly and open and will educate you about the Navajo tribe, Monument Valley, and anything else you ask him. He was a great guide: patient, helpful and good at keeping us on schedule so we could make the most of the tour. The next morning, three others joined us at 5:45 AM for the sunrise tour and he drove us around the park for ideal shots of the sunrise and the morning sun lighting up the buttes and rocks.
I don’t recommend driving the 17 mile loop in your vehicle unless it’s a high clearance 4WD vehicle and you’re willing to take the chance of damage. It’s physically demanding to drive, as you’re dealing with potholes, rocks, and very rough road, and it will take your full concentration, which means you can’t enjoy the scenery until you stop. One wrong move (especially in the dark) and you can have real problems. (Update: when I returned in 2016 the road had been improved, but it was still pretty rough.) Moreover, some of the best views are available only from restricted areas where only a guide can take you. Finally, you can't access the area before sunrise or after sunset without a guide.
If you’re serious about photography I strongly recommend that you call Ray. Any money you save will quickly disappear if you damage your personal or rental car (which are not approved for off-road use by rental agencies.) You’ll also learn about the people, the Navajo culture and the history of the Monument Valley, something you won’t get on your own. Finally, you're supporting the Navajo tribe. Altogether, it’s a full experience. And, if you break down the cost per hour ($250/8 hours + a well-deserved 20% tip), it's really no more expensive than most of the non-photography tours and you'll come home with images you'll treasure. So, if you're serious about your photography, go for the tour.
Tips for Winter
• Take a tripod and remote. You’ll be shooting some long exposures.
• Take an extra camera battery and keep it warm in your pocket.
• A polarizer is a good to have to deal with the glare off the sand.
• I suggest at least one wide-angle lens and one mid-range zoom. I shot with a 12-24mm and 18-140mm (DX format).
• Dress warmly in winter. It was 17º when I was shooting before sunrise and it gets cold quickly after the sun goes down and if the wind come up. Top and bottom thermals and heavy socks are a good idea.
• I also recommend good hiking boots. You'll be doing some climbing and hiking and the sandstone can be tricky.
• The altitude (5,000-6,000 feet) will tax you a bit, but it's not that strenuous.
• Take a bottle of water and some snacks. You’re going to be burning the calories.
• Tom Phillips Tours can be reached directly at (928) 429-0042 or by email. I recommend you contact them with questions and to arrange a tour.
I recommend the Wetherill Inn in Kayenta for lodging. I’ve stayed there twice and had a good experience. The restaurant at the View Hotel is excellent for breakfast and lunch; I did not have dinner there.