Ah, the city. Filled with its hustle and bustle, its vibrance and energy that draw people from near and far. As our population centers continue to grow and thrive, it’s important to remember the great natural world that exists outside those concrete streets. Much like the people we care about, our appreciation and respect for nature grows the more we experience and interact with it. With that in mind, it’s good to remember that great adventures can be found right outside the city without having to drive for days on end.
As the road trip moves north through Arizona, we made a stop at the well known Superstition Mountains outside of Phoenix. Just a stone’s throw from the city, this Wilderness Area is filled with miles of forest roads, trails, and tales of lost gold mines. Explore enough nooks and crannies and you just might come across it!
Our goal was to find an overnight trip that offered great views from camp to practice landscape photography techniques, and wasn’t going to take all day to hike to. For those familiar with the area, the Weaver’s Needle is a classic local landmark. A spire rising from the surrounding valley, it offers hikers, climbers, and photographers great opportunities to practice their craft.
Following a few fun miles of dirt roads led us to parking at the Peralta Trailhead. From here you can shoot off on multiple trails leading to different valleys so it’s one to remember for the future. With camping and camera gear packed, and sunscreen slathered, we hopped on the namesake Peralta trail. Gradually rising past saguaro, prickly pear and barrel cactus, the trail works its way up to Fremont Pass.
Cresting the saddle of Fremont Pass we are given our first look at the stunning view of Weaver’s Needle we had come for. Even in the mid-afternoon sun this place looks great! Just down the other side of the pass are multiple campsites to choose from, each with a view that is sure to please.
With camp made and a snack in our bellies, it was time to head back up the pass in search of our sunset shot. Since a lot of great campsites also have sweet sunset locations nearby, I wanted to share some landscape photography tips with all of you that can be used on your next outing.
#1) Arrive Early and Stay Late
When that magic moment of sunset arrives and the colors are at their glorious peak, the last thing you want to be doing is scrambling to find the shot you want. I suggest arriving at your location at least 90 minutes to 2 hours before sunset is scheduled. There is a great app I use on my iPhone called Sun Seeker that not only tells me sunrise/sunset times for where I am, but it also shows you the arc of the sun through the sky on-screen as you point your phone at the surrounding landscape.
Use this time to wander around. Walk over to that tree or hilltop to see what the landscape looks like from over there. Finding variations helps to create more interesting and personal images, so let curiosity be your guide as you find the hidden gems of the area.
Once the sun drops, some folks tend to pack up and head out before things get completely dark. Remember to pack a headlamp and try staying until last light. The sky can do some unexpected things at the last moment, so just soak in the view for a few moments longer and enjoy the full transition into nighttime.
#2) Experiment with the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is the classic composition technique used by almost every photographer at some point. It is a surefire way to create images with a pleasing balance of elements. Imagine a tic tac toe board drawn over the viewfinder of your camera so that the lines are equally spaced in each direction. Try placing your subject over the intersections and along the lines in different ways. Run out of horizontal shots? Flip your camera and challenge yourself with vertical compositions to create variety.
#3) Add a Foreground Element
One thing I like to do as often as possible is to add a foreground element. Often times in landscape photography the subject is far away and without something to lead the viewer’s eye to it, the image can feel a bit static. In the case of this area, the foreground is a hillside with rocks, yucca, cacti and bushes. Get low or aim your camera lower to include some of these elements and watch how they draw your eye towards the main subject.
#4) Include a Person
Some people in the group will probably just be kicking back enjoying sunset while you are snapping photos, so this is a great opportunity to make them part of the scene. With a little guidance on where to sit/stand, including a person in the landscape gives you the chance to communicate scale in a different way. A person is also another great foreground element to add to the mix.
#5) Get Lucky
While you might exercise due diligence and tick off most of the above tips while taking sunset landscape photos, sometimes there’s an additional factor at play, and it’s the randomness of nature. A few clouds in the sky or a more interesting foreground can turn a flat sunset or sunrise into something more remarkable. Perhaps the takeaway from this last tip is that just like everything else you practice in life, the more often you do it, the more chances you will have for those elements of luck to turn in your favor, so keep shooting!
Johnny Roadtrip aka John Lloyd is a road tripping, desert-loving, outdoor photographer based in Boulder, Colorado. With a camera and a cup of coffee, John loves to explore the magic and wonder of the desert southwest, bringing back images and stories to inspire others to get out and create their own adventures.
Follow along on the journey on Instagram @johnnyroadtrip.