Why and How: Photographing Valley of the Gods in Utah

IIf on your next trip, you have the opportunity to travel to the southwestern region of the United States to photograph its wonderful landscapes, I advise you to take your camera equipment to a lesser known area: the Valley of the Gods in the state of Utah.

You will discover incredible mineral landscapes located in a desert area.

In this article, I share with you some creative ideas to enhance these red sandstone buttes.

Landscape in black and white of Valley of the Gods in Utah. Photography by Amar Guillen, Photographer Artist
Landscape in black and white of Valley of the Gods in Utah.

The Little Story Behind This Article

It is with the greatest stroke of luck that I came to know about the Valley of the Gods.

On a trip to the Valley of Fire in Nevada, while I was sitting in my camping chair waiting for clouds to form over a scene, a couple approached me. Nancy and Jack, who were American, had noticed me while they were hiking.

As is the tradition in these arid regions, they came to see if everything was going well for me. As is customary in the United States, they asked me how I was doing. I told them I was fine and explained that I was just waiting for the clouds to form in the scene I had chosen and for the light conditions to improve a little before I took my shot.

Naturally, the conversation flowed. We talked for over an hour about their favorite landscapes in the American Southwest. Nancy mentioned a place that particularly touched her. It was a valley in Utah, known as the Valley of the Gods.

I had never heard of it before. I recorded all the information on my voice recorder. Back at my hotel in the evening, I browsed the internet to discover this valley I had never heard of.

The photos were eloquent. I found similarities with Monument Valley in the formations, but even so, something seemed different. I experienced strong feelings of great curiosity. Through the pictures on my screen, I could only imagine the calm, quietness, and solemnity of the place. The strangest thing was that none of my photographer friends had told me about it. Perhaps they too were also unaware of this place?

I carefully recorded all the information I had gleaned in my travel journal.

It was only a year later, during a trip along I-40, which crosses the United States from coast to coast, that I finally chose to photograph the Valley of the Gods.

I will never forget my first steps on the glowing sunlit paths amidst the hovering clouds of dust. Indeed, this mysterious and strange place revealed to me the true meaning of the word silence.

A Few Words About Valley of the Gods

Before discussing how to photograph the Valley of the Gods, it seems important to me to give you a few facts that will encourage you to embark on your own adventure to photograph these mineral landscapes.

The Valley of the Gods is a golden nugget for landscape photographers. It is a very little-known place. Indeed, it is located an hour drive from the famous Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods lives in the shadow of its prestigious neighbors which capture all the tourists.

But in the end, it is a good thing that it is located close to the larger sites, because you will not meet few if any visitors at this smaller location, and thus you will never be disturbed during your photo sessions.

The Valley of the Gods is located quite far from the nearest towns and building. There is no souvenir store, no gas station, and no store to buy food. There is absolutely nothing. It is best to bring water and a full tank of gas before visiting the valley.

Unlike Monument Valley, which is managed by the Navajo tribe and includes strict rules for visiting hours and entrance fees, the Valley of the Gods is completely free of access. No entrance fee is required to take pictures. It is an enchanting landscape that is completely free to the public.

The Valley of the Gods is crossed by a trail of red gravel and dust. You must traverse it with a four-wheel drive car so that you can stop whenever you want to take pictures. The loops and bends of the track stretch out for 17 miles (27 kilometers) through a desert landscape populated with mesas, buttes, and mushroom formations. The dominant color of the Valley of the Gods is red. However, the most striking thing is the silence that hangs in the air around you. No noise. No birds. The only noise you will hear is that of your camera.

If you ever take a walk on the dusty paths in the Valley of the Gods, you will truly experience the heart of this wilderness far away from the deafening hustle and bustle of the urban cities. You will feel as if you are captured in a place where time stands still.

Why: Photographing the Valley of the Gods

In my opinion, the main reason to photograph Valley of the Gods is that you will be able to choose your scenes and your points of view as you want. You can go wherever you want as long as you respect nature and the environment.

Unlike its large neighbor Monument Valley, you can explore the entire area of Valley of the Gods without a special permit or use a guide who can take you to certain places.

This freedom will allow you to contemplate and construct the creation of your photographs. You will be able to add a juniper tree in the foreground if you wish. You will be able to walk to the foot of the Seven Sailors or the Rooster Butte or even the Castle Butte without having to ask yourself if it is allowed or not.

You will be able to create different nature photos of the great American west because you will choose your scene with precision. This is a definite advantage to avoid taking pictures that have already been taken.

Another advantage is that you can take your photos at the time you want. There is no entrance fee. Access is free. You can even camp in the valley as long as you do not make a campfire.

This freedom of movement and action allows you to choose the best lights for your photos. Since the Valley of Fire is rather flat, the low-angled lights in either morning or twilight are excellent.

These special moments of the mineral formations can be beautifully preserved in colorful photos.

To create black and white photos, it is better to wait for the clouds to appear. They will allow you to furnish your skies while highlighting the textures and structures of the sandstone formations.

Undoubtedly, the Valley of the Gods deserves at least two or three full days of your time to create unique landscape photos.

Some Pictures Of Valley of the Gods

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it.

How: Photographing the Valley of the Gods

First of all, as I mentioned in a previous paragraph, the track that will take you on the paths that snake around the mesas and mounds is very dusty and stony.

I recommend a four-wheel drive with a high clearance to avoid any mechanical incident.

As far as the photographic equipment is concerned, all lenses are possible: from 14 to 200mm.

With short focal lengths, you will be able to photograph the mesas and mounds from close up in order to account for their shape and size.

With medium focal lengths, you will be able to capture wider shots. You will be able to grasp an idea of the immensity of the scenery and landscapes.

I had the opportunity during some sessions when the weather was clear to see Monument Valley in the distance.

Personally, I am an avid user of the tripod and gradient filters. Indeed, using a tripod allows me to choose my point of view and make small changes without having to change places. As you will most likely be alone during your trip, you will not be bothered by any tourist who might bump into your tripod. Take advantage of it!

The best advice I can give you is to take your time in choosing your first plan. Just like in Monument Valley, many junipers grow in the valley. Highlight them in the foreground to illuminate a mound or a mesa in the background. Do not hesitate to do a reconnaissance at least once during one day and note the GPS coordinates of each scene you have selected for the next day.

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Showcasing the Valley of the Gods through Framing

Just as with the choice of photographic lenses, anything is possible when choosing how to highlight the landscapes of the Valley of the Gods.

The first frames that will come to mind are horizontal frames such as 3:1, 16:9 or 3:2.

But the Italian format (vertical) or square is quite possible for a detail or a close-up shot.

Take the time to think about your framing. Your imagination is powerful. Try to surprise your audience with daring framing that is out of the ordinary. Remember that you have time.

The Symbolism and Interpretation of the Valley of the Gods

As always in these mineral regions of the American Southwest, the landscapes evoke the freedom to move and the privilege of taking the time to stop the daily activities of life and simply reflect.

The Valley of the Gods evokes silence, tranquility, and the passing of time.

Symbolically, the scenes I photograph evoke the slowness of time, introspection, calmness and quietness. It is in this state of mind that I approached the creation of my art photographs of the region.

Photographing the Valley of the Gods, as far as I am concerned, is like photographing two doors of time. The first door represents the past, meaning all of the years in which the monument stood still as time progressed and before you and I existed. The second door is the one which opens up to all of the wonderful years that are coming in the future, and in which I will continue to fulfill my dreams. My hope for you is that you can one day experience the magic of this special place known as the Valley of the Gods.


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