Sun gradually releases Monument Valley "Mittens," from their sleep

Here comes the sun!

Photographers At Dawn
Early rising photographers anxiously await the sun.

My love of photography makes me get out of bed in the morning. Really.  I love photography and I think about it all day long. But for a non-morning person, photography can actually make me feel good about rising in the still-dark hours to go out and shoot pictures. Not just any pictures but early morning desert light photos. There is nothing like it.

Desert solitude is mind-clearing. Delicate light raises colors beyond subtle.

Dead Cedar tree with Mitten background
Subtle colors and gentle light quickly come and go during your morning desert sunrise.

Light gradually building, wrapping around ripples, sand, and rock. It’s soft. You need to be fast, though. It changes by the second.

Here’s my favorite recipe for early morning desert photography.

  • Get to your location at least 30 minutes prior to sunrise. For our October Monument Valley trip, dress for cold temps.
  • Make sure you have a sturdy tripod and a remote release method.
  • Wide-angle zoom lenses, preferably something ranging 24-70mm full-frame equivalent. Any lens, including 18-55 kit lenses, will work. Use 400mm full-frame equivalent or more for large solar disc renditions.

    Skies lighten with the sun's approach
    Brightening horizon signals the sun’s approach.
  • Check your camera body for fully charged battery and memory card with sufficient capacity for several hundred photos.
  • We’ll set up with Monument Valley’s iconic, “Mittens,” in your background. Look for something interesting like an ancient cedar or interesting rock formation in your foreground. We’ll start at the same settings for the “Totem Pole.” Lots of beautiful sand ripples and desert grasses here.
  • Set your camera on a lower ISO. I usually start out at 200. I set my lens at about 35mm full-frame equivalence. This is a game day choice depending on where our guides suggest starting. I also begin at f8 since depth of field plays an important part.

    Sun rising through early morning clouds
    Sunshine pries morning clouds from Monument Valley’s Totem Pole formation.
  • I suggest your intelligent metering mode so your camera can help out with high contrast scenes. Make sure you know where your exposure compensation control is and know how to use it. This is a great opportunity to work with bracketing and HDR too!


  • Set your autofocus to single point and single shot. You don’t want the camera telling you where it thinks you should focus. It might not be where you want. Realize depth of field extends both in front of your focus point as well as behind. Don’t be afraid to place your focus point a little farther into the scene than you otherwise might in order to maximize your focus field.

    Sunrises behind The Totem Pole & Ye Be Che spires
    Totem Pole sunrises are spectacular. Be there to capture yours.

Don’t forget to look around you as the scene lights up. Sometimes Monument Valley presents us with fantastic rock faces, interesting shadows and small vignettes having little to do with our sun’s dramatic entry.

Shoot ’til it hurts!

During our Monument Valley trip, October 24th-26th, we’ll have 2 great morning opportunities at various park locations offering you several opportunities for your perfect picture. Can’t wait to see you there.