I spend a lot of time in the desert, more specifically, in the badlands of the San Juan Basin. And, of the nine recognized badlands located there, I usually find myself wandering in either the Bisti Wilderness, or Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash. But, I want to step out of the box here and give a nod to the rest: the Ojito Wilderness, Mesa de Cuba, San Jose, Lybrook, Mesa Penistaja, Ceja Pelon, and De Na Zin.
What exactly is a badland? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills–usually used in plural. The pre-requisites for a badlands to form are a grouping of harder sedimentary deposits: sandstone, siltstone etc. suspended in a softer matrix. As the softer material is eroded away, the harder, more dense material is left exposed, often perched on pedestals of the soft matrix.
But, at times the harder deposits may just be scattered haphazardly across a playa or alluvial plain or they may be isolated and in unexpected angles of repose. The seemingly inexplicable arrangement of the features is part of the mystique of the badlands. How did they get here and why? The answer to that question could fill a Geology text, and I am not even remotely qualified to go there. I can say, with some authority however, that the photographic possibilities are as close to infinite that you can get.
As you can imagine, the creation of such an environment takes time…a lot of time. Mesa de Cuba, the youngest is 38-54 million years old. San Jose is 48-64 million years old, Lybrook, Ceja Pelon, and Penistaja are all 60-64 million years old, De Na Zin, along with Bisti and Ah Shi Sle Pah, is 70-75 million years old, and Ojito is the oldest at 144-150 million years old. Each of the aforementioned locations have their own personality, and each of them offer there own version of timeless beauty.
Color is an element that often takes center stage in the badlands. Depending on the mineral content of the soil, there may be layers of red, yellow, blue, or even green. Combine this palette with the other strange and, often, unexpected elements of the landscape and the other-worldly, remote locations become even more surreal.
Possibly the most noticeable feature of such environments are the many erosion channels and drying cracks that cut into the soft bentonite, and mudstone that form the matrices that support the entire system. When the light is right, they stand out in stark relief revealing an almost unimaginable complexity.
As I already pointed out, most of these locations are much smaller than their more famous big brothers: Bisti, and Ah Shi Sle Pah. But, what they lack in size, they make up for in their diversity and surreal beauty. When you add to that the knowledge that these environments have been so many eons in the making (that petrified log emerging from the side of that bentonite mound was a cypress tree in a Mesozoic swamp), and are ever evolving (those sandstone slabs you just walked over will be the caprocks of hoodoos in some distant, future landscape), exploring and photographing them becomes even more significant and mysterious.
Just as you can never step into the same river twice; because of their fragile, and ever-changing nature, you can never visit the same badlands twice.
Everyone knows you don’t shoot landscapes on an overcast day. The light is too flat to get any depth in your images. Right? One of the things I learned a long time ago is: Learn the rules, but take them with a grain of salt.
One tool that is available to those of us who dabble in the digital realm is HDR or High Dynamic Range for the uninitiated. Normally, if you expose for the highlights in a contrasty situation, the shadows will be blocked up with little or no detail in them, and vice-versa if you expose for the shadows. By making a number of exposures 1/2 to 1 stop apart, a photographer can then combine those images to expand the dynamic range of the photograph–the dynamic range is the spectrum of tonal variations from pure black to pure white that can be captured by a camera. Another effect that can be achieved by combining multiple images is a heightening of contrast in an otherwise flat image.
On a recent photo excursion to the Ojito Wilderness, I had occasion to test the efficacy of this technique. We had started out on a partly overcast day to hike and photograph in a part of the Ojito known as the Colored Bluffs. The closer we got to our destination, the heavier the overcast grew until it obliterated the sun and the nice puffy clouds that had been there a short time before. We began our walk hoping for some better conditions,
As we reached the top of the mesa, the entire landscape changed and we were rewarded with incredible vistas in every direction. The light was still flat, but the visual cornucopia before us made that seem almost irrelevant. Everywhere I looked, there was an image just waiting to be captured. So, I happily started shooting, all the while telling myself that I would have to return on a better day. I realized right away that I would need to blend exposures to get the most out of the images I was capturing. I bracketed five exposures for each scene I shot.
This first photo was taken near the point where we emerged from the wash on top of the mesa. The colors were more saturated because of the overcast, and this dilapidated fence line seemed to invite me into the canyon.
As we continued along the trail, we came across this small clump of rabbitbrush, which was juxtaposed against the colored bluffs in the background. The plant was a contrast in the stark landscape, but it also provided a harmonious counterpoint to the scene.
We were constantly aware of the overcast and the declining sun, but we couldn’t seem to turn back. We had the “let’s just see what’s over that next rise” syndrome. Finally, we came to a high place on the trail which was our “turn back no matter what” point. This is the view looking northwest with Cabezon visible on the far horizon. A fitting climax to a wonderful journey of discovery.
We slowly made our way back towards the parking area. This is the view looking west where the bike trail heads down off the top of the mesa. I was excited about the images and exhilarated by the possibilities this place holds. I also confirmed my belief that it is possible to make passable, or even great images on an overcast day. All of these photos were shot RAW with initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. They were then blended in Photomatix Pro using the Exposure Fusion tool, and final processing was done in Adobe Photoshop.
This is another image from my exploration of the north end of the Ojito Wilderness back in July. This little clump of cacti was nestled in a small cul-de-sac. The contrast between the green, growing vegetation and the hard, immutable rock is what piqued my interest in this scene. Add a dash of great atmospheric conditions, and voilà, a photograph!
This is a blend of three source images. The dynamic range was just beyond what could be captured in one exposure. When I exposed for the foreground, the clouds were blown out, so I bracketed three exposures. I did my initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, then used the Exposure Fusion tool in Photomatix Pro, and cleaned things up in Photoshop. This is pretty much my normal workflow in a situation like this.
Nikon D700, Nikkor 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen 3021 PRO tripod.
This image was made in the northwest corner of the Ojito Wilderness. I spotted this area while driving the back road to Cabezon. The next day a friend and I armed with cameras, tripods, backpacks, a GPS, and plenty of water set off in the general direction of what Robin calls the “yet to be reached mountain”. That would be the butte in the background of this image, and while we did not get there on this trip, it brought us to this wonderful place full of sandstone marvels that stopped us in our tracks. We spent the remainder of the evening exploring and photographing our new found fairyland.
I made this photo using my usual setup: Nikon D 700 with my 17-35 mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens and a circular polarizer mounted on my Bogen/Manfrotto 3021BPRO tripod. I set my aperture at f22 for maximum depth of field and ISO was set at 100. I bracketed five exposures and did my initial processing in Adobe Lightroom. I then blended four of the exposures using the Exposure Fusion feature in Photomatix. Final processing was done in Photoshop
This is another image from the Ojito Wilderness. I can’t seem to get enough of that place. The scenery is stunning and expansive. There are hoodoos, petroglyphs, dinosaur bones, fossils, and petrified trees. I’ve only explored a small corner of it; there are innumerable canyons ,mesas, and arroyos that beckon me each time I visit.
This location is not far off the main road. It is in the area known as Hoodoo Pines due to the numerous hoodoos and dwarf ponderosa pine trees that can be found there.
Equipment: Nikon D300, Nikon 17–35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 13, 1/80th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, saturation adjustments, and RAW conversion in Adobe Lightroom, curves in Photoshop.
These petroglyphs are the most extensive in the Ojito Wilderness. This is just one of several panels which are scattered along the edge of a mesa in the southeast corner of the wilderness. I had seen photographs of them, and heard about them, but research into their whereabouts was sketchy. It’s like an unwritten rule that you have to work a little to find them. That’s as it should be. When I stepped onto the ledge where they are inscribed, I felt a sense of accomplishment; I didn’t exactly stumble upon them, but no one showed me the way.
The petroglyphs are estimated to be about one thousand years old. I try to imagine an artist from that time using his tools to etch these stories into the rock. The landscape was probably not much different than it is today, and as I stood there looking out across the land to the west, I felt a connection to him. Through his drawings, I caught a glimpse of a fellow man long departed from this world.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikkor 17–35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 16, 1/20th sec., ISO 100
Processing: White balance, contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves and RAW conversion in Photoshop.
This image was made in the Ojitos Wilderness, which is less than a one hour drive from my front door. It is an extraordinary place: hoodoos, petroglyphs, incredible vistas, and a forest of dwarf Ponderosa Pines at the lowest altitude they can be found…anywhere. There is also an abundance of piñon and juniper trees. I found this juniper just begging to be photographed on our last hike in Ojitos.
We had passed it on the way into what’s called The Hoodoo Pines hike, and i made a couple of exposures, but the light wasn’t right. On our way out, the sun was low, and the light much better, so I made one more exposure, and this is the result. Sometimes being patient and waiting for the light to change can reward you with a much stronger image.
Equipment: Nikon D300, Nikkor 17–35 mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer, Bogen tripod.
Camera Settings: f 16, 1/80th sec., ISO 400
Processing: Contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, curves adjustment and RAW conversion in Photoshop.