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Grand Canyon style: Photographing Solo in the Desert
You, two cameras and a guide: all you need in the 'Wild West'

John F. Richnavsky

John F. Richnavsky

John F. Richnavsky

John F. Richnavsky

John F. Richnavsky

John F. Richnavsky, captures the beauty of the desert in the dry, windy environs of southern Utah and northern Arizona. But he wouldn't been able to accomplish it without his Native American guide who was able to take him to reservation land that is off-limits to the public. The journey restored his mind, body and spirit.

The journey takes planning and should not be done solo.Recently, Richnavsky returned from the desert to his full-time studio in Pittsburgh, Pa. where he also does weddings, events and portraits. He does a lot of traveling; he's involved in a lot of destination wedding venues. A globetrotter, Richnavsky has transversed the world, from the pyramids in Peru to depths of the Amazon. Yet, the splendor he found on this last trip out west proved that "you have not to look any farther than in your own country [America] to appreciate God's creativity," says Richnavsky. "He must have been a photographer to create these amazing vistas and caverns."

But the journey is not for the faint of heart. To get the shots, Richnavsky had to trek deep into canyons anywhere from 40 to 100 feet high. Sometimes he had to crawl to get through narrow passages to finally find an opening on the other side. Some of the rocks he discovered were once at the bottom of the ocean, and even have evidence of dinosaur tracks. "The more you walk into the canyon, the more you are impressed," he says.

Richnavsky's tips for desert photographing

Keep your eyes open
A slight movement to the right or left will give you a better perspective and composition. Remember low angles are quite impressive when shooting this type of geography or landscape. A rule that I learned years ago was "don't look at what you are seeing, see what you are looking at."

The desert has a lot of the same looking skylines and buttes, [so] remember to trust your guide and you will not have a problem.

A good guide
If you are going out west to do these photos, you must keep in mind, you are on many hundreds of square miles of Navajo Reservation and a high degree of respect is required. There are no second chances and you can be asked to leave.

So, enjoy your new neighbors and you will be friends forever. They respect this land and you should as well.

You will never get close to these locations without a guide and an Native American guide is preferable due to the fact that they know exactly where to go. There are no GPS units available to tell you to turn right at the next butte and make a left at the next tumble weed. There's no cell phone service out there, so you can't call AAA for directions. It is important to never go on these shoots alone.

You never know what you will encounter. From prairie dogs to coyotes, you are sure to see surprises. This is where you will depend on your guide. Currently, I am now working with my guide to do tours of all the places I have been, traveling in groups of four, so we can do hands-on workshops, from teaching camera techniques to experiencing the wild west. These will begin held in the summer and fall.

It doesn't get any better than this and you don't need a passport. Just a camera and a guide.

The next concerns are your shoes. Don't wear sneakers. Instead wear ankle-high leather boots, light in composition--a hiking boot, if you will. This is because you will be climbing rock, entering caves and hiking across the desert.

Next, and pretty obvious, is you'll need water and lots of it. There are no convenience stores within 50 miles, in most cases. High energy snacks such as trail mix or my favorite, Snicker Bars, are must-have provisions.

Meanwhile, since you are in the "wild west" you'll need a snake bite kit and a first aid kit as well as a hat, large handkerchiefs to protect you from the elements, sunblock, and some Lifesavers to keep your mouth wet.

Camera equipment
Instead of a standard equipment case, you'll have to buy a backpack. Buy one that will hold your equipment and water containers as well as all the lenses you will need--from a super-wide angle to a telephoto-- which you will use the most. As a Canon 1DS shooter, I like to bring my Canon 75-200mm f2.8 and 300mm lenses, along with two camera bodies, one with the wide-angle attached. This is so you don't have to change lenses in the desert when the wind is blowing. Sand is a killer to any digital camera. Extra batteries are also necessary and canned air for a dust off at night when you get back to your hotel. In addition, bring more digital cards than you will ever need.

Always shoot in the RAW format and try to shoot with the smallest aperture to get the best detail. While we are talking about equipment, leave your strobe at home, but don't forget to bring your tripod. Don't pack a little one that you will think you can get away with because it's light and easy to carry. You are in the rugged Wild West. There's no camera stores here-- just natives selling trinkets along the highway. Ask them for a tripod and you may get a necklace with matching cufflinks.

Bring your best "pod" because you will be in areas that you will have to adjust the legs to angles only a spider is used to. Sometimes, the best angle will be laying flat on the desert floor, shooting the way the prairie dog sees the world. You will be surprised by the results.

Time warp
Since many of the shooting locations are hours apart, you will need to leave time for traveling as well as for shooting. If you have a guide, like mine, who does all the driving and is a photographer, you can scroll through your images and sit there and say, 'Hey, look at this one, hey look at that one.' He can help you critique your work. Your guide will be familiar with the best times of the day to capture the strongest details.

The advantage of a good guide is he knows what you are looking for and won't waste your time with trivial locations. This is a real plus to any photographer trying to get the perfect image. Without this type of guide, you will never gain access to any of the real America, which you will enjoy for the rest of your life.

Finally, let's talk about patience. Don't be in a hurry. Take it all in. It may be some time until you see these types of views again. Just sit back pull the camera up and enjoy your passion.

For more information about Richnavsky or Western Adventures tour guides email , visit or call 412-922-5621.