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Photography At Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest just might be one of the most challenging national parks if you're looking to take home a great photograph.

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The Painted Desert is a vast landscape. Do you shoot from an overlook, or venture down into it? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Part of the problem is that there are no trees -- well, not alive and upright -- that can provide shade that moves throughout the day and helps add contrast to the sun's relentless position overhead. As a result, the sun has a tendency to wash everything out.


The other aspect you have to deal with is the park closes at night. The times differ throughout the year, depending on the season, but generally the park is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the height of the summer season. You can find the exact hours throughout the year at this page.

How can you get around these issues?

Scout out your locations in advance so you'll know when best to be in place for that spectacular photograph you want to capture. And with the colorful petrified logs and slabs, and the wonderfully tinted badlands, there are some great photographs to capture.

Of course, that will require you to spend more than one day visiting the park: One day for scouting, the next for shooting.

While scouting, you need to keep in mind the image you want to capture. Is it sunrise glinting off the badlands of Blue Mesa, the afternoon sun torching the stony trunks in the Crystal Forest, or either sunrise or sunset illuminating off Agate House?

Of course, you'll be confronted by one other problem to keep in mind while shooting pictures: your shadow.


"The greatest challenge for me when photographing in Petrified Forest is fighting my own shadow. Since everything is at knee-height or lower, it's hard to follow the basic tenet of photography that you should keep the sun at your back in order to get the bluest skies and best warmth," says Ian Shive, author of The National Parks, Our American Landscape, and creator of Field Guide, Tips for Photographing The American Wilderness, an iPad app.

"If you do that in the Petrified Forest, you'll cast long shadows on your subject, even if you crawl along the ground like I often do. For me, the best photography has come in the cool light of the evening, just after the sun goes down or just before it comes up," he adds. "That's when the pastel colors of the desert sky reflect on the unusual colors and formations in a subtle but wonderful way. I still keep the area where the sun used to be somewhat at my back but now I don't have to worry about fighting my own shadow. Of course when I do this - I always use a tripod and max out my depth of field since I typically have foreground elements that are close to the camera."


One photographer, determined to get a shot of a trunk of petrified wood held up by a pedestal of soil, decided he wanted a sunrise shot. So near day's end, he set up his camera on a tripod in front of the scene, and headed back to his motel, his gear left behind. The next morning he was one of the first into the park and got his shot. 

Now, I probably wouldn't leave an expensive camera behind while I headed out of the park. But since Petrified Forest closes at day's end, and he was in an area not usually open to the public, he figured no one would grab his gear. And no one did.

I've found Blue Mesa is a great spot for morning photography, as the colorful hills both reflect and absorb the soft light, while the petrified wood here carries golden hues that seem to awaken with the sunrise.

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Often you'll need to get down near the ground and upclose for colorful shots in the park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Crystal Forest would seem to be best photographed late in the afternoon, when the sun's setting rays bring out the most of the reds and whites in the stone.

Agate House would probably best be shot either early or late in the day, ditto with the trail through the Giant Logs are behind the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center.

Jasper Forest is difficult to shoot any time of day, as for now you're restricted to viewing the "forest" from an overlook high above it. 

While the Painted Desert might appeal to both early morning and late afternoon photography, I found it was best in the afternoon. The setting sun seemed to change the desert's colors by the minute almost as if they were in a Kaleidoscope. Keep that in mind when you're scouting out one of the overlooks to shoot from.

Or, be more adventurous, and head out on foot into the desert -- a trail leads down from the west side of the Painted Desert Inn -- and entirely change the perspective of your shots. Instead of shooting down onto the desert, you'll be shooting from within it.


Petrified Forest National Park

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide