There are special locations that spark the imagination of photographers. It may be Jokulsarlon Lagoon in Iceland where 1000 year old icebergs break off from Breidamerkurjokull Glacier and slowly float their way out to the Atlantic ocean. Then in multi-shades of blue the ice monoliths return in smaller form onto black lava sand of Diamond Beach to glow as gems in the morning sun. Or perhaps it is the clear blue Greek waters of the Santorini caldera in contrast against the fresh white washed buildings hanging onto the side of cliffs. Monument Valley is another wonderful destination offering memorable photo opportunities.
The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is a gem of the American Southwest. At just under 30 square miles in size, it is a small portion of Navajo nation, but to the Navajo it is the heart of the earth. It’s massive sandstone buttes raise uplifting arms to the sky. Their shades of red and orange created by iron oxide and manganese oxide gently compliment the colors of desert sunrise and sunset.
For a small fee tourists can drive the 17 mile dusty public road to view the majestic beauty of the valley. For photographers there are so many more compelling sites outside the tourist loop. To discover these possibilities Navajo guides are necessary. They understand the valley and how to move through its challenging roads.
It is difficult to give full dimension to the sketchy old mining non-road rising to the top of Hunts Mesa which overlooks the Valley. This Mesa has a spectacular vista, but the view is only half the story. Our talented Navajo driver, Carlos Phillips, expertly modulated the gas pedal through sand drifts, anticipated and executed hairpin turns, patiently crawled across deeply veined sandstone, reversed at the same speed as forward on sandy trails to make second efforts to crest sand dunes and climbed sheer rock faces up and down this “road” to reach the top. It was the performance of a Formula One driver in another realm. In addition, Carlos has a strong grasp of photography angles, lighting and would even suggest compositions.
I had memories of a previous visit when I registered for the Phase One Monument Valley workshop. This new opportunity offered four days with Navajo guides into the back country in addition to access to the Phase One XT camera. The workshop was led by Peter Boehringer. Peter is a true renaissance man possessing high level skills in a variety of areas. Not only an excellent photographer, he has wide knowledge of remote areas in the American southwest and is an expert with the amazing Phase One XT camera. He freely shares his knowledge.
The Phase One XT camera is uniquely designed for the landscape photographer. It is built around a narrow frame that permits some swings and tilts. The frame also allows easy rotation of the back from vertical to horizontal orientation. This eliminates the need for an L-plate tripod mount. To the front frame are attached precision Rodenstock lenses with electro magnetic shutters. The lens and frame have the polished mechanical feel of a traditional Leica film camera.
The genius of the camera lies in the massive processing power of the IQ4 150 megapixel back. It offers three special features that are especially advantageous in the field. In Auto Frame Averaging mode the camera can capture up to 6880 exposures and average results into a single exposure. For example in an actual location, a photographer could set the XT camera on a tripod with a view of the Glass Pyramid at the Louve Museum in Paris, record images for a few minutes and the milling crowds of people would disappear leaving a perfect architectural photograph. Or perhaps record a series of exposures with a Monument Valley vista for several minutes. The sandstone spires would be defined by clouds merged into a smooth flow. Auto Frame Averaging makes neutral density filters an optional accessory.
The Exposure Zone preview function presents a visual display of the photographed image recreated in bright color bands. This representation of the 1-255 tonal range scale gives more vivid feedback of the captured image than the common camera histogram. You can see brightness reflected from the actual photographed scene.
Dual Exposure+ is an exposure mode that quickly records two images. The proper exposure is made to protect the highlights and the back quickly records a second exposure approximately three stops longer. These two images are combined in the IQ4 back into a single file that is read by Capture One processing software. Highlights are perfect and shadows can be opened for much more detail. This feature gives the XT a full 18 stop dynamic range.
It is often said that more megapixels increases resolution. This is a bit misleading in actual application. Resolution comes from the individual pixels. They are the location where light waves from the lens meet the sensor to begin their new life as computer data. It is the location of color registration, tonality and sharpness. This is where the IQ4 back excels. The creamy transition of colors and tonal acuity begin here. The pixels produce elegant crispness. This miracle in data processing translates into excellent quality prints.
A high megapixel count provides additional photo information that is useful in processing images. The data can be used in three ways. Prints can be made at the higher resident printer resolution (720 dots per inch Epson and 600 dots per inch Canon & HP). Resident printer resolution will produce a slightly crisper print. Additional photo data allows for dramatic cropping of images. Or if you choose to print 20 x 30” or larger, the process of building the image file will need less development.
Using a little imagination, consider the digital print as a large grid of pixels that is structured by print size and dots per inch. A 12 x 18” print at 300 dpi is actually 20 megapixels in size. This is less than 15% of the output of the Phase One XT camera, but even in a small size those individual pixels retain their wonderful acuity and resolution. It may be easy to reach a conclusion that 150 megapixels is overkill and wasted, but their beauty is visibly transparent in every print.
Four days in Monument Valley was a unique kind of education. Some learning is easy to translate and other pieces are an intangible a sense of presence. Monument Valley holds many secrets and patience is required to discover even a small portion. Soft-spoken, immensely talented Navajo guides are reservoirs of information and will help. But there is also a spiritual aspect to the magnificent spires reaching to the sky. If you are very quiet at night the ancients speak into the wind. The native people understand. I only took a few photographs to share, but the experience of Monument Valley has added new dimension to my life.
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