Sedona! Truly a place that has nearly an unlimited number of spots to photograph the amazing landscape. Everywhere you look you can shoot something beautiful. But there lies the trick. How do you take a photo that is outstanding and unique to the area? Today's blog walks through my thoughts, tips and suggested locations on photographing Sedona, Arizona.
Almost anyone can take an amazing photo in Sedona. But how do you make it interesting and unique? There are largely two ways to do this.
First is to utilize weather such as taking advantage of the monsoon season (June to September) to get lightning and storm shots. Of course this is entirely based on the whims of Mother Nature so you may not have the opportunity.
The second is to ensure you always have a foreground element in your photo (see image to the right). Don’t take a picture of just the mountains from afar but find unique and interesting elements up close. Yucca plants, gnarly trees, water puddles in the rocks … anything that can create another element of interest in the photo. If you don’t know focus stacking then this is the time to learn it.
That said another challenge of Sedona is the crazy number of people. The peak seasons are the spring and fall months. I had the unfortunate timing of being there during President’s Day (a three-day weekend for some) and Valentine’s Day. So the town was inundated. Because of this the go-to spots for many were way to crowded and traffic around town (particularly Highway 179 was stacked). So it is best to go during the week or in the off-season.
But the benefit of Sedona is there are a number of places you can go to avoid the crowds if needed. So to start, here are some things worth doing if the crowds are light.
Take the Red Rock Scenic Byway (Highway 179 south of Sedona) – It’s a pretty drive but not a lot of places to stop unless you park at a trail parking lot which can sometimes get full. This is something I would do mid-day as it doesn’t work well for photography unless you are hiking a trail.
Take the Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive (Highway 89A north of Sedona) – Same as the Red Rock Scenic Byway I would do this when less crowded and maybe even midday though you can get down into the Canyon and work some unique light.
Schnebly Hill Road – Another pretty drive but requires 4-wheel drive to access all of it. It gives you a high vista view of the area and could be nice late in the day.
Red Rock Crossing – This is the one place I think is worth fighting the crowds. The grounds on the northside of the river are a part of the Red Rock Crossing State Park which closes at sunset so no late photo shoots. But you can park on the south side of the river and traverse the two-mile long area. There are numerous spots to photograph Cathedral Rock. Because it is a state park there are also bathrooms onsite. I would come to this location in late afternoon for the best light.
Secret Slickrock Trail – This is also within the Red Rock Crossing State Park and offers great views of Cathedral Rock. The rock face the trail ends on has low spots that collect water when it rains. I would definitely visit this place if there was a recent shower. I would come to this location in late afternoon for the best light.
Devils Bridge Trail – The trail is a 4.2 mile out and back trail that leads you to a beautiful natural sandstone arch. Unfortunately, it is the iconic Instagram spot and will be covered in people. Frankly I would avoid this area. The atypical shot is towards the north so this is probably best in mid-morning or midafternoon.
Airport Mesa/Loop Trail – If you are in a pinch and need a quick spot for sunsets, the Airport Mesa is a good location. The only downside is it largely overlooks the valley the town is in so you are not completely free of civilization in your photo. But the view is nice and it has a large parking lot.
Hike the Trails – There are hundreds of trails. Some of the popular ones include: West Fork Oak Creek Trail, Down Mountain Trail, Cathedral Rock Trail, and Fay Canyon Trail. Any of these are a treat for a photographer and honestly some of the best ways to get great and unique images.
Chapel of the Holy Cross – A quick jaunt if you are taking the Red Rock Scenic Byway. Best time to shoot it is mid to late afternoon.
But what if it is crowded … Then I suggest some of these options:
Red Rock Loop Road – This one can still get crowded but not as bad as the other areas. This loop has several pullovers and offers an excellent view of the mountains. It is a great drive and one I would do for the late afternoon light and sunset. Lover’s Knoll is probably my favorite overlook on the drive due to this gnarly old tree at the overlook.
Red Rock State Park – First note this is not the same park as Crossing Rocks (something I didn’t realize until I got there). The park is a bit further from the mountains and Cathedral Rock but if you bring a longer lens you can still find some excellent spots and the crowds are significantly less. Javelina Trail is a good trail within this park.
Thunder Mountain Trailhead – Great sunset spot. The trail is about 25-minute hike to the top of Little Sugarloaf Mountain. It requires a bit of scrambling up the rocks and you need to be in somewhat good shape, but it isn’t that intense particularly if you give yourself more time. I would aim to arrive at the top more than an hour before sunset as the best time to shoot is around an hour before sunset due to the shadows hitting the hills as the sun goes down.
Palatki Heritage Region – Two spots are out here worth noting. One is Red Canyon Overlook which has a great view of the mountains to the north. The other is off of Loy Butte Road around a the following coordinates 34°55'30.1"N and 111°55'02.9"W. This puts you up close to the mountains and I suggest this area late in the afternoon. Plus Forest Service 152C Road and Loy Butte Road are a beautiful drive, very few people, and have lots of places to stop and take photos.
Starry Night Photography – It gets dark enough in the area to get some beautiful night photography.
And if you want to grab a bite to eat or visit some impressive galleries (including some excellent photography galleries), visit the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village in the center of town.
Final notes … going off trail in some areas is illegal so be aware of what you can do. Also note that sunset is about 30 minutes earlier than normal due to the mountains to the west. And if you don’t want to mess with all of this, there are a number of local photo workshops available that you can find by googling.
Lastly, don’t forget that there are numerous other excellent photo locations around that part of Arizona.