A glorious sunset greeted me as I pulled my rental car into McDowell Mountain Regional Park outside Scottsdale, Ariz. I approached a base camp that consisted of four plain canvas tents and a larger green one that served as camp kitchen. This no-frills settlement would be my home for the next four days, and it was uninhabited except for nine horses nearby.
I felt much farther than eight miles away from the nearest town. It was mid-March, and as I eased out of my car, the fading sun felt amazing on my Minnesota-dwelling, warmth-starved skin. I didn’t mind the soft breeze either. The air smelled like dust and wild flowers. I headed toward the horse pens. A few were near enough to the electric rope that I could stick out my hand and pet their noses. I remembered I had some carrots in the car.
As I turned to retrieve the horse treats, I heard a voice say “hello.” It was my fellow workshop participant Dave Bair, a 56-year-old retiree and budding semi-professional photographer from Sioux Falls, S.D. “Hi!” I responded, introducing myself and asking after the rest of the group. Bair informed me that once they were all back from dinner, there would be a total of seven humans and nine horses for our upcoming three-and-a-half-day venture.
I’d traveled to this spacious sandy landscape for a photography workshop, one that involved riding horses deep into the Sonoran Desert in search of beautiful scenery and memorable shots. The days would include riding lessons from experienced outfitter Bob Lantis and shooting tips from professional photographer Les Voorhis.
Voorhis is cofounder of Outdoor Photo Workshops, a company that leads some 30 workshops a year in locales as various as the Florida Everglades, South Dakota’s Badlands and Utah’s Canyon Country. The average cost isn’t cheap (around $2,000), but it generally includes photo instruction, meals, lodging and, in this case, riding lessons. Not all of the workshops involve horses, but they’re all adventurous. The Everglades outing, for instance, is led by experienced kayak and canoe guides, and the boats allow access to remote areas where photographers can get close to wildlife and scenery not accessible from roadways or hiking paths. (See “Get Snap Happy” below for a list of other photo adventures.)
Bair told me he had gotten into taking pictures a few years earlier and had been to a prior workshop with Voorhis in Wyoming. “My kids keep asking me when I’m going to get a job again,” he chuckled, before pulling out his phone to show me images he’d posted on his Facebook page. “But it’s more fun taking photos.”
I told my new friend that my skills and equipment paled in comparison, but I was hoping to take my Instagram obsession to a new level, gain a better understanding of lighting and composition, and try out my sister’s fancy digital single-lens reflex camera. I explained my love of all things DIY and that, as a social-media manager, I’d embraced phone, iPad and point-and-shoot options, which are great tools for capturing images and sharing them quickly.
“It’s not the camera; it’s the photographer,” Bair assured me.
I was about to learn that he was right.
Shooting in the Dark
An avid hiker, I typically pack a camera among my snacks, water and other gear. But never have I woken up at 5:30 a.m. for the sole purpose of finding a good location to shoot pictures of a sunrise.
On most mornings I got up and met Voorhis and Bair for sunrise-chasing sessions. We prepared our tripods and lenses in the dark with the help of glowing cyclopean headlamps, then drove around scouting vantage points. (I was grateful I remembered my headlamp, which was not on the recommended gear list. The rocky and sandy soil was tough to navigate in the dark.)
During our morning outings, Voorhis relayed tips on how tripods prevent camera shake and assist with better close-up photos. He also explained the phenomenon of taking so much time to set up equipment: “This is a photographer’s life, Heidi: Hurry up and wait.”
Once the equipment was ready it was time to seek out inspirational vantage points. Voorhis usually wandered one way and Bair another. One morning I strolled along the park road, looking at the brightening sky and admiring how it silhouetted the Superstition range rising in the distance. The reflections off the rocks, cacti and flora were so distracting that I hadn’t even thought about setting up my borrowed tripod, which was flopped over my shoulder. When I realized how quickly the light was changing, I hurried to position myself behind a shapely set of cacti. I stood there adjusting aperture settings and zoom and squeezed off a shot or two.
At that moment I understood one of Voorhis’s instructions: Always have your equipment ready to capture the changes in the light.
Back at the car, Voorhis enthusiastically asked if I’d gotten any good shots. “I don’t know. But, I hate this one,” I said, deleting it. “Never delete a photo in the field,” he said. “You can’t tell how well it’s turned out on the playback screen of your camera. You never know what a little tuning up in Photoshop can do.”
When I later opened my photos on my larger laptop screen, I appreciated his advice.
Because the name of the workshop was Scenery From the Saddle, I knew I’d spend time on horseback. I didn’t expect six- to eight-hour rides, however. An extreme novice, I found myself slightly intimidated by the equestrian rules of engagement. Still, our instructor, Bob Lantis, made the sometimes-arduous exercise fun.
The 78-year-old Lantis is a Johnny Cash song come to life. The picture of vitality on and off the trail, he spent evenings singing songs and reciting original cowboy poetry around the campfire for our group, which included Voorhis, Bair, and Dietmar and Trixie Panzer, a handsome couple who’d traveled from Dresden, Germany. During one of the several long treks Lantis led over the McDowell Mountain trails, he said that after a few days of this sort of riding, I would be able to “scare the heck out of anyone I ever rode with.” And after leading us on one particularly harrowing downhill plummet, he was beaming.
“I’m not very good at taking it easy,” he explained.
Before the rides, some made lunches while others brushed and outfitted the horses. Once we were set with tack and lunch, Lantis or his fellow wrangler, Josh Shoemaker, led us across rocky trails and washes. Shoemaker rode with a whip attached to his hip, Indiana Jones style, while Lantis never went anywhere without his six-shooter. “I need it in case we see any snakes.” (We didn’t see any rattlers, but heard a couple warning us of their presence. We made sure to keep our tents zipped at night.)
As we rode, Voorhis and Bair snapped pictures of the rugged, yet delicate, landscape. I mostly concentrated on staying on my horse. As I bobbed along on the back of the 22-year-old Tex (a beautiful specimen who’s still agile and strong), I spied jackrabbits jutting in and out of fields of saguaro, cholla and prickly pear. Flowers were in varying stages of bloom, providing a stunning juxtaposition to the menacing cactus needles that my borrowed chaps kept at bay. When we stopped for breaks and I found myself standing in poppy fields or near petroglyphs, I used what I learned from Voorhis about composition, lighting and aperture settings to bring the moment home.
Few things are as beautifully surprising as a desert in bloom, especially when viewed with a would-be photographer’s eye. Replacing hiking shoes with cowboy boots and trekking across the desert on horseback with a camera was a new way to experience one of my favorite places. Instead of simply appreciating the splendor of a poppy as it opened to greet the sun, I found myself interested in capturing how the light illuminated its orange petals.
When I reviewed my album of 260-plus digital images back home (fewer than my fellow travelers, but still a good number), I was happy with many of the shots and had fun enhancing them with my software. I’m not yet Dorothea Lange, but I rate a few photos among some of the best I’ve taken.
And as I clicked my mouse through each image, I still know that some of my favorite renderings from the workshop are the ones stored in my mind’s memory card.