The Story Behind The Image: Navajo Lake Utah

This is a new series where we talk about how we came to make some of our favourite images. We’ll concentrate less on the equipment and technique used and more on the how and why the image came to be.

This time, we’re looking at the story behind one of our favourite – and most unexpected – images: Navajo Lake, Utah.

Utah is, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular places we’ve visited. That’s something we say about of lot of places, but Utah is genuinely special. The whole state is just so pretty – it’s seriously difficult to come back from a visit with bad images!

However, for us, this led to two issues: Many of the sites we visited were already familiar to us – basically, we’d seen countless photos of them before and – this sounds awful to say – the place is so spectacular, and has so many incredible places in close proximity, that you sort of become desensitised to it all. So, whilst it’s difficult to come back with bad images, it’s also difficult to come back with something unexpected, out of the ordinary.

We’d had a great day: We’d driven to the Red Canyon Visitor Centre in the Dixie National Forest. We hiked the Thunder Mountain Trail, which took us deep into the surrounding hills and then drove further on towards Bryce Canyon National Park.

All the time, we were photographing and, as the day drew on, we knew we had some great images in the bag. That evening we would drive on to St. George before heading back to Las Vegas for our flight home. We had the route planned out, but glancing at the map, an alternative suggested itself: We could take route 14.

This would add extra distance to the journey, but it would also take us somewhere we had not been before. Also, tantalisingly, looking at the map, we saw sections of the 14 with tight turns and switch-backs. From our time in the Alps, we knew that suggested a mountain route.

You might think of Utah as a desert state, but this drive would present us with something different: The 14 rapidly started gaining height and soon we were amongst pine trees. What’s more, we started to see evidence of past volcanic activity – the forests were growing through what were clearly lava flows and volcanic debris fields. This was truly something unexpected!

The road was narrow, though, and there were no safe places to stop. Suddenly, a pull-in area emerged and without really discussing it, we stopped. Getting out of the car, we saw something truly remarkable that was invisible from the road: We were overlooking a deep, steep-sided valley with a sizable, narrow lake at the bottom.

The evening light was fast fading and, in blue-grey gloom the Autumn foliage on the trees on the distant opposite shore seemed to shine out of the darkness. We knew we’d have to work quickly to get the image: the light was fading from moment to moment. Instinctively, we knew what composition we wanted and what lens would be needed to achieve it.

We had the tripod and camera setup in a minute or two and had perhaps three or four minutes to work before the light went. We know in that moment that we had something special, another side of Utah, different to the obvious.

This story has an epilogue: often people will see us working and, likely noticing the professional gear, decide to take a picture of the same scene. We think this is quite funny. Whilst working on this image, another car pulled up and a couple jumped out and started photographing the same scene on their phones.

We were working with a high magnification 400mm lens to fill the frame with a distant detail. After a burst of photos, one of our new companions glanced at his phone and turned to the other: ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand why they’re photographing that.’