While visiting family in Phoenix, Arizona, I decided to take a trek up to Sedona to capture the iconic rock formations during sunrise. This was one of those scenarios where thorough research and meticulous planning were essential to making it happen. From securing a vehicle to mapping out directions and ensuring an ample supply of good coffee, every detail had to be considered.

When I plan photo treks, I start with tools like the Photographer’s Ephemeris, which allows me to plot the best location based on the direction of the sun for the time of day I’ll be on site. When the subject is a famous location, I like to do a quick search to see images others are posting. This helps me avoid replicating compositions that thousands of others have already taken, allowing me to find a unique angle.

For this adventure, I set my sights on Cathedral Rock in Sedona. Most photos I found online were taken from the south, looking north as the sunrise illuminates the rock formations. To capture something different, I decided to hike in from the north, hoping to photograph the rock formation with the sun rising between the rocks.

After a nearly two-hour drive, I arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, giving me plenty of time to make the 30-minute hike to my target location and set up for the shot. The brisk 25°F temperature kept me moving at a steady pace, warming me as I hiked.

Cathedral rock Working pixOnce I reached the general area, I scouted for the best angle for my composition. Knowing I would be shooting directly into the sun, I planned a composite shot. I first took images of the rock formation in complete silhouette before the sun was in the perfect position. These would serve as a mask in Photoshop. Then, I captured several shots exposing for the rock formation and the frames exposing for the sunrise.

In the end, the sky didn’t yield the most breathtaking results, and the sun never quite appeared between the rocks where I hoped it might, but it was still one of the most beautiful mornings I have experienced on a photo trek. The location I chose was perfect—secluded and quiet. I didn’t see another person until an hour or so after sunrise. I had all of Cathedral Rock to myself.

Ansel Adams once said,

“Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” [1]

For me, this is the essence of being alone in nature, finding the perfect moment to capture its beauty. Being in nature, surrounded by nothing but the vast landscape, allows you to connect deeply with your surroundings and find value in the solitude. This experience at Cathedral Rock confirmed for me the importance of preparation, patience, and being present in the resulting tranquility.

[1] Source: Eric Peter Nash, Ansel Adams (1995). “Ansel Adams: The Spirit of Wild Places”, Todtri Book Pub.