Escape to Twisted Slots - Tent Rocks | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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Every October, Albuquerque’s population almost triples for the International Balloon Fiesta, the city’s signature annual event. While it’s the main reason for most visits, the Fiesta doesn’t provide balloon events throughout each day. You end up doing something else at least during mid-day, and certainly all day if balloons aren’t flying due to high winds.

Swirled rock and delicate sky, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Swirled rock and delicate sky, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Some choose to break up the week’s balloon sessions with other travels. Within an hour or three, visitors can see 900-year-old cliff dwellings, even older hand-built 4-story Great Houses, petroglyphs from before the Spaniards got here, or views from a tram up a 10,000 foot high mountain. Or you could go see my favorite, a swirling slot canyon with ink-blot rock shapes several million years old. Two visitors chose a photo tour to do just that, letting me show them the best places for photography, and the history behind them.

How It Got Here
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks formed when pyroclastic flows from the Jemez Volcanic Field covered the underlying sand and sandstone. These strong 50-450 MPH flows push hot lava blocks, pumice, ash, pieces of the pre-existing country rock and anything else in their way. They’ll pummel the landscape with everything from hot gas and ash to house-sized boulders, at temperatures between 390° and 1300° F. You really don’t want to get in their way.


Tree, rocks and sky

When the last flow cooled about 1.25 million years ago, it left an uneven jumble of rock layers. Over the years, additional sediment was laid down and under pressure became new rock layers. In places, harder caprock protected the softer layers below, while those soft layers eroded away in other places. The modern result is a twisted, towering rock funhouse.

Pointing to the sky - Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument


Kasha-Katuwe means white cliffs in the local Puebloans’ Keresan language, and that’s what you see first. On the photo tour, we followed the cliffs northeast to the slot canyon. You’d never know it was there without the signs.

Tortured roots - Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Tortured roots

Alien Landscape
Once you’re in the canyon, you’ve entered another world. It looks like a giant dragged his fingernails across the stone, giving it that layered look. Or maybe someone took a blowtorch to a neat stack of flat rocks and melted them. Trees grow in the ever-narrowing space, making you wonder how the seeds would ever get there. The morning light gave opportunities for the shadowed trees framing brilliant cliffs and rock ‘tents’.

Narrow canyon

Tightening up

The canyon bottom finally narrows to the width of your shoe. Look up, and you’ll see banded rock twisting to the sky. We were lucky with weather – wispy clouds textured the sky.

Zoom blurs do work handheld at 1/30 second - Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Zoom blurs do work handheld at 1/30 second

Trees and Rock Bands
Given the distinct banding with vertical tree and rock shapes, I experimented with handheld zoom blurs. I reduced ISO to 100 and stopped the lens down to f/22 for the slowest 1/30 second shutter speed I could get, then zoomed in from 24mm. The range of zoomed focal lengths this gives is pretty inexact – the camera recorded 27mm for the best blur shot. I usually use a slower shutter speed for zoom blurs, but I’ll need a neutral density filter in bright daylight next time.

Melted rock and leading lines

Melted rock and leading lines

Over time, the shadow line marched lower and lower on the canyon walls. As this contrast ‘crutch’ went away, we instead used the rock lines to more subtly lead a viewer’s eye around the picture. There were lots of melted shapes and boulder ‘accidentals’ to entice your eye.

View from the top

View from the top

We started seeing Balloon Fiesta refugees after 8:30 or so. We broke out into the winding ascent to summit views by 10 am, when the trickle of people had turned into a torrent. Light was pretty harsh by 11 at the top, but clouds made horizon views quite shootable.

Twin tents with 'caps' on top

Twin tents with ‘caps’ on top

It was a game of crop out the people on the way back. Shooting high left me with v-bands of sky and no baseline features to anchor a viewer’s eye below. Still, the light and shapes had been outstanding. I knew the place would be deserted once again after Balloon Fiesta was over, but we managed some great shots working around the people.

'Diamond' shot design

Shot Notes
Never take unfamiliar gear into a shoot. Yeah, I know, that’s exactly what I did. When my EOS 5D mk IV got nose-switched into video live view, it seemed stuck there. Turns out there’s a ring switch around the mk IV’s start-stop button which locks the camera into video live-view mode. The 5D mk II I’ve used for the last 9 years lacks this ring switch, so it doesn’t ‘stick’. Thanks to participant Paul Karas for solving this for me – his 5D mk III has the same ring switch. You can always learn, no matter how experienced you think you are.

I’m very used to the EOS 5D mk II’s recording of highlights in raw CRS files. I was less sure of the 5D mk IV I was using. I also packed Leica’s 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar for wide coverage with a Leica M10, and I wasn’t sure how it recorded highlights or shadows in raw either. I bracketed (under) exposure to test. Turns out both cameras gave me some shots with blown highlights, so I’ll be underexposing more on my next slot canyon trip. That said, everyone captured some nice combination rock / sky textures in pixels.

Paul Karas shooting the rock

Paul Karas shooting the rock

The Leica M10 / 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar ASPH combination worked great, without the optical distortion and weight of my old EF 16-35mm f/2.8L v1 on a second 5D camera. I love it when my neck feels fine after a shoot.

More Information
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, retrieved from

Pyroclastic Flows, retrieved from