It's More Than Petroglyphs | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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Bring the Big One
On my last photo workshop to Petroglyph National Monument in March, we’d seen rock squirrels, jack rabbits and canyon wrens. But the longest lens I’d carried was a 100-300mm on a crop-sensor camera. That works when you’re shooting solo and can get close without spooking wildlife, but not when you’re with a group.

Dancing shaman, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Dancing shaman, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

So for my second spring petroglyph photo workshop, I toted along a 400mm lens on a crop-sensor body along with the 24-70mm on a full-frame camera.

I lead photo workshops in Piedras Marcadas because of the high quality of the petroglyphs there – about 5000 of them. Piedras also saw less damage from gunshots and other vandalism in the years before the Monument protected it. Don’t ask me why people needed to destroy the traces of those who came before. I don’t understand it, either.

But they did, and that’s why I direct park visitors to Boca Negra Canyon only if they’re really short on time. Boca Negra’s ‘glyphs have been pretty shot up over the years, likely because it’s an easily-accessible, concentrated area.

Find Out How to Shoot ‘Em
And I knew we’d be entering well after sunrise. Workshops earlier in the year are better because the sun rises later, closer to the 7:30 time I can get in to the visitor center to give a little history and a few tips for shooting the ‘glyphs before we get there. But even later in spring, you can still get good shots by tighter cropping to individual ‘glyphs and shooting angles to maximize contrast. There are no hard and fast rules for that – you just have to move around until you get what you need for a picture.

Yellow jacket ears and clan totems - Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Yellowjacket ears and clan totems

Favorite Petroglyphs and Wildlife
I have my favorites – frogs with tails, the jet aircraft on the rock, a clan mask with yellowjacket ears – and I lead participants to them.

Ancient jet aircraft - Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Ancient jet aircraft?

But there are usually a few things I don’t see that participants show everybody. This time, it was wildlife. We didn’t see any rock squirrels. But the jack rabbits were out in force, usually showing us their tails in the distance as they hopped away. I did have some luck with one who was a little slower than the others.

Rabbit ears - Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Rabbit ears

Wildflowers and rock - Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Wildflowers and rock

Spring wildflowers were starting to pop too. There were many opportunities for white blossoms against a background of dark basaltic rock.

Hog-nosed snake? - Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Hog-nosed snake?

Shoot for the Eyes
I’m not much of a herpetologist, but snakes’ behavior makes them interesting. Most of us are afraid of them, mainly from the rattlesnake’s reputation. Someone spotted a snake under a bunch of four-wing saltbush, and when I saw he lacked rattles, we moved closer. He kept moving as we approached. You’d probably be shy too if you crawled around on your belly, and saw these big, towering critters coming your way. Finally, he disappeared down a hole in front of the bush. It was hard to get a shot – wildlife don’t take direction very well – but I managed one usable picture. I had several where his head and eyes weren’t sharp, but viewers (and photo editors) always want to see sharp eyes.

We shot way past the time Moose Peterson’s voice in my head said, “The light’s getting pretty hard – it’s time to go.” But everyone came away with at least a few good shots, and with some spots to return to in better, early-morning light.

Shot Notes
I usually shoot in urban exclusion mode – use a long lens and crop tight in the camera to a single subject. Using the 400mm just accentuated this. I zoomed with my feet a lot to back up and get a little more coverage.

Blurred backgrounds aren’t usually my problem. I had to choose the focus point and carefully stop down for enough depth of field to get the entire ‘glyph sharp.

I had far fewer images shot with shorter focal lengths, not surpring when you’re shooting later in the morning and need to limit what’s in the picture to avoid blown hotspots and hard contrast.

More Information
Piedras Marcadas Canyon, accessed from
Note that there are ~5000 petroglyphs to see in the canyon, not just 400. This is a level, sandy trail, 1 1/2 miles round-trip.

Piedras Marcadas trail map, accessed from

Recent History of Petroglyph National Monument, accessed from

Snakes of New Mexico, accessed from