Behind the Shot: Caineville Badlands, Utah

In the past, I’ve written and spoken a lot about how planning for landscape photography requires a lot of scouting, and patience. During a recent photo trip to the desert of the American Southwest, I put all three to work while photographing the dramatic badlands found around Caineville, Utah.

I started by pouring over satellite maps, looking for interesting landforms to photograph. I was especially interested in doing some drone photography, so I was looking for patterns and colors that would be revealed from above. I quickly became attracted to several towering mesas surrounding the small town of Caineville, creating sprawling badlands that the locals refer to as the “moonscape area.” Excited by the possibilities, I hopped in my car and started a 20-hour drive to this area!

When I arrived, I began scouting using my vehicle and on foot. Although I was looking for aerial compositions, I was able to provisionally judge the potential of an area from the ground. I spent over a week exploring and photographing this alien landscape, hoping for some incredible light and color at sunrise and sunset. During that time, I got some favorable weather conditions, leading to several chances to make photographs with great light.

My first opportunity came at sunrise after clouds had rolled in overnight. The entire sky was overcast, except for a narrow sliver on the eastern horizon. Although the clouds didn’t catch any color, for a few minutes the rising sun bathed the landscape in a brilliant yellow light. I had good light on the landscape, and interesting clouds, but I didn’t get the color in the sky I was hoping for.

Even though I was shooting aerials, I looked for dramatic landscape features to use as a leading foreground. DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/30 second.

Clouds persisted throughout the day, and sunset looked like it was going to be dreary. Luckily, a patch in the western sky suddenly appeared, so I launched my drone and began looking for interesting compositions. The sky turned pink and purple as the sunset progressed into twilight, just as I got my drone into position over a place I had previously scouted by air. I started shooting as the sunset color peaked, experimenting with several different compositions until the color disappeared. The color in the sky was really nice, but the light on the landscape wasn’t particularly strong. The result is a perfectly nice photo, but I was aiming for something more compelling.

For this composition, I chose a foreground with a subtle progression of visual elements from near to far. DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/30 second.

The clouds continued to build overnight, and it got very cold. The next morning was well below freezing, so I knew it was going to be tough to fly my drone. But, once again, there was a gap in the clouds on the eastern horizon, so I launched the drone, hoping that my fingers wouldn’t freeze too much while operating the remote controller. It’s a good thing that I did: all of my planning, scouting, and patience finally paid off, and I was rewarded with a spectacular sunrise. The clouds in all directions lit up with brilliant color, which was in turn reflected down onto the alien landscape below, painting the scene with a surreal palette. After many days of exploration and experimentation, and several sessions with colorful light, I finally had the photo I had been hoping for all along.

Finally: color, composition, and light all came together perfectly! DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, ISO 320, f/2.8, 1/20 second.

Although luck is obviously an important variable when making landscape photos, fortune favors those who plan, and the more time you spend in the field, the better your chances are that some good luck will head your way. With planning and persistence, you’ll eventually be able to turn your photo dreams into reality.

To read more about Ian’s Ethiopia trip, see:

Trip Report: Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
Trip Report: Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
Trip Report: Rock-Hewn Churches of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region


About the author: Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, Managing Editor of Outdoor Photography Guide, a Tamron Image Master, and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. You can see more of his work at

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15 Responses to “Behind the Shot: Caineville Badlands, Utah”

  1. Charles Robertson

    Ian, my wife and I really love your photography and are inspired to try to get some images like these, especially since we have camped and photographed before in the Caineville Badlands area. We just got a Mavic 2 Pro drone, and are planning on returning around the end of September, where we hope to have some cooperating sunrises and/or sunsets for some drone photography. We understand and admire the great effort and perseverance on your part that is necessary to get these wonderful images, and will think about that every time we need to arise and travel in the dark to be in the right location to get that magic light!

  2. Adam

    Really great article. Thanks for taking the time to explain things in such great detail in a way that is easy to understand.

  3. Lou Mark

    Ian, loved your classes on the Badlands and Leprechaun Canyon and your one on bracketing and focus stacking from the cave you were in. Just great work. Plan to be out that way first week next month with my wife. We have not been out west in 18 years but would like to shoot in a slot canyon and the badlands. Are they difficult places to get to? We’ll be passing each on our way from Arches/Canyonlands to Torrey driving from the south. Your teaching has been quite instrumental to me and I think OPG rocks!

  4. Louis

    Ian, love those shots. They are gorgeous. Plan to be in that area the first week of July, coming from Arches and Canyonlands. Want to stop at Leprechaun Canyon as I have never been in a slot and apparently they are not to be found in those two parks. Can one get good shots in the Badlands without a drone? thought your class on bracketing and focus stacking when you were in the cave was just excellent. Keep up your fine work. OPG rocks!!

    • Ian Plant

      Yes, you can get great shots there without a drone, there is plenty to see and photograph!

  5. Dana

    Lovely photos. I’m pretty amateur, but am going on a 3 night hike-in camping trip to Havasupai Falls in Arizona. I plan to put my landscape photography skills to the test. With it being a similar color palette as in these photos, wondering if you have any lens filter or other miscellaneous gear tips to make the most of the shots I get? Thanks!

  6. Dickson

    Great shots! I actually like the first one best, look smore closer to the actual colors of the land. Love the lines and the contrast.

  7. David Myers

    All you photos are excellent, but actually I like the first photos better. Your preference has colours I find look a bit artificial. Sorry.
    As to your advice, it is also excellent also, but impractical. My problem is that I can’t cook. Let me explain. Not being able to cook means I can’t risk divorce, but that would surely happen if I spent as much time on location as you (correctly) suggest photos of this standard require. Moreover, if one visits far away places with a group who are not photographers, it is impossible to hold up the party whilst messing with tripods and filters. Thus, for non-professionals with a family (and maybe a limited budget), following your excellent advice is usually not an option I am afraid…

    • Ian Plant

      Hi David, thanks for your comment! Although I can’t dispute your personal preference, I can say that for the third photo, the colors are as recorded by the camera. During a particularly intense sunrise or sunset, colorful clouds can act as giant reflectors, bouncing a lot of that color onto the landscape below. This is what happened here; most of the sky was covered in clouds, and most of those clouds lit up with an array of reds, yellows, and purples during the sunrise. All of that color got reflected onto the landscape, which was made of yellow rock, so the mix of all those colors is what you see in the photo. So, it is “unrealistic” in the sense that most people don’t see light like this unless they spend a lot of time outdoors at sunrise and sunset – but, it would look realistic to anyone who was there watching this particular sunrise, as this is what the scene looked like to the eyes.

      Regarding your second point, even if one can’t spend a week at a time in the same place waiting for the right light, one can still make an effort to be on location at sunrise or sunset as much as possible. Even as a professional, I too don’t have unlimited time or budget, so I just try to make the most of the time that I do have for making photos. Unfortunately, no amount of good photo advice can erase the requirement of effort and patience for making good photos outdoors. So, my advice to you is to make the most of the time you do have for photography. That, or learn how to cook! :)

    • Michael Hach

      Yes, David Meyers, you got that right. Clearly most if not all of these kinds of photographers,either are not married with/without kids, property that needs to be looked after, pets that need to be cared for or any other domestic responsibilities or a REAL job. I’m glad that I’m not the only one that thinks that. It drives me and my wife crazy when all I do is complain that “How does so-and-so have the time and MONEY, and that’s a big one, to go flying all over the world to ‘take pictures’.?? or to write about exotic travel desitinations that the average joe can only dream of getting to. Well, I guess when these persons are old and grey, they’ll only have their pictures to keep them warm and company at night. That’s all I got to say.

      • Ian Plant

        Hi Michael, just thought I’d chime in here and respond to your comment. Just to be clear, I do have most of those domestic responsibilities you mention. And I also have a real job: I am a full-time professional photographer and photo educator. I make all of my money from my photography, and I pay for all of my travel from my own income (it is just part of my cost of doing business). Just because my job happens to be something I truly enjoy (and a job that some people might envy), doesn’t make it any less “real” or difficult. I work extremely hard (pretty much non-stop, in fact), and although I like traveling to exotic locations, field work is very hard work, and lots of travel can create immense pressure and strain, both professionally and personally. I truly love what I do, but I work harder as a pro nature photographer than any other job I have ever had.

        But there is a broader point I’d like to make here: one doesn’t need to travel to “exotic” locations to make great photos. People can make incredible photos no matter where they are – even if they stay close to home – as long as they have patience, work hard, and try to be as creative as possible. Passion for photography is a critical component. If exotic travel is not an option, then find what is special about those places, people, and things close to you – and find a way to express this artistically with your photography. Remember, it might all seem normal to you, but from the perspective of a person from somewhere else, your home area might seem very exotic!

      • Josh ashdown

        I am not sure why there is a need to point out that not everyone has the flexibility in their schedule to spend a large amount of time at a location waiting for, or preparing to take a great shot. I know that I certainly don’t have that flexibility, but I still enjoy reading about the time and patience that great shots like these take. From these stories I discover tips that I try to use in my own photos. I don’t get annoyed/upset/jealous that others have more time, I just learn from their experience and enjoy their work. I have actually been to this particular location three times trying to get a good photo. I only had one free day each time, but the location is within driving distance of my home (4 hrs). I still have not taken a great image from here. Sure, I might have had better luck if I stayed a few days, but I simply don’t have that flexibility. That doesn’t upset me, I just hope to try again some day if my schedule and family life allows.

        Ultimately, I think that traveling a lot, and working as a “professional photographer” is often times much less glamorous than us “average joe” realize. We however, have the luxury of going out, taking terrible images and then going back to our real job. Professional photographers need to consistently produce great work, and I imagine that creates pressure which can take away from the enjoyment of the craft at time. Of course I would love to see and photograph many locations, but I simply cannot at this stage of my life. So be it; some people can some people can’t. I feel confident that Ian likely spent a lot of effort and took risks to create a life that allows him to travel and take images. I also have no doubt that he makes sacrifices to continue this. I am under no illusion that this is a glamorous jet setting life that he leads…it requires work and risk. My guess is he works very hard to provide great content and produce results. Much more than us average joes ever put into photography. Just because he does travel and go to many locations and I can’t at this stage in my life doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his story.

        An example of using this exact article could be a situation like this: You decided to take the family camping. You scout the location using Google Earth and decided this area looks neat. You do some research, plan a trip, and go down with your family for the weekend. While exploring the area with your kids, you size up a few decent compositions, check the weather, sun locations and decided that if the weather gods,luck or whatever you believe in allow, you will come back and try for that sunset image. maybe you will get it, maybe you won’t. Since you are camping near by, you get up early the next morning and try again. Then head back to camp and eat breakfast. I do this with my own family including my little kids. I work full time and a part time job while going to school. My time is limited, but with a little planning, I do trips like this with my family and articles from world class photographers like this one from Ian are full of gems I can use in my limited time. Think of this as time savers to help target in the free time you do have.

        I respect the others opinions, but I disagree with the need to point out that not everyone can do this. Not everyone wins the lottery, dates the prom queen or lives to be 100. Life… has all shades. Become an expert shooting near your home. I shot a lame photo of a raod the other day, but I practiced some skills I can use at better locations later. However, that lame road never looked so good. the image won’t win me any accolades, but was still fun.

        Happy Shooting!

        • Patricia

          Josh Ashdown, excellent comment, I could not have said it better. I retired several years ago and have been able to travel in a camper van. Before that, our short trips were focused on photography. It was Ian’s image that he took years ago in the Virgin River in Zion National Park that lit my photography and adventure fire. He has inspired me to go beyond, to look before I trip the shutter and to be creative in my shots. I often think after a photography trip how difficult it is for pro photographers doing it full time. It’s hard work and it’s gutsy. I admire their passion and their discipline.

          For me, I love learning and being inspired by a master teacher. I owe Ian for the joy I have found in the beauty, adventure and passion to look harder and soak in everything around me. I thanked him once at a presentation in N.C., but thanks again Ian Plant!