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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Other Arches

Tenuous and dynamic, natural arch structures on the Cumberland Plateau stretching across Kentucky and Tennessee provide a chance to photograph a different kind of arched landscape

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Natural Arch, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky.
I was feeling pretty small as I scanned the solid-rock cliff 50 feet in front of me. The wall wasn’t quite vertical, as it created a natural overhang maybe 150 feet above my head. I was standing in front of it and under it at the same time. The informational kiosk called it a “rock shelter” and described how Native Americans had used these types of natural shelters to escape the elements for centuries. Just down this ridgeline was Natural Arch, not the most original name for a natural arch rising 60 feet and spanning more than 100 feet. I hiked to the arch and, standing below it, still felt small. Awestruck, it took me a while before I again remembered that I had hiked the one-mile trail not only to admire this beautiful arch, but to photograph it as well. For the next few hours, I walked around and through the arch, finding interesting angles and compositions. As the sun set, the arch fell into shadow while the trees behind became lit with warm sunshine. And to think, Natural Arch isn’t even the largest of the many arches located in this vicinity!

Angel Falls, Big South Fork National River And Recreation Area, Tennessee.
Twin Arches is one of the world’s largest arch complexes and, along with Natural Arch, is situated among America’s highest density of arches outside of Utah. Located in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee, this arch-lover’s paradise provides excellent opportunities to explore and photograph natural arches, as well as majestic forests, angel-hair waterfalls, grand vistas and a wild river. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is at the heart of this area, with Daniel Boone National Forest and Picket CCC Memorial State Park adding more areas to explore.

The experience here is unique in that all of the arches I explored exist in forested areas, providing both challenges and opportunities. A couple of the arches I hiked to were so well hidden among the trees that I couldn’t find a pleasing composition. In most instances, however, the presence of an arch as an element of the surrounding forest is visually exciting and the trees help to add scale and interest, although I looked for compositions in which straight tree trunks didn’t bisect the arch, especially near the middle. I also experimented with including only parts of the arch in the composition. One of my favorite photos of this type was looking up at North Arch with the arch rising out of and then beyond the surrounding trees.

Lighting was another challenge in this environment. While South Arch of the Twin Arches is lit beautifully by early-morning light, most of the arches don’t receive the glowing light of early morning or late evening. Early and late are still prime times to be photographing, but photographing under overcast skies is also a good option. One continual consideration is the contrast in these heavily wooded areas: between the darkest and lightest parts of the arches, between the arch and the trees, and between visible sky and everything else in the scene. Early and late light and overcast skies all help to reduce the contrast, which can be overwhelming in the middle of the day, but the difference in tonal values plays an important role in the final photo regardless of existing conditions.

Angel Falls Overlook, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee.
I used several techniques to deal with the contrast issue. The first was to photograph when the light was best, as previously mentioned. The next was to adjust compositions to avoid areas with great contrast in one photo, such as having both sunlit and shadowed areas in the frame at the same time and to exclude the sky completely. So far so good, but obvious. Then I decided to try ignoring the extreme contrast, especially in cases where it was necessary to show some sky to give a sense of scale and the shape of the arch. I let the sky be as washed out as it needed to be to properly expose the arch. This worked well in several photos, especially if the view of the sky was broken up by some trees.


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