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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Ultimate Guide To Arches & Canyonlands

They may be two of the most photographed parks in America, but you still can get original images with a plan and the right astronomical tools

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January sunrise at Mesa Arch, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Arches and Canyonlands are two of the nation’s most beautiful national parks—and two of the most heavily photographed. Delicate Arch is a stunning natural sculpture, but a simple snapshot of it has no more impact today than a song you’ve heard on the radio too many times. So how can you create your own unique interpretation of a magnificent place? Here’s a four-season guide.

In Arches and Canyonlands, the best photos usually aren’t about flowers or fall color. Almost always, they’re about rock and light, with weather as the final ingredient that can make a good image extraordinary. On human time scales, the rock is almost unchanging (although Wall Arch collapsed earlier this year). Light is the variable that the photographer can most easily control. My yearlong effort to make fresh images in the parks began with in-depth scouting for the best lighting angles of the most photogenic areas. I used Heavenly Opportunity (http://weba.viawest.net/~fcs/ho/), a program that gives the azimuth and altitude of the sun and moon for any specified time, day and location, to determine the right day for the image I envisioned. In several cases, the window of opportunity lasted only a few days.

Arches National Park
Let’s start with Delicate Arch. The long axis of the fin in which Delicate Arch is carved has a compass bearing of 80º. That means that the classic shot of Delicate Arch and the snow-covered La Sal Mountains is arguably best done from March 19 through April 15. Come earlier, and the arch is only rim-lit at sunset because the sun is setting too far south to light the visible face of the arch. Come later, and the sun sets behind an obstacle, so the bottom portion of the arch is in deep shade at sunset. Come in the fall, when the sunset angles are analogous, and there’s no snow on the distant La Sals, which then blend in to the bright sky near the horizon at sunset.

Turret Arch through North Window at sunrise, Windows area, Arches National Park, Utah
South Window through Turret Arch at sunrise, Windows area, Arches National Park, Utah
Want a more unique shot of Delicate Arch? Come back at winter solstice (plus or minus about a week, ideally), and you can shoot the setting sun through the arch. I used color-negative film in my 4x5 when I shot it, overexposing one stop for better shadow detail, then had the film drum-scanned. Color-negative film has a much wider latitude than transparency film; a high-end drum scan captured all that detail in digital form. Digital shooters will probably want to experiment with HDR software, such as Photomatix
Pro 3.0 (www.hdrsoft.com), to try to hold detail everywhere in the frame.

Want a genuine shot of the full moon through Delicate Arch at sunset? The tolerance on this one is very tight, so I bought a Brunton Pocket Transit (www.brunton.com), a tripod-mounted, highly accurate compass and inclinometer, to calculate the very best day in 2007 to shoot the moon through the arch at sunset. The moon must be at a bearing of 115º to 117º and have an angular elevation between 4º and 8º to appear within the arch while you still have your tripod on level ground. There actually are many more possibilities—if you can cling to near-vertical sandstone like a gecko!

No day in 2009 falls perfectly within those parameters, but August 4 should work. At sunset at 8:23 p.m., the moon will be at a bearing of 121º and angular elevation of 5.4º. Be forewarned that the setup may be tricky on sloping sandstone above a significant drop and the base of the arch will be shadowed at sunset. If possible, scout the area the evening before with a mirror-sight compass or, better yet, a pocket transit, to determine your tripod location and to get insurance shots of the moon through the arch starting about 45 minutes before sunset.

The second most famous vista in Arches surely is the view of Turret Arch through North Window. From the main Windows area parking lot, hike the short trail to North Window. Go through the arch, scramble across the narrow gully and up onto the ledges on the far side that offer this classic composition. From August 24 through April 18, North Window gets full sunrise light.

I found a far more unusual shot while scouting around Turret Arch. By scrambling onto a precarious perch about two feet wide above a 20-foot drop, I discovered that it was possible to frame up South Window through Turret Arch. I then used the transit to determine that I could shoot the sun rising through Turret Arch and South Window simultaneously on about eight days a year, April 28 through May 1 and August 11 through August 14. After getting skunked during the four-day window in April, I returned in August to make the shot on 4x5 color-negative film.


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