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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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Left half of Double Arch at sunset from the east wall, Arches National Park, Utah
One of my favorite arches in the park is Double Arch, also in the Windows area. This extraordinary desert cathedral actually has three openings: two in a vertical plane and the third in the “roof.” Unfortunately, these arches don’t get sunrise or sunset light at any time of year. By scrambling up the east wall to the highest ledge, however, I discovered that the setting sun would drop right into the western arch from March 2 to March 22, and again from September 20 to October 10. (Be forewarned that mountaineers would call this Scramble Class 3 or 4; a slip would mean serious injury or death.) I hoped that the warm light of the setting sun would bounce off the rock behind me and bathe the normally shadowed interior of the arch in a warm glow. After making some test shots in the spring, I returned in the fall and shot it on 4x5 color-negative film using my widest lens. By using the front shift on the 4x5, I was able to make two overlapping frames that stitched together perfectly, since each rectangular image was cut from the same image circle.

Landscape Arch, the longest and most fragile arch in the park, gets sunrise light at any time of year. Time your visit for October 2 or March 7 (plus or minus a few days) around 3:40 p.m., and you can shoot the sun kissing the thinnest part of the arch. Viewers’ eyes will be drawn to the brightest part of the image—the sun—and then to the thinnest part of the arch, emphasizing its fragility. I handled the extreme contrast with color-negative film.

Landscape Arch with sunstar emphasizing the thinnest part, Devils Garden area, Arches National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park
If Delicate Arch is the most famous sunset shot in the area, then surely Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky mesa of Canyonlands National Park is the most famous sunrise. During the fair-weather months, even at sunrise, you practically need to take a number to get a space for your tripod. Although the weather is benign in summer, it’s not the best time to photograph Mesa Arch. The sun rises directly over the La Sals, which means the light is less colorful by the time it reaches the arch. Shooting directly into the sun also magnifies problems with haze. In summer photographs, the La Sals are often almost invisible behind a shroud of backlit dust. I decided to photograph Mesa Arch in January, when the sun rises as far to the south as it will for the entire year. At the latitude of Arches, the angle of sunrise (and sunset) varies by more than 60º from summer solstice to winter solstice. By choosing to photograph near winter solstice, when the sun rises well to the south of the La Sals, I was able to capture the most colorful possible light and to minimize problems with haze.


Winter sunrise at Grand View Point, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
One of the toughest challenges in my yearlong quest was photographing the spectacular view from aptly named Grand View Point. This overlook, at the southernmost tip of the Island in the Sky, provides a panoramic view of Monument Basin, the White Rim and the Needles District. The scenery is indisputably grand; the problem is the lighting. At any time of year, Monument Basin, the most photogenic feature visible from Grand View Point, is shadowed at sunset by Junction Butte and Grand View Point itself. At sunrise in summer, the sun comes up behind the La Sal Mountains, dulling the color of light that reaches into the canyon below. Ultimately, I decided that my best bet was the dead of winter, when Monument Basin would be backlit by the rising sun.

In January 2008, with the predawn temperature in the single digits, I relocated the tiny but tough juniper I planned to use as part of my foreground and set up my 4x5 field camera. A heavy bank of clouds covered most of the sky, leaving a narrow gap at the eastern horizon that was rapidly closing. With only minutes to spare, the sun rose into the gap. The dark clouds blocked the bright, white light from the sky around the sun, and the vibrant color of undiluted sunrise light blasted through the gap, turning the clouds a fiery red and the foreground snow magenta. Two minutes later, the light show was over, but I already had captured my favorite image of Grand View Point.


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