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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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This Article Features Photo Zoom

Delicate Arch and the La Sal Mountains at sunset, Arches National Park, Utah
A weathered juniper and the Green River Overlook glow pink at dawn, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The feature that first grabs your eye at the Green River Overlook on the Island in the Sky is the scalloped cliffs of the White Rim more than a thousand feet below. A telephoto shot that includes only those curving ramparts, however, doesn’t really capture the feeling of being there. To give the image depth and a sense of place, I wanted an interesting foreground. After extensive scouting, I discovered a weathered juniper with great character. I returned before dawn for several mornings and used the tree to frame up the White Rim far below. One morning, a broad bank of clouds, which was behind me and out of my frame, lit up a spectacular red. The colorful clouds, in turn, threw a soft, pink glow over the entire scene in front of me. By the time I realized what was happening, it was almost too late. I was only able to expose two sheets of 4x5 film, each requiring a 30-second exposure, before the glow faded. The unusual light makes this image my favorite rendition of a remarkable place. I recommend working this overlook from September through March, when the distant buttes are sidelit at sunrise.

Dead Horse Point State Park lies on the same broad mesa that contains the Island in the Sky district. It gives visitors an awe-inspiring insight into the power of flowing water working patiently and inexorably for 150 million years. From the canyon rim to the Colorado River far below is a precipitous drop of 2,000 feet. This is primarily a sunrise location. For the warmest light, shoot between May 1 and mid-August, when the sun rises north of the La Sals, or from late October to mid-February, when it rises to the south. Don’t be a guardrail geranium—in other words, don’t plant yourself at the first spot along the guardrail that gives you a glimpse of the canyon below and remain rooted for your entire morning’s shoot. If you search along the canyon rim, you can find foreground elements that will give your images more depth and interest. I chose a lone Utah juniper, growing from a crack in the arid rock, that illustrated how tenacious life must be to survive in this harsh yet beautiful landscape.

First-time visitors to the Moab area, or those with limited time, would do well to concentrate on Arches National Park and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands because they are so accessible. Reaching the most spectacular arches in the Needles District of Canyonlands requires long day hikes or backpacking; exploring the Maze District requires a multi-day expedition on very long and difficult 4WD roads. Regardless of where you go, know the angle of sunrise and sunset, keep your compass handy, and remember that great lighting is the key to great landscape photography.

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 115° to 117° 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!

Arches National Park
(435) 719-2299

Canyonlands National Park
(435) 719-2313


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