Bucket List – Delicate Arch

 (Bill Ferris)

The summer sun sets over Arches National Park in Utah. (Bill Ferris)

Which landscapes do you dream of photographing? In a private moment, where do you see yourself standing, camera by your side, and a setting sun splashing earthy hues across the scene and sky. What’s on your bucket list?

Sports photographers fantasize about shooting the Olympics, a perfect game in the World Series or a Super Bowl. For portrait photographers, working with an A-list actor, the President of the United States or royalty is a dream assignment. Would being present to document the first encounter between humanity and alien intelligence be a bucket list item for a photojournalist? Is chocolate yummy?!

One of the advantages of choosing landscapes as your photographic passion, is that you don’t need a press pass, high level security clearance or connections with the right people to gain access. Many of the most amazing destinations on Earth are right here in America and accessible with an $80 National Park annual pass. Living in northern Arizona, I am truly blessed to be near several National Parks. Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion and Bryce Canyon offer spectacular photographic opportunities and all are within a day’s drive of my front door. In addition, there are numerous Native American heritage sites in the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

With this blog, I am launching a new series titled, “Bucket List.” The idea is simple. Each article will focus on one of the many world class landscapes in the American Southwest. To be clear, my goal is not to tell you how to go about framing and photographing these natural gems. I will share my experiences shooting these bucket list items, including what did and did not work for me. The objective is to share information and tools you can use to capture your vision of a great landscape photo.

 (Bill Ferris)

Delicate Arch catches the last light of day with the La Sal Mountains dotting the far horizon. This photo was taken from the popular spot with a Nikon D90 and 18-70mm mid-range zoom. (Bill Ferris)

So, let’s get started.

Deep within Arches National Park is an iconic land form. It is a gently curing natural arch appropriately named, Delicate Arch. Even if you’ve never heard of this land form, it’s very likely you’ve seen it. Delicate Arch is featured on Utah state license plates. A simple Google search returns over 3 million hits and limitless images. Interesting thing though, when you scroll through the photos, they all look the same…like the image on the license plate.

Arches National Park is in southeastern Utah near Moab, which makes a great home base for visits to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Some effort is required to get to the arch. Upon entering the park, follow Arches Scenic Dr to Delicate Arch Rd. Turn onto Delicate Arch Rd and drive to the first parking lot on your left. From this lot, you’ll follow a 1 1/2 mile trail – uphill in both directions – to Delicate Arch. Budget an hour for the hike, and bring water, sunscreen and snacks.

Delicate Arch rises from the south rim of a natural sandstone bowl. The trail leads from the parking lot to the north rim of the bowl and this is the vantage point from which most photos of the arch are taken. From this spot, Delicate Arch is silhouetted against a twilight sky at sunrise and bathed in golden hour hues at sunset. With lighting so favorable at sunset, that is the time of day when the largest crowds make the long hike to see and photograph Delicate Arch. Make no mistake, though, sunrise and nightfall also offer opportunities to make spectacular images of this land form.

I was one of the horde on my first visit to the park in June 2010. My visit started poorly when I made the classic mistake of getting to the trailhead late in the day. The light was already warming when I left the parking lot. By the time I arrived – sweating and out of breath – at Delicate Arch, a crowd of well over 100 people was already gathered awaiting the perfect light. I sat down in the first open spot I found, took a long swig of water and began setting up for a shot. It was a good image – the La Sal Mountains adorned the southeastern horizon beyond the arch – but it was vanilla.

It was in this moment that I made the best decision of the day. I stopped shooting and started surveying what was happening around me. The sun was still a handful of degrees above the western horizon so, there was time to identify and get into a good position for the money shot. Photographers were spread out around the rim of the bowl with the largest grouping being where I was sitting. This location was popular for two reasons: As the first vantage point one gets to offering a clear view of the arch, this spot is highly tempting to a winded photographer. It is also the vantage point from which most photos of Delicate Arch are taken. This results in something of a vicious cycle. People stop here to catch their breath and take a photo. Since most photos of the arch are made from this location, it must offer the best view..right?

 (Bill Ferris)

Delicate Arch photographed from up close using a 12-24mm zoom lens. The sky isn’t terribly interesting and the contrast of the illuminated upper arch against the shaded major portion is more distracting than appealing. However, seen up close through a wide angle lens, Delicate Arch looks more impressive and imposing. (Bill Ferris)

Scanning the crowd, I noticed a small group of photographers gathered at the base of a stone outcrop near the arch and just out of frame. In ones or twos, they would make quick runs to get closer, capture a few frames and then just as quickly retreat back to the base of the outcrop. Being naturally curious, I decided to work my way around the rim to that location. Once I arrived, it didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of this spot.

From this location, one is looking to the southwest with Delicate Arch framed by golden light along the horizon and ruddy clouds overhead. I quickly changed lenses, mounting a 12-24mm Tokina wide angle zoom on my D90. Then I attached the camera to my tripod and adjusted the leg height to allow comfortable operation from a seated position. At 7:49 PM, I made my move, scooting to a favorable location near Delicate Arch. I sat down, set up the tripod, framed a shot and took a 3-exposure series. I then backed off a few feet, re-framed and took two 3-exposure sets. Finally, I moved another few feet, re-set, re-framed and snapped off two more 3-exposure sequences.

Three minutes after leaving the base of the stone outcrop, I was back and inspecting the exposures. Undoubtedly, the people back at the popular spot were not pleased to have me in their photos. Well, that’s easily fixed in Photoshop. If they could see what I was seeing on the LCD of my camera, they would have been more upset at themselves for traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to photograph Delicate Arch and not going the extra hundred feet to make a photo that stands out from the crowd.

Delicate Arch captures a warm twilight glow at sunset in Arches National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Delicate Arch captures a warm twilight glow at sunset in Arches National Park. (Bill Ferris)

Why does it stand out? It was taken from an uncommon angle. Being close to the arch allowed me to use a wide angle lens, which separates a subject from its background and makes it appear more imposing. Shooting from the east-northeast allows one to frame the arch with brilliantly hued clouds and a golden horizon. The result is the above image, my bucket list photo of Delicate Arch.

The lesson of this story is pretty simple. Traveling across a continent or around the world to get to arrive at a bucket list destination isn’t when the work ends. Arriving at your destination is when the work begins. Don’t settle for the first vantage point offering a nice view. Orient yourself to the environment, note the location of the sun and clouds, and look for opportunities to make a compelling image from a unique perspective. Do these things and your bucket list landscape will stand apart from the crowd.

Now, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | April 2014

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