Photography is a democratizing pursuit. How so? Well, it is often said that the camera is not the most critical element of a great photograph. The most critical element is the photographer, the person who makes the image. An eye for composition, an understanding of the role light plays in transforming a nice view into a stunning scene, and a knowledge of how to manipulate a camera’s controls and settings to achieve the envisioned photo are the most important tools a photographer brings to the craft.
The unsung and often ignored quality all great photographers bring to the table is dedication. In a nutshell, dedication can be defined as your willingness to give up something of value in order to achieve something of equal or greater value. The above photograph of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park illustrates the matter.
July 27, 2014 was hot and muggy in southern Utah. I had begun the day photographing sunrise in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in northern Arizona. Afterwards, I enjoyed breakfast at The View Hotel along with a number of guests just beginning their respective days. The drive north along state highways 163 and 191 delivered me to Moab, Utah at lunchtime. Moab is the gateway community to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. After lunch, the balance of my day was devoted to driving into Arches to the Delicate Arch parking area, making the 1.5-mile hike to the arch and waiting for a golden hour that never really materialized.
July happens to be the heart of the summer monsoon in the Southwest US. This seasonal weather patterned is defined by hot, muggy conditions, increasing cloudiness during the day and afternoon thunderstorms. The afternoon clouds were so thick on this day that they blocked the sweet, warm late-day light from painting Delicate Arch. The most dramatic thunderstorm activity was well off to the north. As a result, conditions just didn’t come together to make for a compelling photographic opportunity on this day.
After sunset, I made the return hike to my vehicle and, along the way, considered the available options. The issue occupying my thinking was, how should I spend the next morning? Should I find a place to photograph sunrise or just hit the road? July 28, I needed to drive 5 1/2 hours to Denver, where I would pick up my wife and son at the airport. They were flying in from New York. I was in the midst of the drive up from Flagstaff. After connecting, the three of us were going to spend a week in Estes Park exploring Rocky Mountain National Park.
There were plenty of good reasons to skip the sunrise photo expedition: the monsoon would probably play havoc with the early morning light; I had a long drive ahead and the rest would do me, well; there was almost always a crowd at Mesa Arch competing for the best locations. In the end, there was just one reason to follow through on my plan to photograph sunrise at Mesa Arch: it might be spectacular. That being reason enough, I left Arches National Park and – rather than heading back to Moab to find a hotel – turned north to make the drive to Canyonlands.
The decision grew less wise and more foolish as I drove through the darkening evening hours. Thunderstorm activity increased the further north I drove. Setting up my tent at a campground a few miles outside the entrance to Canyonlands, rain began to fall. I hurried to finish making camp and climbed into my sleeping bag just as the first deluge of the night began. I never slept more than an hour at a stretch, the occasional thunderclaps and constant patter of rain teaming to interrupt any semblance of restful sleep. When my watch alarm went off at 3:30 AM, I gave serious thought to just staying in the tent and getting more sleep.
But sunrise at Mesa Arch might – despite clouds, thunderclaps and rain – be spectacular.
So, I unzipped the sleeping bag and began to pack up. Leaving the campground, I drove through the darkness and into Canyonlands National Park. Through the windshield, it appeared the rain clouds were breaking up. Or was that just wishful thinking? Pulling into the parking lot for Mesa Arch trailhead, mine was the first vehicle on the scene. “Well,” I thought, “If it does clear, at least I’ll have my pick of spots to set up for the shot.”
Clear, it did. My dedication – however wishful or foolish in its origin – was rewarded with a fine sunrise at Mesa Arch. To be sure, this wasn’t the most dramatic of sunrises. Though warm and red, the intensity of the dawn light was muted by lingering clouds. But it was still beautiful. It was worth the worry, the sacrifice and the effort to awaken in darkness, eat a cold breakfast, remain optimistic in the face of bad weather, hike through the mist, choose my spot and to wait in hope that something magical would emerge from this monsoon morning. I could have taken the easy path. I could have driven into Moab, gotten a hotel room and slept in comfort through the night and the sunrise.
If I had, I would have missed sunrise at Mesa Arch. Now, get out there and shoot.
Bill Ferris | December 2014