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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


 (Bill Ferris)

r Late on a summer day while finishing a long hike from the South Rim of Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back, I stopped along South Kaibab trail to capture this image. Twilight bathes the inner canyon, rendering the temples and buttes ghostly silhouettes. This photo was taken with a Nikon D70 and Nikkor AF-S 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. (Bill Ferris)

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Canon and Nikon won’t tell you this but, as fantastic as their high end professional lenses are, you don’t need them to take great photographs. The kit zoom lens that came with your entry level camera body is perfectly capable of taking a great photo. So, if you’re just getting into photography or are about to make the transition from shooting film to shooting digital, don’t let smug comments about amateurish kit lenses deter you.

Canon and Nikon are the dominant manufacturers of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Amazon.com updates their “Best Sellers in DSLR Cameras” list on a daily basis. Canon and Nikon are typically the only two companies in the top 20. In the Under $700 category, Canon’s EOS Rebel T3 and T3i, and Nikon’s D3100, D3200 and D5100 are top-selling DSLR’s. All come with 18-55mm kit lenses. Of course, you can purchase just the camera body or substitute another lens. However, there is a strong case to be made for getting the kit lens with your entry level camera body.

Let’s look at the specs for these optics. Canon’s kit lens is the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II. The Nikon variant is the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR. On paper, both offer the same focal length range, aperture range and built-in image stabilization technology. Designed for use with crop sensor bodies, the effective 35mm zoom range for the Canon lens is roughly 29mm at the wide end to 88mm at the long end.  Nikon’s DX format sensor is slightly larger than Canon’s. The Nikkor 18-55mm delivers a 35mm zoom range of 27mm to 83mm. Both are street priced under $200, offer good optical performance and excellent value.

These mid-range zooms offer versatility that will meet the needs of most photographers. You’ll be able to shoot everything from wide angle scenics to portraiture. Their plastic construction means these are not rugged lenses. They’ll crack or break, if treated roughly. And they’re not weather sealed. If it starts to rain, you’ll want to stow the camera until the sun comes out. But these high value optics are also lighter and more comfortable to wear around the neck all day than professional grade zooms.

What are the hallmarks of a professional optic? As already mentioned, professional lenses offer more rugged construction with metal parts and tighter seals to protect against the elements. They’re also optically faster. At the wide end, the above-mentioned kit zooms operate at f/3.5. In other words, the focal length is 3.5x the aperture (opening) of the lens. Professional lenses typically offer focal ratios of f/2.8 or faster. In other words, the lens aperture is larger.

Why is this of value? Well, the larger the aperture with respect to the lens focal length, the shallower the depth of field. So, if you simply must have a lens allowing you to shoot portraits with super sexy bokeh (out of focus background) or freeze the action during an outdoor athletic event at night, you should invest in fast optics. But if you do most of your shooting during the day, if you enjoy crisp landscapes, or if you’re satisfied by modest soft focus in your portraiture, the kit lenses Canon and Nikon package with their entry level DSLR bodies are more than up to the task.

On the evening of March 11, 2005, the Moon and Mercury set together shortly after the Sun. This photo, taken from Sunset Crater National Monument just north of Flagstaff, captures the event. (Bill Ferris)

The Moon and Mercury hang in a twilight sky cradled in the branches of a silhouetted tree.. This photo, taken from Sunset Crater National Monument just north of Flagstaff, was made with a Nikon D70 DSLR and Nikkor AF-S 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. (Bill Ferris)

Back in 2004 when I made the move from a classic Nikon F3 35mm film camera to the highly regarded Nikon D70 DSLR, I purchased the AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G kit lens. In 2010 when my D70 body was damaged beyond repair during a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, I upgraded to the 12MP Nikon D90. But I kept the 18-70mm kit lens. It’s been a good performer for me, as evidenced by the above images. I have added two lenses to my kit in the last couple of years. They are a Tokina 12-24mm f/4 Pro DX wide angle zoom and a Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR telephoto zoom. Both compliment the old, trusty 18-70mm and the thee-lens set delivers an 35mm equivalent zoom range from 18mm to 450mm.

Now, I’m not here to blow smoke up your tailpipe. I’ll admit it, I covet the so-called holy trinity of Nikkor glass: 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. All are AF-S, f/2.8 zooms delivering images so sharp they cut glass. This covetous condition is a common malady affecting many photographers. However, not having these lenses has not stopped me from doing photography or from capturing the occasional great image. Would these lenses allow me to take photos for which my current stable of glass is not suited? Yes. Do kit lenses and affordable third-party lenses render one incapable of doing great photography? Absolutely not!

Get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | August 2013