Friday Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part II   2 comments

I hope your Thanksgiving was warm and wonderful!  This is the second of a two-part post.  Check out Part I.  I left off talking about what a traveling photographer should do with all those well-meaning recommendations on what and where to shoot, plus when is the best time of day.  Upon entering Arches National Park in Utah, the flier the ranger gives you has one of these lists of where you should consider shooting photos at sunrise and sunset.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

Following Recommendations…sort of

After my first day in the park, I got around to reading the flier.  Among others, they listed Balanced Rock and (of course) Delicate Arch for sunset.  For sunrise, one of the spots on the list was the Windows area.  I didn’t know exactly what to think about the list, so I checked out the internet to see what popped up. After Googling “good photo locations for sunrise at Arches”, I came upon definite recommendations on where I should go.  The first page of search results all featured the same target: the Windows area.  They were more specific than the Park Service in that they recommended a certain composition where North Window frames Turret Arch.  Both arches are lighted by front-light from the rising sun, which is over your shoulder.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know what I did with this information. I made a note not to photograph Turret Arch framed by North Window at sunrise.  But I didn’t avoid the area at sunrise, far from it.  In fact, I think it is a great place to shoot at sunrise and I wound up visiting no less than four times.  On that first morning, I went to the recommended spot.

I had that funny feeling you get when you are doing something counter to your personality.  But what the heck.  I was there very early, I was curious, and only two other groups of people appeared pre-dawn.  Unfortunately the light was not great at sun-up.  I roamed around to look for other shots and voila!  I found some.  On subsequent visits to Windows I captured Double Arch, a nice panorama, and some great moonlight shots.

Each of the other mornings I visited the Windows area up to a half dozen photographers were in place before sun-up in order to replicate the picture of Turret Arch through North Window.  And this is in low season!  The area where you need to set your tripod is small so I imagine in high season competition is fierce.  There really isn’t enough room for more than a few photographers.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

In Moab, the town near Arches, I saw two framed versions of Turret Arch through North Window.  One was in a bank and the other in a cafe.  I’m sure there are more hanging around.  This is a very popular picture.  Is it a good one?  Sure.  But I think it’s also somewhat two-dimensional.  And after shooting in Arches pretty extensively over a week, I know it isn’t even close to being the best picture you can get in the park, at sunrise or any other time.  It may not even be the best you can get from the Windows area.

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting "the shot".

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting “the shot”.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area,  of Double Arch.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area, of Double Arch.

What to Do with Recommendations

So what to do when you’re researching an area you are planning to visit?  I recommend not totally ignoring the lists of recommended spots for photography and when to shoot.  Check the direction of the sun at your planned time of visit (use the Photographer’s Ephemeris) to see what the angle of light will be. Check at sunrise and sunset; the recommended time to shoot will usually be based on front-light, and you might want to try it back-lit (shooting into the sun).

Also, check maps (or Google Earth) to get an idea of the terrain around the popular subject.  If you want to shoot it, don’t hesitate.  Go for it.  Just realize that anything that is listed very high on a Google search will be over-shot.  Period,  no exceptions.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t find other interesting compositions in the area.  It also might be worthwhile to get the recommended shot under unusual conditions (snow, moonlight + stars, etc.).  It pays to visit during the day with an idea of where the sun rises and sets.  Record the azimuth of sunrise & sunset and bring a compass, or use one of the smartphone apps for this purpose (I go old-school).

By using a map and having a healthy explorer’s spirit, you can often get a different perspective on the popular subject.  To illustrate this last way to visit popular photo spots without shooting the same shot everybody else does, let me tell you what I did at another place in Arches National Park: Courthouse Towers.

I took a break from Arches to go up to the La Sal Mountains, and of course that was the night it got cold and snowed.

Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, shot during a “non-recommended” time of day.

_MGL8314

I decided to take a break from Arches and went up to camp in the nearby La Sal Mountains. Of course it got cold and snowed!

Shooting a Popular Spot your Way

You will find Courthouse Towers on almost any list of recommended places to shoot at Arches, in this case at sunset.  I had checked the area out one morning and noticed a group of people with rock-climbing gear heading out.  I watched where they went, up a steep gully.  They weren’t using their ropes.  Later that day, I hiked/scrambled up the gully and, as I suspected, found out it was a canyoneering area.

Canyoneering (called canyoning in Europe) means hiking up to the top of a canyon and then using ropes to climb/rappel/jump/slide/swim down.  I’ve done it a half-dozen times in technical canyons and it’s a blast!  The slickrock area at the top turned out to be fairly extensive and easily explored without climbing gear.  You do need to be sure on your feet and not too afraid of heights.  Best of all for me, it looked to have promise for photographing Courthouse Towers from above.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

I got some decent shots on that late afternoon, but I suspected it might be even better at sunrise, shooting into the sun.  So I returned a couple mornings later, hiking up by headlamp.  While actual dawn was a little disappointing light-wise, once the sun was up I got a few very nice shots, including the ones above & below.  I really like the fact this picture shows the majesty of Courthouse Towers, but not with the popular perspective of looking up at them. Instead, this view is downward and includes one of the steep canyons that makes the area popular with the climber/canyoneer crowd.

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone & reward the exploring sort of photog.

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone, rewarding the exploring sort of photographer

Now you might or might not be up for doing this kind of exploring.  I certainly don’t want to encourage you to get into dicey situations.  You normally need to be a fairly confident off-trail hiker to explore for unusual nature photo opportunities.  Very important is to stay off of delicate areas.  For instance, in the desert southwest, there are extensive areas of biotic soil crust, a living community that is destroyed by boots and bike or jeep tires.

To start out, you should take easier and shorter routes and work slowly towards tougher excursions.  Remember if you start getting in over your head you can always turn back and retrace your steps.  Rely on your intuition on this.  The key, photographically-speaking, is to not have any expectations of certainty.

One thing I’m certain of, however, is that in popular areas such as National Parks, in order to find unique and interesting photos, you simply must be willing to explore, to eschew the shots that have become popular. You might strike out of course.  The safe and sure course is to go where other photographers are.  I’m not looking down my nose at those photos or the folks who capture them.  I simply want to point out there is another way to do it.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself!  It was in many "Marlboro Man" commercials.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself! It was in many “Marlboro Man” commercials.

I wound up investigating this  full pothole in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours.  Potholes fill after a rainfall and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action!

I wound up investigating this full pothole (aka water-pocket; -tank) in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours. Waterpockets fill after infrequent rain and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action.  These shrimp breed and die quickly, nourishing those who are still growing.

As usual, if you are interested in any of these images just click on them.  If you get to my galleries and can’t find the one you’re interested in, that means I haven’t uploaded it to my site yet.  I will, however, respond immediately to any request you have.  Just contact me.  I prefer meeting any of your needs with personal attention anyway.  Thanks for your interest!  This subject has given me some ideas that I’ll share in a post soon, a post that will be a different sort for me.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view just before sunset.

A tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a spectacular stretch of smooth slickrock.

A pretty tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a large, perfectly flat stretch of smooth slickrock.

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2 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part II

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  1. Fantastic photos as usual. I like the one with the steep cliffs the best.

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