The American Southwest is full of icons....and its beauty draws in hundreds of thousands of people every year from all parts of the globe to see the saturated red cliffs, mesas, arches, and deep river valley that cut through this prehistoric looking landscape.
It was fitting that the group which assembled for the Aperture Academy 2010 Arches/Canyonlands photography workshop was a diverse group as well. Representing Canada, the UK, and across the U.S. from California to as far as Atlanta and Chicago. In addition to those who travelled far to be at the workshop, there were a nice group of students who had been on previous workshops in the past and had come back for more photography education and fun, Aperture Academy style!
Friday (Sep. 24th) was group orientation. Those of the group that had no flight issues assembled at our hotel in Moab, Utah, to go over the itinerary and meet instructors Stephen Oachs and Brian Rueb. The class enjoyed a glass of wine while Stephen and Brian went over the weekend's schedule, and reviewed what to expect from the 3-day photography adventure.
The orientation was brief, because as those returning students knew, and the new students were about to find out, we start EARLY at the Aperture Academy.
Day 1, 5:00am — The van and "Mo-Ho" (the official Aperture Academy workshop mobile headquarters, the motor home) were parked outside the hotel and the sleepy group was starting to gather in the lobby. Thankfully, the great staff at the motel had gotten breakfast out early, so our group was able to get some energy before our first day of shooting in Arches National Park.
In the darkness of night our group set off to the park and Turret Arch, to watch the morning begin and the soft light glowing on the red rocks of the area. As soon as they arrived, everyone set up all along the cliffs, along the arch. Stephen and Brian walked among the students to make sure they understood the proper settings, and how filters could benefit their exposures. Time was also spent helping make sure students found solid compositions, with interesting foregrounds.
The closer it got to sunrise, the more people showed up...which showed the importance of getting up early and being in the park while it was still dark outside. The entire group was glad of the morning maneuver; the sunrise was beautiful on the rocks, and everyone came away with some great images of Turret Arch.
The second stop of the day was the impressive Double Arch. It is difficult to convey its size, so to help students get a sense of scale in their photos, we enlisted the help of instructor Brian Rueb and fellow ApCad instructor (along for the ride on this workshop) Scott "Buttermilk" Davis to climb up into the arch and pose for the students while they shot. Stephen stayed below to help students with exposure and using filters like a polarizer to help shoot the scene more effectively.
The students did a great job of fanning out over the area and using a variety of lenses (including a fish-eye) to help capture this mammoth scene in new and creative ways.
The final stop of the morning was Organ Rock. While some thought it was Oregon Rock, it was clarified that it was Organ Rock (named as such because it resembled a church organ...rather than a lung or the beaver state). The rock was a great subject, and the class spread out along the desert looking for interesting foreground objects that would help in making a balanced composition. Old logs, trees, bushes full of yellow or white flowers, small yucca plants...the desert was full of interesting objects, and the class came away with some great images.
When the sun had climbed higher in the sky and the sweet light was fading, the students had already had a full and long morning of photography...and it was definitely time for a break. So, after Organ Rock was finished, the class stopped at the "Garden of Eden" where they were turned loose for 45 minutes of exploration time with their cameras to photograph the unique shapes of the area, or capture some action shots of the rock climbers scaling the nearby towers. While they explored, the instructors prepared their lunch.
With their bodies re-energized from a good lunch, it was time for the group to rest and gather its energy because the evening's shoot would require the longest hike of the trip, with temperatures in the mid 90s.
At 3:30pm they drove back into Arches NP to make the hike to Delicate Arch in time for sunset. Delicate Arch is one of the most iconic and photographed arches in the park...and getting to it requires a 1.5 mile hike straight up hill, exposed to the sun the whole way.
Plenty of water, and a slow steady pace was the key for the trek. Even the more experienced hikers felt the heat, and hiking at over 5,000 feet elevation made the hike even more strenuous.
There were no quitters in this group and everyone reached the top, rounded the narrow ledge and was treated to the view they came to see — Delicate Arch, sitting isolated on a ledge. A drop off to the canyon on one side and a steep decline into the Sarlacc Pit (Star Wars nerd reference) on the other.
The group spread out along the ledge facing the arch. Students were encouraged by instructors to use the curves in the sandstone as leading lines to help create interest in the composition. Instructors spent time making sure everyone knew which filters to use, and how the exposure and apertures would change as the sunset approached.
Again, the closer it got to show time, the more people arrived. By the time the sunset arrived there were well over 100 people lining the area to watch the show, or photograph it themselves. It was great that our group had arrived with enough time that they all had spots they chose to photograph from...they didn't have to worry about being stuck with what was left over.
Even without a sky full of clouds, Delicate Arch is amazing to see in the last light of the day. It was worth the sweaty hike, and the class was looking forward to a cooler hike out in the dark...followed by a celebratory beer...to put the cap on a full, awesome day of photography.
Everyone enjoyed the twilight glow of the desert sky, which looks unlike it does anywhere else in the world. After that amazing light faded, even though we had flashlights, the light of the moon was almost enough to see with and the hike out was enjoyable.
Everyone arrived in Moab ready for a cold drink and some food. We'd had a FULL day...and a good meal was just what the situation called for. Because the next day was going to start even earlier than the previous day, everyone hoped for speedy dinner service. But that didn't happen; it was well after 10pm before we were served...some food was cooked correctly, some was cold...but everyone was hungry enough that they'd have eaten anything by that point.
At almost 11pm the group was finally back at their hotel...and they were ready to try and grab a few hours of sleep. The ApCad party train was rolling out at 4:45am...
Day 2, 4:30am — People looked sleepy on Saturday morning, but on this Sunday morning, they looked like the walking dead. The late night hadn't helped, but everyone agreed it was important to get on the road early...to be at the first stop of the day before the masses arrived.
The dark, predawn ride into Canyonlands was a quiet one. Many students fell back to sleep the minute they were no longer standing. In the day time, the drive covers beautiful areas of desert, interesting rock shapes...and stunning canyon overlooks...but in the dark it's a flat, peaceful nothingness, which can't help but lull people to sleep.
Our first stop of the morning was Mesa Arch. While most people assume Mesa Arch would be in Arches National Park, it's actually in Canyonlands NP, and one of the most popular spots in the whole southwest. Mesa Arch is stunning at any time of day...but none more than at sunrise when the first rays of the sun light up the underside of the arch, making it glow a vibrant red color, and the whole canyon, 2,000 feet below, lights up with soft morning light.
The trick about Mesa Arch is that you have to arrive early. It's one of the "must have" shots of the southwest and photographers arrive plenty early to secure one of the limited spots to photograph it. Our goal at Aperture Academy is to do the research ahead of time so we can ensure that we get you there first...to have pole position in photographing these iconic spots. When our group arrived, there was only one other photographer on scene...and very quickly his lone tripod was surrounded by 15 more. In essence, this meant the spot was FULL almost an hour and a half before sunrise.
Throughout that next hour and a half, nearly 30-40 more people showed up with tripods and camera gear hoping to catch the sunrise, only to find that they would not have one of the prime spots.
As for our group, we were dialed in on the scene and Brian and Stephen made sure everyone had their settings down and understood that for this spot, it would be important to bracket exposures, due to the intense difference in exposures needed to photograph the bright sky at sunrise and the darker rocks of the arch.
For many students, this was the highlight of the trip. The way the light painted the area as the sun rose is really hard to convey in words...and thankfully the students were all able to capture this feeling as an image they'll be able to treasure long after the workshop has passed. Everyone left Mesa Arch giddy with the images they had on their cameras!
The next stops of the day were overlooking some of the Canyonlands' more famous viewpoints, Dead Horse Point and the Green River overlook. Both areas provide a vertigo inducing vantage point of some of the world's deepest canyons. The students put their fear of heights on the backburner and climbed out into a number of precarious positions to either photograph the scene, or have Stephen take a shot of them out on an edge to help commemorate their trip.
When viewing areas like this, it's easy to imagine why early explorers were drawn to these locations, to explore the canyons by foot, mule or raft. They still cause an urge to explore, even when seen today.
After the last of our Canyonlands views, the group took a break. The afternoon plan was to shoot Balance Rock at sunset, then wait for dark and do some light painting and then head back into Moab for an Aperture Academy tradition...CROCKPOT!!!!
When you see Balance Rock, you have to wonder how it's still sitting up there. It looks like it will fall at any moment. It really does. The students walked around the area and looked for foregrounds to help create interest in their compositions, then the challenge was trying to photograph their chosen scene at sunset with HUGE shadows being cast from everything in the area. People, bushes, TRIPODS...it was a challenging shoot, for sure. The class was definitely glad when the sun went down and the exposures became a bit more even.
While the class waited for the dark to set in, some instructors had fun playing with the shape of Balance Rock and creating some funny images that, well, can only ever be seen by people who attended the workshop. Sorry folks, our instructors have lives outside the ApCad, and even though they'd never run for office...the images would just be wrong to share with the world. Some things you just can't "unsee." We're glad, however, that the class was able to get a few laughs at our instructors' expense.
When the sun finally left, the class took to the scene again to capture it at night. Low f-stops, higher ISO and longer shutter speed helped to give a whole new take on the scene. Stephen helped add some light to the subject by using flashlights to paint Balanced Rock, and really bring out the reds in the stone against the cobalt blue of the night sky. The resulting images we saw on the viewfinders were STUNNING.
People did not want to leave, but...there was CROCKPOT waiting!!! Which finally convinced the group it was time to go (also, the flashlight batteries were dying and we couldn't lightpaint anymore).
Students Brent and Simon had rented a nice condo in Moab for the workshop, and graciously let the class use it to eat crock pot goodies, share stories from the weekend, and enjoy the end of a second full day of great photography.
While the dinner was being set up, Brian shared the story, or actually, the legend of the crockpot. It's a truly inspiring tale that lets everyone know the importance of the crockpot, and why it has earned its place in ApCad history...and has become a tradition shared with every new group on 2-3 day workshops.
Dinner never disappoints...and the class put a hurting on the crockpot, leaving nothing remaining. An hour after dinner, the glazed looks began to appear on the students' faces....they were going into full pork coma mode...and needed to sleep. Even though the last morning only had one scheduled stop, and departure time was 6am instead of 4:45, it was still earlier than most people were used to, and they needed to get to sleep before the coma took over and they were stuck sleeping on Brent and Simon's floor.
Day 3, 6am — The whole southwest is full of Native American history. Tribes like the Navajo, Hopi, and Anasazi spent their lives in the area and many of them set up semi-permanent settlements. The Anasazi, in particular, made many dwellings in the sides of cliffs...some of which can still be found and enjoyed today.
"House on Fire" is just such a dwelling. It's not on any map, or labeled on any road sign...it's a true hidden gem of the southwest, and one that Aperture Academy knows how to find and is thrilled to share with our students.
A modest hike in an old creek bed led the class to one of the best preserved ruins in the southwest. It's guessed that the ruins are nearly 900 years old....and just seeing them brings up speculations of what life might have been like in the desert during their time there. The Students enjoyed photographing this special place as much as any of the other amazing spots we visited on the trip. They shot wide angles of the scene, close ups of the details...anything they could imagine. It was a truly special experience for all.
After a brief talk by Stephen on the importance of preserving the area, the group took a blood oath to keep its location a secret...and take away only their photographs as memories from the special day they spent at House on Fire...and with the Aperture Academy.
The drive and hike took up most of the morning, and because our class had planes to catch, and instructors needed to get off to the next set of locations, House on Fire was the last location on the 2010 Arches and Canyonlands workshop. The group had a farewell lunch at Moab Brewery to recap the weekend, and just enjoy the company of a great group of photographers and dedicated teaching staff.
While there was a large number of returning students on this workshop, everyone made a lot of new friends and we look forward to a reunion with all the students on a future Aperture Academy workshop down the line.
Until next time,
Stephen, Brian, Scott, David, and the rest of Team Aperture Academy
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.