Arches National Park, Desert Southwest Photography Workshop | March 2016

3-Day Desert Southwest Photography Workshop: Arches & Canyonlands National Parks - March 2016

Pound for pound, the southwest has the most icons and crazy cool locations for photography. There are so many places; you could spend years looking at them and trying to photograph all of it. Scott Donschikowski and I are here to take a group of twelve photographers through Arches NP and Canyonlands NP to see some of the most epic locations they have to offer and help everyone come away with more knowledge and better photographs.

Our orientation Friday night lets everyone know what to expect throughout the workshop and where we'll be headed. The real fun, however, begins Saturday morning as we meet at 5:45am for departure to the first location.


House on Fire, a set of old Anasazi ruins, look almost otherworldly when kissed by the early morning light. It's a long dark drive to the trailhead, and a small one mile hike up an old creek wash. These ruins are almost completely hidden by foliage; unless you know where they are, it's almost impossible to find them. Luckily we know the spot and had our group in place and set up before the light had hit the adjacent wall, and the bounce light from that wall had lit up the ruins. This light acts almost like a soft box and illuminates the ruins in a soft warm glow. It's quite remarkable.

Scott and I helped the group with settings and various compositions to get the most of the location. The light there is very even, so it's a good place to discuss exposure without having to get too heavy into filters and other issues. It's a bonus that the location is also amazing, and every photo is great.

The morning and travel is long, and it takes us a long while to get to this remote location, so once we get back to the hotel it's time for a break before we head into Arches NP and our first stop…Park Avenue. This little trail has amazing views of the interesting bluffs and mesas within the park. Scott and I push the group to some unique vantage points they might have missed, as well as help them with some interesting composition elements. What I like here is the play with silhouette and light…and the way the two play together in an aesthetic composition.

After Park Ave we set up at Balanced Rock for a shot of this icon. Here we arrive early to set up all the compositions, and get prepared for sunset. The evening light was warm, and sweet…but a small band of clouds on the horizon smothered any chance of a sweet sunset…so we used this time to go over composition, and how to get the most of what we WERE seeing…and though there were no pinks and purples, we had some sweet late evening warm light…which is amazing in the SW.


DAY 2 starts at 3am. We meet and depart in the darkness to our popular stop... Mesa Arch. This little spot draws in crowds, and it's up to us to get our group there in time to get the best spots for the amazing sunrise light this place sees. We get there with plenty of darkness left, and opt to make lemonade out of lemons. We have the pole position here to get the best shots, but we just have to wait 3 hours until the sunrise….so to pass time we will work on star photography, and star trail photography. This allows us to be constructive and productive while we wait for the real money shot.

It's a lot of fun waiting…the group learns a lot, and we all get a little closer as we brave the cold and joke our way until sunrise. By the time sunrise occurs, the crowds has quadrupled, and we're thankful we arrived when we did. Our group has been briefed and coached to succeed here, and we certainly come away with the best shots of the morning. We only really need to stay a few moments after the sun rises before we leave…we got what we came here for!

The early morning means we all need a big time nap…and we are thankful to get back to the hotel and sleep. We meet again in the afternoon for some post processing tips on star trails, and how to process those shots we took in the dark hours. Our sunset spot is a small hike up to Delicate Arch, arguably the best arch in the park…and easily the most iconic. We are so proud that our group makes it up. We all arrive with enough time to spare to enjoy the view before the light is warm and sweet, and we need to photograph. Again, the clouds make sunset color a little tough, but the evening glow and warmth is really what the SW is all about…and we have enough of that where everyone can get something great.

After a dark hike out it's back to the hotel for some well deserved rest, for our third day of adventure.


Sunrise on day 3 is the iconic vista of turret arch through the south window. This is a great shot, and our group is in prime location for the sweet sunrise light that we're getting…the only problem is that 38 other folks decided to be there too to see the sunrise. Thankfully Scott is there to help everyone keep in check, and not move his or her cameras after the colorful part of the sunrise. Once the sun is up, the crowds leave and we're able to capture a shot of the window area without any people. Then in our post processing session that afternoon, Scott can help them blend the two exposures for a perfect representation of what we witnessed that morning.

After the Turret Arch, we make a stop at the grandiose double arch…a spot that is massive, and really hard to depict without a person in it for sense of scale. I offered to climb the ridge and stand in place for a sense of scale.

We're back at the hotel by noon and it's break time. After break it's a second round of processing help. I go over adding color, and non-destructive burning and dodging techniques. The clouds have rolled in by this point, but we're not deterred. We head to a scenic section of highway 128 where we find a mini monument valley. Here we really help the class focus on composition and the idea of processing in monochrome. Though the sky lacks color, it certainly has texture…and this is what we need to make an interesting sky to accompany our lines and textures in the landscape.

It's a great learning lesson to end our time together. Everyone has had fun, learned a lot, and made new friends. Scott and I enjoyed the time immensely, and couldn't remember a time where we'd enjoyed the park as much as this where we didn't have epic sunsets. It was a lot of fun to impart our knowledge with the group, and they seemed to really soak it all in. We're looking forward to seeing what they came home with!

Until next time,

Scott, Brian, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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