As we entered the park in the pre-dawn hour you could make out the faint silhouette of the many monolith structures that dot this ancient Utah landscape. For most of the group, this was the first-time visiting Arches National Park and I was excited to show them some of my favorite places – the first of which would be the La Sal Viewpoint for sunrise.
The first stop of any workshop is always the most challenging, both for the guests and instructors. For students, it’s dark, unfamiliar and you can’t even see which way to point the camera! For workshop leaders, it is important to establish each guests’ individual needs and goals all while helping find a safe place to set up and shoot. And, this morning it was chilly so we were all bundled up in layers making pushing buttons and adjusting tripods a bit more challenging.
We were off to a solid start. The light was coming up. Everyone was getting their bearings and the energy was good. Then that wonderfully familiar smell of rain, carried in the cool morning breeze, began to increase. I was keeping an eye on a large daunting cloud moving in from the Northwest and then, just like that, it began to sprinkle…then rain…THEN POUR! We all scurried to pack up and retreat to the shelter of our vehicles.
Just because we retreated does not mean we were giving up. After a quick review of the weather radar, I switched plans and we headed north into some lessor visiting canyons to photograph some of the best rock art Utah has to offer. We spent 90 minutes scanning the canyon walls for petroglyphs and pictographs to photograph and also just enjoy. There’s something pretty incredible about seeing artwork from people who inhabited the region thousands of years ago.
Looking to the south we could see the storm was passing so we headed back to Arches National Park to pick up where we left off. Mother nature did not disappoint! We rolled into the Courthouse Towers area with fantastic light and nice cloud remnants from the storm. I worked with the group to find attractive foreground elements to anchor strong portrait compositions of Courthouse Tower and the Tower of Babel. These “near/far” wide-angle compositions are always a lot of fun and the group seemed to really enjoy our time in this area.
Once the sun had moved farther to the west we made our way to Park Avenue where we worked on wide-angle, panoramic, and telephoto compression techniques to begin broadening the skillsets needed for what was to come in this workshop.
We returned to Moab for lunch and a break so everyone could charge batteries and reset for the afternoon. After lunch, we again entered the park and made our way to the trailhead for Delicate Arch. The weather again governed our plans, as mother nature always does. The key is being flexible to go with the flow and maximize conditions however you can. As we hiked up to Delicate Arch we kept a close eye on the skies. As we rounded the final corner the giant natural amphitheater that surrounds Delicate Arch came into view. It’s one of those places that, no matter how many times you visit, always take your breath away. To our surprise, there were very few people up there. I counted about a dozen, which was awesome! We gathered together, set up our camera gear, and ate dinner as we waited for the sun to set. We took some phone selfies of each other and had a good time getting to know one another better. Sunset came and we watched the horizon anxiously, but a colorful sunset was not to be. However, the dramatic skies offered up compositions that we would later convert to monochrome to create that classic, timeless, look and feel of Ansel Adams style.
On the second day, we started the morning in the Windows District. This area of Arches National Park has a large concentration of arches, from the North and South ‘Windows’, to Turret Arch, Double Arch, and many other smaller arches early in their formation process. We set up near Turret Arch and captured many great images, again with dramatic skies. We worked with filters to help balance exposures and foreground elements to anchor our compositions.
From Turret Arch we made the short walk over to Double Arch. To my surprise, we had the entire arch to ourselves and the light was great. Double Arch is a sight to see…two gigantic sandstone arch spans with a giant circular bowl below. In the bottom are boulders the size of a small car strewn about, evidence of time and gravity crafting these incredible formations.
After a couple of hours, we packed up and headed deeper into the park. Our next stop was Skyline Arch. After a short walk, we identified a half-dozen compositions that worked really well with the arch in the distance. This provided a great opportunity for me to teach focus stacking techniques and we also worked on exposure bracketing and using higher apertures (f/stops) to ensure sharpness throughout the scene. To our surprise, a hiker suddenly appeared from the backside of the arch adding a fantastic sense of scale to the landscape. We worked quickly to capture the frame with them included and the hiker was nice enough to pose for us.
As we packed up to return to Moab we decided brunch was in order. As we gathered at the Moab Diner I saw the weather forecast was calling for a large rainstorm that afternoon. With that, we decided the best use of our afternoon would be to stay at the hotel so we gathered in the conference room for an image post-processing session. I worked with each guest on their images in Lightroom and Photoshop to get the most out of their favorites. This included a variety of techniques like focus stacking, exposure blending, masking, panoramic stitching, and monochrome and filter conversions. We also talked a lot about how to learn from the images you’ve captured so that you can improve your in-field techniques.
Photography requires dedication and dedicated we were as we returned to the La Sal Overlook for one more attempt at sunrise. Mother Nature didn’t offer up the color we were hoping for but another day of dynamic skies did not disappoint. From the overlook, we made a short hike down into the Courthouse Towers area where we found large puddles of water leftover from the rainstorm the night before. As we arrived the light improved and provided us with some really fantastic reflections and compositions. The group really enjoyed their time here and everyone came away with some great images.
A big thank you to our guests for joining us on this adventure. I had a great time working with, and getting to know, everyone!
Until next time,
Stephen and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.