Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Moab's Wintry Magic

When it comes to winter scenery, nothing compares (in my opinion anyway) to the sight of seeing the desert southwest's red rock scenery when dusted with a layer of snowfall. As much as I'm a fan of snowy mountain scenics, I just have to give the nod to the desert southwest. And in this sector of the country, two places jump out at me above all others for winter viewing pleasure....Bryce Canyon National Park and the area surrounding Moab, Utah. After the latest in a series of snowstorms finished sweeping across the southwest section of the country, I finally decided it was time to pay a visit to the Moab area. With it being a mere 3 hour drive from my home, it's pretty easy to time a visit to catch the clearing of most storms. The real big storms can be the exception as it's sometimes foolish to attempt the drive through southwest Colorado, but that wasn't the case this time. As I arrived in Moab, the sky immediately above town and the adjacent national parks (Canyonlands and Arches) were mostly sunny but the La Sal Mountains were still enshrouded in clouds. Perfect! I headed to a favorite place of mine to shoot the otherworldly sandstone formations of the Behind The Rocks Wilderness Study Area against the La Sals and waited for the mountains to clear. Fortunately, the weather obliged and the mountains slowly made their appearance.

Mt. Tukuhnikivatz Behind The Rocks

It was a glorious evening of gazing at the juxtaposition of red rocks against snowy mountains as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky coloring the rocks an ever deeper shade of red. This was exactly what I had come for!

For the following mornings shoot, I found myself in the windows section of Arches National Park. This is one of the more dramatic and popular sections of the park but I only encountered one other photographer in the area during my sunrise shoot. Gotta love the non-existent crowds during the winter season! While the shoot was somewhat unproductive due to cloud cover at the eastern horizon, the peacefulness of the morning more than made the early wakeup call worthwhile.

I usually spend the afternoons on trips like this doing things unrelated to photography...like catnapping, eating, exploring town, etc. However, on this afternoon I actually had a photography subject in mind. I wanted to catch the sun as it crossed through Landscape Arch, the largest spanning arch in the world according to what I've read. My plan was to photograph the scene just as the sun intersected with the arch using a very small aperture which would yield a nice sun star effect. I had researched this occurrence before the trip and had obtained the time of day for this intersection from a photographer who shot the scene in early March. The trick was that I was there more than a month ealier so I'd have to extrapolate a time from that. I figured it would probably take 2 or 3 visits to get the timing right, but what else did I have to do anyway?? With an initial guess in hand I drove out to the Devil's Garden trailhead and trudged up the icy trail for less than a mile to the arch. To my amazement, I arrived just moments before the sun intersected the arch. What fortuitous timing!

 Sun Star at Landscape Arch

Shooting sun star images like the one above can be a bit tricky. For the case above, I shot three exposures... one to properly expose the sun star, the sky and finally the arch itself. I then used Photomatix's Exposure Fusion method (Photomatix is a high dynamic range software tool) to blend the three exposures, creating the resulting image. Until now, I've never been a fan of using HDR software when blending as it usually results in images with halos and other funky artifacts. I'd always preferred the "old fashioned" method of blending in photoshop using layer masks where I had far more control of the final result (at the expense of it being a very time consuming effort). Well, Photomatix's relatively new Exposure Fusion feature may change all that. With very little effort, I was able to come up with an image similar to what would have taken me an hour to create using layer masks. Very cool! It has definitely found a home in my post-processing toolkit.

Ok, sorry for the geeky software techno-babble in the above paragraph....this is a trip report so it's time to get back on topic! After shooting Landscape Arch, I had hoped to continue on the Devil's Garden Trail to Double O Arch. Double O is a fantastic arch that I've yet to shoot in the winter and it's a nice late afternoon subject. The problem was I didn't realize how much snow that area of the park had received. It was far more than other lower areas and I was only able to continue on for a half mile or so before the trail disappeared and the snow became too deep to navigate without skis or snowshoes (neither of which I was wearing). As it turned out, it didn't matter as the clouds were thickening from a storm passing well to the south which would pretty much wipe out any photographic opportunities for the next 24 hours.

The highlight of my following evening's venture was attempting to shoot Double Arch (not to be confused with Double O Arch) under cover of a starry sky. Double Arch is another impressive arch located in the windows section that I thought would make an excellent subject for a technique referred to as light painting. Light painting is when you utilize a light source (usually some sort of flashlight) to bathe a subject with light under a night sky. For the scene below, I utilized a Dorcy 2 million candle power spotlight with a halogen bulb. I've found in the past that I get the best results with this light when I bounce the direct light off of other rocks to illuminate the scene, but this arch was too large for that. I quickly discovered when painting the arch that I could not directly light the foreground boulders as they would overpower the scene. In general, I found Double Arch to be a formidable challenge for this technique mostly because it was so large that it was difficult to fairly evenly paint it. It probably took 12-15 tries before I came up with the final image. That is how things work with light painting....you usually need several trials to get things right.

Double Arch Illuminated

While the process was time consuming, it wasn't without entertainment. It was really cool being serenaded by a pair of not-so-distant coyotes trading howls while I was doing my thing. The eery echoes in the arch's rock amphitheater provided quite the ambiance!

My final full day in the area saw me photographing Landscape Arch (again) at sunrise and finishing up with a shoot of Balanced Rock (once again in Arches NP) at sunset. I tried to find a somewhat different perspective for shooting Balanced Rock as the La Sal Mountains were shrouded in clouds and I wanted to make them a more prominent part of the composition. After trudging all over the area, I found what I was looking for and was happy with the images I can away with.

Balanced Rock at Sunset

After a final morning's (rather unsuccessful) shoot at Dead Horse State Park I packed up and headed for home with another enjoyable winter trip to the desert in the books! To see a few more images from this trip, click on the following link...

1 comment:

  1. What a coup!!
    You really brought back some stellar images from this trip. Almost all one of a kind, too. Congratulations!
    Hope our luck is this good next week in Arizona!

    --John from Cortez