Arches National Park Photography Workshop | April 2012

Desert Southwest Photography Workshop: Arches & Canyonlands National Parks - March 31th & April 1st, 2012

The lure of the red rock canyons of the American Southwest draws in crowds from all over the world. Hiking, biking, rafting, and camping are just some of the many draws that the areas of Arizona and Utah have to offer. One constant is that no matter what your purpose for visiting the area, you want to come home with memorable photographs from your trip.

Photography can be a difficult endeavor, and when coupled with the challenges of exploring a new area, it can be downright intimidating. The Aperture Academy is designed to help you with both. We help you learn all of the tricky camera settings needed to make the photographs look like what you have in your mind, and our professional instructors are experts on the area so that means you'll always be in the right places at the right time to get those memorable shots!

A group of 13 eager photographers met instructors Brian Rueb and Ellie Stone in lovely Moab, Utah for a weekend of fun, with a focus on photography in Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Class begins with introductions so Ellie and Brian can get to know the students, their experience level, gear, and what they really want to work on over their weekend.

This class had over 10 people who had been a part of an Aperture Academy workshop at some point in their lives, which made the orientation more of a reunion rather than strictly informational.

Once the class had reconnected and gone over the schedule and weather for the weekend it was time for the class to head off and get a nice nights' sleep because it's an early rise in the morning.

Just after 5am the class assembles sleepy, but ready in the lobby of the hotel to meet Brian and Ellie, and load up into our wonderful photo van dubbed “The ApCab” The first stop of the day is the iconic location known as 'The Windows” a location where two large eye-like openings have been weathered into a vibrant red-rock wall. One of the 'windows' looks through to a stunning vantage of a neighboring arch called “Turret Arch”

Ellie took a group of eager students with some mountain goat blood in their souls on a rock hopping adventure to a vantage the perfectly frames the Turret Arch in the south-window The location is narrow, and not for those with a fear of heights, like instructor Brian Rueb. Brian took the less adventurous photographers, who had double the enthusiasm, into the areas around the windows to look for compositions that made aesthetic use of the foreground trees and rocks, and the iconic Turret Arch.

Even though a certain location may have typical images that one wishes to capture, that doesn't mean there cant' be new and exciting images to be made within the same area. You just have to look for them. That's where our instructors, and their vast knowledge of photography come in. They help the students to learn to see and then use the cameras as a tool to help create that memorable image. This group was fairly advanced in their knowledge of the manual camera settings, which meant we really spent a majority of our time focused in on compositions, and how to approach a scene in terms of creating unique images.

Both Ellie and Brian were very excited to see the types of images students were walking a way with on their screens. Many times it was simply pointing out an interesting tree, or stone, and then the students came up with the creative and original images.

The second location was the towering 'Double Arch' that demonstrates the power of wind and water driven over rock for eons. The light had gotten more harsh as the morning sun rose higher into the sky, and Brian and Ellie encouraged the class to switch their camera into monochrome. Often when the light gets too harsh to make colors and hues pop we switch to monochrome. In Monochrome we can dial in more on other compositional elements present in a scene. Light and Dark shapes, contrast, repetition of shape, etc. These can all be very powerful ways to create a dynamic image. The class was great, and other than a few compositional suggestions, and some minor tweaks to the shutter or aperture settings they were off and running on their own.

The third stop of the day was Courthouse Rock. The sun was high in the sky now, and the class looked a bit apprehensive on what they would be shooting. Brian and Ellie found some great compositions in this area however using small clumps of spring wildflowers, or dry, cracked earth. Once the class realized they could lay on the ground and get right up close to their foregrounds and get some super dynamic images it was a site to see how many photographers were laying out on the dry desert landscape making their own images. This spot was also quite nice for shallow depths of field where the main subject becomes the foreground subjects, and the background subjects are merely implied blurs.

The class loved all the spots in the morning, but waking early and shooting for several hours takes its toll on a person. It was time to head back to Moab for a lunch break, and a nap before setting out on our evening shoot to the most famous arch in Utah---Delicate Arch.

The hike to Delicate Arch is one of the most amazing in all of the desert southwest, with grand vistas of Arches National Park and the distant La Sal mountain range. Everyone who makes the hike at some point during the walk questions their motives and whether or not it was worth the effort. However, the very end of the hike when the photographer rounds the last bend and the view of the magnificent arch comes into sight all the strain and effort is washed away into excitement at the photographic possibilities.

We arrived early to this very popular photography destination so the class could establish their spot, and sit and relax for an hour while we waited for sunset. The weather for the evening had called for very high winds, and while we didn't feel them much on the hike in, now that we were high on an exposed plateau it was clear that the forecast was correct. Gusts of winds nearing 35mph blasted over the red rock landscape causing everyone to fear losing a hat (this happened) or other piece of gear to the swift breath of Mother Nature. Most members of the group hunkered down close to the ground and waited for the light to get right to shoot.

When the sun was just about to drop behind the horizon the class noticed that the clouds were localized in one direction, and we moved to an area where we could photograph the arch and make good use of the dramatic sunset unfolding on the western horizon.

Ellie and Brian helped the class to dial in their exposure times and apertures to get the best results. This was also a great place to work on using Graduated Neutral Density filters and polarizers to help balance exposure and give images a bit of color pop.

The sunset was tremendous, which made the hike out of the plateau back to the van in the dark much more enjoyable. Brian and Ellie had also made reservations at the local brewery in Moab, so when the class arrived back to town they had a place to sit, rest, eat, and enjoy a well-earned cold beer at the end of a long day.

The group dinner was a lot of fun and everyone had a good time cracking wise, and sharing tales from their adventures in photography. The only downside was that we didn't arrive back at the hotel until 11pm…..and we had to be up at 4am to make the drive to another one of the areas iconic postcard shots----Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch, which oddly is not located in Arches NP, but Canyonlands NP is a 10-15ft high arch located right on the edge of a terrifying sheer drop off. The morning sun rises behind the ach, and lights the whole bottom side up with a warm reddish-orange glow. Scores of photographers travel to this area to get their own version of this wonder of the park.

The key to getting a good shot here is to beat the rush of travellers and photographers who show up here all times of year to photograph the rising sun. Our group was the first to arrive in the parking lot, and under a starry sky we made the hike out to the arch. We arrived early enough that some of the students had time to work with Brian on shooting stars and techniques for light painting a subject.

Even though the class always secretly questions the need to wake and depart so early, it's nice to see them finally get it when the first droves of other photographers begin to arrive on the scene. Even though they may not like their instructors for waking them so early they certainly all appreciate knowing that they arrived in time to get pole position on the photography for the morning.

Conditions that morning were ideal. While we as photographer like clouds for our morning and evening shoots, on this location clouds are not ideal, as they can block the rising sun and minimize the colorful impact it has on the red stone arch.

Ellie and Brian helped the students set their white balances, aperture, and shutter speed, as well as learn the basics and times when bracketing is an effective way to deal with very contrasting light, and direct sun.

The class loved the sunset and everyone made their best versions of the popular location. The sun, in addition to warming up the chilly 34-degree morning, also brought a return to the severe winds, and after a sandblasted group shot, we decided to head out to a second morning location- The Green River Overlook.

The Green River Overlook is more of a vision of what people would imagine when they hear the name “Canyonlands” A high viewpoint gives a sweeping view of the numerous maze of canyons that hold the snaking twists and turns of the Green River. The light was getting hotter, and to help create interesting shots of the spots Brian and Ellie encouraged the class to shoot close up shots of just the canyons and their twisting patterns. As was the case on the previous morning, the class was able to make use of shooting in monochrome to help add extra interest to the patterns and textures of the canyons and valleys.

As photographers we are up early and out late to capture the best light the day has to offer. We opted to make our break closer to the morning session to allow people to sleep some, get some food, and check out of the hotel.

We reconvened after lunch in the breakfast area of the hotel so Brian and Ellie could go over and answer some of the post-production questions the students had on what to do with their images once they got home with them.

When the Photoshop lesson was complete, it was time to head back into the park. Clouds had rolled into the Moab area. The there was a definite possibility of a nice sunset for the evening. The first stop of the afternoon was Park Avenue, A short trail cutting through an area lined with narrow sky scraping cliffs of deep burnt oranges, and darker browns. Dramatic afternoon storm clouds begin to roll in and gave the sky some added interest in the images. The class used polarizers to help accentuate the blues and give added contrast between the orange colored rocks.

The class also made some stunning monochrome images in this area that really were made better by the clouds coming into the area….although it made it tough sometimes to wait for the sun to peak back out from behind the clouds and light up the canyon.

The second stop of the day was Garden of the Gods…this area has a variety of, uhm, interesting shapes, that, uhm, resemble a variety of subject matter. Though the class tried to keep it on the up and up, and make unique compositions of the bulbous red-rocked shapes, eventually nearly everyone's inner teenager took over and the images that resulted were quite humorous and somewhat graphic….but the belly laughs and chuckles that resulted really helped tie the group together after a long, hard, day of photography.

The final stop of the workshop was the precarious Balanced Rock. It's strange to see this large stone sitting almost magically atop a narrow rock tower. The sky was doing some amazing things and everyone's hopes were high that were going to end on a high note and get a stunning sunset. The class spent the first portion of the time scouring the area looking for the compositions they liked the best. Eventually everyone settled on an area they liked, and we all waited for the sun to do its thing. Luckily a small pocket on the horizon allowed the sun to peek through and illuminate the rock structures with a vibrant red glow. Brian and Ellie worked with the class to use the grad-filters, polarizers, and a warmer white balance setting to really bring out the most of this wonderful desert scene.

Sunsets in the desert southwest some of the most beautiful we've ever seen and on this night mother nature did not disappoint and everyone got some really nice images to add to the numerous others the weekend had produced. The weekend yielded some amazing experiences, and while we never rescued a princess from a fiery castle, there was definitely learning, laughs, and most of all lots and lots of photographs!

Until Next Time,

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

Until next time,

Brian, Ellie, 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.

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