Professional nature and adventure photographer discusses what went into the making of his image of a female hiker jumping from rock to rock at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah.Read More
I haven’t heard the term “iconography” in a couple of years, but in the past it was used to describe, in a somewhat derogatory or condescending manner, the practice of seeking out and photographing the icons of landscape photography: Delicate Arch, Snake River Overlook, Zabriskie Point, etc. Used in a sentence, it would be something like this: (Look down nose and speak in an intentionally nasally voice) “Ugh. Can you believe these people sharing photos of Delicate Arch? Don’t they know that there is nothing new to photograph there? Iconography is just sooo lame.”
Many years ago I wrote an article for the Nature Photographer’s Network website titled “Iconography: A Fresh Perspective”. It was, essentially, written in defense of those who, like myself, enjoy photographing well known, iconic locations. NPN was and still is the premier website for nature photographers to connect and share their work in a friendly, supportive online environment. In the article, which you will find below, I shared tips on how to create unique images at even the most iconic locations. I still believe that photographing iconic locations can be a powerful learning experience for new photographers and a valid creative exercise for seasoned ones. However, given the overcrowding issues at many of these locations and the unfortunate and sickening incidents of vandalism that are becoming more common, I’ve got mixed emotions about promoting iconography.
That original article was written ten or more years ago. Re-reading it today, the content is just as relevant but I believe there are new considerations to be made in light of the increased visitation and changing visitor demographic. Many of these can be summed up with one simple sentence: Don’t be an asshole. Seriously. I’ve heard photographers scream at families to “get out of the way!” while they’re briefly standing under Delicate Arch for a keepsake photo of their one and only visit to Arches National Park. At Mesa Arch I’ve seen photographers jostle others out of the way, or move a neighboring photographer’s tripod without permission. We’ve all heard of the truly enormous assholes vandalizing rock art and ruins (read my thoughts on this here), stealing the mysterious moving rocks at Death Valley’s Racetrack playa, toppling hoodoos in Goblin Valley…the list goes on and on. Here’s my advice: just don’t. Just don’t be that guy or gal. Be considerate of others. Expect large crowds at most iconic locations and understand that every one of those other folks have as much right to be there as you do. Your big expensive camera doesn’t give you any special privileges not held by all those other tourists. Figure out how to work around the crowds. Don’t climb inside ruins so you can build a fire for more “natural light” in your starry sky photo. Think, “Would my mama approve of my behavior or would I be getting an ass whoopin’ right now?”
Don’t like crowds? Consider an off-season visit, or if a location is normally photographed at sunrise, check it out at sunset. Try to find an alternative location from which to photograph. I’ve shot Delicate Arch at sunrise and Snake River Overlook at sunset, the opposite of what is typically recommended at both and you know what? There were fewer people and I made quality images at both locations. Consider it a challenge to your creativity. Or, if you just can’t play nice at the icons, don’t go. There’s no shortage of truly breathtaking scenery that you can have entirely to yourself.
We photographers shoulder much of the blame for the overcrowding we’re seeing now. We produce gorgeous photos and share them online, where they are viewed by Clark Griswold in Illinois, who decides that this summer he and the family are hoppin’ in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster and driving across the country to see the Grand Canyon for themselves…multiplied by thousands. Given that it’s partially our fault the icons are so busy, shouldn’t we visit them with a measure of grace and humility?
Original NPN Article
The 1.5 mile trail to Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park, is a rite of passage for many nature photographers. We heft our heavy packs and start out across the gentle sandy path, cross the footbridge and are soon standing atop a short series of switchbacks. Squinting into the western sky, we have a raven’s eye view of the small parking lot full of vehicles and buzzing with activity. Continuing up the trail we ascend a wide swath of steep sandstone, using small cairns to guide us to the top of the otherwise near featureless rock. Not long after summitting the big slab of red rock, we walk along a trail literally carved into a wall of sandstone with a precipitous drop to our left. We round a bend and without warning, Delicate Arch makes a grand entrance right smack in front of our disbelieving eyes. Through its massive span are the snowcapped La Sal Mountains, whose prominent peaks contrast sharply against a brilliant blue sky. The scene before us is quite literally postcard perfect. As our initial awe fades, our eyes stray from the beauty of the scene before us to the chorus line of photographers lining the narrow strip of sandstone at our feet. It appears as though every inch of this small parcel of real estate has already been claimed by photographers and tourists who have all come for the same reason; to watch Delicate Arch awash in fiery hues during the final few minutes of the day. So much for solitude!
Chances are this scenario is precisely what comes to mind when you think of Delicate Arch. There are tripod legs crossing tripod legs, random banter about photography gear and, during the last few minutes of golden light, the cacophony of a dozen shutters whirring in unison. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the arch all to yourself and go home with a unique photograph of one of the most popular destinations in any National Park? Well, you can. Keep reading and I’ll tell you how.
Icons have reached “icon” status for good reason. They are jaw dropping, heart thumping, grab you by the throat and slap you around gorgeous. In most cases they have become natural ambassadors, welcoming the throngs of tourists who infuse the local economies with a steady cash flow. Therein lays the “problem”. All those tourists have come to see with their own eyes the icon they have seen in countless magazines and postcards. They all hike the same 1.5 mile trail and take a seat on the sandstone next to their fellow tourists, some of whom have come armed with tripods and cameras. Ninety nine percent of them return home with the standard “La Sal Mountains framed by Delicate Arch” photo that has graced many a postcard. They are oblivious to the fact that maybe, just maybe, there is a unique composition just around the corner, or down in the sandy bowl or across the way on that imposing bluff. Along with that unique composition often comes something that so many photographers rightfully seek: solitude!
I’ve learned that there are two simple rules to finding a new angle of an icon in peace and quiet, away from the crush of the crowds.
1) Visit in the off-season
Most iconic locations have an “off-season”, or a time when visitation shrinks to a mere fraction of the hustle and bustle experienced during the prime time. During the winter months you will most likely find yourself among only a few other hikers who have come to watch sunset at Delicate Arch. On my last visit, in January, a whopping five people had gathered for the day’s curtain call. During spring and fall, it is not uncommon for over 100 hikers to be in attendance here.
The off-season also has other wonderful benefits. Hotels in Moab can be had for $50/night…including breakfast! The Arches campground is nearly a ghost town during the winter, offering solitude and a place to pitch your tent that you won’t find in the summer.
2) Scout it out!
Whether you choose to visit during prime time or the off-season, scouting the area can and usually will reveal a number of unique compositions away from the crowds. Arrive at the trailhead a few hours early and use the extra time to explore the area around the icon. At Delicate Arch, there are a number of wonderful photographs to be had from inside the large bowl just below the arch. Or, scramble up to the bluff behind the arch for uncommon views of its backside which, in winter, receives most of the warm sunset light.
If you are pressed for time or simply too lazy to explore, bring along a model. Including a person in your photo can lend scale to the scene and create a very different perspective, even if the overall composition is a fairly common one.
Whether photographing an icon or an unknown spectacle of nature, photographers take pride in creating images that move the viewer. But, there is a certain degree of satisfaction that comes from putting your own individual twist on an iconic scene and coming away with an extraordinary photo.
I have been told that there isn’t a single scene at Delicate Arch that hasn’t already been photographed. I have no doubt that many would say the same about the Maroon Bells in fall, Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point or the mighty Tetons from Schwabacher Landing. I only hope that those who hold such a narrow-minded view won’t discourage others from experiencing the fulfillment that comes from challenge of discovering a new perspective on an old favorite. To me, that is what iconography is all about.
Old Man Winter strikes Moab again! Yesterday the weather forecast called for a 30% chance of snow which of course ended up being 3” of snow in town, likely more in the parks. Unfortunately, both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are closed to all vehicle traffic so bring warm clothing and a desire to posthole or snowshoe for several miles to access any of the winter wonderlands inside either park. No dout, you will be rewarded with solitude and so much beauty it almost hurts. Or maybe that’s your frozen fingers?
Dead Horse Point State Park should be open but call first to verify that the roads are plowed. Other areas in BLM control are open but again, the road maintenance workers have their hands full so it’s hard to say when the lesser traveled roads will be relatively safe to travel. Big thank you to all the men & women running plows today!
Forecast for the rest of the week is looking pretty darn spiffy. Mostly sunny or partly cloudy with high temperatures in the 30’s. This snow isn’t going anywhere for a few days and I suspect even next weekend will provide opportunities for winter photography.
Headed this way to take advantage of the snowy conditions? Be sure to check out The Photographers’s Guide to Winter in Moab on my blog. Totally free resource with lots of great information on how, when and where to shoot wintery scenes around Moab.
Hello…is anyone still there? Anyone? Well, after a much needed break from photography, social media and blogging I’ve got an itch that needs to be scratched. Wait, that sounds bad. What I mean to say is that lately I’ve been kinda missing the whole writing thing and with 2019 right around the corner it seems like a good time to reinvigorate the MPW blog.
What can you expect? Truthfully, I don’t yet know. I’ve got a few ideas churning in my head, a few of which I’ll rattle off below, but I’m also very interested to hear what you, my readers, would like to see me write about. Got ideas? I know you do and I’d love to hear them! Send me an email or better yet, leave a comment on this post. Interested in writing a guest post? Get in touch; I’d love to hear your suggestions.
Here are a few of the things you can expect to see popping up here on the blog this year:
Landscape, nature and adventure photography tips, tricks and techniques. I’m working on an article now in which I will discuss the various types of light available to outdoor photographers and how to use each one effectively. Also look for wildflower and fall color photo tips.
A pretty comprehensive look at the various resources available to help photographers plan productive photography trips.
eFotoGuide is awesome, but there are so many stellar locations around Moab located outside the National Parks that I’ve decided to write a blog post or two to help photographers find some of my favorite off-the-beaten-path spots.
Behind the Image features, wherein I will post an image and write about the backstory of that image - how it came to be, anecdotes, etc. Less focus on the technical aspects and more focus on the emotional side.
Gear reviews because, well, I’m a gearhead and I think people enjoy them.
Current Moab photography conditions, especially frequent updates during wildflower and fall color seasons. I’ll also post when the snow flies or potholes are filled with rain after a sweet thunderstorm.
So, there you have it. I’m excited to be back and look forward to interacting with y’all again. Keep your eyes on this space because there’s lots of great stuff to come. Oh, and be sure to check out my all new photography website featuring several never before seen images. The site won’t officially launch until mid-January but you can grab a sneak peek right now at www.bretedge.com.
UPDATE 10:40 AM: The snow is still coming down and we have about 2” accumulation in town, likely a little more in Arches and Canyonlands. I have been told that the roads in both parks will not be plowed as a result of the shutdown, so travel at your own risk. There is some fog in the area that will make for interesting, moody images.
Looks like on the last day of 2018 the weather Gods have decided to gift photographers with a blanket of snow here in Canyon Country. The white stuff started falling around 6:00 AM and it is predicted to continue snowing through noon today. This typically results in outstanding winter photography for a day or two, petering off to good winter photography as the snow melts and is tracked over by humans and wildlife.
The big variable right now is the federal government shut down. I don’t know when the roads in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks Will be plowed, if at all. This could make for very difficult or even dangerous access at the parks. I will update this post if I learn more. However, Dead Horse Point State Park and all of the surrounding 2,000,000 acres of BLM land are still open. The same considerations should be given to travel in these areas.
Not sure where to photograph in Arches? Pick up a copy of eFotoGuide: The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Arches NP for only $15 and you’ll discover all the details on where, when and how to photograph over 20 stunning locations in the park. Your purchase helps me to maintain this website and continue to provide real-time photo conditions.
Now get out there and create some beautiful winter photos in the Moab desert!
I'm pissed. Over the past couple of years, I've read news story after news story about dumbasses doing stupid shit in our national parks and other wilderness areas, and I've just sort of stewed over it. There was the Boy Scout leader who knocked over a hoodoo in Goblin Valley State Park, a drone pilot who flew his quadcopter into Grand Prismatic Spring, the "artist" who left her "art" painted all over rocks in national parks throughout the West, souvenir hunters stealing the mysterious moving rocks at the Racetrack in Death Valley, the total dope who got out of his car to harass a bison in Yellowstone (and somehow escaped being gored) and a real genius who thought it would be cute to wade into Brooks Falls for a selfie with feeding grizzly bears. On a recent trip to Glacier NP we witnessed a small group of foreigners attempting to feed rocks to mountain goats. Then, today, I hear that the National Park Service has issued a closure at False Kiva in Canyonlands because some jackass felt the need to light a fire in the middle of this ancient structure, and then use the ashes to leave handprints all over the cave walls.
Maybe it's because Moab is my home and Canyonlands is my backyard, or maybe I've just reached my limit of jackassery, but I can no longer remain silent. I fully realize that venting here on my blog will have precisely zero impact on the reduction of this ridiculousness, but perhaps sharing my thoughts will provide me with some sense of relief. You know, like a blowoff valve. So, here goes.
When we moved to Moab in 2006, Arches National Park averaged about 600,000 visitors each year. This year, the park is on track to see 1.8 million visitors. Park administrators are struggling with how to manage the massive influx of people. Various ideas have been discussed, including a shuttle system and mandatory reservations during peak season. That's right. Reservations. Not that the shuttle would work any better, as we discovered on our recent trip to Glacier, where we spent a total of six hours either waiting for or riding shuttles to do a 4 hour hike with hundreds of other sheep, er...visitors. But, I digress. The reservation system is not a popular idea and has received significant pushback but all indications are that it will proceed in 2019. Fine, maybe with fewer people in the park it'll restore a tiny little bit of the peace that was once so common amongst the majestic towers and arches, and maybe it'll keep KW from proclaiming his undying love for JA with a carved inscription in the soft red sandstone, but probably not.
Where did we go wrong? When did people suddenly become so disrespectful toward Mother Nature and one another that "take only photographs, leave only footprints" is nothing more than meaningless words on a trailhead sign? Why are so damn many people doing so many straight up moronic, selfish, thoughtless, stupid things in the wilderness? I don't have the answer. I don't know that anyone does. Could it be that answering this question may help to guide us toward some sort of resolution, or are we past the point of no return? Will there always be tourons (tourist-morons) who try to ride bison in Yellowstone and carve their stupid initials into aspen trees?
Two decades ago, I was living in Phoenix and spent countless weekends hiking and backpacking throughout the Grand Canyon. It was common to find tourists wearing slacks and penny loafers, or skirts and platform shoes, at Indian Gardens, 4 1/2 miles below the South Rim, in temperatures approaching or over 100 degrees and carrying only a small bottle of water. I always carried extra water and food and frequently handed it out to these ill-prepared folks. I also always carried a garbage bag that I filled with trash I found along the trail as I hiked out of the canyon. I'd see people feeding potato chips to the squirrels, or sometimes deer, and I'd shrug it off. Occasionally, I'd interject and remind them that the animals are wild and shouldn't be fed human food. But it didn't animate me like the antics we're seeing today. I almost wish we could go back to those times, when a tourist being bitten by a rabid squirrel was kind of the big news when it came to national park tomfoolery.
Coming back to False Kiva, my wife and I were planning to visit it this fall with our son. We've been a few times but this would have been his first. If nothing else, maybe this should serve as a reminder that one should never put off visiting a specific location, because it's entirely possible that if you wait too long, you might not get the chance.
I don't really know where I'm going with this or why. I guess I truly am just venting, which isn't going to re-open False Kiva or solve any of the other myriad issues I've mentioned, but I think I do feel a little bit better, so I've got that going for me...which is nice. Perhaps if you've made it this far, you too are feeling some small sense of relief, or maybe you're more pissed off now than you were when you started reading this post. Who knows, but if you've got any thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them. Feel free to leave a comment. Who knows, maybe we, as individuals, can do something to turn this train around, and it could start with one simple idea.