What would you do if you hiked up to Delicate Arch at night, only to find 40 photographers waving flashlights around? I decided to organize everyone, creating order from chaos. Here’s how I attempted this in June 2014.
Delicate Arch is iconic, so much so that it appears on the Utah license plate. Rightfully so. It’s one of the most unusual geologic features on the face of the planet. It’s a free-standing 52-foot tall arch on the rim of a large rocky bowl. If that’s not spectacular, I’m not sure what is.
The hike to Delicate Arch
A friend had warned me that even though the hike was only 1.5 miles each way, part of the path became narrow. Worse, it had a steep drop-off of several hundred feet. He was concerned about me hiking back that way at night. Consequently, I prepared to stay the night up at Delicate Arch if necessary. I took ample food, over two gallons of water, a sleeping bag, a light jacket, and much more, along with my camera equipment.
A rock concert
To my utter dismay, there were approximately 150 people there when I arrived shortly before sunset. It was chaos. They were seated around the lip of the bowl as if watching a rock concert. Many were hanging around the arch. 50 people remained long after dark to photograph the Milky Way. They waved flashlights around. They wandered around Delicate Arch with flashlights. Some pointed blindingly bright lights up at the arch from directly below.
Creating something original
Delicate Arch has been photographed many times. To set my photo apart, I had thought I would try a different composition that I had never seen before. I would frame the Milky Way through the arch while looking up at it. Using Google Earth and the Photographer’s Ephemeris, I determined that I could do this after 11:30 p.m.
However, I would not be able to create a good photo if there were 40 people waving flashlights around randomly and wandering around the arch.
Creating order from chaos
By 11:30 p.m., the crowd had thinned slightly. There were probably 40 photographers who remained. And yes, they were still waving flashlights around.
I decided to coordinate our efforts.
I spoke to get their attention, telling them that I wanted to take a photo from below. And I mentioned that I could illuminate Delicate Arch for everyone if we coordinated our times. There were murmurs of agreement. “Sounds great to us!” Fantastic. I was now coordinating the efforts of over 30 photographers.
But there was one more thing to overcome.
Now came the frightening part
The ledge where I wanted to photograph from looked somewhat easy to get to when there was light. But now, it was completely dark. The ledge underneath Delicate Arch was all there was. After that, it was nothing but a steep drop hundreds of feet to the bottom of the bowl below.
Could I safely get to the vantage point needed to take a photo like this?
I carefully climbed down there. And while I felt reasonably safe, I also felt terrified. Climbing down in the dark made it exponentially worse.
Furthermore, to illuminate the arch, I would have to climb back up, illuminate it, and then carefully climb back down.
I decided I would only do this once. I kept the camera clicking away while I climbed back up and illuminated it numerous times, changing the angle to make certain something looked decent. Then I went back down to turn off the camera and get out of there. Whew!
I felt grateful that I hadn’t even slipped. I had been on solid footing the whole time. And my camera had remained rock solid, not plummeting to the rocky bottom below.
Several photographers walked up to me and thanked me. They said that they really liked my light painting of the arch and that they were very happy with their images.
I created the photo I wanted and helped many people in the process. Win-win.
I will say, however, that I will never do that again.
This is the photo that I planned, which I’ve called “Door to Infinity.” As you can see, I achieved my vision. This is an image looking up, the arch framing the magnificent Milky Way.
For this photo, I “light painted” the arch with a small Streamlight 88040 ProTac Professional Handheld Flashlight. This was done to keep it from becoming a silhouette. To do this, I had to walk back and forth from the scary ledge to higher ground.
Please note that I photographed this on 25 June 2014 at 12:37 a.m. Since then, Arches National Park has banned “light painting” at night. This was photographed with a Nikon D610 and a Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens at 14mm. For a single exposure, I used a 20-second exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO of 4000.
I should also mention that I was able to safely hike back down to the car at night. The narrower footpath was approximately six feet wide and didn’t feel treacherous. I went on to photograph numerous other locations, staying out until the sun rose.
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Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020
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A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols