When it comes to getting the shot, sometimes it pays to think “outside the box.” Consider the following story, but please, first indulge me by reading a bit of background information.
You may be familiar with what has become known as “Windstone Arch.” It’s a feature located at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and made famous by renowned landscape photographer David Muench. A photograph of the arch first appeared, as best I can tell, on the cover of a publication about the park that was produced in 1968 and also graced the cover of a coffee table book of Muench’s photographs of arches, natural bridges and windows called “Windstone.” It’s from the book’s name that the arch’s unofficial moniker emanates.
The arch is difficult to find—even though it’s located within a few hundred feet of a park road that is traveled by hundreds of thousands of people every year. But a few years ago, for better or for worse, the GPS coordinates of the location started to appear on the Internet. Even with the coordinates, spotting the feature can be tricky, but with a bit of perseverance, anyone can do it.
In May of this past year, I took a photo trip to the desert southwest of the United States—about a three-hour plane ride from my home base in the American Midwest—which included parts of four days at Valley of Fire. It wasn’t the sole purpose of my trip to photograph Windstone, but as long as I was at the much underrated Valley of Fire (it’s spectacular!), I did want to check it out.
The quality of light in the desert is such that it becomes quite harsh within a couple of hour after sunrise and stays that way until sunset approaches. So, while on site, during the hours between the time when the light was good, I was either shooting close-ups in the shade or I was scouting locations for times when the light was pleasing. During this “bad light” period during my first full day on site, I decided to find Windstone Arch.
My pre-trip research had specified that the best time for actually photographing the arch was during the early morning hours, so I didn’t have my equipment with me during the scouting session, which took place early in the afternoon. After a bit of wandering around, I finally found the feature itself, which is tucked away inside a small alcove in a rock outcropping. I had to climb up to this spot, but it wasn’t difficult and I was rewarded when I saw that I had finally found the right place. The small rock opening—the chamber is far too small to stand up in—is open at both ends: on the north side of the arch itself and on the south side. I had climbed up the north side of the rock face and peered in the opening.
What I saw resembled the cover of the book linked above. I immediately saw why it was a morning shot, because early in the afternoon, direct sunlight was already flooding in the small cavity on the south side of the arch…and the north side, for that matter. This was creating all sorts of objectionable hot spots within the alcove and the problem would only get worse as the sun moved to the west.
It’s important to understand that what makes the shot compelling—beyond the obviously noteworthy nature of the arch itself—is the presence of indirect reflected light heading through the openings. This lights the chamber and makes the scene come alive, but without the problem of hotspots. Reflected light would be present when the sun was in the eastern sky—meaning the early morning. By mid-morning at this time of the year, according to my research, there would already be problems with direct light. By the time in the late afternoon/early evening that the hotspots would disappear, so would any possibility of reflected light. No, the shot would have to be taken in the early morning.
Before my scouting trip came to an end, I decided to take a look at the arch from the other direction—the alcove opening to the south. I climbed back down the rock outcropping and climbed back up the other side. Upon crawling into the opening, my eyebrows went up. Wow! I liked this view of the arch much better than the one from the north side opening; I found it much cleaner, less cluttered and more compelling. I couldn’t recall ever having seen an image of the arch from this side and wondered why. Was I the only one who found this perspective more appealing? I wrapped up the scouting session with a plan to return to shoot the formation the following morning.
I was back at Windstone early the following morning, shortly after sunrise. This time I climbed up the rock formation so that I could photograph the arch from my preferred perspective—looking to the north. With my camera gear and tripod in tow, I scrambled up the rock face and into the small alcove on my hands and knees…and I was immediately presented with an answer to the rhetorical question I had posed the previous afternoon. I now knew why I hadn’t seen any shots of the arch from this direction (though I have subsequently discovered a few—more on that below). With so much direct light flooding the alcove the previous afternoon I had failed to notice that there were two openings in the rock above the north entrance, which allowed direct sunlight to flood into the chamber, filling it with hotspots visible from the south side, where I was now crouched. I could see from my position that those openings would have no impact on shooting the arch from the north side—hence the plethora of images from that perspective. What a disappointment! I took a series of shots, that could be assembled as an HDR image, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with them even as I was executing the sequence. Then I moved over to the north side to take the same image that everyone who finds Windstone takes. That image is immediately below.
As I was wrapping up the shoot, I took another look at the two openings above me that had caused all the problems. I blocked part of one of them with my hand, dampening the impact of the light for a moment. And then I had a brainstorm! Would it be possible to somehow block the openings from the outside? That would take care of the problem! I decided to find out.
Given the nature of the place, I had to exit the alcove by the same opening I had entered through, descend the rock, and then climb back up in a different place to try to find the exterior access to the “roof” of the alcove. I’d estimate the climb at about 1/8 of a mile, but I found myself looking from the outside of the chamber in through the same pair of “holes” in the rock that I’d identified from below. Both were readily accessible to me and neither was all that large. If I could think of something to use to cover them…
And then I remembered that I had brought two diffusers with me on the trip. I’d been on the ground in the Southwest for more than a week at that point and hadn’t used either one at all, but now I might have the need for both. Fortunately I had both of them with me in the car and I ran quickly back down to retrieve them. One was in the form of a white umbrella; the other was a large, round “photo disc” diffuser. I grabbed them and ran back up to the exterior access point. I was able to prop the open umbrella on the rock surface and wedge it into a point where it seemed to cover the higher of the two holes. I then placed the disc partially on the rock and pried it under part of the umbrella to cover the lower hole. It seemed a bit precarious but with a little bit of finagling I was able to make it work and I ran back down to the southern alcove opening. Naturally, I could still see some direct light penetrating one of the holes. I’d closed off most of the openings, but not all of them. I moved over to the north opening to get a closer look. Both diffusers needed to be adjusted, I concluded, and I figured out where the problem was and then ran back up to the exterior to manipulate the diffusers. On the first attempt to do so the entire apparatus collapsed like a house of cards, but retaining a modest degree of patience after uttering an expletive or two, I put things back together and very carefully examined things for any light leakage. I couldn’t see any, so I ran back down to the southern opening. This time, everything looked perfect, and I proceeded to complete several images before breaking everything down and retrieving the diffusers. One of the images from the south opening is below.
As I mentioned, I’ve subsequently seen two other shots taken from the south, but they suffer from the hot spot problem that I faced when I first attempted to complete the shot. It’s certainly possible—even likely—that someone else has done what I did…and long before I did it. But I must confess to feeling pretty smug at the time about pulling off such an ingenious solution to a problem and doing so in such short order. After thinking about it a bit, I realized that I had no reason to feel superior; if I’d really been clever, I’d have recognized the problem during the previous day’s scouting session and would have solved it then and there so that I could have hit the ground running the following morning. What I had been, in fact, was lucky. I just so happened to have those diffusers with me. Had I been aware of the problem in advance, I could have purchased a white bed sheet to easily cover the openings and found a couple of rocks to hold it in place. But I didn’t think of that until long after the fact.
In any event, the moral of the story is to keep an open mind about dealing with in-field photographic problems. Sometimes the solution resides in the form of something that isn’t a “conventional” piece of photographic equipment. Exhaust all of the possibilities before giving up on the shot. You won’t always be able to get what you’re after, but when you do, the satisfaction is sublime.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.