The Landscape Photographer's Canvas
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Landscape painters begin with a blank canvas (although, if truth be told, today they often use photographs as inspiration for their paintings). Landscape photographers, on the other hand, start with the landforms in front of them. You might think that means that all landscape photographers can do is make a mechanical rendering of the scene in front of them. If that were so, I would long ago have lost interest in landscape photography. What keeps me fascinated today, after nearly 30 years of full-time landscape photography, is imagining new images I can create on the canvas nature has already provided, then setting out to capture them.
Here's an example. In 2017, I shot a sunrise panorama at Brimhall Point, a stunning viewpoint overlooking the Maze and the south fork of Horse Canyon, in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The Maze is one of the most remote destinations in the Lower 48. Reaching it from Highway 24 south of Green River, Utah, requires driving 46 miles of washboard gravel road, then bouncing over 30 miles of nasty four-wheeling. Four years later, as I was thinking about images I might want to make after teaching my Moab in Spring workshop in late April 2022, I suddenly realized that Brimhall Point could be an ideal vantage point for a Milky Way panorama. I had shot my sunrise panorama looking east – precisely the direction of the center of the Milky Way arch at the right time of night in late April. My sunrise panorama stretched nearly 180 degrees from left to right, about the same angle of view required to capture a Milky Way panorama. And my sunrise panorama showed two curvaceous canyons that would complement the arc of the Milky Way beautifully. I had visited the Maze three times, but never thought of this possibility. With careful planning, I hoped to paint a new image onto a familiar canvas.
I reserved two nights at the Maze Overlook the instant the reservation window opened, four months in advance of my trip, and almost immediately began berating myself for not booking three nights. What if it was cloudy for two nights? I went back to the reservation website to book a third night. No luck: within minutes of the reservation window’s opening, every night at the Maze Overlook’s two campsites had been completely booked for the next three months.
I resigned myself to making the best of the time I would have. Four days before my Maze trip, I drove to Moab and started teaching my three-day Moab in Spring workshop, where my students, with my help, shot two sunrises and two sunsets in a row. On the same day that workshop ended, I taught a Milky Way workshop for a private student at Grand View Point. In the spring, the Milky Way is most photogenic in the wee hours of the morning, which meant leaving the hotel at 11:30 p.m. and returning around 4:30 a.m.
With my teaching duties behind me, I had one more night in Moab before heading for the Maze. To stretch my legs that afternoon I hiked the short trail to Corona Arch. During previous scouting trips I’d concluded that Corona Arch doesn’t get moment-of-sunrise or sunset light at any time of year. But what about the Milky Way? I’d never considered that possibility. Using Sun Surveyor and a handheld compass, I soon discovered that in late September you can shoot the Milky Way through Corona Arch if you choose exactly the right vantage point. I had found another fresh image I could etch onto an already formed slate someday.