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Think You've Been There, Shot That? Think Again

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Do you feel like you’ve shot everything worth shooting at your favorite national park? Digging deeper may yield fresh results. Here’s how I learned this lesson at Arches National Park.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve photographed in Arches. I shot some of my very first landscape images (really bad ones, if truth be told) in Arches nearly 40 years ago. In 2007 I spent several days figuring out the best time of year to photograph each of the major arches. I knew that at the latitude of Arches the angle of sunrise and sunset varies by about 60 degrees from winter solstice to summer solstice. With that in mind and a compass in hand, I hiked every trail in the park and decided what time of year would provide the ideal lighting angle for each photogenic formation. I even wrote an article for Outdoor Photographer titled The Ultimate Guide to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, describing the results of this effort. Over the next decade, I returned again and again, slowly working my way down my shot list. By last December, I was sure I had exhausted Arches’s photographic potential.

Then I visited again, and was surprised to find that I really hadn’t discovered every possibility after all. The main goal of the trip was to shoot the December 13-14 Geminid meteor shower in Canyonlands National Park, but I added a little extra time after the main event to shoot in Arches. As I was planning the trip I tried to think of fresh possibilities. I knew I would be shooting near winter solstice, when the sun rises and sets farther south than it does at any other time of year. I hoped that would allow me to make some unique images, since I would be able to exploit a lighting angle that would only be possible in mid- to late December.

Figure 1. Turret Arch through North Window, Arches National Park, Utah
Figure 1. Turret Arch through North Window

One of the most famous shots in Arches is the view of Turret Arch through North Window, normally shot at sunrise (figure 1). What if I shot it at sunset around winter solstice? Could the sun set through Turret Arch as seen from North Window?

I opened Photo Ephemeris Web, measured the azimuth (compass bearing) of Turret Arch from North Window, and got 227 degrees. The azimuth of sunset on winter solstice is 240 degrees, 13 degrees to the right of Turret Arch. I was out of luck – or so I thought.

I racked my brain for other options. I knew that the sun would set through Delicate Arch at winter solstice, but I’d already shot that twice, with good results. For lack of any better idea, I decided to shoot North Window through Turret Arch at sunset and take what I could get.

When I arrived at North Window, I pulled out my compass and shot a bearing to the horizon to see where the sun would set. To my surprise and delight, I saw that the setting sun would be visible through North Window just to the right of Turret Arch. No amount of map study would have revealed this possibility. Discovering it required a visit in person. The vantage point for the best shot of Turret Arch through North Window is a small ledge perched on the side of a sandstone tower, so there is virtually no room to move back and forth to change what portion of the horizon is visible through North Window.

Clearly this idea had potential. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast. Nonetheless, I waited, hoping for the best but already resigned to waiting a full year for another chance at making the image I had in mind. At the last possible minute, the sun found a gap between the clouds and the horizon, giving me a sunburst effect (figure 2). Although better images are certainly possible and I plan to return, I at least had something to show for my serendipitous discovery. And I re-learned a valuable lesson: in-depth scouting during repeat visits to great locations can yield new, unexpected, and exciting images.

Figure 2. Turret Arch through North Window on December 14th.

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