Delicate Arch is the most famous freestanding natural sandstone arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. For me, it’s one of those “postcard” locations. It’s already been explored and photographed so much that I don’t approach photographing it the same way I may approach a less famous location.
Download the Video Tutorial to see exactly how I shot and edited this image of Delicate Arch.
As a photographer, should you avoid “postcard” locations? I don’t. While I try to avoid taking cliche shots, which is harder to do in a popular location, there is nothing wrong with visiting a place where thousands have been and trying your hand at crafting a unique image.
For me, I was most interested in trying to photograph Delicate Arch at night. I was in Moab for another film project and I only had the night of December 18th free to attempt a shot. Using the planner function in my PhotoPills smartphone app, I knew that at around 11:00 pm the Milky Way would be alined so that it would be visible in my shot from where I planned to photograph Delicate Arch. I also knew that my chances of actually capturing the Milky Way were slim because of the half moon lighting up the sky that night. The PhotoPills app is excellent and although it costs around $10.00, it’s very valuable for the serious landscape photographer.
The Delicate Arch Hike
The hike to Delicate Arch is 1.5 miles one-way and is described as “moderately strenuous.” For the casual hiker I think this is an accurate description. It took me just shy of an hour to make the hike and that was alone in the dark over patchy ice and snow. Portions of the trail are only marked with manmade piles of rock called cairns which can be difficult to spot in the dark. Definitely bring good hiking shoes, weather appropriate clothing, GPS/trail map, and water.
Here are 5 other tips for nighttime landscape photography:
Nighttime photography brings with it it’s own set of challenges. Add in a “moderately strenuous” hike and it can be downright intimidating. If you’re out after dark be sure to be prepared. In the winter that means having a full tank of gas, extra warm clothes, a first aid kit, flash light with extra batteries, and a hiking buddy.
I almost never hike alone but on this trip I didn’t have a choice. I made sure to tell my wife of my plans and set a time in which she would notify the police/park rangers if I didn’t check in. There was no cell service on AT&T for the majority of this hike, but I did have good signal when I reached the top near the arch. I think it’s smart to always plan as if you won’t have your phone.
For night photography you’ll need a sturdy tripod that can hold the camera still for the duration of your long exposures. Unfortunately, the sturdier tripods are also usually heavier. My favorite tripod at the moment is the Manfrotto MT055 XPRO 3 It’s a fantastic tripod that allows you to get really close to the ground, but it is on the heavier side. I ended up strapping it to my Incase Pro Pack and it wasn’t too bad to hike with.
3. Bring a Laser Pointer
One of the biggest challenges in nighttime photography is setting focus. Most DSLR’s have a really hard time with autofocus in the dark. One trick is to use a laser pointer to put a dot of light on the subject. This will show up through your viewfinder and you should be able to focus on it.
I forgot to pack a laser pointer on this trip so I ended up using the trial and error method of taking a shot and then zooming in on the image on my LCD screen to see if the focus was good. I had to adjust several times in order to get sharp focus on Delicate Arch. This can take quite a while, especially if your exposure times are long, i.e. 30 seconds each.
4. Don’t be afraid of higher ISO
Generally photographers like to keep the ISO as low as possible. Higher ISO settings introduce unpleasing noise and loss of clarity to your image. In nighttime photography however, it is often necessary to use higher ISO settings to properly expose the frame. For the shot at the top of this post, I used ISO 6400, the max ISO setting for the Canon 5DS. You’ll notice that it’s still fairly clean with minimal noise. It’s worth experimenting at different ISO settings to see what creates the best result.
5. Shoot for Panorama
I’ve never regretted the times when I’ve remembered to take the time to shoot a series of images for a panorama. Night photography is definitely a slower pace as a result of the longer exposure times. I like to use the time I’m waiting for an exposure to think about composition and whether or not the location may work for a panorama.
Another benefit of shooting multiple images and stitching them into a single panorama is the crazy amount of resolution you can create. In fact, you can even use a relatively low resolution point and shoot camera and create a high resolution panorama. Remember that not all panoramas have to be wide and short.
I took the time to record a little video during my hike as well as during the edit process for the image at the top of this post. Click the button below to download the nighttime landscape tutorial: