Posted by: kerryl29 | August 30, 2021

The Story Behind the Image: Spooky Canyon Arch

Sometimes things just come together, in a manner that really can’t be planned. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does occur it helps to be in a position to take advantage of it. This transpired during the photo shoot at Spooky Canyon, part of this past spring’s trip to the desert Southwest.

Generally speaking, when photographing in a slot canyon like Spooky, I’m looking for scenes that show off reflected light. That’s what makes the different colors in the slot really stand out. (You can see some examples of this in the post covering a shoot at Lower Antelope Canyon back in 2012.) There are some exceptions to this rule of thumb, but broadly speaking, direct sunlight is to be avoided; it tends to create visual hot spots that detract from the overall presentation and produce contrast that I typically find unappealing in such settings.

So, of course, I’m here to present an exception to the rule. When we were at Spooky Canyon we reached a kind of antechamber that contained a small(ish) arch. It made for a very interesting sight, but I was less sanguine about the photo potential. The arch itself, at first view, kind of blended into the background; it was difficult to discern. Still, I thought the scene was worth a photographic attempt, so I set my tripod up and took the camera in hand to search for a composition that I thought would work. The sun was apparently behind a cloud while I was doing this, which may have added to the relative “flatness” of the scene as I was looking at it.

Suddenly, a kind of soft sunlight cut into the scene and I was momentarily mesmerized by the change. This was not full-on sun; it was the kind of effect that is sometimes seen when a thin cloud layer is partially diffusing sunlight, or when the edge of a cloud is skirting the sun’s position.

I couldn’t see the sky from the antechamber so I’m not certain exactly what was going on but the effect was unmistakable. A glow emerged on the bottom of the arch and, perhaps even more importantly, an S-curve of sorts was created on the floor of the chamber as the shadow line of the canyon walls was outlined. Any more sun than this and the effect would be utterly blown out. Any less and there would be no observable effect at all. I didn’t know how long these conditions would last, but I had to assume that the answer was “not very.” The same rationale applied to the question: how long would this antechamber remain free of other people?

Instantly assuming that I had mere seconds to obtain the image, I dropped to my knees, slipping the camera into the tripod head’s quick release brace. Fortunately I had already metered the scene and set the exposure. But I still had to compose the shot, establish the initial focus point and execute a short focus stack bracket. I did this as quickly as I could; I’m guessing it took 10 seconds or so.

I quickly reviewed the shots to make sure that the focus bracket was good and when I was satisfied I decided to repeat the exercise with a horizontally oriented composition, so I started to remove the camera from the tripod…and before I even placed the camera back in the brace the sun blasted the entire scene to smithereens. Whatever cloud cover had been causing the diffusion was gone. I stayed in place briefly, just to see if the effect would return. It didn’t and within 30 seconds or so people started streaming into the area.

To the best of my knowledge, the effect wasn’t repeated. I’d had one opportunity to make this image and I was fortunate enough to have successfully completed the sequence. Sometimes you just have to get lucky.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

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