Planning or Serendipity

This photograph required a bit of planning.  (1) It had to be in Autumn when Polaris would be in the correct position.  (2) It had to be at or near new moon to produce bright star trails.  (3) It required clear skies all night long.  (4) I had to modify my Pentax 67 camera so that I could keep the shutter open for 8 hours without draining battery power.  (5) Camera settings, lens and film choice were critical.  (6) Shinning my flashlight on the arch for about 20 minutes while the shutter was open was a lucky guess.  (7) It required a 350-mile round trip and staying up all night just to get one exposure on film.

Most professional photographers will admit that at least some, if not most, of their best images are the result of serendipity rather than planning.  I believe, however, that good luck is more likely with good preparation.  This image is the result of intensive planning enhanced with a nice dose of serendipity.  Here is the story behind this photograph that I hope you find interesting.

Delicate Arch is in Arches National Park, Utah, and is the object of literally millions of photographs by amateurs and professionals alike.  It is the most well-known and iconic natural sandstone arch in the country, if not the world.  It is even seen on Utah’s license plates.  There are more than 2,000 stone arches in the park but with the opening beneath Delicate Arch at 46 feet high and 32 feet wide with an overall height of 52 feet, it is the largest freestanding arch in the park.

My objective?  To make a photograph of Delicate Arch that would be truly unique.  I pre-visualized this image but I needed some help on how to get to the require vantage point.  I inquired at the National Park office but was told that I could not get to that spot . . . that it was “inaccessible.”  In my mind, “inaccessible” became “a challenge.”  So, I set about on my somewhat daunting self-assignment.

The arch sits near the edge of a vertical cliff about 300 feet above the box canyon beneath it.  The established viewpoints are at about the same elevation across the canyon a few hundred yards away.  After several failed attempts to get into that box canyon I was about to give up when I scampered down onto a ledge on the far side of the canyon that seemed to slope downward to where I wanted to go.  The ledge was about 30 feet wide but soon narrowed to just a few feet but I was still more than 30 feet or so above the valley floor.  Before turning around, I leaned out and saw a most improbable thing: stairs chiseled into the rock cliff.  I don’t know if they were created by early park rangers, Indians, John Wesley Wolfe who settled near here in 1898, or whomever, but they led me to the bottom of the canyon.

Before locating the exact spot for my tripod (it required darkness to identify Polaris), I hiked to a spot directly beneath the arch that was 300 feet above me and found all kinds of paraphernalia lying on and in the sand: numerous lens caps, water bottles, hats, a pair of binoculars and even a Vivitar 70-210 zoom lens.  These were obviously items accidentally dropped by some intrepid hikers to the arch over the years and could not be retrieved.  That was interesting, but, importantly, it told me that I was probably the only person to visit this area for a long time.

To make the photograph, I waited until it became dark enough to identify Polaris.  Then, I positioned my tripod-mounted camera so that the star would just touch the inside of the arch opening at about the 4 o’clock position.  I knew, from previous observations, that over a period of about 8 hours during the night, Polaris would scribe a 120-degree light trail circle in a counter clock-wise direction in the sky.  However, I wasn’t sure just how big the circle would be.  Here is where serendipity kicked in.  The star trail followed almost precisely the curve of the arch, as did the other stars above it.

The joy received from the response to viewers of this image is exceeded only by the fun and satisfaction I obtained from making it.

More Great Nighttime Images Here.