My Night at Delicate Arch…or The Magic of Random Events in Long Exposure Photography

I’ve been re-processing a number of my old photos lately. A while back I received an IPS monitor as an early Christmas present; as someone who had struggled to find the black point and a reasonable level of contrast in the night sky, this monitor was a great addition to my post-processing tool set. I can’t account for your web browser or your monitor’s color profile, but I’m much, much closer to printing exactly what I see on my monitor. For me, as always, it’s still all about the print.

Additionally, my thinking has slowly evolved when it comes to deep, detail-less shadows (or even not-so-deep shadows) in night photos. Years ago I relied on the heavy lifting of the shadow and/or blacks slider in Lightroom 4 or 5 to pull detail out of these darkened corners. But Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw) are strong medicine, and just because you can pull sliders all the way to the left or right doesn’t mean you should. Lifting shadows too much often gave me undesirable results (purple blotching and noise, for instance), which resulted in even more time spent post-processing.

Slowly I’ve worked away from the I-have-to-have-detail model, at least when it comes to night photography. I’ve come to accept that the night will have shadows–sometimes shadows so deep and dark that they’re completely impenetrable.

This photo of Delicate Arch (in Arches National Park) was originally put online in early July of 2013. It was EarthSky’s image of the day for July 10th.

For me, this was a throwaway or “sketch” shot. I was pretty sure that this was the composition that I wanted, since I loved the leading lines of the sandstone bowl that led to the arch itself. What I wasn’t sure about was the periphery–I couldn’t really see anything at the edges of my frame through the viewfinder, so I took a handful of shots to see what my camera saw.

A couple closer to the arch (who was already there when I arrived) was shooting, so I did my best to stay out of there way. This is, or at least should be, a common courtesy among night photographers, within reason of course. (If they had shot uninterrupted for another half hour, I would’ve politely tried to work my way into their space.)

There had been a lull in the action as the couple pored over their photos on the back of their camera, so I set up another sketch shot and tripped my shutter. Just then, I heard him giving her instructions which amounted to “walk up to the arch and then shine the flashlight at it from below.” So she turned on the flashlight and walked up to the arch, just as he said.

At first, as I watched her walk up to the arch in the middle of my photo, I was a little annoyed, since I hadn’t really gotten a clean shot yet and was hoping to get one without extraneous lighting. But, at the same time, it was just a sketch photo, and they were there first.

As soon as I reviewed the image, though, I saw that her path up to the arch was arch-like itself. I made a mental note that the photo hadn’t been completely ruined and kept shooting.

This is part of the reason that I seldom, if ever, delete photos off my memory card in the field. I can’t imagine how disappointed I would’ve been had I decided to get rid of this photo in the spur of the moment because “she ruined my photo.”

The next day, after reviewing those images, I saw that not only had the image not been ruined, but that the woman’s path made the photo much more interesting to me. With the flashlight’s arc, a level of metaphorical meaning had been achieved. Additionally, the photo seemed to illustrate the magic of a long exposure–that random events (usually, moving lights) don’t necessarily ruin long exposures at night. In fact, they often add to the image.

I shot several photos of Delicate Arch with the same composition, but without any lighting. I like the photos and will probably post one sometime soon. But, to me, the addition of the flashlight and the human figure changed the photo’s entire meaning. This was no longer just a photo of one of the most-photographed sandstone arches in the southwestern United States. First off, it documented the process of night photography–it was a photo of a photo. Further, to me, the photo commented on the difficulty of escaping the “maddening crowds” in our national parks system. Even after a mile plus of night hiking near steep drop-offs.

A woman with a flashlight walks toward Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

A woman with a flashlight walks toward Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

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