You’ve seen them. Those places that everybody goes to because one just has to have a photograph of that location, at a certain time of day. They are also beautiful. The real problem is that everybody goes there and a few million other photographers have taken that same image already and it’s very hard for yours to stand out from the crowd.
This was the scene that greeted me a few days ago, when I went for the first time to photograph the iconic Mesa Arch, in Canyonlands National Park, at sunrise.
1. Vary the focal length
After having found a place to put down my tripod–while most of those who came later than me had to settle for second row–I waited for the show to start and tried to get as many images as possible. The vision of the arch, glowing orange underneath from the first rays of the rising sun and encircling the distant mesas and canyons is definitely a sight to behold and to photograph. I think I got a couple decent images, like the one below (click for a larger view).
The problem is that I am certain that most of the other 20 or 30 photographers that were there that morning got the same image or a very similar one. The same is true of the millions that came before, since this place has been popularized, and of the millions that will come in the future. Just search for “mesa arch sunrise” on Google Images to get an idea.
On the other hand, what almost every one of those 20 or 30 did was to pack and leave as soon as they got that one shot and light conditions were starting to deteriorate, without bothering to explore the surroundings and look for alternative images. What I did instead was to change the wide-angle lens for a long zoom and try to get a shot that would isolate the distant buttes from the surroundings, without including the arch, where the glow had already started vanishing. I am quite happy that I tried this, because I could get a shot like this one.
I think a valuable lesson that can be learnt from this is that it almost always pays to not be content with the planned, iconic, and well-explored image, but to try instead to find a different one. Using a long focal length to isolate details is one, but in this article I want to share a couple more.
2. Use a large aperture to blur the background
Landscape photographers will almost always use a small aperture to get everything in focus, from the closest foreground to the mountains far away on the horizon. This is certainly recommended in most situations, but sometimes it pays to use a large aperture, focus on a close subject, and let the background go blurry. Well-known vistas can thus become a backdrop to an interesting object close by. I used this technique recently when I went to shoot another iconic sunrise at a location close to the previous one: Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab, UT. While not as famous as Mesa Arch, this is the shot that everybody gets:
Pretty nice, huh? However, once again I didn’t want to stop at this and a handful of different focal lengths, but set my sights on a nearby Juniper tree, opened up the f-stop and got this. While it definitely doesn’t have the same “wow” factor, it’s still a nice image that helps telling a story, together with the other ones:
3. Try a different angle
The third iconic location that I visited during my trip to the Moab area was Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park. This view is so popular that it also figures in all of Utah cars’ number plates. Once again, the crowd of photographers and visitors up there for sunset was big and totally expected. While I was waiting for the best light, I noticed that the shadow of the arch on the rocks on the left had a bright area in its center, a sure sign that the sun could be seen from the other side of the arch, where there was nobody.
I left my Fujifilm X-E2 on the tripod, asked the guy standing to my side to keep an eye on it, got the X100s out of the bag, rushed to the spot on the other side and grabbed a few shots, trying to get a sunburst effect across the opening in the arch, before getting back to my tripod and catching the image that everybody else had gotten that day. Of all people who were there that day, I am pretty sure I was the only one to get something like the image below.
4. Get creative
There are many ways that you can get a creative or alternative shot of some too familiar location, even without going down the easy road of instagramming your pictures with funky filters. One way is to use specialty lenses, like Lensbaby ones, but I routinely carry with me (though I don’t use it as often as I should) a cheaper solution in the form of a crystal orb that I got for a few dollars on eBay. While I wouldn’t think of making fine art landscape photography with such a tool, it’s still a fun implement that transform a familiar view into something puzzling and unexpected.