Colorado Plateau: Day 5

Loading film in a changing tent in the back of my truck

Thursday May 6, 2010

As usual, I awoke very early. There was a subtle glow on the eastern horizon, and Venus stood out against the cobalt sky. On shooting trips, I wake up well before sunrise — even if the shot does not require an early start.  I love the cool air, and the smell of morning.

My goal for the day was an early, reflected light shot within Buckskin Gulch. I scouted this shot out the day before.

I’m fascinated by the patterns formed by desert varnish — the dark streaks of oxidized sandstone that are formed by seasonal water flowing down the face of the cliff.  In many parts of the canyon, the desert varnish is haphazard, and not very photogenic.  In one particular part of Buckskin Gulch, the desert varnish forms a beautiful sequence of alternating dark and light lines.  Thick bold lines of varnish are juxtapose to thin, pinstripes of light colored sandstone. When viewed up close, a hidden layer of cracked stone is revealed. This can only be appreciated in a large print, or on a light table.  The rock face is very painterly and graphic, which is right up my alley.

The only way I could capture this wall is with a horizontal panoramic image.  For this shot, my best tool was my 8×10 camera.  This would allow enough resolution for a very impressive enlargement — 10 linear inches of film.  While in the canyon yesterday, I handheld my 4×5 camera with the 210mm lens to see how much of the wall I could fit into the composition. The focal length was perfect.  It gave me the exact amount of coverage I needed from left to right. On my 8×10 camera, my 450mm lens gives the same angle of view as the 210mm on my 4×5.

Before heading into the canyon this morning, I packed up my 8×10 camera, 450mm lens, a single sheet of velvia 50 film, and all the necessary shooting equipment.  I made the now very familiar hike through the wash toward the confluence of Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch.

I arrived well before the required shooting time.  Although the sky was very well illuminated by the rising sun, there was no trace of direct light on the canyon wall.

This gave me the opportunity to set up my 8×10 camera without being in a time sensitive situation.  As soon as the sun illuminated the wall behind me, it would be my window of opportunity to shoot.

For this shot, it was very important to keep the lines of desert varnish perfectly straight.  The wall is high above me, so I needed to raise the front standard to the max to avoid perspective distortion. This alone was not enough. I still couldn’t keep the lines straight.  My next step is to do a raised bed setup.  I tilt the camera up, but level out the front and rear standards.  This gives me a bit of added reach.  Thankfully, my 450mm lens has a lot of coverage.  The bellows were tensioned quite a bit, so I know this was the limit of what was possible. Here is what the camera looked like.

My Ebony RW810 stretched to the max for shooting a tall subject

The metering was very simple for this one — I used my incident meter.  The beauty of reflected light is that it is well within the latitude of the film, and it is very easy to expose for.  I used a polarizer to deepen the contrast.  I set the lens to f/64 to ensure the image was tack sharp from corner to corner.  Depth of field is very tricky on the 8×10.  I’m often surprised that seemingly safe apertures such as f/45 or f/64 are not enough to get corner to corner sharpness even with the proper lens movements.

(click to enlarge) Wall of Ghosts: Ebony RW810 | 450mm | Fuji Velvia 50 8x10

After taking my shot, I packed up my gear, and headed back to my truck.  I needed to swap my 8×10 for my 4×5 setup.  The remainder of the shots I had planned for the day required the quick setup, and larger DOF that are possible with the 4×5.

It was still quite early when I made it out of the canyon. I made some lunch (at 8AM) swapped out my camera gear, then headed back.

Although I enjoy shooting the abstract shots of the canyon, I really wanted to get a good reflected light glow shot.  To me, these glow shots have been elusive.

Unlike Antelope Canyon with its overhanging walls that funnel reflected light, Buckskin Gulch is more vertical, and wide open.  At noon, the sun easily makes its way to the floor of the canyon.

During the month of May, the sun is high in the sky, and it moves very fast.  As a result, the beautiful glows do not last long.

I found one particular curve in the canyon that exhibited reflected light from mid-morning through mid-afternoon.  I took several shots here, but I am not 100% satisfied with the results.  Put simply, the glow was not as “clean” as I would have liked.

I wandered several miles down the canyon, then back up again.  It seemed as though I was constantly chasing glows.  As soon as I found a good area, the light would begin to fade.  I finally stumbled upon a strong, clean glow.  It was around 10AM.  The floor of the canyon was not chaotic, the walls of the canyon were quite clean, and the glow itself was very strong.

I setup my 4×5 camera, locked everything down, and started metering the scene.  As I removed the quickload holder from my bag, a hotspot of direct light moved into the composition.

I was too late again.  The light was gone.

This is a very frustrating experience, but I was determined to capture this particular glow.  I looked at my GPS and made note of the time. Rather than wandering aimlessly through the canyon, I now had a plan.  I knew exactly where to stand, and what time the light would be best.

The following morning, I had a 9:55 appointment in Buckskin Gulch.

One Response to “Colorado Plateau: Day 5”

  1. Bob Duff Says:

    Hi Ben, just wanted to tell you I really am enjoying this photographic travel log. The narrative and video give a great sense of what you’re experiencing and how you go about making the shots. One of the great benefits of shooting in the southwest is the predictable sunshine. Here in the northest, not the case. It really is a about planning for good luck.

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