Delicate Arch & Photographing Icons

As photographers, we’re always trying to put a unique spin on the images we take. When you do something like walk around a city and photograph whatever catches your eye, this process can be quite easy. Not so much, however, when you’re sitting on the edge of “the bowl” with Delicate Arch on the other side, surrounded by hundreds of other photographers who have all sat in the same spots as thousands (perhaps millions) of other photographers before them. Everyone is getting (more or less) the exact same shot of the arch.So what’s the point? Why do so many people make this rather difficult hike up to one of the most photographed landmarks of any national park? Do you want to know my opinion? Well, here it is: seeing something like Delicate Arch with your own eyes is far more rewarding than seeing a thousand images of it. If you get a shot of the arch that you can be proud of; that’s the icing on the cake. The hike to Delicate Arch would have been worth it whether I got a shot of it or not. Sure the hike sucked. Sure I was really annoyed/pissed off when I took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the arch and had to walk all the way back around (nearly missing sunset because of it). Sure I was worried when one of our workshop students pulled a muscle in his leg and we had to help him limp all the way back down to the parking lot in the dark. But it was still worth it…for all of us.

Am I proud of this image? Yes. Is it unique? Yes and no. No because I’m 100% positive that countless other photographers have sat exactly where I sat and have probably the same general composition. Yes because they didn’t take the image on that day, with that light, with those clouds, with my camera or my story.

When I hear photographers saying that they avoid certain parks and landmarks because they are over-photographed; I can’t help but think of how much they are missing out on. Delicate Arch (and the bowl in front of it) is one of the most unique sandstone formations there is. If you view the image large you’ll see sand dunes in the distance. If I had shot a panoramic here that included more to the right, you’d see the Windows, the Garden of Eden and Balanced Rock off in the far distance. And yes, if I had shown more to the left you would see hundreds of photographers :-). Despite that last part, this was one of the most incredible views I’ve seen and I am so glad I got to see it with my own eyes.

James BrandonDelicate Arch & Photographing Icons

Broken Earth | Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley NP

I’ve been waiting to process this image for several months, just had to be in the right mood I suppose :-). One of the really amazing parts of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is what lies hidden, away from the area by the parking lot where most every goes.During our workshops in February, we took each group into the dunes by parking on the side of the road about a mile north of the parking lot. Then, we trekked through the valley to the foothills of the dunes and were greeted by all sorts of new textures, patterns, and unique compositions. It was literally like being a completely new place every 5 minutes.

I was talking to a friend the other day about the national parks and which is the best one. I decided that Death Valley is one of the (if not THE) best parks because it is different every time you visit. At places like Arches NP, the arches are pretty much always going to be the same no matter when you visit (except for snow cover). However at Death Valley; places like Badwater Basin, Cotton Ball Basin, any of the dunes, the Racetrack…all will be completely different from your last visit. You will never be able to go to a place like Badwater and get the same picture twice. Pretty cool when you stop and think about it.


James BrandonBroken Earth | Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley NP

Maps Don’t Point To Dragons Anymore 

There are a few places I’ve been to several times that I will continue to go back to — over and over again. Morro Rock is one of those places. Outside of those who live in the area, it really isn’t that well known. Most photographers who travel to the west coast in search of hot spots on the “landscape photography circuit” will usually head straight to Big Sur and then up to the Bay Area. San Luis Obispo is a hidden gem of photographic opportunities, and I love it for that.I’ve photographed Morro Rock more times than I can count, yet it still holds my interest and I know there are still new and unique ways to photograph it. I created this image while taking my buddy +Brian Matiash around town before heading back up to Mountain View. I took several long exposures, wide angle shots and more but this one I think is my favorite from that evening. I had never cropped in tight before to just focus on the rocks edge. Pair that with the clouds, rough surf, awesome light and the thousands of birds that call the rock home and you’ve got a pretty interesting shot. At least I think so :-)

James BrandonMaps Don’t Point To Dragons Anymore 

Santa Cruz Cliffs

My friend +Nicole S. Young showed me this place in Santa Cruz during my last visit to the bay area. She was standing just to my left when I took this frame. She’s having a minor surgery this morning so I thought I’d post this to send her some good vibes, hehe.I know Nicole is much more at home in Portland, but I do miss the California coast. It’s time to get back and make some more memories :-).

James BrandonSanta Cruz Cliffs

The Sentinel Above The Clouds | Zion National Park

I keep saying it: Sometimes you just have to look at an image over and over and over again before you finally figure out what to do with it. I’ve kept this image from Zion in my editing cue for nearly a year and this morning I finally had the inspiration to process it. I cropped it in a bit tighter than it was and then made some slight adjustments in Photoshop. There was a bit of the cliff showing on the far left side so I used the clone stamp to create some cloud cover in order to complete the circle of clouds around this huge peak. When I did that, all the symmetry of the image fell into place; the Sentinel in the middle, the other two peaks to it’s left and right and the clouds enshrouding them all. Pretty happy with this one, I hope you’ll agree :-)

James BrandonThe Sentinel Above The Clouds | Zion National Park

From Beneath Rattlesnake Canyon

Before heading out to Page to photograph the slot canyons, I did my due diligence by reading through several websites with tips on how to shoot the slot canyons (Upper Antelope is so hectic and fast paced that I didn’t want to leave anything to chance). One thing that almost all of the sites mentioned was to do everything you can to leave the sky out of your photos, since the dynamic range between the inside of the canyon and the sky is way too much for a camera to handle.Well, they were certainly right; a camera can’t even come close to capturing that range of light…but that’s what bracketing is for :-). Even with something as extreme as this, you only need around 2-3 images to capture the full range. This image in-particular is a 3 image blend that only took a few minutes to put together in Photoshop. I used luminosity masks to specifically target the areas I wanted to blend together. The canyon part of the image—like any other location in the canyons—needed very little processing. The colors and contrast are already there, it just needed a small boost in detail.

James BrandonFrom Beneath Rattlesnake Canyon

Corona Arch – Moab

The main thing we were all wondering while driving to the trailhead for Corona Arch was, “How is this area not part of Arches National Park!?” Driving up Highway 279 with the beautiful Colorado River to your left and sheer cliffs shooting up into the sky on your right is quite breath taking.The hike to Corona Arch from the trail head is about 1.5 miles. It’s not as hard as Delicate Arch but it’s not easy either! Once we finally made it to the arch and the sun started to go down, we had the place to ourselves. Sunset was pretty much a bust and with thick clouds moving in we decided not to stay after dark since the milky way and stars would be in hiding. That said, I still managed to get at least one shot of this lesser-known arch that I’m happy with. This is a two minute exposure using a LEE Big Stopper to add some movement to the clouds that were moving in. The arch itself is around 120 ft tall and just as wide. This is where a lot of people come out to swing from the arch (you can look up the videos on YouTube).

James BrandonCorona Arch – Moab

Balancing Act | Arches National Park

It’s really tough to come away with something unique at a place as accessible as Balanced Rock in Arches National Park. I think that’s always our goal as photographers though, to put some sort of unique twist on our images and make them our own.I had been to Balanced Rock a few times already when I got to it this evening with our workshop group. We were there to photograph sunset and then wait for the milky way to rise. I had typically photographed it from the obvious locations (ie: the front and around the parking lot area) when a couple of the students and myself decided to roam around to the back. We found a good elevated position at the base of one of the other rock formations and that’s where I set up.

Right around the time when the light got right and the pinks started showing up, the most annoying thing happened; tourists showed up and started climbing on the rock. Ugh…

I decided to make the most of it though and when this guy climbed onto the rock, I yelled to him to face toward the sun and raise spread his arms out. When I saw the shot on the back of my Sony a7, I knew I had a keeper :-)

James BrandonBalancing Act | Arches National Park

Fall Colors In The Ozarks

Photographing the fall colors in a place like the Ozark Mountains is surreal to say the least. It’s so different and unique from any other type of shooting. It’s so fleeting. You can’t just plan a trip well in advance and then shoot in one spot. It’s kind of like a hunt; you target a general area and then go with the plan of driving a lot and following the colors.I’m doing a fall colors workshop in the Ozarks this coming October and although it’s already sold out, we are considering opening it up to two more spots. We just have to figure out the logistics and everything and see if it makes sense. If you’d be interested in coming, let me know!

This image is from Whitaker Point, a famous overlook in the Ozark Mountains featuring a rock/crag that juts out into the air. This area in-particular was just past peak but we still were able to get some great stuff.

James BrandonFall Colors In The Ozarks

Abstract | Antelope Canyon, AZ

Fall Colors Workshop Sold Out!

Our fall colors workshop in the Ozarks sold out fast! We are debating opening it up to another couple of students but still need to figure out the logistics of doing so. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to be among the first to hear about new workshops. If you head over to the workshops page, you can also see upcoming workshops that will be opening for registration soon!

Abstract | Antelope Canyon, AZ

Although the pure chaos of taking a tour through Antelope Canyon makes it tough to ever want to go back, I am truly happy to have gotten to see it. I think in the future, if I go back, I’ll explore some of the lesser known slot canyons that are off the beaten path.This view in Upper Antelope Canyon is looking straight up toward the sky, hence the light gradation. They call this formation “Monument Valley” because the rock formation in the middle looks like one of the mittens. What is really crazy about this place is how vibrant all the colors are inside. I barely did any post processing on this at all. A little bit of a crop, some detail work and then one curves layer. That’s it!

James BrandonAbstract | Antelope Canyon, AZ