Tell us the story behind this shot—how did you achieve it?
What pushes you to try harder, or go further? If it seems like anything is possible, that’s because it is. For me, it’s moments like these. This is still one of my favorite photos. The whole process required to capture it was quite intense and sketchy. I remember being unusually anxious as I watched Kyle climb the arch and maneuver into place in complete darkness. A nervous thought crossed my brain, “We’ve done sketchier stuff before, right?” But this was not the time for such thoughts; he had almost reached his mark. The signal was given, and the night sky erupted with color. I don’t think anyone was prepared for what we saw illuminate the valley. Mission success! Hopefully, you enjoy this photo as much as I do. Now here is the story behind the shot.
Let me start off with a few disclaimers: I am generally not a fan of steel wool photos, so I find it slightly ironic that I’m contributing this photo to my friends at Art of Visuals. I’m also not encouraging anyone to attempt this shot. Climbing the arch in the middle of the night was not only dangerous, but borderline looney. After posting this photo to my Instagram, I received wildly diverse reactions ranging from elation to fire. Despite the aforementioned disclaimer, a lot of thought and careful preparation went into this shot. At the time this photo was taken, I was on a two-week and 4,000+ mile road trip with my buddy Kyle. Throughout our long journey, we couldn’t stop brainstorming ways to create a completely original composition. This proved to be more challenging than we anticipated due to our busy itinerary. We were traveling through multiple states and spent very little time at each destination. This only allowed us enough time to scrape the surface at each stop; therefore, our ability to venture deep into the unknown and seek unique perspectives was dramatically reduced. Eventually, a light bulb flickered on, and this idea popped into my head.
The idea initially seemed improbable, sketchy, and quasi-legal, but we decided to at least investigate it further, since we were already going to be in Moab. The first order of business was checking Google to see if taking this photo would even be legal. Due to a recent rope-swinging death on the arch, the BLM had banned roped activities like rope-swinging, slacklining, climbing, rappelling, and highlining. Taking this photo involved none of those. We also checked the legality of spinning steel wool on BLM land and determined the photo was legal.
As we approached the arch in complete darkness, our focus sharpened. Safety was paramount and we only wanted to attempt the shot once. It was now or never.I set up my camera below the arch and waited about 20 minutes for Kyle to reach the top and get into position. I initiated the 10-second timer and hollered up to Kyle:“3...2...1... GO!” The camera shutter flipped open, and sparks descended 140 feet to the floor below. Astonishingly, the whole thing happened in less than five seconds, and the shutter flipped closed after 15 seconds. As I anxiously waited for the memory card to buffer and display the image on the LCD, I wondered if we got it. It would be such a disappointment to fail and leave with nothing. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the image displayed on the screen. I hollered up to Kyle, and he made it safely back down shortly after. Mission success!
What time of day was it shot?
This photo was taken in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2 a.m. Thankfully, it was a new moon (not visible in the sky), so the sky was dark, and the stars were out. We were the only people awake in the entire valley.
What camera did you use? What setting and why did you use that setting? Possible tip or two?
I took this shot with my Canon 5d Mark III and my Canon 24mm f/1.4 II lens, at ISO 1250, a shutter speed of 15 seconds, and an aperture of f/2.8. Despite my lens going to f/1.4, I opted to go with f/2.8 because I wanted to maintain some detail in the foreground and avoid bumping the ISO up too high.
In terms of tips, always try and plan before important shots. This might mean scouring Google Earth beforehand, reading countless trip reports online, or showing up to the location hours before you intend to shoot to understand all the possible variables that could affect your composition. Don’t forget the simple things like visualizing the final product before pressing the shutter button. Thorough preparation will greatly benefit your final product!
Always run through a mental checklist before departing the house, and also have a checklist for setting up your camera. A couple examples of my past failures: 1.) Leaving an important piece of equipment at home that essentially made shooting impossible, and 2.) forgetting to check my camera settings and thus missing the shot entirely because I accidentally left the 10-second timer on from the night before. You don’t make mistakes like that twice, because you feel absolutely terrible afterward, and they are completely avoidable if you always double-check your gear before leaping into action.
Did you use a tripod? If so why did you use a tripod?
Yes, I utilized a tripod for this shot. A tripod is mandatory for night shots, especially when the photo is a long exposure. Without a tripod, the photo will likely be blurry and unusable. Balancing your camera on a rock or backpack can be a great substitute for a tripod in a pinch. Sometimes I do that on long backpacking trips when I leave my tripod at home to save weight. But seriously: Use a tripod whenever possible. It makes a huge difference in the quality of your photos, and when you only have a small window of opportunity with certain shots, it’s very important to make them count!
Was it the original shot you were trying to get? Or completely different?
This was definitely the shot I intended to take. I got pretty lucky and nailed the shot on the first attempt, which I was thankful for. This allowed Kyle to get off the arch quickly and back to safety on the ground 140 feet below.
What did you use to edit with? How long was the editing process?
I used Adobe Photoshop to edit this photo and spent about 15 minutes on this one. Very minimal changes were made to the original photo, which primarily included edits done in Camera RAW like the removal of dead pixels, increased sharpness, noise reduction, and increased shadows. After Camera RAW I used a plugin from Nik Collection called Color Efex Pro to bring out more detail and increase perceptual saturation. That step was probably unnecessary, but at this point, I’m a slave to my editing habits. Fifteen minutes later I was saving an aRGB jpeg at 300 dpi and Airdropping the file to my iPhone! One thing I’m working to change the way I edit is my workflow. Photoshop is currently my go-to editing application, however, it is horribly inefficient at batch processing. I’m attempting to make the switch to Lightroom, but it has taken longer than I anticipated due to a busy work life.
Any advice you have?
Stick with photography and have fun with your work. Photography is a learning process, and failure isn’t just likely, it’s guaranteed. Make the most of your learning experience and leverage resources along the way, within reason. The most important lessons you learn likely won’t happen while reading articles or watching photography YouTube videos, so keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you. Expand your network and grow collectively with those around you.
When it comes to taking photos, be patient when chasing that elusive shot. The moment you give up and head home is the moment you potentially miss the most banger photo you’ve ever taken. The clouds may part and provide you with a beautiful sunset, but you’ll never know for sure unless you ride out the storm.