Of all the places in the world where the setting sun is knock-you-on-your-ass spectacular, Delicate Arch at Arches National Park is really near the top of that list. And everybody knows it.
So, one summer about six years ago when I trekked out to Delicate Arch to get my own sunset shot at the height of the tourist season, I joined a gaggle of 10 other photographers gathered at the top of the bowl below the arch, each shooter wielding a massive digital SLR camera decked out with a lens about a foot long and four inches in diameter.
Tourists, few of whom spoke English, swarmed the place, each taking turns rushing up to the famous arch to have someone snap a photo of them smiling beneath one of the most iconic natural features in the West. The crowd began to clear out as golden hour — the hour before sunset or after sunrise when the light on the red rocks of canyon country is most brilliant — approached, but as the pros rushed to their cameras to snap the perfect light, a few straggling tourists took advantage of the best moment of the day to have some one-on-one time with Delicate Arch.
“Hey lady!” one photog yelled across the bowl. “Get out the way! Get out of our shot!”
The woman and her kids stayed put, smiling for a quick snapshot and traded places and cameras with another couple.
“We said get out of the way!” another pro yelled. “You’re ruining our shot!”
“We have a right to be here, too,” one of the women snapped back, her words echoing off the sandstone.
Golden hour came and went, and she and some other tourists stayed beneath the arch until the sun had dipped beneath canyons to the west. Perhaps in spite of the idiots behind the big lenses, perhaps just because it was beautiful. The pros, fuming and cursing, opened and closed their shutters with the tourists in every frame.
I remained silent through the whole thing, but when photographers’ egos and sense of possessiveness over public lands begin to match the size of their $5,000 lenses, I get just as pissed as the woman commanded to get out of the shot.
This morning, I decided to get my own shot of another million-dollar scene at Arches, the famous sunrise shot of one of the Windows framing Turret Arch in the distance. I drove out to the Windows at 6 a.m. and, shivering in the 25 degree air, set up my camera (using an 17-85mm kit lens, mind you) at the optimum spot, where I met a retired guy named Mike from Salt Lake who’d taken the weekend to shoot arches and sandstone, apparently as an excuse to get away from his wife.
As he teetered on a ledge, we chatted about cameras and near-death experiences while on photo expeditions and why we haul heavy cameras into remote places.
“It’s addictive,” he said.
“And you come back with a great story to tell of how you got the image you shot, even if the photo isn’t any good,” I said.
Finally, the sun peeked above the La Sal Mountains behind us and began to light up the Windows like a firestorm, and right at the perfect moment, a lone tourist appeared at the base of Window, staring into the sun and occupying both of our frames.
“If you were a real photographer, you’d ask her to move,” Mike said.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“They always get in the way,” he said, clearly debating with himself whether he should ask her to move.
Hardly a minute later, the tourist disappeared.
The one fail-safe method for capturing spectacular images un-decorated with the unwashed masses: Shoot pretty pictures where the unwashed masses don't go. If you're going to complain, why not use your camera to make the case for another of the park's arches to become iconic?
People come from all over the world to visit Arches and all our other national parks to see all the famous places the parks are iconic for. This morning could have been that tourist’s once chance in a lifetime to see the Windows at sunrise. I can come to Arches nearly any long weekend I choose to get the shot I want. People should be encouraged to visit these places on their public lands at the most spectacular times of day. These are their parks. When people are unjustly shooed away by photographers angry that stray tourists are going to mar their image that somehow represents some faux sense of wildness (Arches isn’t truly unsullied by mankind, is it?), the moment for which tourists most value a national park may very likely be remembered only for an encounter with the arrogance of a gaggle of egomaniacal photographers who deserve whatever remorse they feel about losing a money-generating image in one of the most beautiful places in America.
The joke is on the complaining idiot with his finger on the shutter release button.