Pic of the Week 8/9/18
"Sunset in Giant City"
Location: Giant City State Park Makanda, IL
Date taken: 8/3/18
Earlier this week I returned from a trip to southern Illinois. The trip was for a family reunion on my mother's side and a chance to do some hiking and photography in an area I have never visited before. While I was very excited to see my family from the north, I was also excited to see one of my best friends and fellow photographer Nathan Ralston who lived just a few hours from our hotel. When I fist learned about this trip I wasn't sure what to expect. My mother told us we would be staying near Giant City. This didn't mean much to me until I did some research and learned that Giant City isn't an actual city, but a state park in the Shawnee National Forest.
Giant City gets it name from the maze of large sandstone bluffs right in the heart of the park. It is one of their best attractions and despite having 1.2 million visitors each year I couldn't find all that much information on the place. After scouting around Google Earth and researching the internet, I started to piece together a shot for the area. Pre-visualizing my images keeps my goals focused and my mind on the task. While I love visiting new locations and exploring, I try to prepare myself with at least a few locations that could result in great photographs. This way I'm not scrambling to find a composition when the moment comes. Typically, with places I have never visited I will use Google Earth, Google Maps, and other internet sources to look at photographs and try to envision the area I will be visiting. From there, I will track the suns location and note where I think the light would be most effective. While this is a long process, it helps me achieve a higher success rate with my photographs. Though I can not plan for everything, but I always try to be as prepared as possible.
The idea for the shot I wanted to capture would include a view of the wild sandstone bluffs in warm reflected light. I didn't know exactly where I would set up, but I figured with a couple of hours of scouting time I could find a working composition. I also noted what appeared to be a gap between bluffs pointing to the west. This could be a good spot for sunset if my initial shot wasn't going to work. Fast forward a few weeks and we are now arriving into St. Louis International Airport. After meeting up with my cousin James and getting our rental cars, we were on the road heading to Carbondale, IL. We arrived to the hotel in Carbondale and after some short greetings I was out the door and on my way to Giant City State Park. My goal was to leave by 5pm and that would give me plenty of time to find the right composition and maybe scout out more locations for sunrise the next morning. Thankfully, Giant City SP was only a short 15min drive and the trail was only 1.5 miles in length.
I pulled into the Giant City Nature Trail parking lot and gathered up my gear. It was humid and steamy and my glasses fogged up when I stepped out of my rental car. A few quick wipes from my shirt and I was back to seeing things clearly. The temperature was around 88 degrees and the humidity was above 60% this made for some uncomfortable hiking conditions, but I put on my pack and started off down the trail. For the most part the trail cut through wooded forests with the occasional boulder interrupting the landscape, but as I made my first turn off from the trail I stated to see the sandstone bluffs and rock formations hugging the trail. The gray/brown Makanda sandstone showed signs of erosion and weathering as it took on a porous honeycomb-like formation. It was certainly unique and one couldn't help but ponder how the rock came to be.
I continued down the trail for a short time and came to the entrance to the Giant City "streets". A single tree grew along the trail and marked the entrance to the bluffs. The wall to my left was similar to the walls I had seen on the trail, the wall to my right was the same as well. But, the wall right in front of me was very smooth and covered in a pelt of soft green moss. I followed the wooden "Nature Trail -->" sign pointing me to the center of the Giant City streets. From this angle I could see the rock cut in an almost perfect 90 degree angle. I stood in amazement at the unique rock formation and contemplated its origin. I followed the signs guiding me through the streets and back onto the trail. I passed over a balanced rock I discovered from my internet researched and went to take a photograph of it. Then I realize a made a huge mistake--I had left my tripod back at the car! The sun was setting in about an hour and I thought I would have just enough time to complete the trail, run back to my car and grab my tripod. Then head back to my sunset location and maybe catch it before the sun set behind the horizon.
I didn't stop to marvel at the landscape and rock bluffs around me. I did take a mental note when I passed something interesting, but I kept hiking and at a much faster than normal pace. After about 25 minutes I had reached my car and I grabbed my tripod and started off back to the Giant City streets. I arrived just in time to find the sun hanging just above the sandstone bluffs and peering between the trees. The back lighting created dramatic shadows on the bluffs and made the moss gleam in the soft golden light. I set up my camera (this time with my tripod) and found my composition waiting for the sun to get just right. When the light of the sun could be seen through my viewfinder I shot off a series of bracketed exposures. Keeping my aperture nice and small created the sunstar and spikes of light that added a little more drama and magic to the photogenic scene. There's something very inviting about this photograph that makes you want to explore this sandstone maze.
Sunset in Giant CitySunset breaks through the trees from the "streets" of Giant City. © Ben Jacobi
On the way back to the car (now for the second time) I stopped and made more images of the surrounding bluffs and rocks until dusk. This was an excellent start to my southern Illinois trip. I would get to explore most of Giant City knocking out the Trillium, Stone Fort, Indian Creek, Devil's Standtable, and Giant City Nature Trail with my cousin James the next day. Over this trip I ended up hiking over 17 miles in the Shawnee National Forest and saw some pretty amazing places. I look forward to sharing these new images with y'all in the weeks to come. Enjoy!