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Why and How: Photographing the Dragon’s Tongue of the Black Canyon in Colorado

If you are a photographer with a passion for strange phenomena and landscape photography, then photographing the dragon tongue of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison national park will become a real challenge for you.

A dragon’s tongue is a phenomenon that combines a form of landscape, a particular light, and a point of view.

In this article, I share with you my first experience with a dragon's tongue: the one of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado. This memory will remain forever etched in my mind.

The glowing red dragon's tongue of the Black Canyon in the state of Colorado in the United States. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
The glowing red dragon's tongue of the Black Canyon in the state of Colorado in the United States.

The Short Story of this Article

Since I have been arrived in the United States in 2001, I have been passionately following in the footsteps of Ansel Adams who gave true meaning to the landscapes of the Southwestern of United States.

Each year I complete at least two landscape photography projects in the United States to create collections of fine art photography. My goal is to share my passion for these wonders of nature. It was in 2013 that I first heard about the dragon’s tongue phenomenon.

It is a particular play of light that illuminates a rock face. The orange and red colors are so intense that they can be compared to a dragon's tongue.

I was then in the Canyonlands region in Utah. A photographer showed me some pictures he had taken. I was amazed at the beauty of the phenomenon. However, I understood that he was not really willing to give me the GPS coordinates to take the picture.

During all the years that followed, I tried in vain to photograph this natural phenomenon.

It was only in August 2020, after seven years of waiting, while I was doing a photo project in the Black canyon in Colorado, that I was finally able to realize my dream.

A local photographer, Vince Farnsworth, gave me the exact location to photograph a dragon’s tongue. It was not easy. It took me four mornings to photograph the phenomenon.

In the rest of the article, I explain how it happens and what the necessary conditions are.

The Phenomenon of the Dragon's Tongue

I am going to explain this phenomenon of the dragon's tongue from the Black Canyon because it is the one I know best. I hope to have the opportunity to verify if the theory is also valid elsewhere.

The dragon tongue appears during the spring and summer months. Maximum intensity is reached in April and August.

First of all, you need a particular position of the sun. The sun has to rise at 75° east from the north.

It is necessary to arrive early in the morning to be in the right place. It is a morning phenomenon.

The photographer explained to me that it was possible to see it at other times of the year, but the intensity was much less.

On the other hand, the sky must be clear to have the maximum effect of the light.

Then the sun must shine. It must begin to rise in the sky. It must not be obstructed by clouds.

Finally, you need to place your tripod perfectly to get the maximum effect.

Photographing a dragon's tongue requires a lot of preparation, patience, and precision.

I would even say that photographing a dragon tongue correctly is a real challenge.

On the first morning, the cloud layer was too thick for the light to appear. I waited three hours. The sun appeared but it was too late.

On the second morning, the sun was almost clear except for a cloud that prevented me from taking my pictures.

On the third morning the sky was clear. The sun was rising brightly. Unfortunately, I was not exactly in the right place. I was 330 feet (100 meters) too far to the left. By the time I was able to transport all my equipment to the right place, the sun was too high in the sky. But at least I knew where to be for the next morning.

On the fourth morning, I had a few minutes before sunrise. The temperature was 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius). The sky was clear. I was witnessing the phenomenon. It was a fabulous and intense moment. It was as if a cascade of glowing red light poured down the cliff in front of me. I was extremely excited and incredibly happy to finally be able to capture this magical moment.

I made at least 30 photos. I kept two of them that I think are the most beautiful.

The glowing red dragon's tongue of the Black Canyon in the state of Colorado in the United States. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
The glowing red dragon's tongue of the Black Canyon in the state of Colorado in the United States.

Why to Photograph a Dragon's Tongue

You have certainly understood that a dragon tongue is a natural phenomenon resulting from the reflection of light through a rock face.

This scene may seem obvious to photograph. But believe me, it is a real challenge. The conditions to be met are so particular and difficult. As I said before, you will have to be patient.

But the challenge itself is worth the effort. This is the first reason to photograph a dragon tongue.

As a second reason, I would say that this is a unique moment to create different and impactful photos. It is not always easy to find new scenes to photograph. With this phenomenon it is an opportunity to surprise an audience that is often waiting for something new.

As a third reason, I would add that the symbolism behind such a scene is extraordinarily strong. The interpretations can be many and different.

Personally, I find that a dragon tongue looks like a cascade of light that is a source of life. It is like a source where we can drink to regain energy and keep moving forward. But this symbolic interpretation is quite personal.

How Photographing a Dragon's Tongue

As I said before, photographing a dragon tongue is a real challenge because you have to find the perfect location.

But technically, it is also difficult because the sun has to face you. The reflections are numerous. Personally, I use a small reflector that I hold over the lens with my hand to avoid reflections.

All focal lengths are possible. It all depends on how far away you are from the scene.

On the heights of Black canyon, I used focal lengths of 20 mm, 35 mm, 70 mm, and 130 mm. I tested many frames and compositions.

If you prefer a short focal length such as 20 mm, you will integrate the dragon tongue in a very wide landscape. You will then be able to better locate the phenomenon.

If you choose a focal length such as 130 mm, you will make a closer shot to better describe the phenomenon and make it more explainable.

A tripod is absolutely necessary to ensure the stability of the camera. Also, I recommend a remote shutter release to avoid moving the camera at the time of shutter release.

I like to photograph f/16 landscapes because I find that the depth of field is important. Moreover, I find that the rendering of details is excellent. To photograph Black canyon's dragon tongue, if you use f/16 aperture, your shutter speeds will be about a quarter of a second at ISO 100. You understand better why a tripod and a remote shutter release are necessary.

Another problem may arise. It is the wind. The point of view is located on a height that is exposed to all wind directions. You will have to be careful because the wind can cause vibrations that will blur your photos.

Your tripod will need to be well insured to remain fixed.

In summary, I recommend that you have a camera, several lenses and a remote trigger. All you have to do is find the right point of view. Be patient to take your pictures

Finally

I hope this article will make you want to go photograph the dragon’s tongue of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in the state of Colorado in the United States.

This scene will be for you the opportunity to create an extraordinary photo that will have a lot of impact.

Do not get me wrong, it is quite difficult.

There are many places in the world with dragon’s tongue. The main problem comes from the fact that you just have to know where to place it to immortalize it forever.


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