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Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch Sunrise and Night under the Milky Way, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands, Utah

Icon alert: this post is about Mesa Arch, a major icon which many now scorn and avoid as a subject of landscape photography, and which is known to have the crowd these days.

I’ve photographed a few icons over the past 30 years, although many of them are underwater and so the landscape buyers probably don’t even think of them as icons, or even think of them at all. Mesa Arch is one of the landscape icons. It’s hard to break new “visionary ground” at a place like Mesa Arch, of which hundreds or thousands of photographs are made each day, almost all of them within a short of period of +/- 20 minutes of sunrise. I first visited Mesa Arch in the 90s, and first made a meaningful photograph of Mesa Arch in 2007. Standing on the arch with arms spread, enjoying the cold winter sunrise in solitude while hovering over a yawning canyon, I made an image that ended up taking a first in a national competition and has since been licensed a number of times, paying for the trip several times over. It has a serious flaw in it that I somehow overlooked at the time I shot it — no, its not the model in the shot — but nobody has really mentioned it when they have looked at the high res. I’m glad I was using the Canon 1DsII for all my photography at the time, since the resolution of that mainly studio and fashion camera has held up well over the years, and the sharpness of the Canon fisheye with which I took the shot will cut fingers if one is not careful.

Mesa Arch, Utah.  An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that's me, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Utah. An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that’s me.
Image ID: 18036
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

When I decided to return to Arches and Canyonlands a few years ago, I wanted to make a different image of Mesa Arch, one that I had thought about for a while: the Milky Way arcing over Mesa Arch. So I did it. Getting the lighting the way I wanted it was a challenge, and stitching the resulting very-wide image without distortion affecting it took some time, but in the end I was very happy with the result. I used a mix of equipment brands in order to produce the highest quality image I could: a Canon 5D Mark III which was new at the time and exhibited great image quality at high ISO settings, combined with the Nikon 14-24 lens, then and still the best all-purpose wide landscape and astrophotography lens available. I believe this image was the first of its kind at Mesa Arch at the time it was made, and the composition has since been repeated a number of times, especially in the last year with its burgeoning interest in astrophotography and the popularity of the online image duplication factories 500px and Flickr.

Panorama of the Milky Way over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Panorama of the Milky Way over Mesa Arch.
Image ID: 27824
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

The Milky Way arching over Mesa Arch at night, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The Milky Way arching over Mesa Arch at night.
Image ID: 27827
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

During those years I had never seen another person at Mesa Arch. Not at night, not at sunrise, not during the middle of the day. I had heard rumors about the crowd from other photographers, and as pros changed from providing images to providing travel services and workshops in the early 2000’s, I heard the comments more and more: the testy workshop groups and solo photogs with crossed-up tripod legs all hoping to get one for the bucket list, the rock climbing hipsters wanting to walk the span of the arch just when the light was good, and the busloads of foreigners making a 10 day whirlwind tour of the entire southwest while allotting just 30 minutes to see Mesa Arch at the moment of sunrise before running off to Arches for the rest of the morning. I knew someday I would encounter the crowd and kind of wondered about how it would be. My expectation was that the crowd would be a bummer but given these are our public lands — shared lands to which we are all equally entitled — and that we all are tourists (including photogs) at a place like this, I figured it was just something to be endured and hopefully would be fun.

Last month a buddy and I spend 5 days in the Moab area running around with our cameras, shooting some night images, making a few hikes, and seeing the icons. It was great! We did make a few new night images to be proud of, and photographed a couple icons along with everyone else … including Mesa Arch, the classic morning shot which I had never really made before. I do get requests for a sunrise image of Mesa Arch. I’m not sure why I get such requests, since there are many photographers who have this in their stock files and can provide a beautiful print. But I wanted to make sure I could fulfill such requests, so I photographed the arch with two cameras (Nikon 14-24 and Nikon fisheye) in order to provide a couple alternatives.

Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Image ID: 29304
Location: Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

Garry McCarthy and I arrived at the arch first that morning, but my record of having solitude at Mesa Arch was soon broken: about 30 other people eventually arrived to enjoy the spectacular view. So now I’ve experienced the crowd the Mesa Arch, and it was not a bad thing. Everyone wanted to see the same magic light illuminate the underside of the arch, glimpse Washer Woman Arch in the distance, and feel the dizzying vertiginous pull of the cliffs just a few feet in front of us. I heard a number of accents and languages all expressing excitement when the sunlight hit the rocks, and joy when they realized their camera had captured the scene nicely. It was a great morning.

Milky Way Over Mesa Arch, Panorama, Canyonlands National Park

Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Canyonlands, Panoramas, Utah

Panoramic Photo of the Milky Way Arcing Over Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Earlier this year I spent an evening photographing Mesa Arch, the famous and oft-pictured natural stone arch at the precipice of Canyonlands National Park. I photographed Mesa Arch at sunrise twice previously — quite fortunately alone both times — but that was years ago before the explosion of photography interest on the internet. Based on the many reports I have read during the intervening years of elbow-to-elbow photographers and workshops going postal at sunrise when the sun lights the underside of the arch, I had essentially given up on ever photographing Mesa Arch again. In 2011 I decided to try for an image I have wanted to make there for some time and which might allow me to enjoy the arch in solitude again — the Milky Way arcing over Mesa Arch. Photographer buddy Garry McCarthy and I have executed versions of this idea with other arches. It is surprisingly tough to do well, since lighting must be consistent across the many frames that are blended to make the final image. The result must be flawless with no blending artifacts if one wishes to print the image for display. Using hard-earned uber-secret lighting and processing techniques from past night photography efforts, combined with several different compositions and attempts at lighting the arch in various ways, I ultimately decided upon this highly detailed 50″ x 80″ panoramic photo of Mesa Arch as the final result of my efforts. If you like this image, please see my website devoted to my full collection of Landscape Astrophotography images.

National Wildlife Photo Contest Winner

Canyonlands, Utah

The National Wildlife photo contest is the only one of the “big three”** in which I have not had any luck — until now. After taking a hiatus from contests for about 8 years, something possessed me to enter this year. Lo-and-behold the image below caught the judges’ notice and won first place in the professional division of “Connecting People and Nature”, and is featured along with 17 other super images in the December/January 2010 issue of National Wildlife magazine.

Mesa Arch, Utah.  An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that's me, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Utah. An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that’s me.
Image ID: 18036
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

This is a self portrait. I was alone this morning at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. It was a cold but clear January morning with some snow on the ground. I used a Canon 1Ds Mark II camera and 15mm fisheye lens. I put the camera on timer, quickly walked up on the arch, raised my hands the way I do when my daughter scores a goal, and click. The view from atop the arch, looking down the wall to the canyon below, was exhilirating.

**The “big three” photo contests, at least for wildlife, outdoor and nature photographers, are the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, the Nature’s Best photography contest and the National Wildlife photo contest. For ocean-oriented photographers, Nature’s Best also sponsors the Ocean Views contest.

Note: Performed by a trained professional stunt photographer. Do not try this at home. Photography is an inherently dangerous and frustrating pursuit. You can and will die photographing landscapes.

Mesa Arch Photo

Canyonlands, National Parks, Utah

Mesa Arch stands at the edge of Island in the Sky mesa in Canyonlands National Park. It juts out and over a 600-foot drop into Buck Canyon. While small by Utah standards, Mesa Arch lies in a dramatic setting and easy access make it a destination for most visitors to the park. At sunrise, if the horizon is clear, light reflecting off the walls below illuminate the underside of Mesa Arch, setting it afire with a rich golden glow.

Mesa Arch spans 90 feet and stands at the edge of a mesa precipice thousands of feet above the Colorado River gorge. For a few moments at sunrise the underside of the arch glows dramatically red and orange, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch spans 90 feet and stands at the edge of a mesa precipice thousands of feet above the Colorado River gorge. For a few moments at sunrise the underside of the arch glows dramatically red and orange.
Image ID: 18037
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

More Mesa Arch photos.

Mesa Arch Sunrise Photo

Canyonlands, National Parks, Utah

Mesa Arch is a spectacular natural sandstone arch at the edge of the Island-in-the-Sky region of Canyonlands National Park. It literally juts up and out from the mesa, hanging over the chasm with an unbroken drop many hundreds of feet below. For a few minutes at sunrise, if the horizon is clear of clouds, the underside of Mesa Arch glows a warm, deep red. I had Mesa Arch to myself one morning last week. It was -4°F, clear blue sky, new snow and not a speck of wind.

Mesa Arch, Utah.  An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that's me, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Utah. An exuberant hiker greets the dawning sun from atop Mesa Arch. Yup, that’s me.
Image ID: 18036
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

The image above is a self-portrait, one that is not for the faint of heart. A simple slip or stumble while atop Mesa Arch has serious consequences. This risky maneuver should only be attempted by qualified, registered, insured, well-trained stunt photographers under highly controlled circumstances (i.e., no Moab brewery the night before). Do not attempt this at home.

Mesa Arch spans 90 feet and stands at the edge of a mesa precipice thousands of feet above the Colorado River gorge. For a few moments at sunrise the underside of the arch glows dramatically red and orange, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesa Arch spans 90 feet and stands at the edge of a mesa precipice thousands of feet above the Colorado River gorge. For a few moments at sunrise the underside of the arch glows dramatically red and orange.
Image ID: 18037
Location: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA

See Mesa Arch photos and Canyonlands National Park photos.