Sunset over the Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches, Utah

The sun sets over the Garden of the Gods in Arches National Park, Utah. Garry McCarthy and I were in Utah for a few days of hiking and night photography. While we shot the sunset from this scenic point we bumped into night photography great Brad Goldpaint, a nice guy and exceptional photographer who was teaching a night photography workshop. It was a fine sunset which we followed it up with some night photography of nearby Balanced Rock and Double Arch. If you like this please check out more photos from Arches National Park. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park

Sunset over Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park
Image ID: 29261
Location: Garden of the Gods, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

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.

Icon: Sunset over Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches, Icons, Utah

I unapologetically photograph a lot of icons and Delicate Arch is one of my favorites. There are few places in the United States that are more iconic than Delicate Arch in Arches National Park — it is depicted on a license plate for crying out loud. Places like this are iconic for good reason: they are beloved by Americans and foreigners alike and in many ways symbolize the spirit and beauty of the outdoors in the United States, the country that gave the idea of the “National Park” to the world. It is tough to break new photographic ground at icons and more than a few contemporary photographers scorn the idea of shooting at such places. I get it, and won’t argue. But I shoot everything and try to value the experience of being on site more than the result (which is usually flawed and falls short of the real thing). And I love National Park icons like Delicate Arch. I love the hike up to the arch (its quick with just enough incline to work up a sweat) and relaxing with the crowd that lingers to catch the end of the day around the arch. Most especially I love the stillness that surrounds Delicate Arch after daylight and the crowd has departed.

Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park

Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park
Image ID: 29283
Location: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

On the evening I shot this image of Delicate Arch, we were on site primarily to shoot the arch after dark. The sunset looked uninspiring and I had my iphone in my hand. Then a wisp of color began to form in the high clouds, catching color from the far western horizon, and I realized I needed a better camera. As dusk matured and the sky took on deeper shades of blue, more color lit the clouds with pastel pinks and purples. It lasted for a few minutes and then, as with the best of sunsets, it was gone quickly. It was a great prelude to the shooting we would do in the hours hence as night took over and myriad stars wheeled overhead, but that is the subject of another blog. If you like this, check out other photos of what I consider iconic photo subjects. Cheers and thanks for looking!

The Eyes of Utah – Natural Arches and the Milky Way

Arches, Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Utah

The Eyes of Utah? I think these two images look like “eyes”, at least to my eyes they do. The first one sort of looks like an evil serpent’s eye, while the second resembles a whale’s eye. (If you have never seen a whale up close, you’ll just have to trust me on that one.) Both of these arches are in Utah and are depicted here framing the Milky Way galaxy (“our” galaxy). My buddy Garry and I spent a long weekend photographing the night sky around Moab, Utah recently and these were two of my favorite images from the effort. We had to time our photography for when the Milky Way would be in the best position, since it rotates through the sky during the course of the night and can be anywhere from SE early in the evening to SW toward dawn. In each case I lit the surrounding arch with a bit of light to give some relief to the rocks. If you like these, check out my updated gallery of Arches National Park images, or my collection of Landscape Astrophotography. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Milky Way and Stars through Wilson Arch. Wilson Arch rises high above route 191 in eastern Utah, with a span of 91 feet and a height of 46 feet, Moab

Milky Way and Stars through Wilson Arch. Wilson Arch rises high above route 191 in eastern Utah, with a span of 91 feet and a height of 46 feet.
Image ID: 29275
Location: Wilson Arch, Moab, Utah, USA

Milky Way through North Window, Arches National Park

Milky Way through North Window, Arches National Park
Image ID: 29277
Location: North Window, Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Light Painting Delicate Arch, Utah

Arches, Astrophotography and Night Scapes

The first few times I photographed Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park, most of my compositions were close to the arch. After editing the results of my last visit to the park I resolved to make more distant compositions, for variety’s sake and to put the arch into its surroundings. I got the chance earlier this month. We spent an entire night at Delicate Arch, trying different compositions and light painting techniques, and this was one of my favorites from that effort. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

If you like this, please take a look at more Astrophotography Landscape images. Thanks to my friend Garry McCarthy for collaborating on some inventive and impactful light painting.

Delicate Arch, Milky Way and Iridium Flare at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches, Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Utah

I have shot Arches National Park a number of times, including a very fruitful trip some years ago to shoot astrophotography landscapes. I returned earlier this month for more, and found that I have reached a point where I need to find alternatives to the usual compositions. This one was forced upon my buddy Garry and me. The clouds obscured some of the sky and blocked the obvious composition of the Milky Way over Delicate Arch, so I wandered about a little looking for different ways to portray the arch before dawn crept in and stole the stars away. The sky to the northeast was clear enough to show the northern, lesser arm of the Milky Way and with a little light painting I was able to juxtapose the arch and the galaxy. I got lucky when the Iridium flare, seen to the left of the arch, arrived in the right spot in the composition during the short, 15 second exposure. Cheers, and thanks for looking!

Photo of Delicate Arch and Milky Way, Hiker, Light Painting

Arches, Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Utah

Photo of Delicate Arch At Night and The Milky Way Galaxy, Arches National Park, Utah

I recently made a short trip to Arches National Park to do some photography. One of the photos I made is a self-portrait, showing me light painting Delicate Arch at dusk with the Milky Way galaxy rising in the sky. I took this photo of Delicate Arch almost as an afterthought, but I am sure glad I did since I suspect it may end up being the most popular image I made on the trip! Since I posted it in June it has had over 16 million views. (16 million! That is more than any other photo of mine, I am certain.) Over the years I have often put myself in my photos, primarily because I want a souvenir for my personal scrapbook rather than because I intend to market the image for publication. However, two self portraits I have made, both of which curiously involve natural stone arches, have been well received so I think I should do more of them in the future: “Mesa Arch Sunrise“, which won the landscape category of the National Wildlife Federation’s photography competition a few years ago, and “Heavenly Arch” which appeared as the photo of the day last year on Earthshots.org.

Delicate Arch and Milky Way, lit by quarter moon, hiker's flashlight and the fading blue sky one hour after sunset.  Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch and Milky Way, lit by quarter moon, hiker’s flashlight and the fading blue sky one hour after sunset. Arches National Park, Utah.
Image ID: 27855
Location: Arches National Park, Utah, USA

At least four light sources are mixed in this image: fading dusk (sometimes called blue hour), quarter moon at camera right, starlight and milky way glow, and my uber-mondo handheld light. Everyone else had left at this point. After I made this image I sat down and ate my dinner in the quiet while waiting for the moon to set so that I could expose for the milky way properly. It was pleasant some hours later hiking back to the car in the dark with only the noise of my boots, bird chirps and darting rabbits to hear — no voices. I used the super-clean Canon 5D Mark III and the very sharp Nikon 14-24 to make this image, along with a few other tricky pieces of night photography equipment. Cheers and thanks for looking!

Here is another image, which is the one I set out to make, photographed a short while later:

Milky Way arches over Delicate Arch, as stars cover the night sky, Arches National Park, Utah

Milky Way arches over Delicate Arch, as stars cover the night sky.
Image ID: 27850
Location: Arches National Park, Utah, USA

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.

Landscape Arch and Milky Way at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

Arches, Astrophotography and Night Scapes, Utah

Landscape Arch and Milky Way at Night, Arches National Park, Utah

Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, is considered to be the longest natural arch in the world, having a span of 290 feet (89m) . Landscape Arch is gradually falling apart, with at least three sections of the arch known to have fallen since 1991. I set out to photograph this amazing arch under the star-filled Utah sky and it turned out to be one of the most technically challenging nightscapes (nighttime landscape photos) I have made. Because the trail that formerly went under the arch is now closed (National Park lawyers know what is good for us better than we do), viewing of the arch is from several hundred feet away. That is a long distance to light at night. Furthermore, in order to use side lighting as a way of illustrating detail in the rock, I had to use remotely controlled equipment since I was working alone. After two nights of experimentation, I managed to make four keeper images, of which this is my favorite. This image was shot with the technically excellent combination of Canon 5D Mark III and Nikon 14-24 lens so it is very sharp and clean while still freezing the glorious Milky Way galaxy (the galaxy in which we live) in the sky above the arch. If you like this image, please see my website devoted to my full collection of Landscape Astrophotography images. Thanks for looking!

Landscape Arch and Milky Way galaxy.  Stars rise over Landscape arch at night, filling the Utah sky, while the arch is gently lit by a hiker's light, Arches National Park

Landscape Arch and Milky Way galaxy. Stars rise over Landscape arch at night, filling the Utah sky, while the arch is gently lit by a hiker’s light.
Image ID: 27869
Location: Arches National Park, Utah, USA

Also seen on my Landscape Astrophotography website: Landscape Arch and Milky Way at Night, Arches National Park, Utah.

LR/Enfuse — A HDR Plugin for Adobe Lightroom

Photography, Utah

I recently discovered a great plugin for Lightroom: LR/Enfuse. (Yup, I may be a little late to the game, but given that I have only been using Lightroom since January it is to be expected.) LR/Enfuse blends multiple images to produce HDR (high dynamic range) images or focus-stacked images. It works within the Lightroom workflow, resulting in a 16-bit TIF file that is automatically imported into the Lightroom catalog alongside the source images. It seems very fast, and given how well it is integrated into Lightroom I find it incredibly easy to use. For me, the most important characteristic of LR/Enfuse is that the images generally look much more natural than what I have achieved using tone mapping techniques and do not, to my eye, have much or any of the “HDR Look”.

What is the “HDR Look“? Justice Potter Stewart, when describing obscenity in a legal case with historic ramifications, famously intoned “… I know it when I see it…”. The notion applies equally well to the HDR Look. Photographers are familiar with the highly processed look that HDR can produce and, while many use the HDR Look to good advantage in Flickr galleries or on websites with a few even making a career out of HDR imagery, I try to avoid overdoing it. HDR software is fun yet I liken its use in the hands of some photographers to handing a 16-year-old the keys to my Porsche Panamera — it is often a recipe for disaster unless considerable restraint is involved. (OK, that last part was a total lie, I don’t have a Porsche.)

Yet there are situations in which the contrast range of a scene is too great for today’s best cameras to accomodate, even using graduated ND filters, in which cases HDR techniques may help solve exposure challenges. I have used Photomatix for years to blend HDR images but have never really been satisfied with the results. In my experience, Photomatix processing often introduces localized color shifts or changes in saturation that appear obvious and unnatural, and the final results of the blending typically do not match the quick preview that Photomatix offers, which means I am never really certain exactly how the HDR image will look until after the time-consuming Photomatix process is complete. Now, to be fair, there are many photographers using Photomatix with incredible results. The Photomatix workflow, even employing the Lightroom plugin version of Photomatix, seems slow and often requires that I cycle through several blending variations before I obtain a result that I can use as a starting point from which further blending and masking in Photoshop can be done. My poor results are probably due to my lack of experience or unwillingness to develop sufficient expertise more than any flaw in the Photomatix software. Nevertheless, I have never really been pleased with the results of HDR blending using Photomatix, nor with the amount of time that is required to produce a good final result.

On the other hand, I am very happy (so far) with the speed, ease of use, results and cost of LR/Enfuse. The LR/Enfuse plugin is “donationware” which means you make a donation to the software project and receive an code by email that unlocks all the features of the software. Don’t be fooled by the donationware business model of this software enterprise. The algorithms behind LR/Enfuse arise from some brilliant minds in the imaging field, and the 64-bit executable that is employed to process the images is bloody fast on my quad-core iMac. I made a donation, installed and licensed the software on my Mac, and made a few trial HDR blends on recent coast redwood images I shot. But I needed something with greater dynamic range to really test it out, so I recalled some very harsh images I shot in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks a few years ago. I was on a tight schedule and did not have the ability to wait for the sweet light of sunrise and sunset at all locations, often shooting in harsh light. I shot bracketed sequences hoping that later I could solve the exposure problems with software. At the time I used Photomatix and did manage to produce some blends, but the results (as you will see below) are not the best. In the course of an hour I made new versions of 12 different HDR series using the LR/Enfuse plugin in Lightroom, and am generally very happy with the results. The colors seem more honest, not exhibiting the shifts in hue and saturation that I have observed often using Photomatix. In the three examples below the only processing I did was to set saturation to +10 in Lightroom, then run the LR/Enfuse plugin using its default settings, wait for the blended image to be created and automatically imported back into Lightroom (usually about 10-15 seconds) and then apply a curve adjustment, generally to pull down the mid-darks. That’s it! As I said, I processed 12 complete HDR sets in one hour, including the time it took to install and learn the program, and even using just the default settings I am quite happy with the results. Furthermore, the LR/Enfuse versions appear to me to be exceptionally sharp when viewed at 100%, with no ghosting of any kind, whereas Photomatix produces, for me at least, images that are quite soft and must be sharpened quite a bit before presenting online or to clients.

Example 1: Wilson Arch

Blending example #1 is Wilson Arch, shot with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens and Canon 1Ds Mark II camera. Bracketing was accomplished by varying the shutter speed (constant aperture, very important) one and two-third stops for each exposure step. LR/Enfuse does have an optional image-align-stacking step, but it does slow the process down. I found that the alignment step could be omitted for my images since they had been taken while the camera was locked down on a very heavy tripod.

Example 2: Mesa Arch

The second example is of Mesa Arch, a very commonly photographed arch in Canyonlands National Park, again shot with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens, Canon 1Ds Mark II camera and using one and two-third stop brackets.

Example 3: Pine Tree Arch

The last example is of Pine Tree Arch in Arches National Park, with the same equipment and bracketing. In these images I applied some lens distortion correction. Lightroom’s lens profiles must be great since the results after “defishing” are sharp corner to corner.


Are these new images made with LR/Enfuse better than the previous ones I made with Photomatix? I’ll need to consider them for a while, along with the other 20-30 HDR images I have in my files. I can say the LR/Enfuse is so quick and easy to use that I won’t hesitate to shoot a bracketed tripod-mounted sequence when shooting landscapes and the dynamic range suggests HDR might have promise. With the bracket series imported into Lightroom, it literally takes a minute or less to apply basic raw processing adjustments (such as baseline saturation, contrast, brightness, etc. ) to the middle image in the sequence, sync those settings to the other images in the sequence, blend the images using LR/Enfuse into a 16-bit TIF and then perform any final adjustments to the blended image in Lightroom.

As a final word I will mention that I consider my photography to be “natural history photography“. The clients who license my images are primarily publishers and editors for whom truthfulness and realism in imagery is very important. I do not limit myself to images that are made only “in camera”, nor do I limit myself to images made only from a single frame if the limitations of the camera get in the way of achieving the final result. However, when combining or blending frames, either in panoramic images, in “handmade” masked images or in HDR images made with software tools, honesty and a straightforward depiction of the subject are driving forces for me.