Mesa Arch:  The Southwest’s best Photo Op?
Mesa Arch in Utah is one of those photographic icons of the American Southwest that manages to overwhelm you when you stand before it...even if you've seen hundreds of photos of the scene over the decades. This arch stands on the precipice of a 500' cliff at the edge of an incredible valley...but what is truly amazing is the way the rising sun illuminates the BOTTOM of the arch with an incredible orange glow.

Mesa Arch: The Southwest’s best Photo Op?

First of all, let me apologize…I haven’t written a blog for a few weeks, but I have the best of excuses: I’ve been on a two week photo trip!  An absolutely incredible, 6,100 mile roadtrip with my son who just graduated from High School.  Frankly,  I’m still sore from hiking over 40 miles (often with a 35 lb backpack in 100+ degree temperatures!) but the pain is alleviated by the treasure trove of new photos that I will be editing over the next month or so.  The trip also provided a wealth of blog topics and I’ll start with a fun but controversial one… Mesa Arch: The southwest’s best photo op?

Why controversial?  Well, the American Southwest may well have the world’s greatest concentration of landscape photography icons, so picking one out as the best would be challenging.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time in the southwest over the past few years and I think I could make a good case that Mesa Arch is the best of the best.

Why do I think Mesa Arch is the best photo Op in the American Southwest?:

  1. Well, photographs like this one are a good first argument.
    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.
    Be set up and ready to capture the sun when it peeks over the horizon.

    I mean, just look at it!  This arch stretches over the precipice of a cliff gazing out over a breathtaking vista.  But of course, Mesa Arch’s true claim to fame is the way the rising sun illuminates the bottom of the arch with an intensity that makes every photograph look like you went nuts with Photoshop’s saturation slider!  Seriously, when I first opened up the raw files from my shoot at the arch, I had to do a double check to see if I had already worked on the shots…the orange was really that insanely saturated!

  2. A second argument is that Mesa Arch has a lot of varied looks.  By that I mean that for a location that isn’t really all that large, you can harvest a wide range of shots just by changing lenses or moving 15 feet.   For example, this image was taken no more than a dozen feet to the right of the previous photo:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise
    Move around and get different perspectives..
  3. A third point is that Mesa Arch is relatively easy to get to. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d be the first to admit that a location that requires a ten mile hike makes me appreciate the resulting photos a bit more than one where I simply roll down the window and shoot it from the car. With that said, Mesa Arch was my last shoot of this trip, I was bone tired and sore in places I didn’t know I had, so I didn’t mind that it was only a 15 minute stroll from the parking area!
  4. My last point has nothing to do with the resulting photographs, but it has everything to do with photography.    By that I mean that I had a ball photographing Mesa Arch because of the other photographers that were there.  There were folks from Switzerland, France, Germany, Boston, Michigan and Florida (yours truly).  Now, it really isn’t all that unusual to see photographers from Europe in the southwest…sometimes I think they outnumber the Americans:)  What was wonderful was the sense of camaraderie, civility and pure friendliness that this group of strangers shared for the couple hours we enjoyed the spectacle that is a Mesa Arch sunrise.  Folks were sharing ideas, shifting positions to let others get a shot from the ‘prized’ tripod locations and actually talking with each other, which I can tell you isn’t always the case when 20 intense landscape photographers are trying to get the same shot at the same location!  Perhaps it was the fact that we had all traveled far and were so excited to have the chance to photograph this breathtaking location that we were near giddy..even those all of us had gotten up at about 3:30 am to be there!

For my fellow-photographers:  Mesa Arch Photo Tips:

  • Stay in Moab.  This quaint and funky little town is about an hour from Mesa Arch.  It is the perfect base for Canyonlands National Park (where Mesa Arch is located).  It ALSO less than ten minutes from Arches National Park as well.  A quick look a the map and you will see that Moab is truly in the center of a incredibly ‘target rich’ environment for the landscape photographer.  There are a number of hotels and plenty of interesting places to eat.  If you are traveling with a companion, they will find plenty to do here.  Oh, and if you visit Moab you will be obligated to check out the gallery of one of landscape photography’s superstars: Tom Till.
  • You will need to leave your Moab hotel about two hours before sunrise.  Why?  Well, space under the arch is limited and  if you aren’t one of the first there, you probably won’t end up with an ideal spot for the sunrise.  It is about 38 miles from ‘downtown’ Moab.  Just take Main street North out of Moab (Main becomes Hwy 191 outside of the city) and turn left on UT-313.   UT-313 will become the ‘Island In the Sky Road’ and then ‘Grand View Point Road’. Once you pass the Canyonlands National Park entrance area (careful of the intense speed bumps) it is another 6.3 miles to the Mesa Arch parking area on the left (marked with a sign). Trailhead coordinates: 38.389084, -109.868143
  • The road is in good condition but it doesn’t have lighting and is a “free range” area.  If you aren’t from the west, then you need to know that ‘free range’ means that the roads aren’t fenced and cows can and do wander on the road.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of being surprised by the sight of a black bull standing in the middle of a dark road on a moonless light while traveling at 70 miles an hour, then you know why you shouldn’t be driving anywhere close to the speed limit!  Take it easy and hold your speed down…the drive is beautiful, even at night.
  • If you took my advice, then you will be at the parking area about an hour before sunup…and you still might not be the first one there!  Mesa Arch isn’t a secret, I’ve seen twenty photographers here at sunrise shooting side by side with overlapped tripods.  If possible, come on a weekday and/or out-of-season to avoid the crowds.  Shots after a snowfall can be magical with the wonderful contrast between the red rock, blue sky and white snowflakes.
  • There is a well marked trail to the arch from the parking lot…there are a few areas that cross over sections of slickrock where the trail is a bit more difficult to see but there are a number of cairns (piles of stones) that will show you the way.   You will need a headlamp.  The hike is about 15 minutes…the trail is a .5 mile loop.
  • When you get to the arch, use your Photographer’s Ephemeris app on your cellphone to see exactly where the sun will rise within the arch (If you don’t have this app, buy it.  It only costs $8.99 and you will be surprised how often you will use it).  Basically, the sun will rise on the left side of the arch in summer…right side during winter.  Personally, I like the look of the sun off-center, so I position my tripod accordingly when I first get to the arch.
  • While the sky is beginning to brighten, use your Live View to get your focus perfect.
  • Before the sunrise, take your time to figure out the different apertures you will need for each lens you plan to use.  At the very least, you should be prepared to use two apertures.
    1. Be prepared to shoot at your smallest aperture when the sun first breaks to get a nice ‘sunburst’ effect
    2. Then open your aperture up to a hyper-focal point that also allows your Depth of Field (DOF) to be sharp from the foreground to the horizon.  If your memory isn’t as good as it once was (like me), there are easy apps for your smartphone that will help determine your DOF and hyper-focal point.  The one I use, Simple DOF, costs only $2 and is easy to use.
    3. You should also know the aperture at which your lens produces its sharpest images…this is critical if you are going to blow-up your shots to a large size.  When I first buy a lens, I look on-line for test results to determine its sharpest aperture.  I then write this aperture # on a small label and stick it on the barrel of the lens.  Maybe not a sophisticated method, but it helps when I’m excited at a photo shoot and can’t remember silly little details like this:)
  • Bring your tripod…this is a location made for HDR.  The dynamic range needed for these shots is incredible.  I started shooting with a 5 stop bracket (-2 stop to +2 stop) but found that wasn’t enough.  Even a 7 stop bracket range was barely sufficient.  I’d suggest a full 10 stop bracket…it is better to have a few extra frames than to find that the sun ‘blew-out’ your highlights!
  • You will need a minimum of a 16mm lens on a full frame camera (or a 10mm on DX sensor camera) to get all the arch in the shot.  Frankly, a 12mm would be perfect.
  • I did try some panoramas by using a sharp 20mm prime and stitching them together…but it is REALLY hard to keep the full dynamic range without using HDR.  Perhaps my next time I will try to do a HDR Panorama, by then there will likely be software than can make this a reality.
  • This location also works well with a fisheye lens…I had a ball with my 15mm Sigma FE:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise
    Fisheye perspective (non-corrected). Click on the image to see full resolution image in Flickr.
  • Once the sun peeks over the horizon, get your shots of the starburst with your smallest aperture.
  • After you get that starburst, MOVE!  Don’t stay rooted to the same spot.  If you pick up your tripod, others will do the same and everyone can shift around and get some different perspectives.  As a matter of courtesy, it is considered bad manners here to take your camera off the tripod and leave the tripod set in a ‘prime’ location.  Please pick it up and let someone else have a shot.
  • You should have about 2o minutes or more to work after the sunrise.   At this point, change your aperture to it sharpest setting and continue shooting until the sun is just about to slide behind the bottom of the arch…then shift back to your smallest aperture to get that sunburst one last time.  The saturation of the light on the bottom of the arch is also at it’s peak at this point.
  • Since you are shooting nearly directly into the sun, your polarizer won’t be particularly helpful unless you are lucky to be blessed with reflective cloud cover.
  • Be careful of lens flares.
  • Also, don’t pack up once the sun slides behind the arch.  Get out your telephoto lens out and get some shots of the landscape thru the arch like this one:

    Mesa Arch Sunrise
    View thru the Arch
  • Talk to the other folks there.  This is an event!  For most of the photographers there, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Break the ice by just asking where everyone is from: the smiles will come out and the conversations will flow!
  • I found it fun to use a pocket point-and-shoot to take some shots of the other photographers…

    Mesa Arch Sunrise Photographers
    Photographing the Photographers

So is Mesa Arch the best of the best?  Well, at the very least it is in my Top FiveIt really should be on every photographer’s ‘bucket list’!

Next week I’ll share with you my trip to another southwest icon:  “House on Fire”

Till then, Have fun and keep shooting!


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