Photographing Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT

For landscape photographers Mesa Arch is a bit of a cliché, and yet we all want our opportunity to photograph it. For me, it wasn’t just a chance to make my own capture, but also an occasion to actually experience it. Even the best photographs don’t do it justice; you have to let the magic of the place soak in. And usually you have to share that with tripod-to-tripod photographers. One more reason to visit in December.

I scouted Mesa Arch the day before I shot it, after photographing nearby Dead Horse SP. There was no one there; it was mid-morning and the light wasn’t the best, but I got an idea of what I would see the next day.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT

Mesa Arch is surprisingly small, maybe 40′ from end-to-end, which explains why it can get crowded. Generally, photographers are recommended to arrive an hour before sunrise. I recommend two hours during good weather, because there will likely be others shooting. I arrived at 5:30 AM for a 7:30 sunrise in December. I walked to the Arch, which takes only 10 minutes, set up my tripod and camera, and started finding vantage points. By the time the sun appeared I was pretty certain where the best spots were. Amazingly, there was nobody in sight. There was snow in the area, but not enough to discourage visitors and certainly not enough to dissuade a photographer. I kept expecting others to appear and I was surprised that no one showed up as dawn approached.

The challenge for shooting Mesa in the morning is waiting for the sun’s glow to light the underside of the arch and then, at just the right moment, to capture the sunburst. I shot with an ultra-wide (12-24mm DX) lens and that also produces lens flare. I scooted back and forth with my tripod, focusing and triggering. Within a few minutes the best shots were taken and it was time to move on. With the sun was fully up I was still alone and I walked back to my car to thaw. The next morning I tried again–this time there was a half-dozen vehicles there when I arrived, so I drove on, satisfied with what I had captured.

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