"Mesa Arch Sunrise"
March 2012, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
A sunrise shot at Mesa Arch is something every American landscape photographer wants to add to his portfolio. This is clearly evident by the crowded parking lot at the trailhead to the arch every morning. The problem with shooting Mesa is that it is actually quite a small arch, perhaps only 50 feet wide. This means that there is not a lot of staging room for photographers to position themselves for that ideal shot. Indeed, photographers are their own worst enemy when it comes to photographing at Mesa.
I had previously tried shooting the arch by arriving 30 minutes before sunrise, only to find that the grounds were already staked out by several photographers and their gear. The problem is that vans loaded with workshop photographers would arrive, immediately saturating the area. I loathe workshops.
I finally came to the realization that I was just going to have to arrive much earlier, at least an hour before sunrise. On this particular morning I left my motel room in Moab at 5:15am, a full two hours before the sunrise at 7:20. The 45 minute drive to the arch should put me in at the trailhead at 6:00 where I could then wait in the warmth of my truck before starting the short 10-minute hike to the arch. At least that was my plan.
I drove the 45 minutes to the trailhead, ascending from Moab's 4000' elevation to the 6000' elevation at the parking lot. Just as planned, I arrived at 6:00 am in complete darkness, relieved to see that the parking lot was empty. At this hour of the morning it had better be empty! Sunrise was still an hour and twenty minutes away, so I would just stay in my Xterra for about 20 minutes enjoying my hot thermos of freshly brewed Peet's coffee. Hot coffee and landscape photography - life just doesn't get any better than that. I had no sooner began to enjoy my Italian Roast when I saw a set of headlights off in the distance. One thing about the complete darkness of the Utah night sky is that when there is light you can see it a long way off. I realized quickly that it was a car heading to my very location because there is simply nowhere else to go on this road at this time of night.
I took a last gulp of my coffee and quickly put on my headlamp. I stepped out of my truck to get my backpack out of the rear door. It was cold outside! With the aid of my light I put on my pack, adjusted the harness and quickly set off for the arch. I couldn't see the trail at all except where my light beam was pointed. Most city folks have no idea of what true darkness is really like until they come to a place like this. After I had proceeded up the trail for about 2 minutes I saw the car pull into the parking lot just as I thought it would. Come on - sunrise is still an hour and 15 minutes away!
I arrived at the arch at about 6:15. At least I was the first person on scene. I staked out the most desirable location with my heavy tripod, took off my pack and waited. Overhead a billion stars dazzled like individual diamonds, occasionally interrupted by the flashing red glow of an aircraft passing high above. It was a cold but stunningly beautiful night. That hot thermos of coffee sure would have been nice to drink out of, but in my haste to leave the truck I left it behind. A few minutes later I saw the beams from a couple of flashlights heading down the trail towards me. Turns out it was a couple from Germany who had the same idea that I did. The girlfriend was apparently accompanying her photographer boyfriend, and she didn't seem all that happy about being there at such an early hour. This is why I have always gone on my trips alone.
By 6:45 we had a lot of company, perhaps 8 photographers and their companions. One guy came up right next to me on my left and put his tripod near and in front of me slightly. What he didn't realize is that I was shooting with an ultra wide angle lens, and part of his tripod was actually in my image field. So I had to creep a little forward. As I crept forward the guy on my right then decided he had to creep forward. So it is at Mesa Arch.
By the time sunrise arrived no one could move since we had all pinned each other firmly in place. I would estimate that 30 - 40 people now occupied the limited acreage in front of the arch. I managed to fire off a couple of decent shots, but nothing to write home to mom about. I was so frustrated and was trying very hard not to lose my cool. I knew how to shoot the arch, but the inconsiderate bunch around me prevented me from doing so. Would this be yet another exercise in futility in my attempt to shoot Mesa?
About 5 minutes after sunrise everyone started breaking down their gear, including me. I stepped back from the arch, welcoming the opportunity to be standing up instead of hunkered down on my knees like I had been for the previous hour. I casually put my tripod down, now fully extended with my camera and lens still attached to it. I turned back towards the arch and noticed that no one was there! Every single one of the photographers who had occupied the space immediately in front of the arch had left or moved back. I had already missed the opportunity to shoot the sunrise as the sun just breached the horizon, BUT in about 30 seconds the sun would begin to hit the bottom of the arch, which should (I hoped) create a starburst effect for a few seconds. I quickly changed lenses, composed my shot and hoped that no one would step in front of me. I finished setting up just as the sun hit the bottom of the arch. I fired off a few rounds and couldn't believe my luck. It was as though the Lord was supernaturally holding back everyone so I could get my shot. After checking my LCD screen I realized that I had absolutely nailed the shot. Praise God! I looked around in disbelief as no one else saw the scene that I was seeing. Why was no one else shooting? I didn't know, nor did I care. I had been patient, worked hard, and got one of the best Mesa Arch pictures that I have ever seen. God is so good to me.
Canyonlands National ParkDawnMesa ArchSouthwestSouthwestern USASunriseUtah