Monday, October 26, 2009

How to photograph Utah's iconic landscapes - Mesa Arch

Utah is home to some of the most unique geography in the world. Inside its borders are five different national parks, all of which display parts of the mind-boggling beauty of the red-rock desert in the southern part of the state, known as the Colorado Plateau. The sandstone of the Colorado Plateau has been wildly sculpted by millions of years of rain, wind and geologic upheaval into a collection of domes, canyons, arches, bridges, hoodoos, and other geologic formations only found here, in our little corner of the planet.

The rock forms are so fascinating and strangely beautiful that visitors naturally want to photograph them. People travel from all over the world to experience Utah's national parks like Arches and Canyonlands and take photos of the rock "sculptures". We're lucky enough to have them right here in our backyard. A few of these rock features attract the most attention from visitors and photographers, and have been elevated to an iconic status by appearing repeatedly in print. From billboards to glossy coffee-table books, to park brochures, you'll see these spots representing the beauty of the Colorado Plateau. If you've ever wanted your personal photos to measure up to the published images that drew you to the southern Utah in the first place, read on.

Here's a look at how to photograph one red rock country's most published icons, Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch sits like a window frame above an awe-inspiring drop in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The "window" looks out over thousands of feet of air, an intricately carved canyon floor, sandstone towers, and a landscape that can't be acurately conveyed with words alone. Trying to fit all this onto a digital sensor the size of a postage stamp can be quite the challenge.

Timing is everything at Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch faces east and therefore is best photographed at sunrise, right as the sun's rays first illuminate the orange-red rock on the underside of the arch. The sandstone towers down in the canyon will be dramatically backlit at sunrise, making for a compelling middle-ground in the image. The best light lasts only about 15 minutes before the sun climbs higher into the sky and the dramatic colors start to fade. Be there and be ready. Arriving 15-30 minutes before sunrise will allow plenty of time to find the best angle to shoot from and get set up for the short window of opportunity. This means an early wake-up call, but it's worth it. Here's a link to the exact time of sunrise.

Bring a tri-pod and wide-angle lens to help capture the scene. A tri-pod is important because it will steady the camera in the early morning light. You'll want to shoot for the maximum possible depth-of-field to ensure sharpness throughout the image. An f-stop of f/22 or higher is ideal. Tri-pods also help with composition because they force you as a photographer to think about where to position the camera, what to include in your shot, and what to leave out. A wide-angle lens is taylor-made for capturing Mesa Arch. With a wide-angle lens, between 12-35mm in length, you'll be able to capture the full arch, plus the vista below.

Getting there: Mesa Arch is located eight miles south of the park entrance in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. From Moab, drive north on US Highway 191 for nine miles and turn left on State Route 313, following signs to Canyonlands National Park. Continue on State Route 313 for 22 miles to the north entrance of the park. From the park entrance continue another eight miles to the turnoff for Mesa Arch on the right side of the road. Turn right and drive a short distance to the parking area - Mesa Arch Trailhead. Hike the half-mile loop to Mesa Arch. Allow 10-15 minutes to hike into the Arch. Don't be late for sunrise!

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