Photographing Mesa Arch

Our world is filled with beautiful places, many of which are frequented by flocks of people who want to experience them. Although cameras so readily available, getting a good photo of such places can be challenging. Either you struggle to get a photo that stands out from the literally millions of photos that have been taken of it, or you struggle to simply get a photo that even begins to convey the actual beauty of the place. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park is such a place. I had the privilege to visit Mesa Arch for the first time in June 2016. As a photographer, it was a learning experience that taught me a few useful things about taking such shots. Below are my top 5 tips for photographing Mesa Arch or other popular natural landmarks.

1. Do some recon work. When we finally arrived at Mesa Arch, it was 1pm on a hot summer day. It was hot, very bright, and Mesa Arch was crawling with tourists (us included). We had even been lucky enough to arrive at the same time as a tourist bus. With all that in mind, I didn’t even bring my camera on the 7-minute hike from the parking lot to the arch. It was pointless. The light was shining right from above because of the noon sun, and all I would have been able to photograph is a boring shot of Mesa Arch with tourists climbing on it (which they’re not supposed to) taking selfies. Instead, my wife and I walked around the place, taking note of how long it took to get from the parking lot to the arch, thinking about where the sun would rise the next morning, and where the best spot to get some decent shots might be. After that, we made our way back to our campsite and laid half naked spraying water on ourselves until about 5pm when the temperature started becoming more tolerable.

2. Find different angles. We got up about an hour and a half before sunrise the next day and began driving from our campsite to the arch (which took a good 20 minutes). I was so disappointed when we got to the parking lot and there were already about 4 other cars parked there and several others arriving. It was still dark. We hiked the short trail from the parking lot to Mesa Arch and found about 5 other photographers already perched with their tripods on the best spots. We should have gotten there even earlier. Although I was disappointed, it forced me to think more about other angles to shoot from. I took note of several different angles but ultimately decided that I wanted that one epic shot looking through the arch with the sun rising in the back of it and the orange glow in the inside wall of the arch. Thankfully, the other photographers were friendly enough to let me squeeze between them. As soon as I got that classic shot, I broke away from the pack and started taking several other photos from different vantage points. Although none were as good as that classic shot, I feel that getting a variety of shots works nicely for telling the story of being there and showing what the place really looks like.

3. Go really early, or really late. Although I underestimated how early other photographers would arrive at the arch, I was glad we arrived at least 20 minutes before sunrise. The closer it got to sunrise, the more crowded it got around Mesa Arch. By the time the sun rose, there were dozens of people there. A number of us already had the best spot, so I felt a bit sorry for those who arrived later since they would have to work around us to get their shot (but hey, first come, first serve). Waiting for the magical light of the sunrise was TOTALLY worth the wait. It was one of the most beautiful and exciting sunrises I’ve witnessed so far. As the light started hitting Mesa Arch, I understood why this is one of the most photographed places in southwestern USA. The orange glow underneath the arch, along with the amazing rock formations and mountains in the hazy horizon behind the arch; it was a picture-perfect scene just begging to be photographed. While there, I also realized that coming back at night and shooting the arch with the stars in the back would have been amazing too. I ended up taking star shots somewhere else that night though, so I’ll have to go back sometime.

4. Fight for your spot. After having secured a spot right next to the arch, side-by-side with the other early birds, I learned a valuable lesson as we all stood there waiting for the sunrise. We had all set up our tripods about 10 feet from the arch and were standing there fuzzing with our camera settings. Then, suddenly, a few seconds before the sun began to come out of the horizon, the two photographers on either side of me grabbed their tripods and set them up about 3 feet in front of me and all the others. “Those mother*****!” I thought to myself. I was beyond angry. I had spent the last 20 minutes choosing a spot, setting up my camera, and those inconsiderate pricks were now blocking my shot. I was about to tell them a piece of my mind, when they turned towards me and signaled for me to come up there with them. They made some room for me and I had to reset all my gear again. By then the sun was coming up so I completely forgot that I was angry and just started to capture the amazing beauty of that moment. It wasn’t until later that I had time to think about the fact that those two (more experienced) photographers had planned to move up a few feet at the last second all along. It was a dirty trick that was inconsiderate of everyone else, but I learned that we photographers can be viciously competitive when it comes to get a shot like that. This time I was fortunate that they let me through with them, but I realized that next time I need to be prepared to fight for my spot, especially given all the hard work it took to get there early in the morning.

5. Take your time. Once the sun peaked through the horizon, I took several shots of it and then moved around to get a few different angles. It all took about 10 minutes and I felt that I had what I had come for. I decided to go sit for a while next to my wife and just enjoy the moment. It took quite a bit of effort for me to just put down the camera and forget about taking shots. But as I sat there observing, I realized that the light was doing some unexpected things. About 20 minutes into the sunrise, I realized that the light had changed so much that there was a totally different shot available now. I was so glad I had waited around. I apologized to my wife, picked up my camera, and went back for seconds.

  • My take on a the classic sunrise shot. Probably my favorite shot of Mesa Arch.

  • Photographers jostling for a prime spot to get a sunrise shot of Mesa Arch. I got out of there as soon as I got a few classic shots.

  • The southeast view of the arch. Much less dramatic than looking northeast where the sun rises and the mountains and rock formations are, but still cool.

  • A selfie of my wife and I after most of the crowds had cleared out, which was maybe 45 minutes after sunrise. I still had bed hair.

  • My wife patiently waiting for me as I scouted out other places to shoot from.

  • A close up of the view behind Mesa Arch.

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