Planning the shot - Mesa Arch sunrise & road trip - WellsFineArtPhotography

I am a big believer in pre-visualizing the image I want to get. Of course, when I get to the location I will shoot whatever is there, but pre-visualizing brings clarity and purpose to my preparation. So when I decided to photograph the sunrise at Mesa Arch, I knew I wanted to get a big starburst pattern of light from the sun. I knew that shooting directly into the sun would be an exposure problem because of the huge difference between the brightness of direct sunlight and the shadowed rock in the foreground. I also knew that I wanted a huge depth of field to capture the rocks and sand a few feet away, and the 100 mile view beyond. Oh, and did I mention lens flare? I needed to figure out how to avoid that when shooting directly into the sun.

I knew I had to solve these problems in advance if I had any chance of a successful shot. The first problem I decided to solve was the depth of field. The smaller the camera's aperture and the wider the lens, the greater the depth of field, so I decided to buy a 14 mm manual lens by Rokinon. I already own a 16-35 mm Canon zoom but those extra 2 mm add a lot to both depth and angle of view. I had not been to Mesa Arch and didn't know how close to arch I would be or how wide it is, but I thought 14 mm would allow me to capture the full width of the image (It turned out to be perfect). The Rokinon lens was recommended to me by my photo friend, Brent. The aperture, I would have to find by experimentation.

In addition to providing a large depth of field, a small aperture can also make a wide starburst pattern because the diameter of the sun (as seen by the camera) will be larger than the size of the aperture (if the aperture is small enough). The light from the top of the sun therefore, has to radiate down through the aperture, creating a ray or sunbeam seeming to come out of the bottom of the sun. The light from the bottom of the sun radiates up through the top of the aperture, creating a ray that seems to come out the top. The light on the left side of the sun seems to radiate towards the right and so on. The number of rays correlates to the number of blades on the diaphragm of the aperture.


Rokinon 14mm, f2.8

After buying the Rokinon 14mm, I started practicing shooting the sunrise and sunset in my backyard. I played with the focus using a near object (avocado tree 5 feet away), mid range object (another tree, 20 feet away) and a neighbors tree (about 50 feet away). The idea was to find the aperture and focal distance that captured perfect clarity on the near object and good focus on infinity. It turned out that f11 was the largest aperture that gave the desired depth of field. I could have used a smaller aperture like f22, but then I would have to increase the ISO or exposure time. Doing that could cause more noise, plus diffraction from the small opening can cause “purple fringing” in the image. My technique was to focus on the near object and then check the image for clarity on the distant objects, looking for acceptable clarity in both. For more on this subject, you can read about “hyperfocal distance”.


Small crop of test shot. F11 at 3 meters

Better yet, when pointed at the sun, f11 made a nice starburst pattern. The focal distance was set for 3 meters, but the tree was less than 2 meters. It is a manual lens and you can't depend on the numeric settings on the focus ring. Just focus by eye. This means that if you are planning to shoot at night, you must adjust the focal distance in advance under good lighting conditions and put some tape on the focus ring so as not to lose your place when you are at your location in the dark.

For example, at f2.8 (the widest aperture on the Rokinon), infinity is at one meter. Clearly, the stars are farther away than that, but one meter is the focal distance that gives the best result. Now that I know that, I can do astrophotography without trying to focus through the eyepiece. I just set the distance to one meter. Despite it's quirks, the Rokinon is a fabulous wide angle lens. It has become my “go to lens” for astrophotography, or when I need clarity over a big depth of field. Even if I know I will end up cropping the image because I don't need all 14 mm of width and height, I like the near-to-far clarity of the Rokinon.


Wide depth of field and starburst handled. That left two issues. The huge range of light and the probability of lens flare. For the first issue, I decided to shoot bracketed exposures to get a greater range of light and dark. Of course, I was going to shoot using a tripod so aligning those later would not be a problem. All I had to do was set the camera to shoot 2 stops above, below and at mid-range. Given how short the time window is for the actual moment of sunrise, I wouldn't have time to check the image between shots, so I planned to just shoot bracketed exposures and blend them later if needed.


The best technique I could find for lens flare was to take the same 3 bracketed shots normally, then take them again with my thumb covering the sun. That would allow me to blend shots that showed the sun rays (which had rainbow “flares” scattered across the rest of the image) with images of the area around the sun that didn't have the flares because I had blocked the direct sunlight from hitting the sensor.


On our trip towards Mesa Arch was planned to go through Zion UT, Page AZ and Monument Valley on our wary to Moab. Page is home to Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell and other photogenic sights. Moab is adjacent to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is the location of Mesa Arch and another location on my photo bucket list, False Kiva.

We left Los Angeles mid day, heading through Zion to Mt Carmel Junction in one long driving day (about 9 hours). We made it to the West entrance to Zion National Park for dinner at Casa de Amigos in Springdale, UT. Casa de Amigos is an excellent Mexican Restaurant. They serve large portions of burritos, tacos, fish, chicken, beef and pork dishes with rice, beans and guacamole, etc. Standard Mexican fare, done well.

After dinner, we pushed on to the Best Western in Mt Carmel Junction (which is my favorite place to stay in that area). That Best Western has large, comfortable rooms, a big hot tub in back and is attached to the Thunderbird Cafe, "Home of the Ho Made Pie". The Thunderbird is another good restaurant.

The next morning, we left Mt Carmel Junction, detouring to see the Coral Pink Sand Dunes (not that impressive), arriving in Page AZ, for a so-so lunch at Fiesta Mexicana. Funny how they had a menu similar to Casa de Amigos but the quality was no where near as good in our opinion.


Coral Pink Sand Dunes

On the road to Page

The detour through Coral Pink Sand Dunes set us back from my anticipated arrival in Page, so we were only able to get the last tour of Lower Antelope Canyon. Since it was a regular tour ($20), not a photo tour ($85), I wasn't allowed to bring in my tripod. This is a distinct disadvantage because the light is dim inside this slot canyon. Rather than raise the ISO to the point of a noisy image, I kept the shutter open longer. To reduce motion blur, I braced my head or hands against a wall of rock and used a two second shutter release. I did bracketed shots that way and to my surprise, was able to align them later in Photoshop. (Open two bracketed images,  select all/copy one image. Create a new layer in the other image and paste the one image over the other. Then after selecting both layers, select Edit/Auto Align Layers. What I did then was erase the parts of the overlapping layer that I didn't want rather than auto blending. I find that he auto blend results in a flat, cartoonish image. In the image below, the only part of the darker layer that remains is the pale blue of the sky. The rest is all one image.

Lower Antelope Canyon with sky

Lower Antelope Canyon Archway

We arrived at Monument Valley after dark and parked our Subaru in the parking lot reserved for tent campers. The tent campers parking area is at the edge of a hill overlooking a pair of buttes called the “Mittens”.  At night, there was only room for head-in parking. Since we had our bed set up in the back of our car, we were all set for the night. If you have a camper or trailer, there is a different parking lot just across the road.  Regardless of whether you sleep in a tent, your car, a trailer or the hotel, you will have a great view of the Mittens.

As soon as we had eaten some dinner from our ice chest, I walked across the road past the trailer park area and took some shots of the Milky Way. I was using my headlamp to light the foreground bushes when a car drove by on the road to the entrance, lighting the bushes farther in the distance. At 25 seconds, the Rokinon 14mm, f4.5 paid off with a nice shot. 

Monument Valley and Milky Way

Too early the next morning, it began to get light. I scrambled to get my tripod and camera set up while the sun was still breaking the horizon. Our parking spot was a great location to see the sunrise beyond the "Mittens". If you imagine the slender hoodoos as thumbs, you can see why these buttes are called the mittens.

The way I wanted to frame the image required that I use my Canon 70-200mm lens. I used a small aperture to make the sunburst. In post processing, I darkened the highlights and lightened the shadows to balance the exposure. I typically "shoot for the sky", setting my exposure for the sky and letting foreground areas be dark. I can always lighten the dark areas but I can't do anything with a white sky.

Sunrise over the Mittens

After breakfast, we drove the 17 mile loop around Monument Valley. The road was not bad for the Subaru. We were glad not to be in the open trucks that carried the tourists around because it was so dusty in those trucks and we could take our time with photography. It would be interesting to hear what the guides had to say, but I would want to hear it in a closed vehicle.

Monument Valley Hoodoos & tree

17 mile drive in Monument Valley

More buttes & hoodoos

Artist's Point

It's beautiful country. I'd like to come back during the monsoon season. I could only imagine how much more photogenic it would be with storm clouds, lightning and rainbows.


We arrived back at our parking/camping spot around 1:00 PM, had some lunch out of our ice chest and took a shower. The showers and bathrooms available for the tent campers were clean. Water is limited in the desert, so don't expect a long hot shower. 

Our parking (car camping) spot at Monument Valley

After lunch, we headed North out of Monument Valley on our way to Moab. One of the more interesting sights along the way was Mexican Hat. We recognized it immediately of course when we saw it. It is easily visible from the main road. You can get closer on a dirt road.


Mexican Hat

We took a detour to an amazing petroglyph site called Newspaper Rock. It was about a half hour each way from the main road to get there but well worth it. The map said it was 12 miles from Highway 191 but the two lane road (SR 211) was winding, and in one section covered with cows. 

Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock detail

We timed our visit to Newspaper Rock for the afternoon to get it in full sunlight. It is down in a canyon and by 4:30 PM, shadows were beginning to work their way up the bottom of the rock. No hiking is required to get there as it is not more than 100 feet of flat trail from the parking lot. There is also a restroom adjacent to the parking lot.

Getting back onto highway 161 and heading North, we stopped briefly at Wilson Arch. We thought of it a preview of the coming attractions at Arches National Park.

Wilson Arch

We arrived in Moab on a Wednesday night and checked into our hotel. I decided to go up to Mesa Arch early the next morning. I had heard it could be very crowded and my other mornings in the area were Friday, Saturday and Sunday, all which were likely to be more crowded than Thursday morning. So despite short sleep, I hit the road early, leaving Moab at 4:30 AM for a 7:00 AM sunrise. The ride out was just 45 minutes of watching my headlights on the narrow and sometimes winding road until I arrived at the parking lot for Mesa Arch trailhead. Even though it was mid October, the air was very cold when I got out of the car, probably in the mid 30's.

Walking East up the trail towards Mesa Arch, Venus shone brightly in the sky ahead. The trail is not long, less than a half mile, and fairly well marked. I needed to use my headlamp at a few ambiguous points because there was no moon. When I got close to the Arch, I was glad I left early. There were already a dozen people and tripods crowded into the area right in front of the arch. Wow! I barely got a spot. I crouched in front of a couple of young Asian women holding iPhones (no tripods) who graciously allowed me to set up my tripod in front of but below them so as not to block their view. I crouched on the rock and took some practice shots to check my frame and waited.

As it got lighter, I continued to practice with the thought that I might want to use some of the pre-dawn orange clouds in a blended photo later. As it turned out, I didn't.


Venus over Mesa Arch

Finally the moment came when the sun broke the horizon line. I checked my exposure and began clicking away, three bracketed shots with thumb and three without. Within two minutes, the starburst pattern began to diminish as the sun rose higher. Finally, the sun was too high in the frame and beginning to be blocked by the arch. At that point, I moved around and took a number of hand held shots from different vantage points, poking my lens between other tripods. Twenty minutes after sunrise, it was all over. Most of the photographers left. I wandered around a bit getting the lay of the land for future reference and taking a few more shots. Without looking at the LCD monitor on my camera, I knew I had a winner. I just didn't know which of the images would be the best, but I knew there would be a good one.


Mesa Arch Starburst- the winner

These next shots are ones I took hand held between other photographers. They are not as crisp as the tripod shots, but I like the perspective. Next time....

Mesa Arch sunrise from the right

Mesa Arch sunrise crop

Mesa Arch sunrise far right

As you can see from this last photo, Mesa Arch overhangs a 2,000 foot cliff. Sunlight reflects  up the cliff, illuminating the underside of the arch, making the beautiful orange glow.


On my way back to Moab, I stopped at a couple of turnouts to admire the views I had driven past in the dark a few hours earlier. The road below is not the road I took during the night but you can see it from an overlook on the main road. There are two cars visible in this shot.


Shafer Canyon Road

Post -processing.

I selected the Mesa Arch Sunrise shot with the best starburst pattern and best overall exposure. In Bridge, I lightened the foreground shadows (they were quite dark) and saturated the color. In Photoshop, I blended a blue sky from an underexposed bracketed shot into the sky above the arch. I separated the arch, foreground rocks and sand from the sky using the Select/Color range tool and made separate layers of sky and rock. I sharpened the foreground slightly and blurred the sky. This technique is standard for me as it makes the foreground pop forward from the blurred sky.

I hope this helps. Oh, remember if you are planning a trip to Mesa Arch, the position of the sunrise changes throughout the year. This shot was taken on October 15th. The sun will rise further to the right of the frame as Winter approaches and further to the left in Summer.


Have fun.

David

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