Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Question of Light: Mesa Arch at Sunrise (Or, Sometimes It Pays to Be Late to Work)

It's often said that the majority of nature photographers are late to work--and the intent of that statement is not that we're out taking pictures and then heading into our "day jobs." No, the best light comes during the so-called "golden hours" surrounding sunrise and sunset, and that means getting up, dressed, grabbing a bite to eat (and more importantly, a mug of coffee), trekking into the field, and getting gear set up for those fleeting moments, all at times that honest folks are still sawing logs and making drool puddles on their pillows and too-often in temperatures which drive sane folks to hike the covers up over their heads instead of hiking out into the countryside.

The iconic monuments of the desert southwest are no exception to this rule (indeed, many stand as exemplars of the golden-hour), and my destination on this late-winter morning, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, stands near the top of the mandatory dawn locales.  Sunrise turns the bottom of the arch completely and brilliantly orange-red with reflected light from the red rocks below.  Fortunately for the morning-challenged (a demographic into which I solidly fall), Mesa Arch involves neither a particularly long drive nor hike. It's perhaps 30-40 minutes from Moab and at most a 10 minute hike from the road, mostly across level ground, too.  A flashlight is helpful, but pre-dawn illumination should be good enough if you watch your step but still keep up a good pace--I had no problems at all.

Turret Arch through the North Window -- Arches National Park
Visiting red rock country, I didn't have a concrete plan for my first morning on the ground after a drive along the Colorado River and sunset at the Fisher Towers.  I had considered visiting the Windows district in Arches National Park for sunrise for the classic shot of Turret Arch through the North Window--which I'd photographed last spring with Beth but came away with a photo I wasn't entirely pleased with due to the late-breaking sun and the shadows across the bottom of Turret Arch.  That, too, is a fairly close drive from Moab and not a tough hike (though positioning for the traditional composition does require climbing about 40-50 feet up some steep slickrock formations, as well as crossing an area which may eventually be made off-limits to protect the cryptobiotic soil).  But I'd skipped Canyonlands on my previous trips to Utah, and Mesa Arch would be something new.

Even being fairly near the town of Moab and my body having the advantage of still being on eastern time for such a short trip, I still faced quite the oh-dark-thirty morning.  Why do I torture myself with such an early dawn--leaving my room's warm confines well before the hotel has populated its complimentary breakfast bar with stale Danishes and coffee overheated to the point of providing its own charcoal filtration?  That golden hour: yes, sunlight is in no short supply in the high desert country... but here's the rub: most of that sunshine (particularly during the mid-day hours surrounding high noon) comes in at a poor angle, its harsh rays falling from directly overhead burning away contrast.  More importantly, the softer, more diffuse "golden hour" light reflects off the landscape's reds and oranges to create fantastic, glowing illumination which makes for far superior photography.  High noon is best spent inside an air-conditioned cafe, sipping a cool beverage, reviewing the morning's photographs, and planning for the late afternoon's shots.

Mesa Arch at "Sunrise" -- Too bad the sun didn't put in an appearance!
I was a bit surprised to find several cars in the parking area when I pulled in well before sunrise, at about 6:30am.  For the most part, I'd nearly had the Moab area to myself in the off-season, and I hadn't encountered another vehicle on the drive out to Canyonlands.  Either some folks had actually camped out in the park (not likely given the overnight temperatures!), or had gotten up really early for Mesa Arch.  At the end of my short hike, I found about a half dozen photographers set up already, apparently part of a group expedition.

Now, as a photographer, I not only respect others' shots but the use of parks by anyone else out enjoying nature, be they hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, or joggers.  I unfortunately discovered that respect isn't a universal value, though, given how a couple of the members of the group really monopolized the viewpoint of Mesa Arch.  Typically, there's room for all; for example, when photographing the Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park last fall, I found myself in the middle of a photography seminar perhaps fifteen strong, but was able to take a spot that yielded some quite nice photography without disrupting anyone else.  Here, one lady in particular kept moving closer to the arch as dawn approached, using a wide angle and interposing herself into my composition (along with those of a couple of other photographers from her own group who'd set up to the left as I had).  Worse, she just camped out in the photo; she could have filled a fairly large memory card with images in the time she spent blocking the shot for the rest of us.  I dunno, but my photographer's ethic says I don't spoil the enjoyment others may be getting out of nature just to make my own shot work.

The grey, cloud-cloaked dawn left me with the last laugh, so to speak.  The large group checked their watches a few times, grumbled about sunrise having come and gone with no glimpse of the sun itself, and eventually gave up and left.  A late-arriving couple, one foreign hiker, and I were all who remained, lingering in the hope against hope that perhaps the sun would at last show.

Finally, the sun did indeed peek above the low clouds, still low enough to the horizon to render that wonderful, reflected light up from the canyon walls below onto Mesa Arch.  I can only imagine what a proper sunrise would have done--what a fantastic spectacle that must be, and surely a requirement for a later trip back to Canyonlands--but unlike the early birds who left, defeated, I did get a glimpse of what Mesa Arch is supposed to look like in the right light.

No comments: