Among the many great natural treasures located in the state of Utah are thousands of natural arches – a visual treat to view in person as well as through the magic of photography. As with all things, some are more amazing than others, and a few have become truly iconic … so unique and and visually inspiring that photographers from all parts of the globe travel to capture their own version of these magnificent wonders of our planet.
One of the most famous and picturesque to photograph is Mesa Arch, located in the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. A short drive from Moab, this arch is on everyones “bucket” list of things to shoot if they make a photographic pilgrimage to this rich landscape in eastern Utah. While I’ve lived in Utah since 1975, it was only last year when I ventured to Moab to shoot a few of the iconic locations for myself. I’ve seen many wonderful images of Mesa Arch, though I don’t shoot a lot of the iconic locations because of the crowds, some are worth shooting because they are unequaled by any other opportunity. There is only one place on the planet like the Subway in Zions Park, one arch in the world like Delicate Arch, and certainly nothing to compare to the uniqueness of Mesa Arch. (just a few examples, there are many more locations that are truly one of a kind and breathtaking to view and photograph).
What makes Mesa Arch so unique is the natural lighting as the sun rises each morning which illuminates the underside of the arch, as well as the spectacular formations including the dominant one known as Washer Women in the background. As the sun rises it backlights these formations creating dramatic silhouettes, and it reflects off the cliff face below the arch up into the bottom of the arch. Because the back side of the arch is in complete shadow, this gives the bottom of the arch an amazing red glow … really quite spectacular. Last June I managed a pretty nice shot of the arch, but as with most of my images I felt I could get something better. The rising sun moves from one side of the arch to the other depending on the time of year, and this first attempt was on June 21st, the longest day of the year,putting the sun as far to the left side of the arch as possible. I’ve wanted to try some other compositions with the sun in different positions, so on the way to Monument Valley in mid-March I made a stop in Moab to give it another try.
The popularity of this arch means you will be fighting a crowd. It’s a sunrise shot, but plenty are willing to make the 35 minute drive and short hike to be there. The first time I photographed it, there were at least 10 tripods lined up when I arrived. Unfortunately everyone tends to crowd close to the arch and then throw on a really wide angle lens, the result being Washer Women appearing too small. Also it might mean the “perfect” spot might not be available. On both occasions I scouted the arch the evening before and calculated almost exactly where the sun was coming up with my iPhone, and had a couple of options to set up my tripod to get a desired composition the next morning. Despite all the photographers on the first trip, the spot I wanted was vacant, because most didn’t realize where the sun was coming up and thinking that spot was too far left to see the sun. Unfortunately everyone was too close to the arch forcing me to use the 28mm (about an 18mm on a full frame Canon or Nikon, about an 11mm on a cropped sensor dSLR like a Nikon d7000 or Canon 60d). On this recent visit, I was the first one there, so I set up where I could use a little longer lens, and fortunately everyone respected that line, even those there just to watch the sunrise and not shoot it. This allowed me to use my 45mm lens so the Washer Women is a little larger in relationship to the arch.
Most shots of Mesa Arch tend to show the starburst effect. I’m not a big fan of the stars …they seem a little artificial, but in the case of the arch I’ve done it both ways and I tend to like the star effect. I really don’t feel like I’ve got the image I visualize in my mind yet .. I want to try it in the November through January timeframe to get the sun far to the right. There’s some amazing sculpted canyons and I think the lighting might bring them out better.
The main reason I decided to write the article is to mention some techniques I found helpful creating this most recent image of the arch, the one at the top of the page. This type of image really requires some “HDR” … the shadows are very dark and bringing them up would be pretty noisy. I tend to do this work manually rather than using programs like Photomatix which often look artificial and phony. I took several shots as the sun disappeared behind the arch to get various “stars”, and then slowed down the shutter to get a shot with good detail of the arch itself. In some ways, combining them isn’t very difficult, but a couple of challenges had me try some techniques I’ve seemed to have forgotten.
So to begin with I processed two different files in Capture One 6, one taken at 1/30th of a second which was processed for the sky and sun, the other taken at 1/3rd of a second and was processed for detail and color in the arch and foreground. Capture One does a better job maintaining highlight and shadow detail than Lightroom for my IQ180 files. I rendered 16bit ProPhoto tiff files from C1, and imported them into Lightroom 4 where I did additional fine tuning. I then opened them as Smart Objects in two different layers in Photoshop CS6 beta. I made a copy of one of layers, rasterized it to turn it into a normal pixel layer, converted it to black and white, and then added a contrast/density adjustment which I exaggerated greatly. Once it was done merged the adjustments leaving me with the third layer you see below. This was created to make it easier to do selections when creating the mask. The hard clean edges made it quite easy to make selections when creating the masks to blend the two images together. Then it was a matter of tweaking the opacity of the foreground exposure to get the right balance – it ended up at 82% opacity to give me what I felt was the right visual balance.
This left two challenges. One was all the detail of the cliff face and formations being silhouetted in the background. They were too dark in one and too light in the other. I began by building up density with the brush tool in the mask to allow the lighter image to gradually show through, but after some frustrating time trying to get it even as well as fighting getting clean edges, I recalled something I heard at Photoshop World about painting using solid grays when working with a mask. I found an area of the image I thought was about the right density, switched over to the mask layer and use the dropper tool to pick up that exact density of gray. I then used the various layers to make a decent selection of the area I wanted to lighten, and then used the fill command on the mask to fill the entire selection with that shade of gray. All I had to do then was move around the edge and clean up any areas the selection missed using either white or the selected shade of grey. It worked much better than painting the mask and trying to build up the densities.
Another problem was the starburst. It needed to be from the exposure for the sky, but when I tried to mask the foreground layer to let it show through, it looked wrong because the arch densities where too far off. It was muddy and ended up clipping part of the effect. Then it occurred to me to create a third file using the sky/highlight image with the star, but change the develop settings so the densities of the foreground matched the other image. When doing this, the foreground was too noisy to use as the foreground layer so that’s why I chose to use a file that was exposed differently, but noise wasn’t a problem where the sun and starburst were, and once adjusted to match the density of the foreground layer the result was a natural looking star. I copied just the area around the star and pasted it in the correct place. It took a little masking and a density adjustment layer to fine tune it, but this allowed me to retain the full star effect in the shot.
So both images are pretty nice, but I still don’t have what I feel would be the perfect shot of Mesa Arch. This most recent image the sun feels too “centered”. I’ve tried a couple of alternate crops but I don’t like them either. A couple of more tries are in order. It’s only a four hour drive so easy to get away for a couple of days, and plenty of other things to shoot while I’m there.
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