Photographing Sunrise at Mesa Arch

This is a guest post by Cliff Kolber from Kolber Photography

Cliff Kolber is a nature and travel photographer and writer based in Miami, Florida. He and his wife Doris have created a spectacular portfolio of images and articles from around the world, specializing in the Florida Everglades, the American Southwest and Antarctica. Make sure to visit their website at

Canyonlands National Park is an amazing array of red rock canyons sculpted from millions of years of erosion by the Colorado and the Green Rivers. The “Island in the Sky” region of Canyonlands is a huge plateau surrounded by the rivers. It is not really an island since the plateau is connected to the rest of the National Park by a very small neck of land.

The views overlooking the National Park from the Island in the Sky region are spectacular and well photographed over the years. One of those amazing views is at Mesa Arch at sunrise. The arch is located on the edge of a cliff about 1,000 feet above Canyonlands, and the underside of the arch lights up in reds and oranges as the sun rises.

You’ll want to arrive fairly early at Mesa Arch since there can be a crowd of photographers by sunrise. We stayed overnight in Moab and the drive is about an hour to the Mesa Arch parking lot. Sunrise was at 7:00 a.m. so we left Moab a little after 5 a.m. and arrived at the parking lot just after 6:00. That worked out well. From the parking lot it’s an easy ½ mile walk to the arch, and we were set up by 6:30. At sunrise there were a dozen photographers and space was becoming a premium.

Arriving well before sunrise also gives you a chance to shoot in pre-dawn light. This can produce some amazing images. Obviously a tripod is a requirement, and although I used a wide-angle 12-24 mm zoom lens for most of the sunrise shots at Mesa Arch, I also used a mid-range lens, 24-120 mm lens for pre-dawn shooting of the buttes in the distance, especially the Washer Woman Butte.

For proper exposure once the sun breaks the horizon, meter on the sky just above the arch. Normally for sunrise shots I’ll meter the sky about two or three sun globes away from the sun. But since there is so little space inside the arch, I chose to meter above the arch. Even though you could adjust exposure in Photoshop, it’s best to get it right in the camera. So to be safe, I bracketed my shots, one stop each way. Check the histogram to verify the exposure.

To get a sunburst effect around the sun, use manual mode and close down the lens aperture to a small opening. This will be around f/18 to f/22 (the higher the denominator the smaller the aperture). A small opening allows light sources to become a sunburst so the smaller the aperture the more of a sunburst effect will occur. Since a small aperture requires a longer exposure use a cable release and mirror lockup in addition to your tripod for the highest stability. It’s also a good idea not to use the smallest aperture setting since this can create aberrations on some lenses. I will generally use the next to smallest aperture setting.

Be sure to experiment with a variety of apertures, speeds, lenses and angles. Once the sun breaks the horizon you’ll have around four or five minutes of great light and that should give you enough time to shoot with different lenses, angles and apertures. Don’t stay static; think about shooting from at least two different locations if space and time allows.

Within 10 minutes after sunrise I had a camera full of images, the great show was over, and we headed back to the car. All in all, an incredible early morning shooting at Mesa Arch with some amazing keepers for the portfolio, some examples included below.

Remember when visiting the outdoors – leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures! And when you visit, remember to "pack it in and pack it out" — don’t litter and don’t damage anything. Leave the area as it was when you arrived and our natural lands will remain a memorable and rewarding experience for everyone.