How I Shot And Edited It - Mesa Arch At Sunrise

How I Shot And Edited It – Mesa Arch At Sunrise


Of the images I brought back from a trip to Utah’s Canyonlands and Arches National Parks this past Fall, the one above recieved the most comments and requests for info. For starters, this is a shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, which is famous for the fact that the bottom of the arch glows from reflected sunlight just after sunrise on most mornings. Most shots look like this:

I had seen images of this arch before and was keen to shoot it with fellow Puget Sound photographer Michael Riffle when he suggested it. He made the suggestion and knew the location so I trusted in his judgement (while he noted it would be crowded) and I did little other prep.


Getting to the location is straight forward. But the catch: Michael tells me we need to leave early from Moab, the nearest town where we are staying. I think we left at 4:30am, but the details of the clock are fuzzy. There is a short walk from the parking lot and the whole setup is fairly accessible.

Why did we need to leave so early? Two reasons: 1) This location is popular and 2) it is small. I didn’t realize how small this arch was. I was thinking it was on the order of Landscape Arch in neighboring Arches National Park, which is at least a hundred meters long. Not so with Mesa Arch. To give you a frame of reference, here is what we were greeted with upon arrival.

For someone who loves shooting far-off places with not so many people, this scene astounded me. I can count a dozen cameras in this setup. This is at 6:30am and the sun is not due for another hour.

I decided to set my camera on the far side of the arch in this image and Michael strong armed (politely) his way into the middle of the crowd. By the time I was set up, another six photographers arrived. In the end, over two dozen would be shooting.

I was lucky this day as had lent me a Nikon D800E and 14-24mm lens for this trip. As well as a Canon 8-15mm L fisheye. This meant I was able to setup the Nikon at the location you see above and wait for the sun. I was then able to use the 8-15mm on my Canon 7D and walk around for different composures. It is possible the setup kept me sane.

I tested some shot ideas with the 8-15mm L and liked one where I was right at the edge of the cliff and below and to the right of my tripod as in the picture above. Here’s a test shot before the sun came up.


After fiddling with the location, the sun finally broke the horizon. You would think Tom Cruise was seen walking naked through LA with the sound of snapping shutters behind and to the side of me. The long, long wait for some was finally paying off. I wasn’t happy with the Nikon shots at the time so I kept experimenting with the fisheye.

It was then that a local Utahan noted he got great shots by hanging over the edge. I love rock climbing and am comfortable on cliffs so, making sure I wasn’t in anyone’s shot (amazingly enough, it was possible) I leaned to the edge and hung my arm down.

Taking a couple test shots, I switched to Manual Mode and chose ISO 100 for the best quality image now that the sun was up, 8mm for the widest wide angle I could get, f/20 because I wanted a nice star burst pattern to the sun and 1/10 of a second to balance things out.

It took a number of tries to get the shot I wanted and I would take a few, move the camera slightly, take a few more. It was really shooting in the dark as my torso was over the edge with my arm hanging down and wrist bent back, while trying to avoid getting my body in the shot (at 8mm, the field of view is 180 degrees).

This is the resultant image, straight out of the camera:

Satisfied, we shot for a few minutes more and then headed back to town.


Upon arriving home it was time to play with the image. I knew what I wanted and I started by straightening and cropping the image to cut out the black areas. All the edits below are handled in Adobe Lightroom.

I then adjusted the Tone Curve to add some contrast, but I didn’t pull in the sides as the image was already pushing the edge of the Histogram. I cut Highlights by 44 and enhanced Shadow detail by +48.

After that, it was time to liven up the valley floor. Using the Adjustment Brush, I painted over the valley floor and increased exposure by +.73 and Clarity by +48 to add some sharpness. I like to use the Clarity often on rock features to make them ‘harder’. The red in the image below represents the painted area for those settings.

Now I want more life in the arch itself and I use a new brush to paint that. Exposure is +.73 and Clarity is +43.

After removing some dust spots (I’ll spare you the screen shots, but if you click through the images above you can probably spot them), I adjusted the crop angle slightly before the last set of adjustments.

Both the face of the arch and the valley floor are brighter and more vivid. Wanting a little more ‘pop’, I increased the overall Vibrance by +31 (this brings more blue to the sky and orange to the rock and sun) as well as a Blue Saturation of +40 to help the sky.

And that was it!

The keys for me for this shot were:

  1. Knowing the space I would be able to crop using the Canon 8-15mm L Fisheye on a cropped sensor camera.
  2. Stopping down my aperture to get the star burst effect.
  3. Placing the sun near the rock to gain the most from the burst (it works best when there is something for the sun rays to contrast with).
  4. Taking a chance and shooting blind from a unique angle.
  5. Listening to the advice of others.
  6. Being courteous to others wishing to get their own shot.
  7. Minor edits to bring the vision to fruition.
  8. Borrowing the right gear (thanks again to

If you have question, please ask. I will do my best to address them.


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Pops March 19, 2013 10:02 am

    Verna, a "crop sensor" camera is any digital camera with a capture area less than that of a 35mm film camera. Your 60D is a "crop sensor" model. Here is a quick look at sensor sizes:


  • Verna Pooler March 19, 2013 01:20 am

    Amazing...would love to try your procedure. I do not know what a crop sensor camera is...can I do this with a canon 60D and a borrowed fisheye lens? I am going to Moab in May. Appreciated your instructions and any bp for a relative beginner. Thanks. Have a great day:)

  • Chris February 3, 2013 10:33 am

    Talk about your multi-tasking. Amazing job and thanks for the effort. I edit with Aperture but your terminology was universal and I think I could make most of those things happen with the right Image. 8MM fisheye! Wow! Didn't actually know that was possible.

  • N February 1, 2013 05:07 pm

    Great shot, Peter. Thanks for the detailed explanation of the taking and LR processing of the image. I also love the image and composition of the first image with people and the stars still visible on the sky.

  • Pops Carter February 1, 2013 01:19 pm

    You are one of the first photographers I've encountered who has managed to catch the cat in a picture of the arch. I first saw it when I was out shooting with Bill Belknap back in (about) 1950-52. I was shooting BW and he was shooting color. My shots showed the cat much more clearly than did his. For a kid of 11-12 yo, it was exciting to catch out one's mentor. :D

  • Dave February 1, 2013 10:29 am

    Great job and thanks for sharing your experience. I shot a sunset in Aches NP and the scene was very much the same but worse. There were non-photographers climbing under, around, standing by, picnicking under, etc the Arch as sunset approached with no regard for anyone else around. Talk about frustrating. Here you think of a serene, quiet, intimate experience and instead you leave with elevated blood pressure. At least with sunrises, you only have true photographers and don't have to deal with picnic'ers etc. I wonder if there is any time of year in Moab where you don't have to battle for tripod position??? Anyhow, great job, unique perspective. Thanks for your LR techniques. To Mr Tiberman above, yes, LR will open your RAW files and you'll be amazed at the power you have with the slider, presets, etc.

  • Rishi February 1, 2013 07:38 am

    Hi, Mr Ramyead.nice to find you over here when we live in the same country. I met you at trou o cerfs about 3 years ago and we had a little chat, don't know if you'll remember. We were both taking pics of the sunset.
    Anyways talk to you soon.

  • Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead February 1, 2013 06:34 am

    Peter - I am a DSLR beginner; 3rd year now; and oh boy, at 70 there is no time to learn the wrong way and then painfully unlearn! I am presently using a Nikon D7000, and having had enough with Nikon Capture NX2 (my present version has stopped opening NEF), and the impossibilities of upgrading it, I am about to purchase Lightroom 4. Will it open my NEF? Any other advice you could give to me?
    Warm regards from far-away Mauritius

  • Eric February 1, 2013 04:23 am

    What a turn off with all those other photographers. If I saw a scene like that, I'd turn right back around and go back to bed haha

  • Kumar Dosi February 1, 2013 03:42 am

    Nice one Peter - always enjoy your photos. My favourite though is the fish-eye with people and camera - a different perspective.

    I would like to understand from you - the sunburst in first and second picture are different - the 2nd one is longer and crispier. How do you get that? I mostly manage to get the first one only when stooped down to f/16-f/22. Is it merely sun's intensity or different technique?

    Thanks, Kumar

  • Mike Jundt January 30, 2013 03:47 am

    With the slow shutter speed and hanging over the edge, how were you steadying the camera so that you did not get movement blurring?

  • Jim Woolsey January 29, 2013 09:31 am

    Thanks for sharing. I really like these type of submissions that show the editing process from start to finish

  • Paul Moyer January 27, 2013 03:12 am

    Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy these "how I shot and edited..." because they help to give me a better idea of how to edit without overdoing anything.

  • Judy Royal Glenn January 27, 2013 01:22 am

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge:)

  • steve January 26, 2013 09:51 am

    Where is Mesa Arch in relation to Corona Arch?

  • Andreu January 26, 2013 09:09 am

    Thanks for sharing Peter, I'll try your Lightroom tricks..

  • Scottc January 26, 2013 08:43 am

    Nice to hear some advice on using lightroom! I'll put your advice in my toolbox, and I'll be going back thru my files to work on a few photos like this one.