Mesa Arch & Star Trails - Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Nikon D5, 14-24mm f/2.8 at f/4, ISO 3200
Mesa Arch is an incredibly popular shooting location in the Moab area. I’ve been there many times and every single visit requires a lot of “jostling” for position to get sunrise pictures without someone else’s tripod leg intruding on your image. The best strategy for stake a position is get there well before everyone else. My habit has always been to get there about two hours before sunrise. Even that early doesn’t guarantee you first access.
Since jostling for position was unacceptable for this image, I had to plan for shooting at the best time that no-one else would be out there. I thought really dedicated people would get to the Arch by five am with the sunrise at 7:30 and I wanted to get 2 hrs worth in star trails, that meant I needed to start shooting by three am. Good thing I got there early because I had problems with the setup and didn’t start shooting until 3:30.
By far the biggest challenge in night photography is focus. Focus is such a basic thing in photography but it’s very difficult when you can’t see anything in the dark. When your subjects are really far away--effectively at infinity--the challenge is much smaller but still substantial. When you’re trying to make a composition that has near and far elements, like this image, it’s really difficult. That’s why it took about 30 minutes for me to setup this image. I got to Mesa Arch on time, about three am. But, it took 30 minutes of mostly trial and error to set the composition and make sure the image was sharp throughout. Even though I had Live-View and was able to use my flashlight to illuminate the arch, it took several minor adjustments to get what I wanted. Because it took so long, this meant my star trails aren’t as long as I hoped.
Sure enough, people started to arrive at five am. I only got about 90 minutes of star trails instead of two hours like I wanted. With their arrival, headlamps were shinning all over effectively making long exposure photography impossible.
This image was made with 22 four minute exposures. These were blended in Photoshop to get what you see here.