Dean M. Chriss
Mesa Arch and Washer Woman Arch at Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, Landscape Photograph by Dean M. Chriss

Mesa Arch and Washer Woman Arch at Sunrise, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

(Click image to enlarge)

The stone span of Mesa Arch protrudes beyond the edge of the canyon wall upon which it stands. The reddish rock canyon wall reflects and intensifies the the already warm color of the sunrise light, illuminating the underside of the arch. This makes the the arch, which is normally a lighter shade of tan, appear to be a deep reddish orange color. The effect lasts only a short time, but it is quite beautiful. Washer Woman Arch can be seen rising from the canyon floor in the middle left of the image.

Rendering everything in this photograph, from the closest rock surfaces to the distant mountains, in sharp focus required focus stacking. This combines several exposures focused at different distances. Rendering detail in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights required a high dynamic range technique that combines several different exposures. Both techniques were used here. Three, three exposure HDR images, with each set of three focused at different distances, were created first. Then the resulting HDR images were "focus stacked" to create this final photograph. All of these images were captured in rapid succession starting at the moment the sun (behind the right part of the arch) rose above the horizon.

I captured a very similar image long ago on film using a single exposure. In that case a shorter focal length and smaller aperture had to be used for more depth of field. The shorter focal length renders Washer Woman Arch considerably smaller but gives a more expansive view of the canyon below Mesa Arch. Diffraction created by the small aperture limits the ultimate technical quality of the image, as does the very limited dynamic range of the film, which renders no detail in the brightest parts of the image.

Artistic quality is a different and much more subjective matter. The older photograph was captured in September while this photograph was captured in February, when the sun rises much further to the right (south). This photograph was also captured immediately after the moment of sunrise, with the sun as close as possible to the horizon. The older photograph was captured quite a few minutes after the sun came up, putting it higher above the horizon. Both things affect the angle and quality of the light. I prefer the older photograph while my wife prefers this one. Fortunately we can both be right.