While one can photograph Mesa Arch anytime they’d like to, we choose sunrise to photograph Mesa Arch because this is when the scene is at its best when the arch frames perfectly the rising sun and landscape below. As the sun rises it illuminates the underside of the arch, casting a brilliant orange hue. A starburst from the sun is also available as it first peaks on the horizon, and then again, if you are willing to wait, as it hits the arch itself.
So, we arrived early enough and got the best position we could have wanted in order to shoot the scene. It’s certainly still dark, and sunrise is still a bit off. But, we got it! Blue Hour begins and we start to consider our settings and fidget with our tripods and wide-angle lens so that we’ll be ready. ISO at 100, or 64, if you have it. We want to be ready because we won’t have a ton of time when the sun hits the horizon. Set your camera to either Manual mode, or Aperture Priority. We’re determined to get this shot with a starburst when the sun hits the horizon, so get your aperture to somewhere in the neighborhood of f/18 to f/20 (read more on creating starbursts in landscape photography). If you are in Manual Mode, then work your shutter speed to ensure that you are exposing properly, keeping in the front of your mind that as the light increases, this setting will change. Shooting with the histogram? If so, this should be easy.
“There’s the sun!” someone hollers out with unadulterated excitement. Snap, snap, snap. Clicks from cameras fire away with fervor. There is a sense of anxiety from the anticipation that is palpable. It’s so much fun you’re not even cold anymore! The sun begins to light the scene, and the clicks continue. An unaware tourist looking for a selfie wonders into the scene to which the lineup of photographers audibly decries.
“Get out of there!” the boldest in the group can’t help but yell out. The selfie-artist, previously unaware of his actions, sheepishly obliges, cartoonishly backing away and out of the scene.
As the lighting changes, the underside of the arch will typically begin to glow a soft orange, providing an even better scene. After that light begins to taper, the majority of onlookers and photographers will vacate, taking off for warmer places like coffee shops and eateries back in Moab. Your BCJ group stays, though, and keeps on photographing. Now is a great time to work on creativity, looking for alternate angles on this familiar scene. We stay because we love photography, but also because after some time passes, we’ll have another opportunity (free from the crowd) to catch a starburst using the arch itself. Really Cool!
The trail back to the vehicle seems so much less treacherous in daylight than when we navigated it earlier in the dark. Coffee and a hot breakfast are next on the agenda and sound terrific. What is all that weird looking black stuff on the ground all around me here?
“You didn’t step on any of that, did you?” you hear your guide exclaim from behind. “That ‘dirt’ is ALIVE! It’s the biological soil crust I was talking about at our orientation meeting last night.”
Biological soil crust is a living soil that creates a crust over the landscape. It is found throughout the world but is especially prevalent and relevant here in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. In many places, soil crust comprises over 70 percent of all living ground cover. The knobby, black crust here includes lichen, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria, but is dominated by cyanobacteria.
“Think of it as an incubator for life here in the desert,” your guide continues. “Ever wonder how a lone plant or tree grows in this rocky, dry, desert climate? It’s this. It promotes plant life by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it to a kind of nitrogen plants need. Without it animals, and even humans, would not be able to survive well in this climate. It also helps slow erosion.”
And, it is delicate as your grandmother’s antique vase! “even a single footprint can kill it.” Some areas that have been stepped on may never fully recover, while some may return in five to seven years. Mature crusts can take 50 years to strengthen.