Back to Moab

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
― Edward Abbey

When I was eighteen, I took my first trip West. I can remember those two weeks as vividly as I can remember the birth of my first child. In a way I was reborn on that trip to the desert. I had never been west of the Mississippi, and my only exposure to the grandeur of the West was paging through issues of National Geographic or watching documentaries on television. After driving for two days, sleeping in the car, we arrived in the desert at dawn winding our way along the Colorado River rolling towards Moab. I remember the way the sun rose slowly as we meandered along the canyon, the blue sky above burned brightly against the rusty red cliffs and then finally broke free of its shadowy confines, illuminating the red rock and throwing magnificent reflections in the still waters of the Colorado. I was in love for the first time in my life! A love affair that has lasted through the years and has only grown stronger as I get to know the desert more intimately. That trip was a first date of sorts, we broke the surface with petty conversation, but we were getting to know one another. I fell in love immediately! The funny thing about being in love is that you always find a deeper understanding of not only that which you fall in love with, but also yourself. The desert is a keen place to think, listen, and watch. The perfect landscape for meditation. The wasteland of the desert is ugly to many, but incomparably beautiful to me, and I have returned to her every year for the past twenty years.  I will continue to visit until the day I die.

This last trip was centered around Moab–just as was the first. It had been at least four years since I last visited the stone arches, monuments, and vast wastelands of the Colorado River as it cuts its way through stone and mud on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. I had some very specific photographic goals in mind on this trip. Mainly I wanted to create several starscapes in Arches National Park, and I was hoping to capture some classic southwest scenery in the winter as the red rock glows with a dusting of white. It was a very successful trip and although most days were as clear and cloudless as you can imagine, and I was not gifted with a fresh snow storm, the desert once again did not disappoint.

I captured this image of Double Arch 45 minutes after sunset just as the stars were begging to burn bright, yet there was still a blue tone in the sky as dusk fades into night. I used a 1 Million Power Candle Halogen Flashlight and painted the arch for 15 seconds during a 30 second exposure at f5.6, ISO 800. To capture the stars and faint glow of the Milky Way, I took a second exposure at 30 seconds at f4, ISO 3200 for the night sky without painting the arch. The two exposures were combined in Adobe Photoshop. Nikon D800, 14-24mm. 

Double Arch and Stars

The next morning I greeted the sunrise at Dead Horse Point State Park, a very cold morning at 5,900 feet. Dead Horse Point is a narrow neck of land surrounded on three sides by 2,000 foot vertical cliffs like an island in the sky. Far below one can see the meanderings of the Colorado River as it cuts its way toward the confluence with the Green River. With clear skies, I waited until the sun painted the cliffs and reflections shined in the partially frozen Colorado River. A fusing of snow on the canyon lands added a brilliant touch of contrast to the red wasteland. I choose a very tight composition, only showing a slice of sky and focusing the attention of the viewer on the undulating current of rock and water. Nikon D800, 24-70mm, Singh Ray LB Polarizer, 1/30 second, F11, ISO 200.

sunrise dead horse point state park

Later that evening under a billion burning lights, I set up to photograph Balanced Rock with the Milky Way. Earlier in the day, when the light was harsh, I spent some time at this location using my star app on my phone to learn the exact angle and time I would need to capture the Milky Way. Planning is so important to successful starscapes! Once again I used a 1 Million Candle Halogen Light to paint Balanced Rock for 10 seconds during a 15 second exposure at f4 and ISO 3200. I was shooting with my friend Mark LaRowe who tripped both of our shutters as I painted the rock from a side angle 80 yards off to the right. Nikon D800. 14-24mm, 30 seconds, F4, ISO 3200

balanced rock and the milky way

With clear skies dominating once again the next morning, I visited Mesa Arch for a classic American Southwest Icon. The last time I shot this arch, there were dozens of other people to greet the sunrise and I was not able to move around freely looking a different angles on this arch. But this morning I found myself only with one other photographer and was able to finally get the image I have wanted for so long. I used a very small aperture of F22 to capture the sun burst as it broke the horizon at dawn. Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1/2 second, F22, ISO 200

mesa arch

Finally towards the end of the week the weather began to change and clouds moved in at sunset. I found this little visited location somewhere between Dead Horse Point and the Island in the Sky segment of Canyonlands National Park. After driving miles of unmarked muddy clay roads studded with rocks, I was led to one of the most impressive canyon vistas in the Moab area. The clouds hung to the south and a clear horizon to the West allowed the setting sun to paint the landscape in vivid tones. I went ultra-wide for this image, taking in the entire vast canyon below and using the rocks on the edge of the cliff as a wonderful foreground element to this grand canyonscape.  Nikon D800, 14-24mm, 1/8 second, F14, ISO 200.

malbro point sunset

On the last evening of the trip, sunset exploded in the west and I used a long telephoto lens to compress Balanced Rock against the glowing sky. Nikon D800, 70-200mm, 1/4 second, F11, ISO 50.

balanced rock sunset

As soon as I finished shooting sunset, I rushed to be in position shooting to the east, wanting to capture stars and clouds at the edge of twilight. This image is a blend of two exposures: the first at twilight with a soft glow on Balanced Rock at F8 at ISO 400 and a second a bit later at F4 for 30 seconds and an ISO 3200 as Jupiter rises and clouds paint the night sky. Nikon D800, 14-24mm (both images), multiple exposure blend. 

jupiter ising at balanced rock

And to end the trip, I visited the classic view of Turret Arch framed by North Window at sunrise. It was the coldest morning of the trip and it felt like an eternity waiting in the unrelenting wind for the sun to finally fret the La Sal mountains and paint the Arch in warm morning light. I was lucky to have clouds that morning that hung around overnight. An hour later as I drove out of the park and towards Salt Lake to catch a flight, the sky was already crystal clear. Nikon D800, 24-70mm, 1/30 second, F11, ISO 200

turret arch sunrise

Check out my latest eBook, Photographing Wild Water, an instructional guide to waterfall photography. At over 120 pages and with 15 instructional processing videos, this book will show you my techniques from capture to post processing water images. Buy it here – http://josephrossbach.com/#/page/waterfalls-streams-cascades-ebook/

Join me for an adventure in 2014! Most workshops and tours are either sold out, or close to being sold out, so register now before time runs out – http://josephrossbach.com/#/page/2014-schedule-and-info/

About Joseph Rossbach (12 Posts)

Joseph Rossbach has been photographing the landscape for over twenty years. Joe is a frequent contributor and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, and travels extensively each year creating new images and teaching others of the art and technique of nature photography.


6 Comments

  • Joseph,
    Great commentary of your trip and amazing photographs! I’ve always wondered about getting to iconic locations at night. Do you just hang out there with your headlamp all night, or do you have to get a special permit to camp at that location?

  • Joseph, these are beautiful photos and a great post. It really resonated with me because I just spent 2 days photographing in the Moab area shortly before Xmas. I consider myself very blessed because the area was completely blanketed by snow, but the roads had all been plowed beforehand and I had no trouble accessing any part of Arches or Canyonlands. I also froze in 14 degree weather waiting for the sun to clear the La Sal Mountains (is it ever going to come up???) and light up Turret Arch. The whole thing was like a dream and one of the best times I’ve ever had photographing.

  • Man oh man that shot of Double is nice! Rock has a surreal look. Spent a couple weeks near Moab last November and got a bunch of mtn biking in. It’s an area you can find out of the way spots to photo, but wouldn’t want to be there in high season – too much 4×4 going on. This is a good time to be there, looking like the snow is light this year.

  • […] When I was eighteen, I took my first trip West. I can remember those two weeks as vividly as I can remember the birth of my first child. In a way I was reborn on that trip to the desert. I had never been west of the Mississippi, and my only exposure to the grandeur of the West was paging through issues of National Geographic or watching documentaries on television. – MORE… […]

  • Fantastic image of the stars and arch. Thanks for sharing your exif info. Bravo. Really well done!!
    I’ve not yet been to Moab, this makes me want to visit. Also great quote! A sincere thank you for
    the creative inspiration! – KA Gilligan http://www.photosbykag.com