Capture The Perfect Sunrise With The Sony a7R

Arrive early, stay late. That’s the motto of the photographer and it’s what allowed Ted Bowling to capture the prefect sunrise with the Sony a7R at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. While Bowling isn’t a professional, this shot (and the others in the gallery below) is a perfect exemptible of what is capable by someone with a good eye, the ability to be in the right place at the right time and some great equipment.

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This shot, and the ones in the gallery were captured with the Sony a7R and the Sony 24-70/4 FE Vario-Tessar T* FE OSS

Here, Ted tells the story of this great shot and the humorous battles for position that often occur when too many photographers try to fill up a small place.  See more of Bowling’s work on his Flickr site. 

I am a walk-around photographer. I do not carry a tripod. And photogs that do carry a tripod make me nervous because they are probably better photogs then me. I do OWN a tripod, and I brought it with me to Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park last week to take the above photo. This was the second time (in 10 years of photography) that I have had the courage to try an iconic shot. (The other time was the must-have wide angle shot from “that place” on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.) Iconic shots scare me for the same reason that tripods scare me. How am I going to add any value to the great global corpus of imagery with my photo? And if I just want a snapshot…….Well, there are plenty available. I know that is a defeatist attitude, but I always feel that my photography has more value when I am taking a unique approach, and there aren’t many unique approaches left at Tunnel View, or Mesa Arch, or “the barn” at Grand Tetons.

So, here we go. Up at 4:30am for the 45 minute drive from Moab to the Arch. That means that we will get there more than two hours before sunrise. First on site! Right? Wrong. The tripod crowd was already there. (BTW, tripodders, I like you. Really. “Some of my best friends are tripodders”.)

So what’s the big deal about getting there early? Glad you asked. Its not just about being there before sunrise. It’s about being there FIRST! You see, the first photog on the ground choses the near-point for everyone else that shows up. Its like planting a flag. You plant your tripod. If you have a 24mm lens, you will plant it at a distance that allows you to get at 24mm shot. If you have a 14mm lens, you will probably plant it a bit closer to the subject. So if you are an ultra-wide angle dude/dudette and you show up AFTER the 24mm guy has planted his tripod….you are NOT going to get the shot you came for. (BTW, the tripod crowd always comes for a SPECIFIC shot. Its the money shot. Its the one that they have in their heads before they arrive. They have visualized everything. So you can imagine their disappointment if that first flag (tripod) is going to stand between them and their artistic vision.)

So, anyway, back to our story. We showed up 2 hrs 15 mnts before sunrise, and not surprisingly, we were not first. The most bad-assed of the tripodders had slept (or sat) in their cars all night at the trailhead, 10 minutes away. And in this case, the flag-planter was a 24mm guy. Now really, I did NOT care. Us non-tripodders have no real “artistic expectations”. We’re just there to see what happens and to see if we can find anything interesting/unique. So, I sunk in my $49 tripod (more about that later) and started getting down to business. (Business for me, in this case, was figuring out how the damn thing worked.)

So there are 4 of us now, and to be honest, its a pleasant group. Nice folks. My buddy (a tripodder) told me that there would be another 100 or so photogs on the ground before sunrise. I blew him off. No way. There is only room for about 15 tripods in front of the arch, even at the 24mm line. I was wrong.

Photogs 5 and 6 were actually pros….the only pros I was aware of that morning. (I think a pro is someone that does photography for money, but I’m not sure. Most people that make money on photography are stuck in studios, since iconic landscapes cannot write checks. Sometimes, people call other people pros because of their gear, or because they have a following….. in this case these two guys shot for a company that did media for the Utah Tourism Board….so I’ll call them pros.)

Anyway, they were clearly frustrated by the situation they found. Lots of whispering among the “original four”….. “Well if they wanted a specific shot, they should have gotten here earlier.” I kind of agreed, but I felt bad for them too. They HAD to get the shot. I shouldn’t have felt bad though. They were pro’s and they knew what to do next. Here began a long process of negotiating that I will refer to as “bending the line”. They slowly moved forward with their wide angle glass on the left end of the line. We were all supposed to give them feedback of when/if they started getting into our shots.

This was a 10 minute process during which time the original geometry was mutilated and more than one of us, ended up changing our approach in deference to “the pros”. (Really nice guys though, and the rest of the tripod crowd seemed to accept the process as a completely natural phenomenon.). The original tripod did remain in place for the 24mm shot. I had to move up a bit…no big deal really. That being said, I was not having fun. Really!? I have to stand here for another TWO hours to take one photo.

By the time that the pros are finished adjusting the line, there are more than 15 photogs there and I found out just how many tripods fit in a single line. A lot. So many that if you so much as jiggle your tripod, there will be gnashing of teeth as the seismic vibrations travel down the long line. Now we have so many photogs on site that they are starting to stack up behind us, and that makes me REALLY nervous. What are they doing behind us? Are they waiting for us to give up? Pass out? Do they have some plan on how they are going to take our places? Creepy. And I’m still not having fun.

So, now its time to introduce the concept of the “Alpha Photographer”. The alpha photog may not have been the first on the scene, but he/she takes charge of the line….kind of a battle captain, so to speak. Really, it seemed kind of a logical progression to be honest. By this time, things were getting kind of chaotic and the alpha restored some degree of order. “OK, no white lights for 20 seconds. We are going to light the arch with a red flashlight.” “OK, you are free to use your headlamps for the next two minutes”. “OK, milky way shooters, this one is for you. Single light on arch, all others dark.”. Even the non-English speakers in the line seemed to get it. I think maybe the instructions were interspersed with some kind of universal code….

With order somewhat restored by the alpha, the zombie photogs behind us, seemed to accept their fates and began moving towards what I will refer to as “non-traditional” vantage points. Lots of sighing. Lots of comments about how they never dreamed that there would be so many people out here on a Saturday morning in October. (I tended to agree.)

So fast-forward a bit. We are about thirty minutes from sunrise, and a new crowd is arriving. Its the hard-core nature crowd. They’re here to watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch. I get it, completely. What a beautiful place, and quite frankly, if I thought I could step away from the tripod line without having my spot stolen, I would be doing the same thing they were doing…..just finding a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the grandeur of nature unfolding in one earth’s most beautiful places.

Not so fast though. Tripodders do NOT LIKE these people. Well, maybe “do not like” is a little exagerated. Lets just say that they do not understand them, and as humans we tend to be suspicious about things that we do not understand. The nature crowd is there to absorb beauty, while the tripodder is there to capture it. These two very respectable approaches do not always exist symbiotically. I can still remember the “smell of fear” as a nature dude and dudette climbed onto the bridge of the Arch for a look-see into the canyon. “Would they stay?” “Did they understand the tripodders’ aesthetic requirements….do they understand that humans CANNOT be in the shot?” “If they do try to stay, what will we do? Will the Alpha go talk to them, and gently explain?” “If this gets ugly, then CERTAINLY we can call a ranger. The ranger will make them get off of the arch, right? The ranger understands the tripodders needs, right?” Thankfully, these questions in our case did not need to be answered. The nature lovers (not really sure if they were really lovers) looked around and descended on their own. Sigh of relief down the line. Another obstacle to that perfect shot averted.

Its now 15 minutes before sunrise. There are indeed well over 100 poeple on the ground now, at least 50 of whom are tripodders. Lots of anxiety building along the line, as the sky starts to glow a bit. “Is this really the composition I want?” (Of course the only option available to change a composition at this point is to adjust focal length.) While there has been some night-time photography going on, under the supervision of the Alpha, the money shot is the approaching sun-burst as it reveals itself between the bridge and base of the arch. The time window is short, and each photog in the line is going to want to take multiple exposures during the event. So you really do have to have a plan. I don’t. I’m pretty much just set to Aperture Priority: F16 on my Sony A7R.

BTW, I don’t think the tri-podders are into Sony. Mostly a Canikon crowd. That being said, I can tell you what tri-podders ARE into. Tripods. Boy, are they into tripods. How did they GET those tripods to the Utah desert from Sweden, Japan, Spain and Seattle? These things are not “travel tripods”. They are massive wonders of engineering, some of which remind me of the robot invaders in Tom Cruise’s rendition of “War of the Worlds”. I saw tripod heads that would have made an astronaut dizzy.

OK, enough equipment talk. Time to introduce a new character. I will refer to him as as the “Photographer Taxpayer.” Photographer Taxpayer pays his taxes and has a right to be wherever he wants to be. By gosh, is this a NOT a public place? Apparently, the profile of the taxpayer photographer is pretty consistent: white, male….. late 40’s to early 60’s. (Hmmm….like me.) Usually American, but occasionally French. (I am told that a French taxpayer showed up a in a slot canyon nearby last year and eventually had to be engaged in fisticuffs. And I am told that what I am experiencing here at Mesa Arch is a picnic compared to the stress and interpersonal friction that occurs  in certain slot canyons at the precise time that the light fliters in.)

Anyway, its never good if taxpayer photographer shows up. Ours showed up at about 10 minutes before sunrise. I will say this…… He was not a tripodder. At least not that day. He had a pretty nice rig, but it was built for mobility. He stepped right in front of everyone…right into the window of the arch. Tension. Yes. There was tension. Thank God for the alpha. “Sir, I believe that you are blocking the shots of many of the photographers who have been here for several hours.” That, apparently, is a very important step in dealing with the taxpayer. You have to politely raise the issue of their unfortunate positioning. This gives the taxpayer the opportunity to explain himself. “I don’t believe anyone here owns this property. I have just as much right to be here as anyone. I’ll move when I’m done with my photos.”

Anxiety ratchets up across the line. What will the alpha do now? We certainly can’t just allow this to continue. We are tripodders by gosh, and we are here to get the shot. No need to worry though. The main reason that the taxpayer stepped into the arch was the opportunity to share his libertarian (“small l”) views. He has done so, with grace and passion, so he is now free to move on. “He will move on, right?” There is one more requisite step for the taxpayer. He must take several photos of the slowly illuminating canyon below, and then move a couple of steps to take a few more. He does this to ensure that we know that the previous exchange had no impact on him. He is his own man. He keeps his own counsel. He finally exits, stage-right. Would he be back? Or had we survived our requisite encounter with the taxpayer this morning without any real altercation… It turns out that we had indeed survived. And I am thankful. Another photog told me that things had gotten physical with a taxpayer at another arch just three weeks prior. I feel relieved. I really am not a confrontational person and it was all making me kind of anxious….as if I wasn’t anxious enough after almost two and a half hours of quasi-methodical tripod madness.

The sun rose. I stuck with one exposure setting and played around a bit with my focal length. Well, that’s not really true. I took a couple of shots on auto HDR. I did not do well with that. A bit slow….got some artifacting in camera. Tripodders just shoot the bracketed frames and then do the blending later in Photomatix. Much nicer.

I can’t say I am disappointed in my shot…..after some gross manipulation of dynamic range in post-processing. I guess I would have been happier if I could have gotten a bit wider….but since I had no particular expectations, I think things turned out fine.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I got to spend over two hours with some of the most knowledgeable and generous photographers I have ever met. I gained a lot of respect for their craft, whether hobbyist or professional. Tripod photographers deal with technical and interpersonal issues that I could never master, and for which I do not have the patience. I will stick to walking around and snapping photos of butterflies, or my cat…….or the Goodyear Blimp (I live near Akron.) That’s the stuff that makes me happy.

Also, I don’t like waking up early.

My daily shooter is Sony A1 with a vertical grip and various Sony lenses attached like the FE 20mm F1.8. Find more gear recommendations in our shop. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.