#464. DS HotSpot: 4 tips to photograph the Grand Canyon (duh!)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Mar 21

Photograph the Grand Canyon! Some tip, right?

Thousands of readers will be amazed to hear that DearSusan recommends the Grand Canyon as a photographic HotSpot, no doubt …

sunrise photograph of the Grand CanyonBear with me, though, as it’s recently become obvious to me there’s quite a bit more to the Grand Canyon, for photographers, than a majestic landscape icon and tourist shops.

Unlike Monument Valley which, as grand as it may be, puts you in a one-size-fits-all front-row seat that only light of day and the passing seasons can paint with variety, the Grand Canyon is a tremendous place to exercise your creativity to the full.

pre-dawn photograph of the Grand CanyonTake a look at the photographs on this page and see those created in the same spot by Valerie Millet, and you’ll see how different interpretations are easy to come by. In fact, my hunch is that if you dropped ten different good photographers at the same spot at the same time, you’d end up with ten different lots of photographs. Better still, drop a same photographer at the same place on different days and he/she’ll come back with different photographs.

sunrise photograph of the Grand CanyonWhy ? I see two main reasons:

(1) The light changes rapidly. See above and below, pictures made within a couple of hours of one another.
(2) It’s easy to walk around, catch buses and explore freely various angles and various compositions. If you look closely, you’ll notice 80% of the pics on this page are made around the yellow ridge above. There’s an enormous range of possibilities within a small radius.

mid morning photograph of the Grand CanyonOf the two, I think the light plays the greatest role. Although obvious on retrospect, it only dawned on my while taking a second look at the photographs made last summer during a morning in the area.

At the time, having gone to some lengths to arrive before sunrise, I was disappointed to be greeted by a dull-looking canyon and uninteresting blue sky. Again, take a look at Valerie’s stunning Canyon shots to see what a photographer can hope for by returning again and again in search of interesting atmospheric conditions.

mid morning photograph of the Grand CanyonFor us non-returning visitors, finding a stunning drape of clouds or a breathtaking sunset is purely a matter of luck. If you’re visiting in the summer-time, like I was, odds are pure uninterrupted blue will greet you, ruining your chances of making that money shot you look at with envy on the websites of local photographers that have placed their tripods on the ridge several hundred times.

No biggie, though. The changing light is your friend.

hazy photograph of the Grand CanyonCompare the pre-sunrise photographs at the top of this page to those surrounding this sentence. They are made from the same area, just a couple of hours from one another. The individual buttes play beautifully with the haze, the rhythm of their shadows changing with the elevation and orientation of the sun. Just like Monet painted over 70 versions of the Rouen cathedral from the exact same spot to study the variations of light, you could easily spend a lazy day sitting on a wall, feeding the chipmunks and shooting the evolving atmosphere.

high-contrast haze photograph of the Grand CanyonThen, just like Monet, you could retreat to the comfort of your studio to rework each photograph into a different version of a same reality. You’d end up with as much variety as a photographer visiting 100 times and the post-processing training is invaluable.

monochrome photograph of the Grand CanyonSee what I mean ?B&W panoramic photograph of the Grand Canyon

I’m not much of an early riser, pitching my tripod in exotic locations hours before sunrise to catch the golden goodness of our star piercing the clouds over a poetic landscape with a stack of ND, polarizing and warm-up filters in front of my lens.Call me lazy, you’d be right 😉

But this is one place I’d recommend making the effort.Not for the pre-dawn goodness alone but for the bewildering range of lighting scenarios you’ll have witnessed by the time your tummy grumbles its famished song. Having arrived at 5:20 AM, we retreated to the Old Tovar for a front row breakfast of sinful pancakes and fruit juice, a solid 30 potential wall-hangers in the memory card and a memorable but easy 90 minute walk in our legs.

From then on, we walked another 3 hours further down the canyon, jumping on and off the shuttle buses to hasten our arrival at tourist hotspot views, before eventually taking the car back to visit other views upstream from the South Rim village.

photograph inside the Grand CanyonLet me tell you this: none of that was worth a quarter of what we saw on the first 90 minutes of the sun’s excursion from behind the horizon to above our heads.

Unless you’ve visited before and crave new vantage points, my recommendation is to keep it simple and early. You’ll get far more (on a typical sunny day, that is) from a sunrise at a convenient access point than from driving hundreds of miles in search of exotic locations in less variable lighting conditions.

sunrise at the bottom of the Grand CanyonThis comes with a major caveat. Allow for plenty of time to drive slow. At night, the roads are crawling with wildlife. I’ve had my fair share of night-time driving in wild areas, including an exhausting 9-hour epic through the back roads of SW Australia, but I’ve never seen as many deer along the roadside or on the road as on the long stretch of US 180 S between Flagstaff and Grand Canyon Village. Sadly, we got a very close up view of a huge elk lying dead on the road side with a totally flattened SUV on the other, it’s aghast occupants miraculously still in one piece. We counted on 2 hours from Flagstaff to the photographing from the South rim, that’s cutting it way too fine. 2h30 is a far more relaxing proposition. Check out sunrise times and plan accordingly.

colorado inside the Grand CanyonLenses ? Mine ranged from 15mm to 85mm and some of my photographs are stitches. All will serve you well but my preference to enhance atmospheric veil and pick out specific compositions is the longer end of that range. I quite suspect that someone with a good eye for longer gear would create superb abstracts. Oh, for a 300/4 from Zeiss …

panoramic photograph of the Grand Canyon

So, let’s recap:

Tip1: Allow for 30 minutes more travel than you think and drive slow.

Tip 2: Plan to arrive a little before sunrise.

Tip 3: Time is more important than location for first-time visitors. Keep it simple.

Tip4: Walk about for 90 minutes then head off early to one of the lovely lodges for breakfast. After that, just enjoy your day, you’ll have bagged splendors before most others even arrive at the scene.

What are your thoughts on time, lenses and locations for the Grand Canyon?


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’ve no thoughts at all on lenses, Pascal – is it really important which one? – I think you should be made to take the Loxia, but I am sure your Distagon would be a better match for the subtle tones of this area. If I went, I’d take the Otus 55mm – I love it so much that I have to keep it hidden from my wife!

    As for going there, no, I’m past that – old age is a cruel experience and my legs won’t carry me on 90 minute walks these days.

    But I do agree on early starts. (A) I HATE getting out of bed early and (B) I regard sunrise as a very anaemic substitute for a good red-blooded sunset – but the soft pastel colours that sunrise produces in the Grand Canyon are beyond belief beautiful, and photographers are blessed with one of the best mediums for capturing these effects. One of the best photos I ever took was taken in that half light after the start of daybreak but before the sun bursts over the horizon and shines directly onto the scene – even in B&W, it had a magic charm to it that only that kind of lighting can give to nature.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, I didn’t have the Loxia in my possession then 😉 But the 15mm was a Zeiss loaner and I was battling with it initially too … Some photogtaphers seem able to switch from one to another with great ease where it always takes my mind days or weeks to adjust. That’s probably a reason for my shunning of zooms 😉 Yes, it’s a priviledge to be around such a wonderful place for photography. And so many arrive visitors in bus loads with the sun at the zenith, which is a bit of a shame. I’d love to take them all for a morning walk along the quiet ridge and watch the sun rise over and over again. Maybe the GC have a position as resident sunrise photographer ? 😉

  • Jeff Drew says:

    I would also recommend a small survival kit with water, energy bars, brimmed hat, excellent walking boots/shoes. Cellphones are not much use in chasms, and sunglasses etc. 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Definitely, particularly if walking anywhere inside the canyon. Hikes to the canyon floor get super hot and are quite tiring. The rim, around the village, is easier and alwaysfairly close to civilisation, but the sun can still hurt the unprepared.

  • David Mack says:

    I enjoyed both the photos and advice. One of the most valuable lessons I need to remember from time to time is that of patience. Having finally gained a practical and mostly practiced art of changing perspective if possible or waiting (more difficult) for the light to change in position, luminance, I think I am finally not shooting the object so much anymore, but choosing how the light interacts with the object of my attention. I have become more willing to pass up a suboptimal shot now. Clearly the Southwest and many of our national parks offer numerous colorful dynamic subjects, so there are so many choices and so little time.
    When I travel of foot, I always travel with a minimum of gear, lots of water, basic minimum first aid survival pack and a snack, just in case. It doesn’t take much to get turned round and really over-exposed to the elements.

    • pascaljappy says:

      David, that’s really one of the reasons I think walking works so well with photography. It’s much more enjoyable than just waiting around for the light or a gap in the clouds and it constantly offers new perspectives. The glory of it is that, if lighting conditions change (moving clouds, for instance), you can walk back and find many more new opportunities 🙂

  • Bumpy says:

    Your images are beautiful, as are those of Ms. Millet, Ansel Adams and many other very talented photographers, but not once have I seen an image that can even begin to convey what it is like to stand at the rim of the canyon. I have been only one other place which so defies the camera – Versailles, which, though man made, shares with the grand canyon an enormity of scale that photographs utterly fail to convey. The most important lenses when visiting the grand canyon are the ones in your eyes.
    I think the canyon provides endless photographic opportunities because one can endlessly decompose the vast canyon into the tiny slices we are able to capture and yet a viewer is never able to see or intuit the whole in a way that renders the slices predictable or mundane. The grand canyon is one place that you can only absorb by being there, so you must go. Perhaps others can share the places they have been that defy the camera so greatly that images utterly fail to convey what it is like to be there, so I must go!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Bumpy, that’s very interesting. In fact, I think that most places that don’t give clear visual clues of scale lose a lot of their dimension on print. Huge prints help in that they recreate an impression of grand size. But, other than that, it’s probably best to find familiar objects such as people and trees, plus long lenses (to compress) to render a realistic notion of dimension.

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