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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Seeing Beyond Grandeur

In the face of overwhelming grandscapes, think about the intimate shots that will paint a full portrait of a place

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Natural drill hole in river-sculpted Tapeats sandstone cliff beside the Colorado River.
Think About Reflections
Wet reflections along the Colorado River and its tributary creeks also can be a powerful tool. If a west-facing wall high on the canyon rim is catching sunset light, I'll get low to the ground and seek out compositions that incorporate its orange reflection in water, on a smooth wet rock or on wet sand along the riverbank. This helps to establish a sense of place and a connection between the intimate design of the foreground and the grand landscape beyond. For reflections on the river or other moving water, shutter speed becomes critical to the mood of the image. The combination of a strong neutral-density filter and a low ISO can force an exposure of several seconds, which has the effect of smoothing and simplifying the complex graphic texture of the water while increasing the definition and color of the reflection.

Use White Balance And Polarizers For Color Contrasts
A powerful contrast for all these warm-toned reflections is, of course, the blue skylight that often fills the shadows. It's amazing how colors and contrasts change depending on whether the sky is clear blue, overcast or full of smoke from a fire in the ponderosa pine forest on the plateau above. Since the color temperature of light sources in the canyon varies widely, I'll often set my camera's color balance to a fixed color temperature (like 5000K, for example) to ensure that the auto white balance feature doesn't cancel out color contrasts that I want to include in the final image. A polarizing filter is a tool I regularly use in canyon photography, as it can be critical for controlling the balance of cool skylight to warm bounce light, as well as sheen on wet or polished surfaces.

Shapes And Forms
Dark silhouettes also can be compelling subjects, and in the canyon there's no shortage of strong, clean, graphic shapes that can be photographed against brighter backgrounds. Completeness and simplicity of form helps us read the shape quickly and easily in the final photograph, giving the silhouette its graphic power. Look for camera positions that allow you to separate them cleanly, minimizing disruptions that break up the shape.

Speaking of finding the right camera position, one approach that I've found useful is to mentally "project" the camera in space, imagining the perspective and composition from a particular nearby position rather than actually moving to it to look. With practice, you can select the right lens and make almost all of your setup decisions even before looking through the camera, which can save a great deal of time and trouble.
Those who take the time to explore, however, will find that one of the most wonderful things about the Grand Canyon is that it may be best appreciated as a majestic sum of smaller, more intimate parts. It hides away real treasures within its folds and layers, just waiting to be discovered.
For example, while visiting another side canyon with a recent raft-trip group, we encountered a constriction where a narrow tongue of water drops through a lovely limestone slot into a pool. Smoothly converging diagonals give the impression of twisted taffy, and light reflecting from high on the canyon walls lends a warm accent to the mostly cool light from the blue sky far above. It begs for a picture, but several challenges must be overcome. First, you have to wade into the chest-deep pool to get an unobstructed view of the composition. Second, the camera position I envisioned was a few feet above the water, making it necessary to carefully brace the tripod between the slick limestone walls using contortions that would make a yogi envious. Finally, there's nowhere to set down a camera bag within reach. So, before wading in, I eliminated as many variables as possible: I chose the appropriate lens, made sure my camera was set up in advance for the shot and preset my tripod legs as much as I could. After wedging myself awkwardly into a position above the pool where I could reach the viewfinder to compose and focus, I made the picture and offered my prepositioned tripod to my companions, bracing it while they made images of their own.

As we walked back to camp wet and happy, we all expressed our thanks to the Grand Canyon for sharing yet another little gem with us.

Justin Black is a landscape and nature photographer and the founder of Visionary Wild, visionarywild.com. He was the longtime General Manager of Galen Rowell's Mountain Light Photography, and he served as Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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