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Postcard racks are filled with pretty pictures of iconic landscapes. Venture into any visitor’s center in any national park, and you’ll see a plethora of photos that show the usual vistas at the usual times of day. They’re sort of like trophy shots, but to go beyond a trophy shot takes a little work and special attention to the conditions. The Grand Canyon is among the most visited parks in the world. If you’ve never been there, words simply can’t describe the place, and even photographs don’t fully do it justice. These tips address some specifics that are unique to the Grand Canyon, but you can apply most of them to any iconic locale where you’re trying to get your own singular photographs.
1 Location, Location, Location: Which Spot You Pick Is Important
Spend a little time at the canyon, and you soon realize why most viewpoints were chosen as the primo places to view the canyon. It’s because overlooks are on points of land that jut out into the canyon, providing the best views. And, consequently, they’re the best places for the photographer to begin looking for pictures.
The South Rim points I favor were chosen because they provide profound views/photo ops in multiple directions. All the East Rim viewpoints, Lipan, Navajo and Desert View offer tremendous views to the west and north, as well as have copious amounts of rim and foreground to explore. On the West Rim Drive, similar conditions can be found at the Powell Memorial Viewpoint.
My personal favorite points for sunrise are Lipan, Powell Memorial, Cape Royal (North Rim), Navajo and Point Imperial (North Rim). For sunset, I prefer Lipan, Hopi, Mather and Yavapai.
2 Include People For Perspective
It’s impossible to describe the overwhelming vastness of the canyon. For that, it truly must be viewed in person. One of the best ways to convey that feeling of vastness in a two-dimensional image is to include a person or people in your composition.
And the concept also can come in handy when the intrepid tourist climbs into your picture just before the light gets good, leaving you little or no time to find an alternate location. And sooner or later, especially around the most prominent viewpoints, it will happen. Call it making lemonade after being dealt lemons.
3 Keep Your ND Grads Close
As a canyon is pretty much the inverse of a mountain, we need to remember that as the sun descends, less and less of the canyon itself is illuminated, and indeed, when the sky fills with color after sunset, there’s little to no light on the canyon itself. In these cases, there’s a very large difference in contrast between the canyon and the sky, and I use graduated neutral-density (ND) filters to hold back highlight exposure in the sky, allowing greater exposure in the shadows of the canyon.
Blending exposures is certainly an option here, and a good one at that, since it provides a very natural-looking sky. However, I often like to go with the ND grads to cut down work in postprocessing, as well as to be able to provide a contiguous RAW file should I need one for contests or any other purpose.
Since it’s the nature of the canyon to provide some of its best drama and light after the sun sets and before it rises, I consider one of these contrast-controlling tools to be essential for good canyon imagery.
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I find both kinds of ND grads to be useful at the canyon. While looking into the sun, I prefer the reverse graduated filters to avoid a heavy look to the upper sky. (While the reverse grad is handy in these situations, if you don’t have one, it’s certainly not a deal breaker. Just use the graduated filter tool in Lightroom or Photoshop in postprocessing to lighten that heaviness in the upper sky.) While looking away from the sun, I use the standard soft and hard graduated filters.
The key to effective ND grad filter work is avoiding the unevenness at the “blend” point. I’m talking about that area of midground darkness that can look unnatural when the filter is pulled down over the sky. Photographers have had problems determining that “blend” point properly since they were invented. Fortunately, our new cameras give us perhaps the best tool for doing just that: Live View. I use Live View for adjusting ND grads on the front of my lens, as it gives me complete control of the process.
4 It’s All About Foreground
Most people familiar with my work know that I’m “all about the foreground,” so it’s no surprise that, for the most part, I consider my only job during the middle of the day is to find usable foreground, effectively looking for my sunset shot, as well as possible compositions for the following morning. Since my GPS/phone tells me exactly where the sun is rising/setting, it makes the pre-visualization of future shots not only possible, but preferable to doing it the other way—hoping to stumble upon something come crunch time.
While anything from an overhanging tree to simple rocks can be used as effective foreground, I like to find objects that might mimic lines and folds in the canyon. While to some a small, promontory outcropping might be a nice place to stand for an unobstructed view of the canyon, to me it’s best used as a compositional element.
5 Finding Isolation
The canyon is visited by millions of tourists per year, and it can be a problem for photographers. My initial moments when I arrive at the canyon are almost always accompanied by feelings of claustrophobia caused by the sheer number of people. But finding isolation isn’t really all that difficult. Here are a few ways to accomplish just that.
• Go to the North Rim. The North Rim, mostly because it’s much farther away, is visited by far fewer people than the South Rim.
• Take the shuttle bus. The shuttle bus system visits those viewpoints that don’t have a sufficient parking infrastructure. These viewpoints are the entire West Rim Drive and Yaki. Most tourists avoid the inconvenience, so these viewpoints are comparatively empty.
• Pick a viewpoint and start walking. At any given viewpoint, tourists congregate at the railing. Walk even 200 yards in any direction, and you’ll most likely find yourself alone, with two notable exceptions: Mather and Yavapai Points. While they’re exceptionally beautiful spots, Mather and Yavapai are the closest viewpoints to the Grand Canyon Village and have the best parking infrastructure. As such, they’re always overrun by tourists. If you shoot here, even at sunrise, you’ll have people crawling into your image. The fact that you were there first will be meaningless to them.
6 Stay Safe
The canyon is a huge place, and the only guard rails are at the overlooks. Deaths are recorded every year when people slip, misstep or merely look up at the view while walking. Conditions are further complicated by the high winds that are prevalent at the canyon for much of the year. YouTube is littered with the follies of people doing foolish things just trying to get pictures.
Secure your tripod! These previously mentioned gusting winds also claim many cameras left alone on tripods. I’ve been personally knocked down by wind gusts while on the edge of the canyon. Be very careful with your tripod.
7 Predicting Slashing Light
That fabulous “slashing light”—when prominent canyon features become “spotlit”—happens when low-level, fast-moving clouds scud along on those ever-present canyon winds. With the sun as a relative (slow-moving) constant, and the clouds moving quickly, it’s fairly easy to predict where the light will occur. The fun part is scrambling around, even changing viewpoints, to find a composition to take advantage of the situation. Many of my best canyon images were made by realizing how fast-moving events were unfolding and responding quickly.
8 Go Short, Go Long: Pick The Right Lens
The Grand Canyon is a photographer’s smorgasbord, with its gently folded layers covered in the textures of time. The compositional possibilities are virtually endless. Since modern zooms now can approach or exceed the sharpness of fixed focal lengths, for me, lens choices are easy. I like light, high-quality zooms for the variable perspective they offer, but the benefits of zooms don’t end there. Modern digital cameras are susceptible to dust, and it’s beneficial to change lenses only as often as required, and zooms help keep that to a minimum.
Most of my canyon work is done with a wide to normal focal length, with the majority of images falling somewhere between 24mm and 55mm on a standard full-frame DSLR. I use my long lenses (ranging from 70mm up to 300mm) to capture the fascinating and marvelous detail of the canyon.
Interestingly, my extreme wide-angle, the lens I seem to use the most everywhere else, is the lens I use the least at the Grand Canyon. And there’s a very good reason for that. At some points on the South Rim, the canyon stretches east and west for 180º. It’s so vast that superwides tend to render everything so small that detail kind of vanishes in everything but very large prints.
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9 Keep An Eye On The Horizon And An Ear To The Weather Report
As one of the wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon has been photographed for decades. Photographers over many generations have dedicated their entire lives to the canyon. As the subject of such photographic adoration, so many images have been previously recorded that finding something original can feel overwhelming.
That’s why the best time to visit is when the weather provides whimsy, nuance and, if you get lucky, drama. For me, there’s nothing better than to watch a break in clouds as it prepares to slide across the sun at the horizon and try to figure out which part of the canyon will soon be bathed in a beautiful, golden glow.
And when I say “keep an ear to the weather report,” I mean literally. Modern electronic devices can give real-time information regarding weather. In some locations, I can stand on the rim of the canyon and look at real satellite/radar imagery showing cloud movement and know approximately when and where the storm might break, allowing me the best chance to execute conceptually.
10 Capture A Season
Seasonal shooting at the canyon is somewhat limited due to a variety of factors, like elevation. Here are the best of the seasonal locations and times.
• Late May, early June—Wildflowers on the North Rim, specifically skyrockets near the Saddle Mountain Trailhead.
• Early October, the North Rim—Aspen and maple trees along the rim near Point Imperial; maple and aspen trees along Transept Canyon Trail.
• Winter—The North Rim closes around the first snow and remains closed until spring. The South Rim has all the action for winter. After January 1st, the West Rim Drive is open to passenger cars.
This article marks George Stocking‘s return to Outdoor Photographer after a long hiatus. In the intervening time, he has been honing his craft and taking photographs around the U.S. See more of Stocking’s photography at www.georgestocking.com.