Making lemonade at the Grand Canyon

Last Light, Desert View, Grand Canyon

We’ve all heard Dale Carnegie’s trite maxim, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Of course these pithy statements become popular because they resonate with so many people, photographers included. And it seems that not only are the photographers who adopt this attitude more productive, they’re just plain happier. For example….

Few pursuits are more frustrating than trying to predict Mother Nature’s fickle whims. Last week I was in Northern Arizona co-leading Don Smith’s Northern Arizona workshop. On our first night we pulled in to Desert View to find everything in place for a vivid, colorful, cliché Grand Canyon sunset: billowing cumulus clouds, patches of blue sky, and a gaping hole for the setting sun on the western horizon.

The only problem was, for some inexplicable reason, the color never materialized–the sun dropped, the light faded, and we were teased with no more than a few whispers of pink. For anyone  who had put all their eggs in the brilliant sunset basket, this would have been a major disappointment. But (in my opinion) what we did get was even better.

Anticipating a colorful sunset, I had set up my composition accordingly. I was patiently waiting when, just before reaching the horizon, the sun slipped beneath a cloud and for about 90 seconds painted the canyon’s rim with the brightest, warmest light imaginable. When the light popped I quickly jettisoned my colorful sky composition and scanned the rim for a subject painted by the sunlight. When my eyes fell on this tree I quickly evaluated the scene for the best way to emphasize the tree and foreground light.

While the tree and light were front and center, the storm clouds overhead and Colorado River below made excellent background complements I knew I needed to include. I started by aligning myself with the tree’s branches framing the Colorado. Moving as far back as the terrain permitted, I zoomed to fill the frame and compress the foreground/background distance. With a 67mm focal length, depth of field was tricky. My hyperfocal app told me that the hyperfocal distance at f16 was around 30 feet, meaning if I focus 30 feet away, I could be sharp from 15 feet to infinity. I refined my composition, removed my camera from the tripod, focused on a tree about 30 feet away, returned the camera to the tripod, and clicked.

I’m a big advocate of surveying a scene, anticipating the light and conditions, and finding compositions before the conditions occur. But the moral here is to not become so locked in to a plan that you fail to seize unexpected opportunities. In hindsight I realize I should have anticipated this light too–I had a clear view of the sun’s path to western horizon, but I was so giddy with excitement about the color that was “sure” to materialize that I almost missed this other opportunity.

As it turned out, at Hopi Point the next evening we had the opposite experience–clouds on the western horizon promised to block the color-generating sunlight, but those of us who waited 15 minutes after sunset were (somehow) treated to a neon sunset that had the whole shuttle bus buzzing all the way back to the village (more on this in a future post). Maybe if I were as familiar with the Grand Canyon as I am with Yosemite, I’d be better at predicting its conditions, but until that happens, I’ll just keep guzzling the lemonade.

4 Comments on “Making lemonade at the Grand Canyon

  1. Beautiful photo Gary! I need to go back with your great attitude!

  2. That’s excellent, Gary. The unanticipated finds are the best.

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