Photographing the Grand Canyon isn’t easy (I’ve said this before)
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or more accurately, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image.
Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload, and you instantly forget that the Grand Canyon’s depth and breadth, the very things that make it so breathtaking in person, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming these losses starts with understanding your camera’s vision and refining your ability to recognize and organize your scene’s compositional elements (subject, color, depth, light, visual flow), and how to manage them with your camera’s variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length). With that in place, you’re ready to formulate an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. But keep in mind that plans can be a creative straightjacket (especially in a dynamic, unpredictable location like the Grand Canyon)—you also need the flexibility to overcome disappointment and quickly shift to Plan B when Plan A doesn’t materialize. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and the conditions in the sky.
Once my plan is in place, I put my left brain to bed and wake my right brain. Ultimately, despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I try to click the shutter with my heart—does it feel right?
Putting it all together
My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. When clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through. On the other hand, I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. Always conscious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side (but that didn’t keep me from sneaking back around for an occasional peek to the east).
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim allows provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent the rest of my pre-shooting time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds.
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show (until it was far too late to photograph), but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping to and below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point started throbbing with crimson, creating a flame-like effect.
But I wasn’t satisfied with a nice sky above the beautiful canyon (nor should you be)—I needed relationships between my foreground and background. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions anchored by a distinctive tree, I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to the canyon’s depth beneath the flaming sky. Continuing with my horizontal frame would have been too wide to capture the sky’s impact. But because I’d spent so much time exploring earlier, I went right to this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.
Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, live-view focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. My 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter reduced the significant dynamic range to a very manageable level that allowed me to capture the entire range of light in a single frame (my personal rule). (Later I smoothed the barely visible GND transition with a few dodge/burn brush strokes in Photoshop.)
Photographing in my right mind
Once I’ve identified a scene’s compositional elements and exposure variables, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. (This is no longer conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition.) I composed the scene in my viewfinder (still haven’t embraced the live-view composition thing), moving up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until everything felt balanced. While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating.
It’s interesting to compare this image with one I created from within a few feet of this location a few years ago. While each contains many of the same elements, the conditions were vastly different, and so were my objectives, and ultimately, my compositional choices.
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