2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: River of Light

Gary Hart Photography: River of Light, Grand Canyon, Arizona

River of Light, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sony a7S
Zeiss 28mm
20 seconds
ISO 25,600

Last week I took 27 photographers on a 6-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon. It’s the second year I’ve done this (and I have no plans to stop). This year’s conditions were significantly different from last year’s: colder, wetter (it rained all but our first and last days), and windier. But with the miserable weather came much better photography, as we enjoyed beautiful light and skies throughout the trip. And I don’t think the conditions dampened anyone’s spirits.

At the post-trip pizza party, I asked everyone to share something that made the trip special for them. And as great as the photography was (it was), most of the answers centered on the fun we had, the friendships that formed, and the one-for-all and all-for-one spirit that bound our group. I couldn’t have agreed more, but left the gathering (we could have gone on all night) without expressing a personal highlight: the night sky.

As someone who grew up camping, and later backpacking, I was especially looking forward to falling asleep beneath the sky of my childhood. On clear nights far from city lights, I love nothing more than lying on my back and basking in the light of millions of distant stars (fewer than 5,000 individual stars are visible in the darkest, flat-horizon skies, but factor in the Milky Way and, well, the sky’s the limit).

I scheduled this trip specifically to avoid moonlight, but hadn’t counted on clouds. It wasn’t until our final night that I got my wish for a bedtime ceiling of starlight. That night my camera stayed in the bag as I indulged my celestial addiction until sleep finally prevailed (if I’d have had duct tape, I’d have pinned my eyelids to my forehead).

Just because there were no stars at bedtime didn’t mean I gave up hope of photographing them. Spend enough time outside and you learn that showery weather often abates overnight, so I went to bed each night with my camera and a plan. Twice during the trip I woke find the bedtime clouds replaced by stars, and both times opted for photography over sleep.

The image here was from the trip’s first night. My bedtime routine started with determining the cardinal directions relative to the campsite’s best views, and whether/when the brightest part of the Milky Way would appear. This requires an open sky to the south, not the easiest thing in the Grand Canyon, which trends east/west over most of its length. But the trip’s first couple of days are in the canyon’s north/south Marble Canyon section, which allowed a wonderfully open view of the southern sky on our first night.

Near the river were lots of view-blocking shrubs, but I found an elevated spot, with a view of the river, against a shear wall about 20 feet above my cot. With a composition in mind, I fell asleep beside my tripod-mounted, Sony a7S and and Zeiss 28 f2, which were pre-set and focused for dark sky photography.

I woke at around 2:30 a.m. to find the Milky Way perfectly framed by the Canyon walls. With the help of the soft light from my iPhone screen (to avoid disturbing my night vision), I stumbled up to my vantage point and went to work. A 39% waning crescent moon had just risen somewhere behind the canyon wall to the east to illuminate the top of the western canyon wall, an unplanned bonus. Since I’m still familiarizing myself with the a7S, I tried a variety of exposure combinations for each of the three compositions I tried.

Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

A night sky gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

18 Comments on “2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: River of Light

  1. Nice !!!

    We didn’t have pizza, but our river guides made us brownies, and put on a light show on the river. Probably the same night you took your Milky Way shot !!!

    Thanks for inspiring me to take this trip ! It was absolutely the trip of a lifetime. But I might have to do it again next year. We only went down the lower part of the river. There’s so much more to explore !!!

    Carpe Diem


  2. OK, this shot moved me off the fence about the A7s–I’ll get one and mount my Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 on it for night shots, but keep my D810 for all else.

    This image is truly breathtaking, Gary. I can’t wait to see what night shots you get over the eastern Sierra. Maybe Mono Lake with the Milky Way rising over it?


  3. Gary, This is just amazing….. and beautiful! I enjoyed following you all on the videos shared on FB and am so glad that you were there!
    But, I also really want to say (again perhaps, but I never tire of it) that our stories/lessons are just magnificent! I say that for some solid reasons, I think: There is a heartening and heartfelt tale being told that is equally loaded with learning points that become “fixed.”
    This happens because of the comfortable nature of your writing and the joy that it all brings.. So, while all this is going, the reader (yours truly, in this case) has this big smile on his face while he kind of marvels at this cool and mesmerizing combination of data, image, and spiritual experience,. ….I think the word is “epiphany”…well that’s pretty much what I get. 🙂

    Thank You, Gary!

    • Thanks, Denny. FYI, the fastest way to my heart is to compliment my writing. 🙂 I spend a lot of time on the blog, probably more than I should given that I get no direct compensation from it, so it’s always nice to hear that others appreciate it.

  4. Striking night photography, makes the price of little sleep so much worth it.
    My faves are the tree shots with the night sky in view but the River of Light shot is a beauty as well.

  5. This image really makes me wish I could have made that second raft trip. But I so enjoyed hearing your experiences this year. Having been there last year on your first raft trip made it very easy to visualize all that you write about. This image is amazing. And beautiful.

    • Yeah, I missed hanging with you this year, Rhonda. The trip was so different, but equally enjoyable (though not nearly as comfortable). Next year’s trip is already full (I actually forgot to save a place for myself, so I over booked it by one—fingers crossed for a cancellation.) See you on Kauai!

  6. I’ll be after you with my Canon G1X in August. Hoping wild fire smoke doesn’t ruin it all.

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