Tom Petty has a line that goes, “Most of the things I worry about, never happen anyway.” And one of the things I worry about most is, what if I schedule a workshop and the conditions are so lousy that no one gets any good pictures?
Every year Don Smith and I do two Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops. The plan is to photograph the always beautiful Grand Canyon with the spectacular lightning and rainbows of the (normally reliable) Southwest summer monsoon. But with smoke from a large fire filling the beautiful canyon, and a weather forecast that promised blank skies, Don and I were afraid our first workshop group wouldn’t have anything to photograph. Compounding our anxiety, the fire closed the Cape Royal Road, a highlight of the North Rim, and two other fires eliminated our backup photo locations, leaving us with only Point Imperial and Bright Angel Point as North Rim photo locations.
Instead of what I feared would be my first complete swing-and-miss workshop in over 12 years of leading workshops (you’d think I’d learn), this group enjoyed what has to be the most unique (and enjoyable!) photography I’ve ever experienced at the Grand Canyon. The smoke has turn every sunrise and sunset sun some version of a glowing red, orange, or yellow ball. And at times, the fire has even accented our photos with orange flames and black plumes of smoke.
We got an inkling of what was in store on the workshop’s first full day. That morning we pulled up to Grandview Point for our first sunrise and found the peaks of the canyon’s temples and mesas floating atop a sea of smoke. And that evening at Desert View, the smoke had lifted from the canyon, hanging above the rim to color the setting sun. So beautiful, diverse, and rapidly changing were the conditions that to save time I often had both my Sony a7RII and Sony a7RIII bodies out, one with a wide lens and the other a telephoto.
Since that first day we’ve had a consistent run of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, all courtesy of the fires. We even enjoyed a night shoot at Mather Point, photographing the flames across the canyon beneath a layer of fire-reddened smoke, capped by the Milky Way and a sky full of stars.
The workshop wrapped up yesterday morning with a sunrise shoot at Bright Angel Point on the North Rim. As seems to happen most mornings, the ever-present smoke filled the canyon, giving the scene an ethereal quality. My attention that morning turned to the Walhalla Plateau, ground zero for the fire, just across Bright Angel Canyon. Our vantage point provided a clear view of the smoldering trees lining the plateau, accented by a few patches of flames.
With the sun soon rising in that direction, it was certain to be reddened by the thick smoke hugging the horizon. Wanting a tight composition that was all about the smoldering fire and sun, I twisted my Sony 2X teleconverter onto my Sony 100-400 GM lens, giving me 800mm of reach.
To figure out where the sun was going to appear, I tried a little trick that has worked for me in the past: with the sun well below the horizon, I point in its general direction and intentionally overexpose a frame. Then I display my overexposed image on my LCD and check the blinking highlights. The “blinkies” will form a semicircle on the horizon—the apex of the semicircle will be above the point of the sun’s arrival.
Knowing where the sun would arrive allowed me to lock in my composition and focus well in advance. Often when everything in my frame is at infinity I simply autofocus, but since the margin of error at 800mm is so tiny, for this scene I magnified my view and manually focused on one of the prominent trees. I also bumped my ISO to 200 for a slightly faster shutter speed as insurance against micro-vibration at the extremely unforgiving 800mm.
The real trick was going to be the exposure. A high dynamic range scene (large difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights) like this is always a challenge. But dynamic range is the very reason I switched to Sony nearly four years ago. Even though my current Sony body, the a7RIII, is the dynamic range champion, shooting directly into the sun, even a sun partially obscured by smoke, leaves little margin for error.
The sun’s appearance instantly ramped up the dynamic range—a lot. I quickly dialed down my shutter speed, monitoring my a7RIII’s “zebra” warning (diagonal black and white stripes) that tells me in my viewfinder when parts of a scene are overexposed. When the zebras disappeared, I switched my attention to the histogram and made small shutter speed adjustments, pushing the histogram’s right (highlights) side as far as I could without blowing out the highlights in the sun.
The processing I did to this image was minimal: In Lightroom I brought down the highlights to recover the sun, and brought up the shadows to recover the smoky slope. In Photoshop I slightly desaturated the red and yellow and shifted the yellow sun a little more toward orange (but not nearly as red as what I saw).
Maybe someday I’ll learn to stop worrying about things I can’t control—they really do always seem to work out. Oh, and as a matter of fact, on our final afternoon we got a spectacular electrical display that lasted well into the night, and we all got the lightning images we’d been hoping for. (Check today’s Instagram for a preview of that show: @garyhartphoto.)