In a couple of days I’m off to the Grand Canyon for my annual trip with good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. We’ll be leading two workshops where we’ll chase lightning, rainbows, and whatever else the monsoon throws at us. But wild weather or not, I’ll be at the Grand Canyon. But anyway…
Left, left, left, right, left
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or maybe I should say, 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—the very things that make the Grand Canyon so breathtaking in person, its depth and breadth, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming this requires:
With all that mastered (easier said than done: practice, practice, practice), you’re ready to formulate and execute an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and whatever is going on in the sky. Not only does arriving early give me time to formulate my plan, it gives me a feel for the scene that becomes increasingly important as the time to shoot approaches.
Once I’ve analyzed my scene, identifying its compositional elements and how I want to handle them, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. This isn’t conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition. Putting my camera to my eye, I compose the scene by moving the view up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until feels “right” (whatever that means).
Then I have to jump back to my left brain to determine how to apply my exposure variables: How much depth of field do I need? Is there motion to freeze or blur—and if so, how much? Do I have extreme dynamic range to contend with? And so on.
Despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I ultimately have to switch back to my right brain and try to click the shutter with my heart.
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. But when clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened, I started having second thoughts. I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through the muck, but 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. That’s not easy even in ideal circumstances, but Hopi Point at sunset is like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Anxious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side and stake out a spot before the crowd assembled.
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent quality 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. I also had to be aware of the sun’s path, because its brightness was certain to be a significant photographic element. And not wanting to settle for a nice sky above the canyon, I sought foreground subjects to create near/far relationships. I finally chose 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, 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. This was before I switched to Sony, so I had to use a 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter to reduce the significant dynamic range to a manageable level (then later smooth the GND transition in Photoshop).
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show, 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 below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point throbbed crimson, creating a flame-like effect. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions, when the color kicked in I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to flaming sky and the canyon’s depth.
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. This is what I mean when I say I want to click the shutter with my heart.