With the exception of a couple of recent up-and-back trips to photograph Comet NEOWISE (8 hours of driving for 1-2 hours of photography), photography-wise I have been pretty much homebound since March. I’d been keeping my fingers crossed that things would stabilize enough for me to do my Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshops in August, but two weeks ago circumstances forced me to reschedule them to next year. After losing my Grand Canyon raft trip to COVID-19 in May, I suddenly faced the prospect of a year without my Grand Canyon fix. Could that really happen?
Nope. Since my August Grand Canyon workshops count on the Southwest summer monsoon to deliver the lightning and rainbows everyone signs up for, I always monitor the monsoon conditions in Arizona—not just in the week leading up to my workshops, but all summer and quite obsessively (I know I can’t control the weather, but I can’t help rooting for ideal conditions, not unlike a sports fan rooting for my favorite team). So I knew that the monsoon was really late this year—it still hadn’t arrived by mid-July. But a few days after losing this year’s workshops, I saw signs of monsoon activity at the Grand Canyon, and within two days I was on the road.
The negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic is undeniable and extreme. But I can also say that it’s also not without its small perks—after losing 8 workshops to the pandemic, I am happy to take whatever consolations COVID wants to offer. In this case, with two days’ notice, I was able to snag four nights at a hotel about 300 yards from the South Rim for a ridiculously small sum.
My brother Jay and I hit the road for the South Rim Wednesday morning (Mom still makes me bring my little brother wherever I go*), visions of lightning and comets dancing in our heads. Thirteen hours later, we were pulling into our hotel in the dark.
Travel in the time of Coronavirus is not without its challenges—some beyond our control, others self-imposed (to avoid being a CDC statistic). Masks are mandatory in public (it’s the law, but also just plain common sense), and bathroom breaks need to be strategized because most roadside dining options are drive-thru only—I’ve learned never to pass a roadside rest area. (Note: The person who invents public restroom technology that can be operated entirely with elbows will make a fortune.) And at the hotel, there’s no daily maid service—they do a thorough cleaning after each guest leaves, and keep the room empty for a couple of days before the next person checks in.
There are also a lot dining changes here at the Grand Canyon. Unlike California, which is take-out only, there are restaurants open here at the park, including at our hotel. But Jay and I made a conscious decision to avoid eating out, and brought everything we need to prepare all over our meals. Breakfast and dinner are in the room, and lunch is at whatever spectacular Grand Canyon vista we find ourselves at when we get hungry.
I’ve visited the Grand Canyon in every season, but I’ve never seen it this empty. That doesn’t mean that it’s empty-empty, but there’s plenty of parking at every vista point, and social distancing is never a problem. Nevertheless, even when outside, we have masks with us at all times and don them when people are nearby. And with just a few exceptions, our fellow visitors have been similarly respectful of the situation.
The bottom line is, I feel like we’ve been able to pull this trip off with minimal risk to our health and others’. But what about the photography? I thought you’d never ask.
We’ve seen lots of clouds and lightning, and had two beautiful Comet NEOWISE shoots, but the image I’m sharing here is from Friday night’s sunset. We’d ended up at Mather Point because we were beat after a day of chasing lightning and Mather is easy, but also because when I saw clear western horizon and these clouds to the east, I wanted a spot with a view opposite the sun. Sometimes things just work out.
Photographing sunset is a different mindset than lightning photography because with lightning, the lightning bolt is the focal point and too much foreground and sky can be a distraction. For a nice sunset, I like to feature a strong foreground with lots of sky.
The canyon walls were already starting to catch fire when we arrived, so I took the first foreground subject I found. What drew me was the tree, but I was soon drawn to the pocked limestone and small pool of rainwater.I started with a Sony 16-35 GM lens on my Sony a7RIV, but to really emphasize the foreground and what looked like it was going to be a spectacular sky, I switched to my Sony 12-24 G lens.
Often when the light and color is changing fast I pick a single composition and work small variations until the show is over. But this evening I was a little more active, moving all around my perch to change up foreground/background relationships (when the foreground is this close, shifting just a few feet can make a big difference), and never spending more than one or two clicks on a single composition. For example, by moving from one side of the tree to the other, I was able to put it on the left or right side of my frame, and I did it both ways.
Here I put the tree on the right, taking care not to block Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple in the distance. Balancing the tree and monuments were the limestone, pool, and canyon on the left. The sky just speaks for itself. At 14mm and f/11, depth of field wasn’t a huge concern—for this frame I focused about 1/3 of the way along the cliff edge on the left.
One final observation: The serpentine scar angling across the center of the frame is the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon, home of the canyon’s best (biggest) rapids, and some of my very best Grand Canyon memories.
* Just kidding
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Apparently your mom must think you are a good influence on your brother! LOL I’m glad you had a successful road trip! The photo is beautiful! Yup, never pass up a rest stop!
How are you getting along in “the time of Coronavirus” (not to mention you know who)? The forwarded email is from a Sacramento based photographer who does workshops at many of the very photogenic places. The workshops have all been cancelled this year, but this email reports on his recent personal Grand Canyon trip. I thought his observations would interest you. Are you still planning on your Grand canyon trip?
Anyway, I hope all is well with you, Marilyn, and the kids. Things are fine here at Breezy Point. I’m staying up here almost all the time. I did go down to Chris’s place for a little while on Bailey’s birthday last weekend. There has been something of a surge in virus cases in El Paso and Teller counties. Susan said that the Teller cases were related to a bible college up there.
Stay healthy and keep in touch. I’m sure you know that you are welcome here any time.
Beautiful work as always Gary
Can’t wait for Monsoons and fireworks
And another raft trip someday…..
Gary, your Neowise shot with the shooting star is fabulous. Luck comes to those who are prepared. Hope you are doing well.
It’s Bill Lazar.
Thanks, Bill! Good to hear from you. All is as well as can be expected in this bizarre time. Hope you’re well too.
I love your blog! So interesting & informative! Your little brother is one lucky dude!🤣 Remind him of that if he complains! The photos are awe inspiring! Thanks for taking my soul on this trip!😊💞🌎
Thanks so much, Cynthia. I’ll definitely let Jay know, but you know how little brothers are. 😁
Awesome that you got a photo trip in in these challenging times. Hopefully fall colors will be inspiring as well.
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Gary, I really enjoy the layers and framing in your shot. It’s a beautiful Grand Canyon shot. With the social distancing and isolation, trips like these are so special. I’m glad you got out and took this image.