(Sometimes) I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Good

Gary Hart Photography: Big Dipper Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Big Dipper Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
20 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 12800

a7SIIGCRTMay2018_DSC0357Camp118GCMilkyWay_screenaver

Grand Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon Sony a7S II Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 20 seconds F/1.4 ISO 6400

It was 4:00 a.m. and I’d spent the last two hours photographing the Milky Way’s brilliant core above the Colorado River. In about 75 minutes the guides would be ringing the “coffee’s ready” gong, signaling the start of another day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Collapsing my tripod, I performed a little mental math and found slight relief in the knowledge that I might be able to squeeze in one more hour of sleep. That relief vanished in the time it took to turn and glance toward the northern sky and see the Big Dipper, suspended like a celestial mobile in the notch separating the canyon walls.

My Milky Way position had been chosen for its unobstructed view of the southern sky; the best view of the Big Dipper was clear across the campsite, at a sheltered pool just beyond our rafts. The moonless night sky at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is so dark that the Milky Way casts a slight shadow, but once your eyes adjust, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate without adding light. Trudging across through the sand, I passed a handful of other solitary photographers, anonymous shapes enjoying the darkness as much as I was. I stopped few times to answer questions and point out the Big Dipper, then moved on.

Setting up on the steep, sandy slope above the river, I gazed at the Big Dipper and privately chuckled at my good fortune—this prime photo opportunity hadn’t manifest because I proactively made myself seek a scene away from my original subject (as I encourage my students to do), it was a chance glance after I’d mentally put myself to bed. When we landed at that spot the prior afternoon, I’d been so focused on the southern exposure and the Milky Way opportunity in that direction that I hadn’t even considered that there might be something facing north too. Shame on me, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Checking my first Big Dipper frame, a couple of things became instantly obvious: though sunrise was still an hour away, and my eyes could detect no sign of its approach, with the same exposure I’d been using for most of the night, the sky was noticeably brighter on my LCD; more significantly, the Big Dipper was reflecting in the river. I realized that pool below me, while not flowing, was sloshing enough that the reflection didn’t stand out to my eyes, but it was smoothed enough by a multi-second exposure that the water mirrored a blurred but clearly visible reflection of the bright Dipper stars.

From my elevated vantage point, part of the handle’s reflection was lost to the sandy beach—I needed to move closer to the river to include the entire reflection. Remember when I said it’s surprisingly easy to navigate in the moonless darkness? On my first step toward the river I learned that functional night vision applies to avoiding objects, not to depth perception. So, as that first step dropped earthward and I waited for it to touch down, where I expected sand I found only air. The rest of me followed quickly and I was in free-fall. Fortunately the fall was not far, just a couple of feet, but it’s amazing how the disorientation of a blind fall slowed time enough for me to curse the darkness before my graceless splat onto the damp beach.

The beach was damp because the place I landed had been river when I went to bed. I popped up almost as quickly as I landed, the unwitting beneficiary of artificial tides induced by upstream releases from the Glen Canyon Dam, timed to meet the power needs of Las Vegas and the rest of the Southwest sprawl. Had I fallen a few hours earlier, I’d have splashed in chilly river water—not enough river to sweep me to my death, but definitely enough to soak me and my camera. So I found myself sandy but otherwise unscathed—glancing about to see if anyone had seen my fall, I instantly forgave the darkness that had made me more or less invisible. The Rokinon lens I’d had on my camera was caked with sand; since it was too dark to clean it, I switched to my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM.

The rest of the shoot was fairly uneventful, at least until my final frame. Over the next few minutes I inched even closer to the river, which I discovered had receded enough to add about six feet of soggy shore. With each frame I verified my focus, tweaked my composition, and experimented with different exposures.

On my final few frames I was comfortable enough with all of the photography variables that I wasn’t even thinking about the next shot, and instead simply stood and took in the night sky. As I waited for my last frame of the night to complete, a brilliant meteor sprung from the darkness and split the Dipper’s handle. It came and went in a heartbeat, and I held my breath until the image popped up on my LCD and I confirmed that I’d captured it. The perfect cap to a spectacular night.


Celestial Wonders

 

Star Struck

a7SIIGCRTMay2018_DSC0357Camp118GCMilkyWay_screenaver

Grand Night, Milky Way Above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
20 seconds
F/1.4
ISO 6400

Nothing in my life delivers a more potent dose of perspective than viewing the world from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Days are spent at the mercy of the Colorado River, alternately drifting and hurtling beneath mile-high rock layers that tell more than a billion years of Earth story. And when the sun goes down, the ceiling becomes a cosmological light show, each pinpoint representing a different instant in our galaxy’s past.

More than any of my five trips through the Grand Canyon, I’ll remember this year’s for its night skies. The wall-to-wall blue that dogged our daylight photography darkened to just what the night-photography doctor ordered, and we took full advantage. Excited about the potential for stars, each day I powwowed with our lead guide, the amazing Lindsay, to identify potential campsites with the best views of the night sky in general, and the best views of our Milky Way’s brilliant galactic core in particular.

But targeting a Milky Way campsite is easier in theory than execution. In the Northern Hemisphere, even when the galactic core reaches its highest point, it’s still fairly low in the southern sky. So given the Grand Canyon’s general east/west orientation, the best Milky Way views are usually blocked by the canyon’s towering walls. Even identifying a potential campsite on a north/south oriented stretch of the river doesn’t ensure success because Colorado River campsites in the Grand Canyon are first-come, first-served. So even though the other groups on the river don’t usually think strategically about photographing the night sky like I do, each campsite has its own appealing qualities and there’s never a guarantee that any given one will be free when we get there.

In general, my raft trips’ first night or (maybe) two usually provide our best Milky Way opportunities because the first 75 miles of the Colorado River downstream from our put-in at Lee’s Ferry runs pretty much north/south. With the river running north/south, the canyon walls are to the east and west and we usually get a pretty clear view of the north and south horizons. Just downstream from the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, the canyon bends more or less permanently east/west and Milky Way core views are few and far between.

This year, our day-one campsite got us a decent but not quite perfect view of the southern sky. Nevertheless, many rafters rose and gave it a try, with varying degrees of success—at the very least, it was good practice, and much was learned. On day two we had a magnificently open sky, but the southern horizon was behind us as we faced the river, so the Milky Way’s center rose above lots of shrubs and rocks. That night I and a few others photographed the view across the river toward the Big Dipper, North Star, and fainter part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, but a handful had some success photographing the brighter Milky Way from a hill facing south.

I knew days four and five would be long shots for Milky Way photography because Lindsay and I had in mind an east/west trending day-4 site directly across the river from Deer Creek Fall (fingers crossed), one of the trip’s photographic highlights. And there were no good candidates for day 5 (we ended up camping beneath Toroweap). But Lindsay had an ace up her sleeve for day 3, our first day on the east/west portion of the river, if we could pull it off.

In addition to being the day we bend west, day three is the much anticipated “rapid day.” After warming up with a couple of days of fairly infrequent mild to medium rapids, the action on day three ramps up considerably, both in rapid frequency and intensity. Rapid day is always so much fun, for most of the rafters the thoughts of night photography take backseat thrills and laughter.

While everyone else’s attention was on the river, in the back of my mind I was crossing my virtual fingers for the prosaically named Camp 118 (for the number of miles downstream from our starting point at Lee’s Ferry). Camp 118 had been on my radar since Lindsay had told me about it on our first day, citing a bend in the river that gives the spot a view of the southern sky that’s very rare on this part of the river. But she warned me that Camp 118 has other benefits that make it popular among all the trips on the river, and gave us a no better than 50 percent chance of scoring it.

Equal parts exhausted and exhilarated, late in the afternoon of day three we rounded a bend and found Camp 118 free and clear. Phew. As soon as we landed I did a quick check with my compass app and confirmed that the river here pointed due south. Camp 118 also had a long south-facing sandy beach that would give everyone ample room to setup and move around in the dark without getting in anyone else’s way. Once the boat was off-loaded I gathered the troops and told them to prepare for some the best Milky Way photography of the trip.

One more Grand Canyon Milky Way obstacle I forgot to mention is that even in the most favorable locations, the galactic core doesn’t rotate into the slot between the canyon walls until 2:00 a.m. or later. Often rafters go to bed with every intention of rising to photograph it, but when the time comes, their resolve has burrowed deep into the cozy folds of their sleeping bag. The best antidote is to be as prepared as possible before going to bed. At the very least, I prescribe the following: identify your composition, set up your camera, lens, and tripod, set your exposure, focus at infinity, and have your camera ready atop the tripod beside your cot. Better still, if it can be done without risk of someone stumbling over it in the dark, leave the camera composed and focused at your predetermined shooting spot.

I woke at 2:00 a.m. and found many already at work on the Milky Way, which was just making its way into view above the canyon wall in the east. During the next two-and-a-quarter hours I worked the scene while the galactic core slid from left to right, first above the river and finally down toward the wall on the west side of the river. I used both my Sony a7SII and a7RIII bodies, and my Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Sony 12-24 f/4 G, and Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lenses.

Since getting my 42 megapixel a7RIII, I’ve been happy enough with its night photography results that I’d almost forgotten about my 12 megapixel a7SII. In fact, I seriously considered leaving my a7SII at home for this trip. I’m so glad I didn’t. Using the two side-by-side like this, offered an instant reminder why the a7SII is the night photography king. Combined with the light gathering ability of an f/1.4 lens, with my a7SII I can look through my viewfinder and focus perfectly in about three seconds. I can also get crazy-bright images in crazy-dark conditions like this.

I usually feel like the “star” of night images is the sky; because vertical orientation gives me the most sky and least foreground, most of my night images are oriented vertically, especially when the more or less vertically oriented Milky Way is present. But one of my goals for this trip was more horizontal Milky Way images, so I made a point of setting aside my vertical bias and shooting a lot of horizontal frames. This image (like all of my images) is a single click (no composite of multiple frames) with no artificial light added (no light painting or any other light besides stars and skylight). I saw several meteors that night, but have no specific memories of the small one darting across the upper middle of this frame.

I wrapped up with this scene a little before 4:00 a.m., but heading back to bed I saw the Big Dipper cradled between the two canyon walls, just above the north horizon, too beautiful to resist. I ended up photographing another 20 minutes or so on the other side of camp, ending up with one of my favorite images of the trip, including a meteor I very much remember. But that’s a story for another day….

Join me on next year’s Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers


A few tips for photographing the Milky Way

I have an entire article that spells out Milky Way photography, but here’s the CliffsNotes (is that still a thing?) version:

  • The galactic core is in Sagittarius (a summer constellation), low in the Northern Hemisphere’s southern sky.
  • Learn to control your camera in the dark. (!)
  • I prefer a lens that’s 24mm (full frame) or wider, but speed trumps focal length as long as the faster lens is 28mm or wider.
  • Red lights are death to night photography and should be banned from any night shoot (this my new crusade). Yes, they’re great for maintaining night vision, so if you want to use one to get to and from your location, fine. But once the shutters start opening, they should be off, off, off. I’ve seen so many images ruined by red lights that I’ve started banning them entirely at all night shoots I lead. I much prefer compromising night vision with a white light for a few minutes if it means no one will accidentally turn on a red light while we’re shooting. During a shoot, no flashlight of any kind or color. My preferred night-shoot light source is a cell phone screen (not the cell phone’s flashlight, just the illuminated screen), which is sufficient for seeing camera controls and about a 3-foot radius, but won’t leak into anyone’s frame.
  • Night photography is about the sky, so you’ll want at least half, and usually more of your frame to be sky. Most of my night images are at least 2/3 sky.
  • Focus will be your most difficult task. Never assume you can just dial your lens to “infinity”—zoom lenses don’t have a reliable fixed infinity point, and a prime’s infinity point is often not where you expect it to be. Instead, pre-focus before it gets dark whenever possible (then don’t touch anything!). If you need to focus in the dark, it will probably need to be manually.
    • Center a bright star or planet in your viewfinder and magnify it on your LCD. Slowly dial the focus ring until the star/planet is the smallest possible point.
    • Sony and other mirrorless shooters can use focus peaking (red works best) and dial the focus ring until the number of highlighted stars is maximized.
    • Autofocus on a bright light at least 50 feet away.
    • After you think you’ve achieved focus, regardless of the method, always (!) magnify the first image on your LCD to verify focus.
  • Exposure is all about compromise. Basically, unless you’re satisfied with silhouettes, you want to give your scene as much light as you can without ruining the image: widest aperture, highest ISO, longest shutter speed you can get away with. This is where it’s essential to know your camera’s capabilities—how far can you push the ISO and get usable results. And just because you get relatively noise-free images at 6400 (or whatever) ISO when you’re shooting 1/5 second exposures at the Counting Crows concert (one of the few bands that actually allows anyone to bring in a camera and telephoto lens, I might add), doesn’t mean an image will be clean for a 30-second exposure (trust me on this). You’ll want at least an f/2.8 lens, but faster is better. And because light is so essential, if I really need the light, I usually prefer a little star motion from a 30-second exposure to the extra noise a higher ISO gives (but I don’t go longer than 30 seconds).

Read more about photographing the Milky Way


A Milky Way Gallery

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

 

Chance and the prepared mind

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Under the Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/60 second
F/11
ISO 100

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” ~ Louis Pasteur

A few days ago someone on Facebook commented on my previous Grand Canyon rainbow image that getting “the” shot is more about luck than anything else. I had a good chuckle, but once I fully comprehended that this person was in fact serious, I actually felt a little sad for him. Since we tend to make choices that validate our version of reality, imagine going through life with that philosophy.

No one can deny that photography involves a great deal of luck, but each of us chooses our relationship with the fickle whims of chance, and I choose to embrace Louis Pasteur’s belief that chance favors the prepared mind. Ansel Adams was quite fond of repeating Pasteur’s quote; later Galen Rowell, and I’m sure many other photographers, embraced it to great success.

Gary Hart Photography: Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

As nature photographers, we must acknowledge the tremendous role chance plays in the conditions that rule the scenes we photograph, then do our best to maximize our odds for witnessing, in the best possible circumstances, whatever special something Mother Nature might toss in our direction. A rainbow over Safeway or the sewage treatment plant is still beautiful, but a rainbow above Yosemite Valley or the Grand Canyon is a lifetime memory (not to mention a beautiful photograph).

A few years ago, on a drive to Yosemite to meet clients for dinner (and to plan the next day’s tour), I saw conditions that told me a rainbow was possible. When I met the clients at the cafeteria, I suggested that we forget dinner and take a shot at a rainbow instead. With no guarantee, we raced our empty stomachs across Yosemite Valley, scaled some rocks behind Tunnel View, and sat in a downpour for about twenty minutes. Our reward? A double rainbow arcing across Yosemite Valley. Were we lucky? Absolutely. But it was no fluke that my clients and I were the only “lucky” ones out there that evening.

Before sunrise on a chilly May morning in 2011, my workshop group and I had the good fortune photograph a crescent moon splitting El Capitan and Half Dome from an often overlooked vista on the north side of the Merced River. Luck? What do you think? Well, I guess you could say that we were lucky that our alarms went off, and that the clouds stayed away that morning. But I knew at least a year in advance that a crescent moon would be rising in this part of the sky on this very morning, scheduled my spring workshop to include this date, then spent hours plotting all the location and timing options to determine where we should be for the moonrise.

Rising Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Rising Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

I’d love to say that I sensed the potential for a rainbow over the Grand Canyon when I scheduled last month’s raft trip over a year ago, then hustled my group down the river for three days to be in this very position for the event. But I’m not quite that prescient. On the other hand, I did anticipate the potential for a rainbow a few hours earlier, scouted and planned my composition as soon as we arrived at camp, then called the rainbow’s arrival far enough in advance to allow people to get their gear, find a scene of their own, and set up before it arrived.

As I tried to make it clear in my previous post, anticipating these special moments in nature doesn’t require any real gifts—just a basic understanding of the natural phenomena you’d like to photograph, and a little effort to match your anticipated natural event (a rainbow, a moonrise, the Milky Way, or whatever) with your location of choice.

But to decide that photographing nature’s most special moments is mostly about luck is to pretty much limit your rainbows to the Safeways and sewage treatment plants of your everyday world. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve prepared for a special moment in nature, changed plans, lost sleep, driven many miles, skipped meals, and suffered in miserable conditions, all with nothing to show for my sacrifice. But just one success like a rainbow above the Grand Canyon is more than enough compensation for a thousand miserable failures. And here’s another secret: no matter how miserable I am getting to and waiting for my goal event, whether it happens or not, I absolutely love the anticipation, the just sitting out there fueled by the thought that it just might happen.



I do photo workshops

Gary Hart workshop group at Tunnel View, Yosemite



When chance meets preparation

(When the planning payed off)

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

The illusion of genius

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Rainbow, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Rainbow Bridge, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/80 second
F/11
ISO 100

Perhaps you’ve noticed that many popular nature photographers have a “hook,” a persona they’ve created to distinguish themselves from the competition (it saddens me to think that photography can be viewed as a competition, but that’s a thought for another day). This hook can be as simple (and annoying) as flamboyant self-promotion, or an inherent gift that enables the photographer to get the shot no one else would have gotten, something like superhuman courage or endurance. Some photographers actually credit a divine connection or disembodied voices that guide them to the shot.

Clearly I’m going to need to come up with a hook of my own if I’m to succeed. Flamboyant self-promotion just isn’t my style, and my marathon days are in the distant past. Courage? I think my poor relationship with heights would rule that out. And the only disembodied voice I hear is my GPS telling me she’s “recalculating.”

Just when I thought I’d reached an impasse that threatened to keep me mired in photographic anonymity, a little word percolated up from my memory, a word that I’d heard uttered behind my back a few times after I’d successfully called a rainbow or moonrise: “Genius.” That’s it! I could position myself as the Sherlock of shutter speed, the Franklin of f-stop, the Einstein of ISO. That’s…, well, genius!

And just as the fact that none of these other photographers are quite as special as their press clippings imply, the fact that I’m not actually a genius would not be a limiting factor.

But seriously

Okay, the truth is that photography is not rocket science, and nature photographers are rarely called to pave the road to scientific or spiritual truth. Not only is genius not a requirement for great photography, for the photographer who thinks too much, genius can be a hindrance. On the other hand, a little bit of thought doesn’t hurt.

It’s true that I’ve photographed more than my share of vivid rainbows and breathtaking celestial phenomena—moonrises and moonsets, moonbows, the Milky Way, and even a comet—from many iconic locations, but that’s mostly due to just a little research and planning combined with a basic understanding of the natural world. An understanding basic enough for most people who apply themselves.

For example, this rainbow. It was clearly the highlight of this year’s Grand Canyon raft trip, and while I did call it about fifteen minutes in advance, I can’t claim genius. Like most aspects of nature photography, photographing a rainbow is mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Of course there are thing you can do to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Whether it’s an understanding of rainbows that enables me to position myself and wait, or simply knowing when and where to look, when I do get it right, I can appear more prescient than I really am.

The essentials for a rainbow are simple: sunlight (or moonlight, or any other source of bright, white light) at 42 degrees or lower, and airborne water droplets. Combine these two elements with the correct angle of view and you’ll get a rainbow. The lower the sun, the higher (and more full) the rainbow. And the center of the rainbow will always be exactly opposite the sun—in other words, your shadow will always point toward the rainbow’s center. There are a few other complicating factors, but this is really all you need to know to be a rainbow “genius.”

In this case it had been raining on and off all day, and while rain is indeed half of the ingredients in our rainbow recipe, as is often the case, this afternoon the sunlight half was blocked by the clouds delivering the rain. Not only do rain clouds block sunlight, so do towering canyon walls. Complicating things further, the window when the sun is low enough to create a rainbow is much smaller in the longer daylight months near the summer solstice (because the sun spends much of its day above 42 degrees). So, there at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on this May afternoon, the rainbow odds weren’t in our favor.

But despite the poor odds, because this afternoon’s rain fell from clouds ventilated by lots of blue gaps, I gave my group a brief rainbow alert, telling them when (according to my Focalware iPhone app, the sun would drop below 42 degrees at 3:45) and where to look (follow your shadow), and encouraging them to be ready. Being ready means figuring out where the rainbow will appear and finding a composition in that direction, then regularly checking the heavens—not just for what’s happening now, but especially for what might happen soon.

We arrived at our campsite with a light rain falling. The sun was completely obscured by clouds, but knowing that the sun would eventually drop into a large patch of blue on the western horizon, I went scouting for possible rainbow views as soon as my camp was set up. When the rain intensified an hour or so later, I reflexively looked skyward and realized that the sun was about to pop out. I quickly sounded the alarm (“The rainbow is coming! The rainbow is coming!”), grabbed my gear, and beelined to the spot I’d found earlier.

A few followed my lead and set up with me, but the skeptics (who couldn’t see beyond the heavy rain and no sunlight at that moment) continued with whatever they were doing. After about fifteen minutes standing in the rain, a few splashes of sunlight lit the ridge above us on our side of the river; less than a minute later, a small fragment of rainbow appeared upstream above the right bank, then before our eyes spread across the river to connect with the other side. Soon we had a double rainbow, as vivid as any I’ve ever seen.

Fortunate for the skeptics, this rainbow lasted so long, everyone had a chance to photograph it. Our four guides (with an average of 15 years Grand Canyon guiding experience), said it was the most vivid and longest (duration) rainbow they’d ever seen. (I actually toned it down a little in Photoshop.)

Genius? Hardly. Just a little knowledge and preparation mixed with a large dose of good fortune.

One more thing (May 31, 2016)

The vast majority of photographers whose work I enjoy viewing achieved their success the old fashioned way, by simply taking pictures and sharing them (rather than blatant self-promotion or exaggerated stories of personal sacrifice). In no particular order, here’s a short, incomplete list of photographers I admire for doing things the right way: Charles Cramer, Galen Rowell, David Muench, William Neill, and Michael Frye. In addition to great images, one thing these photographers have in common is an emphasis on sharing their wisdom and experience instead of hyperbolic tales of their photographic exploits.

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A gallery of rainbows

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

 

 

Grand Canyon drive-by shooting

Gary Hart Photography: River Rock, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

River Rock, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/80 second
F/9
ISO 200

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about shooting sans tripod on my recent Grand Canyon raft trip. My rationale for this sacrilege was that any shot without a tripod is better than no shot at all. I have no regrets, partly because I ended up with Grand Canyon perspectives I’d have never captured otherwise, but also because shooting hand-held reinforced for me all the reasons I’m so committed to tripod shooting.

Much of my tripod-centric approach is simply a product of the way I’m wired—I’m pretty deliberate in my approach to most things, relying on anticipation and careful consideration rather than cat-like reflexes as my path to action. That would probably explain why my sport of choice is baseball, I actually enjoy golf on TV, and would take chess or Scrabble over any video game (I’m pretty sure the last video game I played was Pong). It also explains, despite being an avid sports fan, my preference for photographing stationary landscapes.

Despite this preference, for the last three years my camera and I have embarked on a one week raft trip through Grand Canyon, where the scenery is almost always in motion (relatively speaking, of course). And after three years, I’ve grown to appreciate how much floating Grand Canyon is like reading a great novel, with every bend a new page that offers potential for sublime reflection or heart pounding action. And just as I prefer savoring a novel, lingering on or returning to passages that resonate with me, I’d love to navigate Grand Canyon at my own pace. But alas….

The rock in this image was a random obstacle separated from the surrounding cliffs at some time in the distant past, falling victim to millennia of dogged assault by rain, wind, heat, cold, and ultimately, gravity. Understanding that the river is about 50 feet deep here makes it easier to appreciate the size of this rock, and the magnitude of the explosion its demise must have set off.

Unfortunately, viewing my subject at eight miles per hour precludes the realtime analysis and consideration its story merits, and I was forced to act now and think later. In this case I barely had time to rise, wobble toward the front of the raft, balance, brace, meter, compose, focus, and click. One click. Then the rock was behind me and it was time to turn the page.

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Rivers Front and Center

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Rapid day

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Nightfall, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 200

Every once in a while an image so perfectly captures my emotions at the moment of capture that I just can’t stop looking at it. This is one of those images.

After two relatively benign days of peaceful floating punctuated with occasional mild riffles and only a small handful of moderate-at-best rapids, the group was feeling pretty comfortable on the river. But our guides had made it pretty clear that we hadn’t really encountered anything serious yet, and most in the group were a little anxious about what was in store for day-three—”rapid day.”

Our second night’s camp was a few miles downstream from the Little Colorado River, just ten minutes upstream from Unkar, our first major rapid. I could tell people were getting a little anxious because, as the only person on the trip to have done it before (this was my third trip in three years), I spent much of the evening reassuring people that while the rapids were indeed an E Ticket ride (on that scale, we’d so far navigated no more than two C Tickets), they were more thrilling than threatening. Of course I had to qualify my reassurance with the disclaimer that last year Unkar, tomorrow’s very first rapid, had tossed me from the raft and into the Colorado.

My 2016 Grand Canyon raft trip group perched atop our two J-Rig rafts.

My 2016 Grand Canyon raft trip group perched atop our two J-Rig rafts. Each raft is comprised of five rubber tubes strapped together and attached to a frame that secures an amazing amount of storage space. (That’s Deer Creek Fall in the background.)

With 28 rafters and 4 guides, my group filled two J-Rig rafts— massive, motorize floating beasts with room for 15+ people and more than a week’s worth of supplies and equipment. When we’re just floating with the current, J-rig rafters can stand and stretch, and even wander around the rafts with relative ease. But when a rapid approaches, we have to hunker down and lock onto the designated hand-holds in one of the raft’s three three riding zones:

  1. The “chicken coup” is nestled in the middle of the raft, between storage areas. Here rafters can survive even the wildest rapids in relative peace and dryness. A few rafters make a permanent home in the chicken coup, but most ride back here for a breather, or to dry off, before returning to the more exposed positions.
  2. Farther toward the front are the boxes, elevated storage cabinets doubling as benches that provide rafters a great view, a thrilling ride, and a pretty good drenching. I was sitting on the boxes last year when I got launched into the river.
  3. Up front are the tubes, which flex and contort as they bear the brunt of each rapid. Riding a rapid on the tubes is akin to straddling a bucking bronco, complete with the front and back hand-holds and random g-force. The two most important things to remember up here to hold on for dear life, and to lean into the tube and “suck rubber!” when a rapid hinges the tubes back into your face. This is the wettest and wildest ride—definitely not for the faint of heart.

The next morning we pushed off a little before 8:00. I’d decided before the trip that, given our history, I wanted to be up front for Unkar. I was joined on the tubes by only one other rafter, while everyone else, uncertain about what was in store, crammed into the two back areas. (We called our other raft the “party raft”—their tubes were packed with rafters throughout the trip.)

Approaching Unkar, the guides’ moods changed: Wiley cut the engine, and we drifted toward the downstream roar while Lindsay  delivered a serious lecture about rapid survival. Adding to the tension, on her way back to her seat, for the first time Lindsay checked everyone’s lifejacket and hand holds. Then, before we had a chance panic, the engine fired, the river quickened, and the raft shot forward and plunged into the whitewater.

A major rapid assaults many senses at once. The larger rapids pummel you with a series of waves that toss you in multiple directions at once and barely give a chance to recover before the next rapid tosses you in directions you didn’t know existed. The largest rapids, like Unkar, have multiple stomach-swallowing drops and ascents; you soon learn that the largest are nearly vertical, horizon-swallowing, down/up cavities that run green and smooth with a garnish of churning whitewater dancing on top. Depending on how the raft hits a wave, we could ride over with barely a splash, or crash through in a full emersion baptismal experience.

The soundtrack to the rapid’s visual, tactile, and equilibrium experience is a locomotive roar mixed with screams. You know the ride’s over and you’ve survived when the screams turn to shouts, and finally laughter as everyone dares to take their eyes from the river to make eye contact with the other survivors.

Unkar turned out to be one of the bigger—but definitely not the biggest—rides of this year’s trip. When it spit our boat out the other end, I uncurled my fingers from the ropes and shook the water free, checked all my parts to ensure they were as they were when we entered, then scanned my fellow rafters for their reaction to their first major rapid. The euphoria was clear, and I think if it had been possible, the vote to do it all over would have been unanimous.

As I suspected might happen, surviving Unkar emboldened the group; by the end of the day and for the rest of the trip, we had far more people riding on the tubes, with the limiting factor not so much fear as it was the 47 degree river water with an uncanny ability to penetrate even the most robust “waterproof” rainwear.

That evening, thirty-plus major rapids (and at least as many lesser rapids) farther downstream, we pulled into camp soggy and sore, but far from beaten. The afternoon had turned showery, and the showers persisted as we set up camp, slowing our drying more than adding to our wetness. While the guides prepared dinner in a light drizzle, I wandered down to the river to survey the photo opportunities. I found pictures everywhere—upstream, downstream, across the river—but rather than dive right into my camera bag, I first took the time to savor my surroundings.

The canyon’s pulse, the river’s ubiquitous thrum echoing from rocks that predate the dinosaurs, is simultaneously exhilarating and meditative. Unable to bottle this exquisite balance to take back with me, I turned to my camera, hoping for the next best thing—an image that will bring me back.

Shortly before sunset the rain stopped and sunlight fringed openings in the thinning clouds. By this time several others in the group had joined me at the river’s edge, each camera pointing at a different scene. I’d found mine, I soon tired of the limited foreground options and set out across a field of river-rounded boulders, hopping in my flip-flops toward a promising formation of rocks protruding from the river about a hundred yards away.

It wasn’t until I was all the way there that I realized that the solitary plant I could see protruding from the river wasn’t going to be a distraction to deal with, it was going to be my subject. As the sky colored and darkened, I kept working on this one little plant, positioning and repositioning until the plant, surrounding rocks, and looming peak felt balanced. The final touch that tied the scene up came when I moved a little closer and raised my tripod to its apex so my plant was isolated entirely against the river.

After spending a little more time with this image, I better appreciate why the scene resonated with me then, and why I feel so drawn to it now. The river is rushing here, flaunting the power that tossed and drenched me and my fellow rafters all day, yet this small plant stands motionless for the duration of an exposure that exceeds one second. I admire its calm, the way it towers unfazed above the force that carved this magnificent chasm.

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A Grand Canyon Gallery

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2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: The Little Colorado

Gary Hart Photography: Blue, Little Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Red, White, and Blue  |  Little Colorado River  |   Grand Canyon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/50 second
F/11
ISO 100

“Uh, we’re going to need more time here”

Before last year’s raft trip, my relationship with the Little Colorado River was limited to the view from the Cameron Suspension Bridge on US 89: Rarely more than a muddy trickle, the Little Colorado seemed better suited as an indicator of recent precipitation than a photo destination. So last year, when Wiley (my raft trip’s lead guide) said we’d be stopping at the Little Colorado River confluence, I shrugged.

The day had been a mix of clouds and sun, great for photography. The sun was behind the clouds when we tied up on the rocks at the confluence; as I hopped off the raft, camera bags in tow, Wiley told us to be back on the raft in 45 minutes. I remember thinking, Really? Surely we can find a better spot to take advantage of this great light, but I kept my mouth shut. Expectations low, I rounded the corner and stopped like I’d slammed into a brick wall. Unable at first to process what I was seeing, I finally turned and called back to Wiley, “Uh, we’re going to need more time here.” And it was so.

So what happened?

Clearly, somewhere between Cameron and the canyon, the Little Colorado had gotten an infusion. And not just an infusion of regular old greenish-brown river water, but an infusion of mineral-laced, other-worldly turquoise water. It turns out that, after leaving Cameron, the Little Colorado carves a deep (and quite scenic) canyon, a canyon so deep that it cuts into a travertine- and limestone-laced aquifer that recharges and colors its flow. The limestone also paints the river’s bed a reflective white, further enhancing the turquoise hue. (It’s the same color, for the same reason, as the more heralded Havasu Creek.)

Do-over

Unfortunately, on that first visit, the photogenic clouds and light that had been with us all day took our arrival as its cue to move on, forcing us photograph this beautiful scene in ordinary, harsh, mid-afternoon light. On that visit, despite the extra time, I wasn’t able to capture anything that would do this magnificent spot justice. But I made plans to return, and strategized with Wiley the best way to maximize our chances for good light the next time.

Our original plan for the Little Colorado this year was a late afternoon stop on day 2, but after a windy morning, Wiley suggested stopping early at a more sheltered campsite. Though that meant not getting to the Little Colorado until the morning of day 3, the weather forecast before we departed (to the land of no weather forecasts) had called for lots of clouds and a slight chance of showers for most of the week; the clouds had been with us so far, so I crossed my fingers that they’d hang in there for us.

And hang in they did. For the hour-and-half we had there, the sun made cameo appearances but largely remained offstage. In place of the typical horizon-to-horizon blue sky, we got patches of blue mixing with rapid changing cumulus. When the sun did appear, it spotlighted individual features rather than illuminate the entire scene.

The biggest problem I had was deciding where to point my camera. Usually I identify where the best shot is and concentrate my attention there. In this case, because I couldn’t decide, I shot both upstream and down, hedging my bets with wide and tight, horizontal and vertical compositions. I know I left a lot of shots farther upstream, so I guess I’ll just need to go back next year.

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