Finding Focus in the Grand Canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Sky Reflection, Blacktail Canyon, Grand Canyon

Sky Reflection, Blacktail Canyon, Grand Canyon

I returned Friday from my annual Grand Canyon Raft Trip for Photographers and am playing catch-up on all aspects of my photography life. I’ve barely looked at the my raft trip images, but chose this one for a couple of reasons: first, because I think it perfectly conveys the intimate serenity that always catches me by surprise in this landscape known mostly for it’s broad vistas; and second, because it’s the only image I’ve processed so far.

This is Blacktail Canyon, one of hundreds (thousands?) of narrow slot canyons cutting into the Grand Canyon’s towering walls. Most of them we just float past, sometimes because of the physical challenges required to explore their depths, but usually because there just isn’t time to stop at every slot canyon. On my trips we pick our slots for their photo opportunities, and this year Blacktail Canyon was a particular highlight.

With tall, tightly spaced walls, Blacktail Canyon spends most of its daylight hours in full shade, ideal for photography on sunny days. It doesn’t always have water, but this year’s wet winter meant water in lots of places that don’t always get it. We found the little creek that splits the canyon carrying just enough water to create a series of reflective pools before disappearing into the stream bed, only to reappear farther downstream.

What first drew my eye to this scene was a tiny sapling sprouting from an overhanging ledge, but I soon realized that the tree would best serve me as a visuall element to hold the top of my frame rather than the primary subject. The most interesting thing, I decided, was the blue sky reflection like a jewel embedded in the creek bed.

To create this composition, I dropped my tripod to about a foot above the canyon floor and positioned myself so the lines connecting my primary focal points (the sky reflection, the pair of boulders, and the green tree) created a triangle. Fitting all this into the frame required a vertical orientation of my Sony a7RIII, using virtually the entire width of my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 G lens. Even at this wide focal length, the smooth pebbles at my feet were only about a foot away; getting both the nearby pebbles and glowing (from bounced sunlight) sandstone above the tree sharp, meant choosing my exposure settings and focus point very carefully. My hyperfocal app told me that at f/16, by focusing two feet away, I could achieve my sharpness goal. Watching the rapidly changing sky, I timed my click for the best blend of clouds and sky filling the reflection.


To better understand focus technique, below is an updated version of my Depth of Field article from my Photo Tips section


Finding Focus

What’s the point?

It seems like one of photography’s great mysteries is achieving proper focus: the camera settings, where to place the focus point, even the definition of sharpness are all sources of confusion. If you’re a tourist just grabbing snapshots, everything in your frame is likely at infinity and you can just put your camera in full auto mode and click away. But if you’re a photographic artist trying to capture something unique with your mirrorless or DSLR camera and doing your best to have important visual elements objects at different distances throughout your frame, you need to stop letting your camera decide your focus point and exposure settings.

Of course the first creative focus decision is whether you even want the entire frame sharp. While some of my favorite images use selective focus to emphasize one element and blur the rest of the scene, most (but not all) of what I’ll say here is about using hyperfocal techniques to maximize depth of field (DOF). I cover creative selective focus in much greater detail in another Photo Tip article: Creative Selective Focus.

Beware the “expert”

I’m afraid that there’s some bad, albeit well-intended, advice out there that yields just enough success to deceive people into thinking they’ve got focus nailed, a misperception that often doesn’t manifest until an important shot is lost. I’m referring to the myth that you should focus 1/3 of the way into the scene, or 1/3 of the way into the frame (two very different things, each with its own set of problems).

For beginners, or photographers whose scene doesn’t include subjects from near to far, the 1/3 technique may be a useful rule of thumb. But taking the 1/3 approach to focus requires that you understand DOF and the art of focusing well enough to know when 1/3 won’t work, and how to adjust your focus point and settings. And once you achieve that level of understanding, you may as well do it the right way from the start. Focus control becomes especially important in those scenes where missing the focus point by just a few feet or even inches can make or break and image.

Where to focus this? Of course 1/3 of the way into a scene that stretches for miles won’t work. And 1/3 of the way into a frame with a diagonal foreground won’t work either.

Back to the basics

Understanding a few basic focus truths will help you make focus decisions:

  • A lens’s aperture is the opening that allows light to reach your sensor—the bigger this opening, the more light gets in, but also the smaller your DOF.
  • Aperture is measured in f-stops, which is the lens’s focal length divided by the aperture’s diameter; the higher the f-number, the smaller the aperture and the greater the DOF. So f/8 is actually a bigger aperture (with less DOF) than f/11. This understanding becomes second nature, but if you’re just learning it’s helpful to think of f/stops this way: The higher the f-number, the greater the depth of field. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, photographers usually use f-stop and aperture interchangeably.
  • Regardless of its current f-stop setting, a DSLR camera maximizes the light in its viewfinder by always showing you the scene at the lens’s widest aperture. All this extra light makes it easier to compose and focus, but unless your exposure is set for the widest aperture (which it shouldn’t be unless you have a very specific reason to limit your depth of field or maximize light), the image you capture will have more DOF than you see in the viewfinder. The consequence is that you usually can’t see how much of your scene is in focus when you compose. Most cameras have a DOF preview button that temporarily closes the lens down to the f-stop you have set—this shows the scene at its actual DOF, but also darkens the viewfinder considerably (depending on how small your aperture is), making it far more difficult to see the scene.
  • For any focus point, there’s only one (infinitely thin) plane of perfect sharpness, regardless of the focal length and f-stop—everything in front of and behind the plane containing your focus point (and parallel to the sensor) will be some degree of less than maximum sharpness. As long as the zone of less than perfect sharpness isn’t perceptible, it’s considered “acceptably sharp.” When that zone becomes visible, that portion of the image is officially “soft.” Acceptable sharpness varies with the display size and viewing distance.
  • The zone of acceptable sharpness extends a greater distance beyond the focus point than it does in front of the focus point. If you focus on that rock ten feet in front of you, rocks three feet in front of you may be out of focus, but a tree fifty feet away could be sharp. I’ll explain more about this later.
  • While shorter focal lengths may appear to provide more depth of field, believe it or not, DOF doesn’t actually change with focal length. What does change is the size of everything in the image, so as your focal length increases, your apparent DOF decreases. So you really aren’t gaining more absolute DOF with a shorter focal length, the softness just won’t be as visible. When photographers talk about DOF, they’re virtually always talking about apparent DOF—the way the image looks. (That’s the DOF definition I use here too.)
  • The closer your focus point, the narrower your DOF (range of front-to-back sharpness). If you focus your 24mm lens on a butterfly sunning on a poppy six inches from your lens, your DOF is so narrow that it’s possible parts of the poppy will be out of focus; if you focus the same lens on a tree 100 feet away, the mountains behind the tree are sharp too.
Whitney Arch Moonset, Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and Whitney Arch, Alabama Hills, California
With subjects throughout my frame, from close foreground to distant background, it’s impossible to get everything perfectly sharp. Here in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California, I stopped down to f/16 and focused at the at the most distant part of the arch. This ensured that all of the arch would be perfectly sharp, while keeping Mt. Whitney and the rest of the background “sharp enough.”

Defining sharpness

Depth of field discussions are complicated by the fact that “sharp” is a moving target that varies with display size and viewing distance. But it’s safe to say that all things equal, the larger your ultimate output and closer the intended viewing distance, the more detail your original capture should contain.

To capture detail a lens focuses light on the sensor’s photosites. Remember using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight and ignite a leaf when you were a kid? The smaller (more concentrated) the point of sunlight, the sooner the smoke appeared. In a camera, the finer (smaller) a lens focuses light on each photosite, the more detail the image will contain at that location. So when we focus we’re trying to make the light striking each photosite as concentrated as possible.

In photography we call that small circle of light your lens makes for each photosite its “circle of confusion.” The larger the CoC, the less concentrated the light and the more blurred the image will appear. Of course if the CoC is too small to be seen as soft, either because the print is too small or the viewer is too far away, it really doesn’t matter. In other words, areas of an image with a large CoC (relatively soft) can still appear sharp if small enough or viewed from far enough away. That’s why sharpness can never be an absolute term, and we talk instead about acceptable sharpness that’s based on print size and viewing distance. It’s actually possible for the same image to be sharp for one use, but too soft for another.

So how much detail do you need? The threshold for acceptable sharpness is pretty low for an image that just ends up on an iPhone or an 8×10 calendar on the kitchen wall, but if you want that image to fill the wall above the sofa, acceptable sharpness requires much more detail. And as your print size increases (and/or viewing distance decreases), the CoC that delivers acceptable sharpness shrinks correspondingly.

Many factors determine the a camera’s ability to record detail. Sensor resolution of course—the more resolution your sensor has, the more important it becomes that to have a lens that can take advantage of that extra resolution. And the more detail you want to capture with that high resolution sensor and tack-sharp lens, the more important your depth of field and focus point decisions become.

Hyperfocal focus

The foundation of a sound approach to maximizing sharpness for a given viewing distance and image size is hyperfocal focusing, an approach that uses viewing distance, f-stop, focal length, and focus point to ensure acceptable sharpness.

The hyperfocal point is the focus point that provides the maximum depth of field for a given combination of sensor size, f/stop, and focal length. Another way to express it is that the hyperfocal point is the closest you can focus and still be acceptably sharp to infinity. When focused at the hyperfocal point, your scene will be acceptably sharp from halfway between your lens and focus point all the way to infinity. For example, if the hyperfocal point for your sensor (full frame, APS-C, 4/3, or whatever), focal length, and f-stop combinition is twelve feet away, focusing there will give you acceptable sharpness from six feet (half of twelve) to infinity—focusing closer will soften the distant scene; focusing farther will keep you sharp to infinity but extend the area of foreground softness.

Because the hyperfocal variable (sensor size, focal length, f-stop) combinations are too numerous to memorize, we usually refer to an external aid. That used to be awkward printed tables with long columns and rows displayed in microscopic print, the more precise the data, the smaller the print. Fortunately, those have been replaced by smartphone apps with more precise information in a much more accessible and readable form. We plug in all the variables and out pops the hyperfocal point distance and other useful information

It usually goes something like this:

  1. Identify the composition
  2. Determine the closest thing that must be sharp (right now I’m assuming you want sharpness to infinity)
  3. Dig the smartphone from one of the 10,000 pockets it could be in
  4. Open the hyperfocal app and plug in the sensor size (usually previously set by you as the default), f-stop, and a focus distance
  5. Up pops the hyperfocal distance (and usually other info of varying value)

You’re not as sharp as you think

Since people’s eyes start to glaze over when CoC comes up, they tend to use the default returned by the smartphone app. But just because the app tells you you’ve nailed focus, don’t assume that your work is done. An often overlooked aspect of hyperfocal focusing is that app makes assumptions that aren’t necessarily right, and in fact are probably wrong.

The CoC your app uses to determine acceptable sharpness is a function of sensor size, display size, and viewing distance. But most app’s hyperfocal tables assume that you’re creating an 8×10 print that will be viewed from a foot away—maybe valid 40 years ago, but not in this day of mega-prints. The result is a CoC three times larger than the eye’s ability to resolve.

That doesn’t invalidate hyperfocal focusing, but if you use published hyperfocal data from an app or table, your images’ DOF might not be as ideal as you think it is for your use. If you can’t specify a smaller CoC in your app, I suggest that you stop-down a stop or so more than the app/table indicates. On the other hand, stopping down to increase sharpness is an effort of diminishing returns, because diffraction increases as the aperture shrinks and eventually will soften the entire image—I try not to go more than a stop smaller than my data suggests.

Keeping it simple

As helpful as a hyperfocal app can be, whipping out a smartphone for instant in-the-field access to data is not really conducive to the creative process. I’m a big advocate of keeping photography as simple as possible, so while I’m a hyperfocal focus advocate in spirit, I don’t usually use hyperfocal data in the field. Instead I apply hyperfocal principles in the field whenever I think the margin of error gives me sufficient wiggle room.

Though I don’t often use the specific hyperfocal data in the field, I find it helps a lot to refer to hyperfocal tables when I’m sitting around with nothing to do. So if I find myself standing in line at the DMV, or sitting in a theater waiting for a movie (I’m a great date), I open my iPhone hyperfocal app and plug in random values just to get a sense of the DOF for a given f-stop and focal length combination. I may not remember the exact numbers later, but enough of the information sinks in that I accumulate a general sense of the hyperfocal DOF/camera-setting relationships.

Finally, something to do

Unless I think I have very little DOF margin for error in my composition, I rarely open my hyperfocal app in the field. Instead, once my composition is worked out and have determined the closest object I want sharp—the closest object with visual interest (shape, color, texture), regardless of whether it’s a primary subject.

  • If I want to be sharp to infinity and my closest foreground object (that needs to be sharp) is close enough to hit by tossing my hat, I need a fair amount of DOF. If my focal length is pretty wide, I might skip the hyperfocal app, stop down to f/16, and focus a little behind my foreground object. But if I’m at a fairly long focal length, or my closest object is within arm’s reach, I have very little margin for error and will almost certainly refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If I could hit my foreground object with a baseball and my focal length is 50mm (or so) or less, I’ll probably go with f/11 and just focus on my foreground object. But as my focal length increases, so does the likelihood that I’ll need to refer to my hyperfocal app.
  • If it would take a gun to reach my closest object (picture a distant peak), I choose an f-stop between f/8 and f/11 and focus anywhere in the distance.

Of course these distances are very subjective and will vary with your focal length and composition (not to mention the strength of your pitching arm), but you get the idea. If you find yourself in a small margin for error focus situation without a hyperfocal app (or you just don’t want to take the time to use one), the single most important thing to remember is to focus behind your closest subject. Because you always have sharpness in front of your focus point, focusing on the closest subject gives you unnecessary near sharpness at the expense of distant sharpness. By focusing a little behind your closest subject, you’re increasing the depth of your distant sharpness while (if you’re careful) keeping your foreground subject within the zone of sharpness in front of the focus point.

And finally, foreground softness, no matter how slight, is almost always a greater distraction than slight background softness. So, if it’s impossible to get all of your frame sharp, it’s usually best to ensure that the foreground is sharp.

Some examples

Sunset Palette, Half Dome from Sentinel Dome, Yosemite

A hat’s toss away: The closest pool was about 6 feet from my lens. I stopped down to f/20 (smaller than I generally like to go) and focused on the back of the pool on the left, about 10 feet away.

A baseball throw away: The little clump of wildflowers (lower right) was about 35 feet away and the trees started another 35 feet beyond that. With a focal length of 55mm, I dialed to f/11 and focused on the most distant foreground tree, getting everything from the flowers to Half Dome sharp.

Gary Hart Photography: Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California

Honey, fetch my rifle: With everything here at infinity I knew could focus on the trees or moon confident that the entire frame would be sharp. In this case I opted for f/8 to minimize diffraction but still in my lens’s sharpest f-stop range, and focused on the tree.

Why not just automatically set the aperture to f/22 and be done with it? I thought you’d never ask. Without delving too far into the physics of light and optics, let’s just say that there’s a not so little light-bending problem called “diffraction” that robs your images of sharpness as your aperture shrinks—the smaller the aperture, the greater the diffraction. Then why not choose f/2.8 when everything’s at infinity? Because lenses tend to lose sharpness at their aperture extremes, and are generally sharper in their mid-range f-stops. So while diffraction and lens softness don’t sway me from choosing the f-stop that gives the DOF I want, I try to never choose an aperture bigger or smaller than I need.

Now that we’ve let the composition determine our f-stop, it’s (finally) time to actually choose the focus point. Believe it or not, with this foundation of understanding we just established, focus becomes pretty simple. Whenever possible, I try to have elements throughout my frame, often starting near my feet and extending far into the distance. When that’s the case I stop down focus on an object slightly behind my closest subject (the more distant my closest subject, the farther behind it I can focus).

When I’m not sure, or if I don’t think I can get the entire scene sharp, I err on the side of closer focus to ensure that the foreground is sharp. Sometimes before shooting I check my DOF with the DOF preview button, allowing time for my eye to adjust to the limited light. And when maximum DOF is essential and I know my margin for error is small, I don’t hesitate to refer to the DOF app on my iPhone.

A great thing about digital capture is the instant validation of the LCD—when I’m not sure, or when getting it perfect is absolutely essential, after capture I pop my image up on the LCD, magnify it to maximum, check the point or points that must be sharp, and adjust if necessary. Using this immediate feedback to make instant corrections really speeds the learning process.

Sometimes less is more

The depth of field you choose is your creative choice, and no law says you must maximize it. Use your camera’s limited depth of field to minimize or eliminate distractions, create a blur of background color, or simply to guide your viewer’s eye. Focusing on a near subject while letting the background go soft clearly communicates the primary subject while retaining enough background detail to establish context. And an extremely narrow depth of field can turn distant flowers or sky into a colorful canvas for your subject.

In this image of a dogwood blossom in the rain, I positioned my camera to align Bridalveil Fall with the dogwood and used an extension tube to focus extremely close. The narrow depth of field caused by focusing so close turned Bridalveil Fall into a background blur (I used f/18 to the fall a little more recognizable), allowing viewers to feast their eyes on the dogwood’s and raindrop’s exquisite detail.
An extension tube on a macro lens at f/2.8 gave me depth of field measured in fractions of an inch. The gold color in the background is more poppies, but they’re far enough away that they blur into nothing but color. The extremely narrow depth of field also eliminated weeds and rocks that would have otherwise been a distraction.

There’s no substitute for experience

No two photographers do everything exactly alike. Determining the DOF a composition requires, the f-stop and focal length that achieves the desired DOF, and where to place the point of maximum focus, are all part of the creative process that should never be left up to the camera. The sooner you grasp the underlying principles of DOF and focus, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable taking control and conveying your own unique vision.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Floating Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Floating Autumn Leaves, Valley View, Yosemite

Yosemite may not be New England, but it can still put on a pretty good fall color display. A few years ago I arrived  at Valley View on the west side of Yosemite Valley just about the time the fall color was peaking. I found the Merced River filled with reflections of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, framed by an accumulation of recently fallen leaves still rich with vivid fall color.

To emphasize the colorful foreground, I dropped my tripod low and framed up a vertical composition. I knew my hyperfocal distance at 24mm and f/11 would be 5 or 6 feet, but with the scene ranging from the closest leaves at about 3 feet away out to El Capitan at infinity, I also knew I’d need to be careful with my focus choices. For a little more margin for error I stopped down to f/16, then focused on the nearest rocks which were a little less than 6 feet away. As I usually do when I don’t have a lot of focus wiggle room, I magnified the resulting image on my LCD and moved the view from the foreground to the background to verify front-to-back sharpness.

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Playing with Depth: A Gallery of Focus

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2018 Highlights

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7S II
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4
20 seconds
f/1.4
ISO 12,800

I’ve always struggled with the “top-whatever” end-of-year countdown of my favorite images because the choices are so subjective and mood dependent, and so many images are favorites as much for their memories as they are for their aesthetic value. And coming up with a predetermined number is arbitrary, and inevitably requires choices I don’t want to make and will almost certainly regret later. One year I may have only seven or eight images that thrill me; the next year I might have two dozen. This year I chose 27, and I still have some left to process.

So rather than attempt to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through everything I’ve processed from the waning year (this year I know of several that would certainly qualify as a highlight but they’re as yet unprocessed) think about the circumstances of their capture.

I remember

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I remember the New Year’s Eve solo drive to Yosemite to photograph the full moon rising behind, followed by a night drive to the other side of the Sierra (a six hour drive in winter) where I hoped to capture the full moon setting behind Mt. Whitney. The Yosemite part of that trip was spectacular, the Mt. Whitney half was a photography flop, but I enjoyed the entire journey.

I remember nearly a month in New Zealand, photographing the South Island’s unmatched beauty in its most beautiful season (hint: brrrrrrr). In New Zealand I hiked on a glacier, photographed the (far superior) Southern Hemisphere version of Milky Way, was chased through a fjord by leaping dolphins, witnessed one of the most vivid crimson sunrises I’ve ever seen, and logged hundreds of quality kilometers with a group of wonderful people.

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I remember a solo drive to Yosemite to photograph fresh snow, never a sure thing regardless of the forecast. I approached Yosemite on the evening prior, I felt like a lone spawning salmon fighting up current against the continuous stream of headlights evacuating Yosemite in advance of the storm. I settled into my room in dark and dry Yosemite Valley, and woke to so much snow that I couldn’t find my car. I’m convinced there is nothing, nothing on Earth more beautiful than Yosemite Valley with fresh snow, and with the park mostly vacant and the noise-damping quality of powdery snow, for a few hours I felt like I had heaven all to myself.

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I remember chasing lightning on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, the thrill (and relief) when everyone in both workshop groups captured lightning, and an especially spectacular lightning storm that started in the telephoto distances and chased us to the cars. This year’s Grand Canyon workshops were altered by fires burning in and near the park and I feared that they’d spoil the photography—instead, in addition to all the lightning, we ended up with spectacular red-rubber-ball sunrises and sunsets that allowed genuinely unique images in this heavily photographed destination.

I remember arriving on the Big Island shortly after Kilauea had shut down after 35 years of continuous eruption, and discovering that between the just-concluded Kilauea eruption and the recently depart remnants of Hurricane Lane, I’d lost nearly half of my locations. Instead I ended up finding alternate photo spots that I like even better than the ones I lost. The high point (literally and figuratively) of that trip turned out to be a chilly, first-ever sunset and Milky Way shoot from atop 13,800 foot Mauna Kea.

I remember my Yosemite Fall Color workshop group finding Yosemite Valley at peak fall color, and three beautiful moonrises in my just concluded winter moon workshop. And while thousand of photographers jockeyed for position beneath bone dry Horsetail Fall in February, my workshop group set up elsewhere and photographed one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year.

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I remember way back in January, along with my Death Valley workshop group, photographing my first-ever lunar eclipse (on the heals of my first-ever solar eclipse in August of 2017).

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And I remember trudging through Grand Canyon sand by starlight to a spot that I’d decided before nightfall was probably not a good Milky Way candidate, and discovering that I was wrong. It turned out the level of the Colorado River level had changed in the night, replacing mushy sand with a swirling pool that rendered the Milky Way’s reflection as a luminous abstract.

Gary Hart Photography: Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

I could go on and on about my memories of 2018, but all these great memories also remind me of the unknown highlights in store for 2019. Certainly the planned trips, which include my first-ever Iceland visit (with Don Smith in preparation for our 2020 workshop), my first-ever Oregon Coast workshop (with Don Smith), another raft trip through the Grand Canyon, a return visit to New Zealand, and on and on. But what excites me more than anything is the inevitable surprises, those special moments that dazzle when dazzling is the last thing you expect. Bring it on!


2018 Highlights

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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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Grand Canyon garden spot

Gary Hart Photography: Nature's Garden, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon

Nature’s Garden, Deer Creek Fall, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/3 second
F/20
ISO 400

Who knew there could be so much intimate beauty in a location known for its horizon stretching panoramas? In fact, there are so many of these little gems that I run out of unique adjectives to describe them. Springing from a narrow slot in the red sandstone to plummet 180 feet to river level, Deer Creek Fall is probably the most dramatic of the many waterfalls we see on the raft trip.

Last year we stayed at Deer Creek Fall long enough to photograph it, but not long enough to explore. The prior year, on my first trip, we spent a couple of hours here; with temperatures in the 90s, most of the group photographed from the bottom, then cooled off in the emerald pool at its base. But a few of us took the relatively short, fairly grueling, completely unnerving trail to the top. Grueling because the route is carved into the sun-exposed sheer wall just downstream from the fall; unnerving because just as you’re catching your breath atop the slot canyon feeding the fall, you realize that continuing requires navigating about 20 feet of 18 inch wide ledge in the otherwise vertical sandstone. With no handhold and a 75 foot drop to the creek that may as well be 750 or 7500 feet (the outcome would be the same), I studied it for about five minutes. Watching the guides stride boldly across without hesitation, in flip-flops, did little to quell my anxiety. I finally sucked it up and made it to the other side, but once was enough.

This year, thanks to some deft planning by our lead guide, we scored the campsite directly across the river from the fall. He deposited the group at the fall, then motored across the river with another guide to get the camp started. The two other guides led a hearty group up the trail to the top, while the rest of us explored with our cameras at river level.

Already familiar with scenes down there, I scaled a boulder-strewn notch in the rocks just upstream to an elevated platform with great top-to-bottom view of the fall. Up here I found enough foreground options to keep me happy for the duration of our stay, and was so engrossed that I was completely unfazed by the verticality of my surroundings.

As I worked the scene, I eventually honed in on a vivid green shrub that stood out against the red sandstone, ultimately landing on variations of the composition you see here. Working this scene I dealt with intermittent showers, a fickle wind that ranged from nearly calm to frustratingly persistent, and a real desire for depth of field throughout my frame. After a number of frames at f16, I magnified an image on my LCD enough to see that the shrub was sharp, but the background was just nearly sharp. As much as I try to avoid anything smaller than f16, I stopped down to f20 and refocused a little farther back, about three feet behind my shrub. Another check of my LCD confirmed that everything from the nearby rocks to the background plants was sharp.

Our campsite that night was less than spacious (think compact condo living as opposed to sprawling suburban subdivisions), but definitely worth the close confines for the view alone. This stay across from Deer Creek Fall turned out to be memorable for one other event that happened later that evening, but that’s a story for another day….

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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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