More Grand Canyon lightning (no photographers were harmed in the making of this image)

Lightning Strikes Angel’s Gate, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon North Rim

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The bolt was so close that I saw its jagged collision in my rearview mirror, its deafening crack shaking the car less than a second later—three hundred yards, max. “Holy crap!” was our simultaneous (eloquent) response.

Don Smith and I had just negotiated fifteen minutes of natural pyrotechnics unprecedented in our benign, California-sky lifetimes. Obliterating our windshield, flooding the highway, firing warning shots on both sides of the car, Mother Nature was clearly angry at our trespass. This parting shot came just after the rain had eased from opaque sheets to large, individual pellets and we’d started to relax. To these two Californians, rain is a background phenomenon, faint static on the roof and hissing tires on wet blacktop. Earthquakes, which announce their arrival with a rumble and roll that builds slowly enough to allow quick retreat beneath a desk or door jam, are bland compared to the these random explosions that have done their damage and vanished before your brain can register what just happened.

We were in the final miles of a morning’s journey from the Grand Canyon’s popular South Rim to its more isolated North Rim. Safely stashed in the back of the car was the week’s bounty: memory cards, laptops, and backup drives brimming with the Grand Canyon monsoon images we’d come to photograph, including our holy grail, a dozen or so daylight lightning frames apiece. This four-hour detour to the North Rim was a last minute decision with no expectations—whatever we got here would be gravy.

A few minutes later we rolled into the North Rim parking area still buzzing with adrenaline. The thunderstorm we’d just survived had given way to blue skies, so we decided to leave the camera gear in the car and explore. While the lightning was gone, the storm’s rumbling vestiges reminded us not to get too comfortable.

After a quick peek into the Visitor Center to orient ourselves, we headed down to the Grand Canyon Lodge. The cornerstone feature of the lodge, which is perched precariously on the canyon’s north rim, is a large picture window overlooking an expansive deck with an IMAX view across the canyon to the South Rim, ten miles away.

Descending the stairs to the viewing area, we saw people lined up at the window, and stacked two-deep on the deck beyond, all gazing toward the South Rim. It didn’t take long to realize that what had everyone’s attention was a light show dancing across the rim’s entire length. While Don and I had spent the week photographing isolated lightning bolts separated by at least ten minutes, this storm was firing several times per minute. Time to get back to work.

In the short time since our arrival more clouds had organized overhead and Don and I found ourselves dodging juicy raindrops as we hustled back to the car. In less than ten minutes we were tiptoeing back out onto the rim, cameras and tripods in hand. Is this safe? Not only was the storm we were trying to photograph no more than eight miles distant, it was clearly advancing. And there seemed to be other strikes landing much closer somewhere behind us.

Atop a particularly exposed outcrop (with an awesome view!) just below the lodge, I tried to rationalize away all the lightning admonitions I’d read: “Avoid exposed, elevated areas”; “The next bolt can strike ten miles from its last strike”; “If you hear thunder, you’re too close”; “If you see it, flee it”; “If you hear it, clear it”; and so on. At first we set up our cameras as quickly as possible and rushed to (assumed) relative safety beneath a more sheltered ridge while our lightning triggers did the work. But soon, emboldened by the observation that other (presumably lightning-savvy) gawkers were unfazed by the storm’s proximity, we decided to remain with the cameras.

The show lasted about ninety minutes, though the lightning frequency dropped a bit after an hour or so. For variety we’d stay fifteen or twenty minutes at one spot, then move on to a different perspective, eventually making our way all the way out to Bright Angel Point, an elevated knife of limestone sediment protruding a hundred yards or so into the canyon. (In case Bright Angel Point’s elevation and isolation get didn’t get Mother Nature’s attention, the National Park Service has rimmed it with with an iron railing.) And there I stood, as happy as if I had a brain, until the show wrapped up and we went off in search of a sunset location before starting the long drive home.

The above image, taken from the trail to Bright Angel Point, came about twenty minutes into the shoot. The primary bolt is striking Angel’s Gate, about 7 1/2 miles from where I stood. That sounds like a pretty safe distance until you realize that the second fork of this bolt is striking the South Rim near Grandview, also about 7 1/2 miles from Angel’s Gate. The closest strike I recorded that afternoon was about 2 1/2 miles away. I’m sure those with more lightning experience than I will scoff at my hand wringing, and can no doubt share many harrowing tales of far closer encounters, but you gotta walk before you run (and I reserve the right to chuckle as I unpeel them from beneath their desk when that 5.0 tremor strikes.)

For those keeping score at home, here’s the final tally: Gary 51 (bolts), Lightning 0 (photographers).

The Grand Canyon, lightning, and lots (!) of people

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon

Lightning Strike, Zoroaster Temple and Brahma Temple, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/15 second
75 mm
ISO 50

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The thunderheads started blooming at around 11:00 a.m; by noon they were delivering rain and lightning at widely dispersed locations around the rim. It was Grand Canyon day two, the first full day of last week’s monsoon visit with Don Smith. Seeing black clouds to the east, we drove out to Lipan Point, but after an hour or so of nothing much, decided to shake things up and brave the crowds near Ground Zero for Grand Canyon tourist activity, Mather Point.

At Mather, Don and I split immediately—Don headed a little east toward an outcrop away from the crowds; having seen a couple of strikes already, I didn’t feel like exploring and headed to familiar territory right in the teeth of the tourists.

Sharing popular vistas with tourists can be trying, but it’s also lots of fun if I remember that my priorities are different from everyone else’s, and that my desire to get a good photograph in no way entitles me to special consideration. Additionally, because carrying a tripod labels me Photographer, I represent not just myself, but the entire community of photographers. In other words, in the minds of others, if I’m a jerk, it’s not just me who’s a jerk, it’s all photographers. If someone walks through (or stands in) my frame, I wait; if someone kicks my tripod, I simply smile and recheck my composition; if someone asks me questions (“Is that a real camera?”; “Are you a photographer?”; “What’s the best camera?”), I answer politely. And I’m always happy to snap pictures of the family, no matter how many cameras they hand me.

Because an extended tripod can occupy more space than I’m entitled to, and can be a real safety hazard for people gazing out rather than watching their step, I try to plant myself in as unobtrusive a location as possible. At the Grand Canyon, where everyone lines the rail, this isn’t always easy. In these situations I try to identify the ideal spot, then stand back and wait for the current occupant to move—fortunately, gawkers rarely stay long. Once at the rail, I put one or two tripod legs over or through the rail to minimize my footprint on the traffic side.

At the Grand Canyon in particular, where foot traffic seems to flow constantly, I avoid moving around much once I’m set up. This isn’t ideal for someone as concerned about foreground/background relationships as I am, but if I make the right choice to start, I can usually stay happy in one spot for twenty or thirty minutes by simply altering my focal length and orientation.

On this afternoon it wasn’t long before I was set up in a spot that made me happy. Having succeeded capturing lightning with a wide composition the prior day, I tried tighter compositions here at Mather. To maximize my odds for success with each composition, I stuck with a composition for two or three bolts (or until it was clear that nothing more was happening in that part of the sky), at least fifteen minutes in most cases. While waiting I’d just stand back, away from the rail, alternating my view between the target rain cell and the steady stream of tourists. With each bolt I’d quickly check  the red light on the back of my camera to confirm that the shutter fired. After forty or fifty minutes in a spot, I’d shift to a different location.

Being fairly tight with the composition, I know I missed a few strikes just outside my frame. Of the four hits I got that day, the one at the top of this post was the best combination of position in the frame and brightness (I cropped it a little in Photoshop to tighten further). In a perfect world I’d have gotten a bolt striking either Brahma Temple (in the back), or Zoroaster Temple (the shorter tower just in front of Brahma), but I was pretty happy to get this one landing right behind Brahma, about six miles away.

In addition to all the quality time absorbing the Grand Canyon’s majesty and the novelty of an electrical storm to my California eyes, I had a blast meeting and talking with people. Lots and lots of people. Between flashes I answered many, many questions: “What are you waiting for?” (“Lightning.”); “What’s that thing on top of your camera?” (“It’s a lightning trigger.”); and, “How does it work?” (“It detects lightning and fires the shutter much faster than I can.”) These questions often led to great conversations with visitors from all over the world, many of whom stood and rooted for lightning right along with me. All in all, a really nice day.

(For a more technical discussion of lightning photography, click here.)

Striking lightning (before it strikes you)

Lightning Strike Above the Colorado River, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

Lightning Strike Above the Colorado River, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
32 mm
1/20 second
ISO 100

Let’s start with the given that lightning is dangerous, and the distinct possibility that photographers are stupid. Combining the two is a recipe for disaster. Add a shear, one-mile deep canyon with lots of exposed outcrops and…, well, you get the idea.

Okay, seriously, lightning is both dangerous and unpredictable. Before attempting anything that requires you to be outside during an electrical storm, it behooves you to do your homework: the more you understand lightning, and how to stay safe in its midst, the greater your odds of enjoying the fruits of any attempt to photograph it. Not only will understanding lightning improve your safety, it will also help you anticipate and capture lightning.

The shocking truth about lightning

Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that equalizes the negative/positive polarization between two objects. (When you get shocked touching a doorknob, you’ve been struck by lightning.) The cause of polarization during electrical storms isn’t completely understood, but it’s generally accepted that the key factor is the extreme vertical convective air motion within a thunderstorm (convection is up/down circular flow caused when less-dense warm air rises, becomes more dense as it cools, and falls; convection is also what causes the rising bubbles in boiling water). Convection carries positively charged molecules upward and negatively charged molecules downward. Because opposite charges attract each other, the extreme polarization (positive charge at the top of the cloud, negative charge near the ground) is quickly (and violently) equalized: lightning.

With lightning comes thunder, the sound of air expanding rapidly (exploding) when heated by a 50,000 degree by lightning bolt. The lightning that caused the thunder travels to you at the speed of light, over 186,000 miles per second (virtually instantaneous regardless of distance). But thunder, traveling at the speed of sound  (a little more than 750 miles per hour—a million times slower than light), takes its time. Knowing that the thunder occurred with the lightning flash, and how fast it travels, we can compute the approximate distance of the lightning strike. At 750 miles per hour, thunder will travel a mile in about five seconds. Dividing the time between the lightning’s flash and the thunder’s crash by five gives you the lightning’s distance in miles; divide the interval by three for the distance in kilometers. If five seconds pass between the lightning and the thunder, the lightning struck about one mile away; fifteen seconds elapsed means it’s about three miles away.

Lightning safety

The 30 people killed by lightning in the United States each year had one thing in common: each didn’t believe he or she would be struck by lightning when they started whatever it was they were doing when they were struck. The only sure way to be safe in an electrical storm is to be in a fully enclosed structure or metal vehicle, away from open windows, plumbing, wiring, and electronic devices.

Unfortunately, photographing lightning requires being outside. While there’s no completely safe way to photograph lightning, it doesn’t hurt to improve your odds of surviving to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Most lightning strikes within a six mile radius of the previous strike. So, if less than thirty seconds elapses between the flash and bang, you’re too close. And since “most” doesn’t mean “all,” it’s even better to allow a little margin for error. Thunder isn’t usually audible beyond ten miles—if you can hear the thunder, it’s safe to assume that you’re in lightning range.

But if you absolutely, positively must be outside with the lightning crashing about you, or simply find yourself caught outside with no available shelter, there are few things you can do to reduce the chance you’ll be struck:

  • Avoid water
  • Avoid high ground
  • Avoid exposed areas
  • Avoid metal or electronic objects
  • Avoid tall objects such as trees and open structures (and tripods)
  • Stay at least fifteen feet from other people
  • If you’re surrounded by trees, position yourself near shorter trees, as far from trunks as possible
  • Crouch with your feet together and your hands covering your ears
  • Do not lie down
  • A lightning strike is often preceded by static electricity that makes your hair stand on end and an ozone smell (best described as the smell of electricity—I think of bumper cars at the amusement park or the smell of my electric slot cars when I was a kid)—if your hair starts to stand up and/or you notice a distinct odor that could be ozone, follow as many of the above steps as you can, as quickly as possible (often you’ll only have time to crouch)

Photographing daylight lightning with a lightning trigger

Photographing lightning at night is mostly a matter of pointing your camera in the right direction with a multi-second shutter speed and hoping the lightning fires while your shutter’s open—pretty straightforward. Photographing daylight lightning is a little more problematic. Without a lightning trigger to recognize lightning and click your shutter, success is largely dumb luck (few people are quick enough see it and click).

So just what is a lightning trigger? I thought you’d never ask. A lightning trigger is a device that attaches to your camera’s hot shoe and connects via a special cable to the camera’s remote release jack. When engaged, it fires the shutter immediately upon detecting lightning.

There are many lightning triggers from which to choose. I went with the one that was the consensus choice among photographers I know and trust: Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products in Dolores, CO. At slightly less than $400, it’s far from the cheapest option, but from all I’ve read, heard, and now experienced, these aren’t generic products and the internal technology matters a lot. No regrets so far.

I won’t get into lots of specifics about how to set up the trigger because it’s quite simple and covered well in the included documentation. You should know that connecting it does disable the LCD replay, so you won’t be able to review your captures or histogram without disconnecting it (a simple but inconvenient task).

The Lightning Trigger documentation promises at least a 20 mile range, and I saw nothing that caused me to question that. It also says you can expect the trigger to fire at lightning that’s not necessarily in front of you—I can attest to that too. For every click with lightning in my camera’s field of view, I got at least five clicks with no visible lightning. For most of my Grand Canyon trip I was waiting for lightning that appeared in the direction my composition, perhaps 5 to 15 miles distant, about one bolt every 15 or 20 minutes. In other words, these weren’t particularly active storms with multiple flashes per minute. When lightning did fire in my composition, I estimate that the trigger clicked the shutter at least 95 percent of the time (that is, even though I got lots of false positives, the trigger missed very few actual strikes). Of these successful clicks, I actually captured lightning in about 2/3 of the frames. I suspect that the misses were more a function of the lightning itself that a problem with the trigger or camera—some flashes are single strokes that finish far too quickly for capture. In general, the more violent the storm, the greater the likelihood of bolts with long duration, multiple strokes that are easier to capture.

The Lightning Trigger documentation also recommends shutter speeds 1/20 second or longer—faster shutter speeds risk completing the exposure before some or all of the secondary strokes fire. To achieve daylight shutter speeds in the 1/20 to 1/4 second range, I shot in manual mode, using a polarizer, at ISO 50 and f16. The exposure will vary with the amount of light, so your settings will vary. You can also use a neutral density filter to slow the shutter speed.

Because shutter lag (the time elapsed between the click of the shutter button and the shutter opening) is death to lightning photography, you’ll need to turn off autofocus. Even though I use back-button focus, Canon says simply having autofocus on initiates a brief communication between the lens and camera that very slightly delays response (I can’t speak for Nikon). If you must autofocus, go ahead and do it each time you recompose, then turn autofocus off as soon as you’re focused. Similarly, despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggested, I used manual exposure mode to eliminate any camera-slowing metering when the shutter trips. And, also despite what the Lightning Trigger documentation suggests, I didn’t worry about my noise reduction settings. Canon assures (again, I can’t speak for Nikon) that noise reduction is a post-capture function that might slightly delay continuous frames, but it won’t increase shutter lag.

Other equipment

In addition to a lightning trigger, you’ll need a solid tripod and, ideally, a camera with a shutter lag faster than 60 milliseconds. Slower shutter lag won’t shut you out completely, but it will reduce your success rate. The Lightning Trigger website has a good, albeit somewhat dated, camera shutter-lag table.

I also recommend (in no particular order):

  • Rain gear that will keep you dry from head-to-toe
  • An umbrella for shielding your camera and lightning trigger (the trigger is not waterproof) while composing and shooting in the rain
  • Lens hoods to reduce the raindrops that might mar the front element of your lenses
  • Neutral density filter and/or polarizer to show shutter speed
  • A garbage bag (my choice) or rainproof jacket for your camera
  • Extra lightning trigger batteries
  • An infrared remote to make sure the trigger is functioning (we borrowed the remote from our hotel)
  • A towel (also borrowed from the hotel)

Getting the shot

I’m a Californian, which means lightning is a novelty for me. Nevertheless, a few months ago I purchased my Lightning Trigger, which has since been collecting dust. Because the lightning wouldn’t come to me, I decided to go to the lightning—in this case that meant a twelve hour drive to the Grand Canyon, in the heart of monsoon season, with my friend and fellow pro Don Smith.

Our plan was to find a location with an open view of the canyon and that allowed us to set up our cameras within sight of the car (so we could safely wait out the storms). Based on previous visits, we thought Lipan Point would be a good spot and started there, but we hadn’t anticipated the crowds we’d encounter. We also quickly realized that it’s pretty unrealistic to expect to photograph lightning in the midst of the storm—not only is it dangerous, the heavy rain risks damaging equipment, dots lens elements with raindrops, and pretty much obliterates any view. So in very short order we went to Plan B: Wait until the cell passes and photograph more distant storms.

The open views at the Grand Canyon are ideal for this and served us well. Don and I quickly learned that the lightning is most likely to strike within or near the gray curtains that are clearly recognizable as distant rain. The wider the composition, the greater your odds of capturing lightning, but the smaller it will appear in your image. My general approach was to identify the most likely lightning source (rain curtain) and find the best composition that included it. I tended to start wider to ensure success, then tighten my composition once I was fairly confident I had something. I also recommend that you don’t check your captures until you’re done (or better yet, until you upload your images to your computer). Since viewing the LCD requires disconnecting the trigger, doing so risks missing a shot; you’ll also find that many successful captures, especially wide compositions, just aren’t that visible on an LCD viewed in daylight.

Be aware that electrical storms can move quite quickly, so you need to monitor them closely. Sometimes this simply means adjusting your composition to account for shifting lightning; other times it means retreating to the car if the cell starts to threaten your location. Also be aware of the height from which the lightning originates and be sure to include enough cloud to get all of the stroke.

The above image of a single bolt striking the Painted Desert east and north of Desert View, as viewed from Lipan Point, was one of my first captures of the trip. I was composed quite wide to ensure capturing something (because I was so wide, I cropped it a little in Photoshop). Over a one hour period I actually got four strokes in some variation of this composition, but this was by far the brightest.

Helpful links

2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour

Rainbow, Lipan Point, Grand Canyon

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The drive from Northern California to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim is about twelve hours. When Don Smith and I scheduled our (first annual) 2012 Grand Canyon Monsoon Mayhem tour, the plan was to leave dark-and-early Monday morning, which experience told us would get us to the canyon just in time to photograph sunset Monday night. But with the National Weather Service forecasting waning monsoon conditions as the week progressed, it looked like Monday afternoon might be the best time to capture our prime goal, lightning. So on Sunday morning we decided to leave that evening, drive as far as we could, then drive the rest of the way Monday. Doing it this way would allow us to arrive by mid-afternoon with a full night’s sleep. Fueled by Starbucks and a steady diet of classic rock, Don and I made it all the way  to the acclaimed Route 66 hot-spot, Barstow, California (the gateway to the Mohave Desert).

Monday morning we escaped the desert before the heat kicked in, and by 2 p.m. were rolling up to the Grand Canyon South Rim. After surveying the skies, we pointed the car east, along the rim, toward Lipan Point, a favorite photo spot about forty minutes away. Somewhere near Grandview we encountered a cell that delivered lightning and sheets of rain, a harbinger of what was in store. Though the Grandview cell was behind us, Lipan Point greeted us with looming black clouds that spit occasional raindrops that sounded like ripe grapes striking the roof, a car-rocking wind, and thunder separated from its flash by mere seconds. Hell hadn’t broken loose yet, but it was sure rattling the cage.

We’d counted on a little time to recover from the drive, but there’s nothing like urgency to reveal how unprepared you are. As a Californian (at the sound of thunder, bewildered Californians rush outside), I’d never had an opportunity to use my lightning trigger (an electronic device that detects lightning and fires the shutter in milliseconds); Don had forgotten to pack most of his rain gear. And neither of us had given adequate thought to the impracticality of our plan to avoid electrocution by setting up our expensive tripods and cameras at a popular Grand Canyon vista (in the height of tourist season) while waiting out the danger and discomfort of a thunderstorm in the security of the car. With the storm bearing down on us, what followed was a Keystone Cops swirl of activity—out of driving clothes and into wet-weather gear; extract and attach (and figure out) lightning triggers; find a suitable view comfortably removed from teaming tourists; meter and compose a scene—that culminated in a frantic retreat, sans cameras, when a much-too-close lighting bolt ripped a Niagara-size hole in the sky.

For the next five minutes our cameras couldn’t have gotten more wet if we’d have put them in a shower. Warm and dry in the car, I was suddenly gripped by visions of my wind-tossed camera and tripod plummeting into the Colorado River (5,000 feet below), so when the lightning paused, I mustered the courage rush to the rescue. (I think Don did the same thing, but at that point it was every man for himself.)

As I toweled down my gear back in the car, the wind and rain slowed to a more manageable pace. Unsure of how long our window of lightning opportunity would last, Don and I headed back out, this time in different directions and (somewhat) more prepared. I opted for the best composition that offered the possibility of distant lightning, turning my lens toward a gray curtain of rain a fair distance up the canyon, toward Desert View; Don, who was having technical problems with his lightning trigger, headed a little west and pointed his camera toward a nearby cell that was already flashing behind us.

For the next hour or so I heard my shutter respond to a half-dozen or so bolts in the direction of my composition, a good sign, but since the lightning trigger disables the LCD replay, all I could do was cross my fingers for success. When the electrical activity quieted, Don and I reconnected and traded notes. Though he’d resolved his technical issue (I’ll let him elaborate), he was similarly unsure of his success.

Lightning or not, we agreed that the sky was far better than anything we see in California. As we chatted, the sun appeared and a vivid double rainbow arced above Desert View—back to work. Lightning trigger off, I was happy to be back more familiar territory—trying to work a rainbow into an already magnificent scene without dodging raindrops or lightning bolts.

Because the rainbow touched down south of the rim, finding a composition that featured both the canyon and the rainbow required a wide shot that included close foreground elements. I wasn’t crazy about the shrubs and rocks immediately beneath the rock outcrop I was on, so I stood back from the rim a bit and hid them behind the more interesting texture of my grooved and weathered limestone platform.

For the rainbow’s thirty-minute duration, I moved along the outcrop, capturing about sixty combinations of foreground and sky, horizontal and vertical, wide and tight. I finished with many, many images that make me happy, but chose this one because (right now) I think it offers the most balanced combination of all that made the scene special: the warm light on the Grand Canyon’s south wall, the rainbow (duh), the rugged character of the limestone supporting me, and the saturated, arcing raincloud responsible for the moment.


That great start to our adventure was made even more memorable when Don and I, at the risk of spurring an international incident, selflessly declined the advances of two young German women seeking a bed for the night (seriously).

Viewing on my laptop back at the hotel, I was thrilled to find four frames that included lightning. Given all that was in store the rest of the week, my excitement at four frames now seems a little overdone, as was Don’s frustration that his technical problems resulted in a day-one lightning shutout. By week’s end we each had more than fifty lightning captures, most coming at the North Rim on an action packed final day that shrunk the beauty of this first day to a distant memory. Stay tuned….

Making lemonade at the Grand Canyon

Last Light, Desert View, Grand Canyon

We’ve all heard Dale Carnegie’s trite maxim, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Of course these pithy statements become popular because they resonate with so many people, photographers included. And it seems that not only are the photographers who adopt this attitude more productive, they’re just plain happier. For example….

Few pursuits are more frustrating than trying to predict Mother Nature’s fickle whims. Last week I was in Northern Arizona co-leading Don Smith’s Northern Arizona workshop. On our first night we pulled in to Desert View to find everything in place for a vivid, colorful, cliché Grand Canyon sunset: billowing cumulus clouds, patches of blue sky, and a gaping hole for the setting sun on the western horizon.

The only problem was, for some inexplicable reason, the color never materialized–the sun dropped, the light faded, and we were teased with no more than a few whispers of pink. For anyone  who had put all their eggs in the brilliant sunset basket, this would have been a major disappointment. But (in my opinion) what we did get was even better.

Anticipating a colorful sunset, I had set up my composition accordingly. I was patiently waiting when, just before reaching the horizon, the sun slipped beneath a cloud and for about 90 seconds painted the canyon’s rim with the brightest, warmest light imaginable. When the light popped I quickly jettisoned my colorful sky composition and scanned the rim for a subject painted by the sunlight. When my eyes fell on this tree I quickly evaluated the scene for the best way to emphasize the tree and foreground light.

While the tree and light were front and center, the storm clouds overhead and Colorado River below made excellent background complements I knew I needed to include. I started by aligning myself with the tree’s branches framing the Colorado. Moving as far back as the terrain permitted, I zoomed to fill the frame and compress the foreground/background distance. With a 67mm focal length, depth of field was tricky. My hyperfocal app told me that the hyperfocal distance at f16 was around 30 feet, meaning if I focus 30 feet away, I could be sharp from 15 feet to infinity. I refined my composition, removed my camera from the tripod, focused on a tree about 30 feet away, returned the camera to the tripod, and clicked.

I’m a big advocate of surveying a scene, anticipating the light and conditions, and finding compositions before the conditions occur. But the moral here is to not become so locked in to a plan that you fail to seize unexpected opportunities. In hindsight I realize I should have anticipated this light too–I had a clear view of the sun’s path to western horizon, but I was so giddy with excitement about the color that was “sure” to materialize that I almost missed this other opportunity.

As it turned out, at Hopi Point the next evening we had the opposite experience–clouds on the western horizon promised to block the color-generating sunlight, but those of us who waited 15 minutes after sunset were (somehow) treated to a neon sunset that had the whole shuttle bus buzzing all the way back to the village (more on this in a future post). Maybe if I were as familiar with the Grand Canyon as I am with Yosemite, I’d be better at predicting its conditions, but until that happens, I’ll just keep guzzling the lemonade.

Photographing the Grand Canyon: It’s not as easy as it looks

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
ISO 100
28 mm

As a photographer weaned on the no less breathtaking but far more finite confines of Yosemite, transitioning to photographing the Grand Canyon shattered a long-established template for success. In Yosemite Valley I’m surrounded by looming walls as familiar as they are spectacular. Attempts to capture Yosemite’s grandeur generally involve isolating or combining specific subjects: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and so on.

But when photographing from the rim of the Grand Canyon, no single subject stands out. Rather, I’m instantly overwhelmed by both the vast expanse of the vista and the enormity of its scale. The problem is, as far as the camera is concerned, breadth and size are mutually exclusive: The wider I compose to include the vista, the more everything in the frame shrinks; the tighter I compose to convey the size of the canyon’s features, the more the vista shrinks. But perhaps the greatest hurdle is the Grand Canyon’s great distance, with dramatic red ridge after red dramatic ridge seeming to continue into infinity. This visual depth is completely lost in the camera’s two-dimensional vision.

While I’m not sure I’ve completely mastered the Grand Canyon, I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it. The above sunset photographed from Hopi Point demonstrates the approach that seems to work best for me, which is to find something for the foreground that complements the background I’m trying to highlight. The Grand Canyon’s rim is rife with interesting trees and shrubs, but in this case I wanted to photograph the sun on the horizon, using the river to lead the eye through the frame. But I couldn’t find an appealing foreground subject. Since experience has shown me that something in the foreground anchors the viewer and is essential to the depth I want to convey, rather than forego any foreground subject at all, I settled for two pretty ordinary shrubs on the canyon’s rim. Because they’re not particularly compelling, I positioned the shrubs at the edge of the frame, allowing ample room for the eye to move easily along the more interesting rim and through the rest of the frame.

Another difficulty photographing the Grand Canyon is the extreme contrast between the bright sky and deeply shaded canyon at sunrise and sunset, a contrast the eye handles far more easily than a camera. The best light in Yosemite Valley comes at sunset, when the sun is at your back for most compositions that include El Capitan or Half Dome. But the Grand Canyon offers an unobstructed view of the horizon in all directions–as difficult as it is to photograph, it’s pretty hard to ignore the rising and setting sun. And the canyon’s precipitous sides put much of it in deep shadow when the sun is on the horizon.

For this sunset I’d arrived at Hopi Point about an hour early, allowing time to plan and set up my composition. When the sun reached the horizon I combined two- and three-stop graduated neutral density filters, which enabled a long enough exposure to bring out the canyon’s shadow detail while holding back color-robbing brightness in the sky. (The Grand Canyon is a great place for hard-transition or reverse GNDs because the linear horizon is a great place to hide the dark-to-light transition.) The sunburst was achieved by using a small aperture (f18) and timing my exposure just as a thin sliver of sun peaked beneath a cloud.

While I’m still not as productive at the Grand Canyon as I am in Yosemite (and other more familiar locations), I really do enjoy the challenge and am encouraged by the growing satisfaction I feel following each trip. My fingers are crossed that I was able continue this trend with the images from my latest visit. Stay tuned….

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