I’m Not Always In My Right Mind

Gary Hart Photography: Sky on Fire, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sky on Fire, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon (click image for purchase options)
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1 second
F/16.0
ISO 400
20 mm

In a couple of days I’m off to the Grand Canyon for my annual trip with good friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith. We’ll be leading two workshops where we’ll chase lightning, rainbows, and whatever else the monsoon throws at us. But wild weather or not, I’ll be at the Grand Canyon. But anyway…

Left, left, left, right, left

The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or maybe I should say, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image. Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload—the very things that make the Grand Canyon so breathtaking in person, its depth and breadth, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.

Overcoming this requires:

  • Understanding your camera’s vision and how it differs from yours: 2-dimensional, limited dynamic range and depth of field, constrained by a rectangular box
  • Recognizing each scene’s compositional elements: subject(s), color, depth, light, visual flow, relationships, distractions, and so on
  • Control of your camera’s exposure variables: f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length
  • An ability (and willingness) to seamlessly transition between your left (logical) and right (creative) brain: The carefully crafted plan and essential exposure decisions can also distract from the creative process

With all that mastered (easier said than done: practice, practice, practice), you’re ready to formulate and execute an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and whatever is going on in the sky. Not only does arriving early give me time to formulate my plan, it gives me a feel for the scene that becomes increasingly important as the time to shoot approaches.

Once I’ve analyzed my scene, identifying its compositional elements and how I want to handle them, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. This isn’t conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition. Putting my camera to my eye, I compose the scene by moving the view up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until feels “right” (whatever that means).

Then I have to jump back to my left brain to determine how to apply my exposure variables: How much depth of field do I need? Is there motion to freeze or blur—and if so, how much? Do I have extreme dynamic range to contend with? And so on.

Despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I ultimately have to switch back to my right brain and try to click the shutter with my heart.

Putting it all together

My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. But when clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened, I started having second thoughts. I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through the muck, but I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. That’s not easy even in ideal circumstances, but Hopi Point at sunset is like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Anxious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side and stake out a spot before the crowd assembled.

The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent quality time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds. I also had to be aware of the sun’s path, because its brightness was certain to be a significant photographic element. And not wanting to settle for a nice sky above the canyon, I sought foreground subjects to create near/far relationships. I finally chose this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.

Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. This was before I switched to Sony, so I had to use a 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter to reduce the significant dynamic range to a manageable level (then later smooth the GND transition in Photoshop).

The moon that evening was in fact a no-show, but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point throbbed crimson, creating a flame-like effect. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions, when the color kicked in I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to flaming sky and the canyon’s depth.

While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating. This is what I mean when I say I want to click the shutter with my heart.

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A Grand Canyon Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.

In my right mind at the Grand Canyon

_M7C7138HopiPointSunset_blog

Sky on Fire, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
1 second
F/16.0
ISO 400
20 mm

Photographing the Grand Canyon isn’t easy (I’ve said this before)

The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or more accurately, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image.

Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload, and you instantly forget that the Grand Canyon’s depth and breadth, the very things that make it so breathtaking in person, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.

Overcoming these losses starts with understanding your camera’s vision and refining your ability to recognize and organize your scene’s compositional elements (subject, color, depth, light, visual flow), and how to manage them with your camera’s variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length). With that in place, you’re ready to formulate an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. But keep in mind that plans can be a creative straightjacket (especially in a dynamic, unpredictable location like the Grand Canyon)—you also need the flexibility to overcome disappointment and quickly shift to Plan B when Plan A doesn’t materialize. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and the conditions in the sky.

Once my plan is in place, I put my left brain to bed and wake my right brain. Ultimately, despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I try to click the shutter with my heart—does it feel right?

Putting it all together

My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. When clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through. On the other hand, I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. Always conscious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side (but that didn’t keep me from sneaking back around for an occasional peek to the east).

The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim allows provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent the rest of my pre-shooting time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds.

The moon that evening was in fact a no-show (until it was far too late to photograph), but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping to and below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point started throbbing with crimson, creating a flame-like effect.

But I wasn’t satisfied with a nice sky above the beautiful canyon (nor should you be)—I needed relationships between my foreground and background. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions anchored by a distinctive tree, I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to the canyon’s depth beneath the flaming sky. Continuing with my horizontal frame would have been too wide to capture the sky’s impact. But because I’d spent so much time exploring earlier, I went right to this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.

Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, live-view focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. My 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter reduced the significant dynamic range to a very manageable level that allowed me to capture the entire range of light in a single frame (my personal rule). (Later I smoothed the barely visible GND transition with a few dodge/burn brush strokes in Photoshop.)

Photographing in my right mind

Once I’ve identified a scene’s compositional elements and exposure variables, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. (This is no longer conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition.) I composed the scene in my viewfinder (still haven’t embraced the live-view composition thing), moving up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until everything felt balanced. While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating.

Epilogue

It’s interesting to compare this image with one I created from within a few feet of this location a few years ago. While each contains many of the same elements, the conditions were vastly different, and so were my objectives, and ultimately, my compositional choices.

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon


Grand Canyon Photo Workshops

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park


A Grand Canyon Gallery

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

 

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

Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1 second
F/18.0
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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