Posted on August 29, 2021
North vs. South
When people decide to cross the Grand Canyon off their bucket list, they usually look at a map and see that the South Rim is an easy one hour detour off Interstate 40, or just a little more than three (mostly interstate) hours from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. The North Rim, on the other hand, is nearly five hours from the closest major airport, and isn’t really on the way to anywhere. Not only that, most of the Grand Canyon pictures we see came from the South Rim. Great views, minimal effort? The South Rim is the clear winner, right?
If you prefer experiencing your national parks in wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am visits to jaw dropping, expansive vistas, the South Rim is definitely for you. But here’s a little secret: If your outdoor tastes lean toward an actual relationship with nature, the North Rim is better, and it’s not even close.
I realize that “better” is subjective, and you’re welcome to disagree. But for each of the last 9 years (not including 2020), I’ve led at least two Grand Canyon photo workshops that split time evenly between the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims—if the votes of hundreds workshop participants who spent equal time on both sides mean anything, the North Rim wins in a landslide.
So what gives?
For both workshop participants and myself, an oft-cited North Rim benefit is just plain peace and quiet. Its relative remoteness, limited accommodations and dining, combined with a dearth of luxury amenities that today’s travelers take for granted (like wifi and reliable cellular), work better than a border wall to keep the masses away. But these “hardships” are actually a feature for those of us who prefer communing with nature, rather than simply gawking at it.
Another bonus: As a photo workshop leader, it’s wonderful not having to stress over parking strategies for every shoot, or having to negotiate prime photography real estate with selfie-obsessed tourists (does a tripod possess some kind of cloaking magic that makes a photographer invisible to tourists?). When I’m with a group on the South Rim, I can’t wait to get over to the North Rim to recharge my psyche.
I do love the South Rim’s views—a lot—but I literally cannot think of a single thing on the South Rim that I’d consider scenic that isn’t a canyon view. On the other hand, the North Rim’s canyon views are surrounded by thousands of acres of dense evergreen forest that’s marbled with aspen, and green meadows sprinkled liberally with wildflowers. You could spend an entire North Rim visit surrounded by peaceful beauty without getting a single glimpse of the canyon. (And if you’re lucky, you might even enjoy a view of the bison herd that hangs out near the entrance station.)
And the North Rim’s views, while not as plentiful or expansive as those on the South Rim, are still world class. For lightning photography, there’s no better spot than Grand Canyon Lodge. Protected by an array of lightning rods, with the fully enclosed lodge Sun Room right there for immediate retreat, the Grand Canyon Lodge view faces south, across the canyon, in the direction from which most thunderstorms approach. Rather than chasing the lightning, we can just wait for it to come to us.
But for beautiful views, my two favorite North Rim vistas are Point Imperial and Cape Royal. At nearly 9000 feet above sea level, Point Imperial is the Grand Canyon’s highest scenic view point. It also provides the park’s best view of the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Canyon’s Marble Canyon. And picturesque Mt. Hayden, a prominent spire that stands front and center against a host of ridges and towers that recede in the distance, makes a perfect visual anchor for Point Imperial scenes.
Cape Royal has the North Rim’s most expansive view, and is probably the best spot on the North Rim to photograph the setting sun. It also offers the closest view of Vishnu Temple, one of the Grand Canyon’s most recognized landmarks. But what really sets Cape Royal apart for me is that it is hands down the Grand Canyon’s best view of Wotan’s Throne, a massive sedimentary monolith rising nearly 3000 feet above the Colorado River.
Even though it stands out as a large, flat-top structure that’s clearly visible from most of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim vistas, when viewed from the South Rim Wotan’s Throne isn’t nearly as interesting as its neighbor, Vishnu Temple. Which probably explains why Wotan’s Throne doesn’t get the love I’ve always felt it deserves. But at Cape Royal, Wotan’s Throne looms just a mile away, and the close view from this side reveals it to be so much more than it appears to be from the South Rim.
About this image
Maybe the best thing about the Cape Royal Wotan’s Throne view is the way it seems positioned, as if by Devine hand, to catch the warm light of the setting sun. Which is exactly what I was thinking about when my third workshop group arrived for the final North Rim sunset shoot of this year’s trip.
The cloudy vestiges of the afternoon’s thunderstorms were scattered across the sky, broken by just a few blue patches. The clouds were beautiful, but what excited me most was the lack of clouds on the western horizon, which would (fingers crossed) provide a perfect path for the sun’s last rays to slip through to color the sky and canyon.
After making sure everyone else was settled, I set about trying to find something for myself. It was pretty clear that the scene both west and south was going to be spectacular at sunset, but I decided that finding a single composition in one direction and would allow me to park my tripod and move around and help people between shots.
I chose the view to the south, for the potential sunset light on Wotan’s Throne, over the view of the actual setting sun in the west. I was drawn to a dead tree precariously perched near a vertical drop of undetermined height (I wasn’t super motivated to find out), and worked hard to safely position myself to balance the tree between Vishnu Temple and Wotan’s Throne, and to get my camera high enough to prevent the tree from intersecting the horizon. While I ended up having to dig my shoes into a steep slope a few feet from the edge, I felt safe.
Being so close to the tree, I chose my Sony 12-24 GM lens. This would allow me to include lots of sky and canyon. Normally I try to avoid too much sky in my Grand Canyon images, but there was potential this night = for some very special color that would demand a lot of sky.
Waiting for the show to start, I just started composing and clicking to familiarize myself with all the composition possibilities. When the sun finally dropped beneath the clouds to light up Wotan’s Throne, I was ready. Many of my shots were wider, including Vishnu Temple and more sky, but for the few minutes the tree got beautiful light, I tightened my composition a little to better emphasize it.
Even though the tree was just a few feet away, I knew that at 20mm I could comfortably use f/10 (to avoid diffraction) if I focused just a little beyond the tree. Since there was nothing beyond the tree to focus on, I used one of the shrubs on the right that I estimated to be just a little farther away than the tree. Dynamic range was extreme, but well within the bounds of my Sony a7RIV. With my focal length, f-stop, and focus point set, I dialed my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram. Click.
This was probably the nicest sunset I’ve ever seen at Cape Royal. I have more colorful images from this evening, and many that include more clouds, and Vishnu Temple, but I chose this one because it’s the best example I’ve ever captured of the spectacular Wotan’s Throne sunset light I love so much.
Posted on September 12, 2016
I rarely shoot at Mather Point because I’m usually working with workshop students struggling to corral the extreme dynamic range of a summer sunrise there. But on this morning a couple of weeks ago, about half the group had congregated at the rail in near the Mather Point amphitheater, allowing me to set up my tripod and occasionally visit my camera. When it became clear that the clouds were setting up for something special, I prepared my composition, set my f-stop to f/18 (in the sunstar zone), and ready my graduated neutral density filter in anticipation of the sun’s first rays peeking out from behind Wotan’s Throne.
Knowledge is power
As with many of my images, I can trace this image’s creation to long before the shutter clicked. That’s because, whenever possible, I avoid arriving at a location without knowing at the very least when and where the sun will appear or disappear. In this case I was familiar enough with the Mather Point in August to know that the sun would rise between Wotan’s Throne and Vishnu Temple. But I needed to be more precise than that.
We’re living in an era of ubiquitous information, carrying mini computers with the potential to make virtually everyone an instant astronomical genius. Though my own workflow for computing sun/moon arrival/departure information was established long before smartphones, it amazes me both how easy the internet and smartphones have made preparation, and how few photographers do it.
I got a little head start because I studied astronomy in college for a few semesters (long enough to learn that the essential math would would wring the marvel from my mind), enough to have good mental picture of the celestial rotations and revolutions that determine what we see overhead and when we see it.
While I’m just geeky enough to prefer plotting all this stuff manually, for most people I recommend starting with one of the excellent apps that automate most of the process. Of the two apps I recommend, PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I prefer PhotoPills because it seems more complete, but they’re both excellent.
If you’ve tried either of these apps and found them too complicated, don’t be discouraged—neither is so intuitive that you should expect to simply pick it up and use it. But each is logical and well designed, and I promise that the more you use it, the easier it will become. In other words, practice!
As with most things in photography, it’s best not to be trying to learn to predict the timing and position of the sun or moon when the results matter. Rather, I suggest that you plot tonight’s sunset from the park down the street, or tomorrow’s sunrise from your backyard. Figure out where and when the sun will set or rise, be there to check your results, and then figure out why it didn’t happen exactly as expected. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your predictions improve after repeating this process a few times. Once you feel comfortable with your ability to anticipate a sun or moon rise or set from home, it’s time to take the show on the road—pick a spot you know fairly well and apply your new knowledge there.
Working it out on the fly
For me, celestial preparation from the comfort of my recliner is only half the job. It’s great when I know exactly where I’ll be and when I’ll be there, but the reality of nature photography isn’t quite so simple. On a first visit to a new location, I often end up places I never imagined I’d be—Hmmm, I wonder where that road goes…, or, Gee, I bet the view from the top of that hill would be great…—often with no connectivity.
On location with no connectivity, I need to be able to figure out the celestial details with only the resources at hand. The two iPhone apps I’ve come to rely on most are Focalware (I couldn’t live without this app) and MotionX-GPS.
Using these two apps, plus my basic understanding of astronomical dynamics, I’m able to figure out everything necessary to plan a shoot. On this morning at Mather Point, I pulled out my iPhone and opened Focalware to determine the sunrise time and azimuth. I used the MotionX-GPS Measure tool to drop a pin at my current location, then stretch a line, at the angle of the sunrise azimuth, across the canyon until it intersected the horizon. That was all I needed—seeing that this sunrise line passed just to the right of Wotan’s Throne, I was able to set up the composition I wanted.