Into The Grand Canyon Part II -> 8 Easy South Rim Photography Tips
Given that I just told you (in my last post) that there’s no way ANY living person can really capture the Grand Canyon, it’s kind of ironic that I’m writing a HUGE (~2,500 word) photo tips page. It’s a bit like a couch potato explaining to an athlete how to run a marathon, and I’m going to let you know right now that’s exactly what this is. I’m not a “pro” and I don’t profess to have “gotten” the Canyon (not even close), but I had a darn fun time trying and if you’re anything like me you can’t help but try too.
Also I have a history on this one. The first time we came to the Grand Canyon in 2010 (North Rim) I took ~100 shots and I was so disappointed in the outcome that not a single photo made the blog (not one!!). So, this time around I did some research to try and help improve my odds. I’m a geek that way and part of what I enjoy doing is sharing knowledge. So, even if I didn’t get THE shot, I managed to glean some key tips that got me much closer to what I envisioned in my minds eye. This not only improved my photo journey, but (perhaps more importantly) it vastly reduced my photo frustration. So basically if it helped me, I figure it might help you too.
Thus, from one amateur to another here are some photo tips for the place that simply cannot be photographed:
Go Early….OR Late (but Not Too Early Or Too Late)
Every photographer knows and loves the “golden light” that happens right after sunrise and right before sunset. It’s that special time when shadows elongate and colors enrich to blinding, golden intensity. It’s a photographers dream, and for many “pro” landscape photographers they don’t even bother photographing any other time of day. Colors tend to get “washed out” mid-day and simply don’t shoot as well.
The Grand Canyon is no exception to this rule, and in some ways it’s even more so. It’s vastness makes colors appear exceptionally “washed out” simply because of the scale. What you’re looking at (on the far side) is so far away that the colors just can’t “make it” to your lens. So getting the most out of those colors by taking advantage of early AM and late PM light is even more important.
But The Grand Canyon has one additional quirk which took me a few days to suss out. Due to it’s incredible depth and the fact that the colors of the canyon only truly shine as long as the sun actually hits its walls, when the sun lowers those juicy colors disappear FAST. One minute you’ll have these wonderful bright red/purple bands and the next…nothing, like someone switched off the light in a windowless room and just walked away. By the time the sun is parallel to the rim and “actual” sunset rolls around the good stuff is already over and all you’ll see is one, big, dark mass. So although last light is good, you don’t want the very last light.
I learned this valuable lesson my very first sunset on the rim, so I made sure to come extra early (~45-50 mins before) for every sunset thereafter and it made sunset shooting soooo much more enjoyable. Also for sunrise I was able to take my time and amble out far later than I usually would for such an event (I could actually see where I was going!).
You can get interesting stuff outside of these times too, of course, but you’ll get effortless stuff during these times so if you have only one or two opportunities to shoot, this is what I’d recommend.
Seek Out The Canyon Viewpoints
The Grand Canyon is like a many-fingered monster, with tentacles that dip and twist in intricate patterns all along its length. Some of these tentacles reach deep into the canyon creating viewpoints with almost 300-degree panoramas. You’ll get great views everywhere you look of course, but you’ll get even better views if you make your way out onto some of these fingertip points. Plus if it’s sunset (or sunrise) you’ll get the opportunity to shoot first from one side of the point, and then the other following the sun’s rays as she fades across the canyon face by just walking just the few feet from one side to the other. It’s double the fun from a single spot with no extra effort required at all.
Knowing this it’ll come as no surprise whatsoever that the most recommended sunset & sunrise spots on the South Rim are at the end of the deepest “fingers”. In fact the National Park puts out an official photography guide that indicates the “best” sunset point is Hopi Point, while the “best” sunrise spot is Yaki Point.
The only issue with these points is that neither of them are accessible by car. You either have to take a bus, bike it, hike it or some combo thereof. This is all fine and dandy if you’re able to plan out hours ahead of time, but if you’re a lazy photographer like me and you wait until the last minute (to gauge what the sunset is going to be like) you’ll never get there in time for that special pre-1/2-hour sunset light.
So, I did some digging and found two alternatives Although perhaps not quite as nice as the above two points I found Yavapai Point to be a most excellent sunset spot, while Mather Point was a lovely sunrise spot. Both are car-accessible (plus a short walk) so you can literally leave your campsite and be photographing on the rim within a max of 10 minutes.
Like all “popular” viewpoints they may be crowded, but just park at the furthest end of the parking lot (I never had a problem getting a spot) and walk a few hundred feet away from the masses to get a clear shooting spot. You won’t be disappointed.
Look Away (From the Sun)
Another little photo quirk of the Grand Canyon South Rim is hidden in its orientation. Because of its general East-West orientation and many-fingered viewpoints the actual rising/setting path of the sun will often happen slightly behind you (hidden by rocks or protrusions), whereas the light will illuminate the wall directly opposite it which means your best shooting (and best colors) are often that way too. So, although it may seem kind of counter-intuitive it’s worth shooting away from that big shining globe in the sky. I found my most interesting shooting between 90-degrees and 180-degrees from the sun, depending on what effect I was looking for.
Add Some Perspective
Probably the biggest frustration with photographing the Grand Canyon is capturing its size. You “see” the grandness with your eyes and through your lens, but when you get home it just doesn’t translate onto the screen. “That’s not what it looked like, darn it!”.
This is just part of being here and you have to adjust to the fact that you just can’t capture that dizzy, Grand feeling you had at the rim in a pic. But what you can do is put in a little perspective which makes it a “tad” better.
Get your photo partner to pose by the rim (not too close (!!), but just near it) and then walk back ~15, 20 or even 30 feet to capture the canyon behind them. Getting back a bit allows you to expand the view and get that “small person, large background” feeling. Also by doing this you can get the impression of your partner being right on the hairy edge of the rim whereas in reality they are standing safely on the path and you’re just using a bit of photo trickery to make it seem more dangerous (trust me, there is NO photographic reason to EVER climb down onto those scary Canyon rocks!)
Other ways to get perspective is to click pics of random people sitting by the canyon, folks enjoying the view, or photograph the mass of tourists standing on the viewpoints. Panorama shots (which iPhone’s do really well) are also great. Just make sure you have an “anchor point” like a person or tree to give perspective to the shot.
Go Big….But Also Zoom In
One of the biggest urges when photographing the rim is to include it ALL in EVERY shot. You just want to try to capture the immensity of what you’re seeing, and it seems the only way to do it is to go big every…single…time. Going big certainly works, especially if you’ve got some snazzy clouds or some cool trees to frame it out, and you’re going to end up taking a ton of those pics regardless (no way around it). But sometimes zooming in can give you something just as satisfying, and it’s worth remembering this.
On hazy days zooming in can help you can capture the intricacies of fog & light that sweep along the canyon crevices. On sunny days with no clouds zooming in allows you to crop out the boring sky (which adds nothing to the pic IMHO) & focus on the light-play in the canyon depths. When”going small” look for intricacies that stand out, like that one mesa bathed in light or a peak that just “shines”. Also seek out repeating patterns and symmetry (your eye really, really likes these) like particular curves that mesh oh-so-nicely, or a repeating shape that seems so surreal. You’ll be amazed at the different moods & scenes you can capture by doing this.
Experiment With Multiple Exposures
So, this is perhaps my most “advanced” tip, but don’t be scared off by it right away.
Another huge challenge when photographing the Grand Canyon are the many different layers of shadow & light. When the sun first hits the rim, for example, you can get some great colors on the top part of the canyon, but the bottom (which is often a beautiful shade of blue/purple) is still far too dark for the camera to capture. Your eye can see it, but your camera just can’t. The way most “pro” photographers handle this is to use ND filters (graduated filters that darken part of the pic, but keep another part light), but there’s an easy trick which gets you a similar result without the gear. It’s called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography and it consists of taking multiple exposures and then combining them later on your computer. It’s just a neat little way to increase the range of light that your camera can “see” without spending more $$ or effort.
This may seem kind of advanced, but actually it’s really not. ALL SLR’s can do it, but so can most pocket cameras too. My 3-year old Canon S100 pocket camera (the one I just upgraded) had the ability to manually alter exposure by twiddling the front ring, and if you look at your own camera manual (ever looked at it?) you’ll probably find your camera can too. Look for “exposure compensation” or the +/- sign. Even the iPhone can do it! Just tap the screen to where you want to focus and then swipe up or down to alter exposure (I’m sure other phones have the same ability, but I’m just not familiar with them). Ideally you want to be on a tripod to do this since you want the same exact same pic in 3-4 different exposures (one really light, one darker, one darker etc.), but I have done it handheld, or just with my camera plonked onto a solid surface before too.
Combining photos is easy in software. My preferred software (by far) is Photomatix Pro, but there are many others out there. Photoshop can do it too, of course and there are a bunch of Phone Apps that offer it as well. In Photomatix all I do is “load” my 3-4 shots and then let the software do its magic. I can play around and fiddle with the details after I’ve loaded.
It’s easy to get “carried away” with HDR, especially when you first start using it (I know I did), but it’s also fun and another tool to add to your shooting arsenal, so don’t be afraid to give it a try!
Aaaaand DON’T Obsess About “The Rules”
Photo tips are nice and all, but they’re not the be all and end all of photography. The most important thing is to have your camera on you (whichever one you carry), and to just have fun with it. Digital photography is cheap, and there’s nothing wrong with experimenting.
I took most of my “best” shots on a tripod, early AM (or late PM) with my bigger SLR camera (Nikon D7000), but I also carried my pocket camera on our daytime hikes and managed a few shots which I really kinda liked. As an example our last day on the rim I was dying to see a rainbow which (despite the daily rain) I just hadn’t managed to capture. So, as we were walking mid-day along the Eastern Rim, I went banana’s when I suddenly saw it. The light was horrible, the rainbow was weak and it definitely wasn’t my best camera or my best shot, but it was a frikkin’ rainbow in the Grand Canyon!! I was ecstatic!
So, that’s it folks! I can’t guarantee my tips will make you a pro, but hopefully they’ll help give you some inspiration for your own shots, and (unlike my first photo attempt in 2010) you’ll actually come out of the canyon with a few photos that you’re happy to share.
Next Up -> Stuff to do in the Grand Canyon that’s NOT about photography….there’s more than you think.
- Sunrise and Sunset At The Grand Canyon -> Official National Park Photography Guide. Click HERE.
- The Photographers Guide to The Grand Canyon -> Detailed guide with lots of useful info. Click HERE.
- Photographing The Grand Canyon -> Great all-around article. Click HERE.
- Best Views Of The Grand Canyon -> Descriptions & pics of all the South Rim viewpoints. Click HERE.
- Geogypsy -> Blogger friend Gaelyn is a seasonal ranger on the North Rim & does some fabulous photography there. I derived a lot of inspiration from her shots. Click HERE.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this blog post may be affiliate links, so, if you click on the link and make a purchase, I will receive a commission. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates. WheelingIt is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
I love your writing and the amazing amount of information that you share. You captured some spectacular grand canyon shots!
Kim & Don Greene says
Oh my, oh my, oh my! Those photos are spectacular! Thanks so much for sharing them.
Jacquie Johnson says
Unbelievably beautiful! And, so generous with your tips, tricks and instructions. Thank-you!
Thanks! Hopefully my tricks & tips will help a few others trying to capture this Grand place. Took me 5 years from the 1st time we visited to figure all this out LOL.
My husband spent two years in Flagstaff attending Northern Arizona for a MS in Quaternary Studies after receiving a BS in Geology from Rice University. He spent all of his free time at the Canyon. He loves the Canyon and keeps asking me if we can move to Flagstaff when he retires. We now live in the DC area.
I have been there three times in the last 30 years. It is breathtaking. Now I want to take another trip there.
Your pictures of the canyon are some of the most beautiful we have ever seen. You are very talented.
Thank you for your blog. I love reading everything you write and your pictures make me want to see every place that you have been.
Thank you for the lovely compliment 🙂 We love Flagstaff too, altho’ we didn’t get a chance to stop there this time around. The surrounding nature is just lovely.
Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets says
Wow! Good job with photos AND text. Great tips.
Beautiful pictures and great photo tips. I recently visited at the North Rim. I probably broke every tip/rule that you mentioned…..and a few more! I loved the North Rim except that all pictures were also looking into the sun. I am anxious to see your comparisons between the North and South Rim. I loved the North Rim and the availability of bondocking WITH cell service!
Yeah, photo wise the North Rim “suffers” from the fact that since the sun follows a slightly southerly trajectory at this latitude (which gets more pronounced as you approach Fall/Winter), it’s typically facing you rather than behind you as you look into the Chasm. On the plus side you actually get to “see” sunrise/sunset much better than the South Rim, but it does make photographing the canyon depths and colors a tad more more challenging.
Dee Estrella says
Absolutely gorgeous Grand Canyon photos. Success! We enjoyed each one. Thank you.
Tracy Barnett says
You may not call yourself a “pro” but these pictures are spectacular. I have been following you for about 6 months as we prepare to go full-time next week. Of all the blogs I am reading, I look forward to yours the most. You have great information and inspiration for us newbies. I, too, am hoping to write a blog while on the road, with an emphasis on small towns and their stories (as well as breweries, to appease my husband). I am a retiring Main Street Manager and am enthralled with the revitalization and heritage of rural downtowns. We are headed to Tucson for the winter but will be dabbling in boondocking while down in that area.
Tracy (and Cooper) Barnett
Beer and Small Towns are both excellent -> Sound like we share some passions! Congrats on the up-coming fulltime travels and hope they turn out to be everything you wished for!
Wow, Nina… You’ve managed to do it… Share the grand majesty of the canyon in a most intimate way!
This posting is a text book on how to photograph the canyon, I’ll print it as a guide for our next Grand Canyon visit.
Jerry Ericsson says
WOW! Love your photo’s, I can’t wait till I can get down there. We will be pulling out within the week if the snow doesn’t get to deep. Snowing here in SD now, but just light snow thus far. Your writing is great as well, it has been some time since I have written for publication, in fact several years now since my last short story ended up in an anthology of scifi but it is a wonderful hobby. I am hoping to get back into it when we become nomads, there is so much to see and write about.
Thanks for showing us what we are missing.
Hope the snow clears for you and you have a great trip!
Beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Honestly, some of the best shots I have ever seen of the canyon. Thank you so much for sharing.
Oh my — that Yavapai Point sunset with clouds and the shot of Paul and Polly at the edge — just spectacular. Thank you for so generously sharing the knowledge you’ve gleaned. I think your tips apply to all of the canyons of the Southwest — we’ve just been in Navajo National Monument, and I was struggling with similar issues of how to best photograph the vast beauty of the canyon.
I’m actually thankful the Canyon forced me to learn all this. Like you said it’s tips that can apply all the canyons of the west. I feel like I’m a whole new photographer 🙂 Nature is the best teacher, even for old dogs like me. Hope the tips help others too!
Bobbie A. says
Wow, what incredible photos. More importantly, thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge and photographic information. Also, your reviews of various camping spots are always very thorough. I went to the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion, lake Powell, the week after Labor Day, my first taste of the west except for annual ski trips with local ski club (live in Fl) about 20 years ago. I went on a 5 day tour with national parks Tourz company, a great tasting of each place. My husband and I had planned to semi permanent RV’ers upon retirement in a couple years, however, he died unexpectedly 5/2014. I had been following your blog prior to his death, would update him about you guys locations etc along with “take me to the highway” blog. I am hoping to be able to carry on with our plans, still gathering information, trying to decide about size of RV, etc for retirement in 2 yrs. Your blog is so helpful and motivating, there’s a world out there just waiting to explore. Moral of story, don’t wait too long to do it. Know that’s why you guys made the decision to do it early, wise one indeed. Do have concerns about what you do with your dog when you hike for long distances or on trails where dogs are not allowed? Maybe you just don’t take the hikes where doggie cannot go. Thanks again for info, so helpful.
So very, very sorry for your loss. Can’t even imagine how hard that must have been! To answer your doggie question, we don’t do any long hikes where doggie is not allowed. We’ll do short hikes without her, occasionally, but no long ones.
Bobbie A. says
Thank you, it’s been a very difficult time. Continuing to think of how I can continue our quest and interests, maybe just on a smaller scale, keeps me going. Thanks for doggie answer, that’s what I thought. There’s are limitations when one has animals, but benefits outweigh the small inconveniences.
I hope you find the strength to continue those dreams, and make new ones too. It’s a long road, and an incredibly rough one but you are not alone. Wish you the absolute best with all your plans, and hope that happiness may fill your life once again.
Bobbie A. says
Thank you for your kindness.
Anne P says
Beautiful pictures… You did indeed capture much of the magic of the place as I remember it. Thank you so much for the tips. Can’t wait to apply them to some of our beautiful east coast fall sunsets. Maybe I’ll finally capture that glorious light. It’s a goal anyway, and you’ve given me hope! Many thanks! — Anne
WOW was the first word that popped into my head. And the photo with the rainbow, I think it’s definitely one of your best shots. My husband and I hiked the GC 2 yrs ago and were blown away by its immense beauty. Our pictures didn’t do it justice. Nothing like being there but you sure did capture its essence. Absolutely breathtaking. You’ve an incredible gift for photography and writing. Thank you for taking the time to share your tips with us. We will be sure use them when we return for another hike.
Thank you so much. I was so excited to be there for that rainbow even though I didn’t have all my “best” gear. There’s something about a rainbow in the Grand Canyon that is particularly special.
Great tips. Will bookmark for the next visit.
Colleen / Maryland says
Just spectacular !!! No other words needed !!! Thank you for your in-depth and complete review !!
Great post, thanks! Took me back to the summer I spent working there. One evening I was out at Havasu point during a dry lightning storm. The tremendous Boom! and the way the lightning lit the canyon is still a great memory.
Oh I would have loved to see the Lightning across the canyon. We actually had several big thunderstorms while we were there, but I was too chicken to go out shooting in them.
A moment of silence, as you’ve made me speechless…
(My family and friends would pay you big money for this to become ‘on demand’.)
Many thanks for the pictures, the tips, and the passion you share with us all. We travel with you via your blog – much appreciated.
Thank you for the lovely compliment 🙂
Nina–the cowboy says, “fantastic!!” Your photos are breathtaking!!! Are you guys still in Prescott–if so, come on down “the hill” and I will make you lunch/dinner!
Whoa…. that last shot had me sucking in my breath. In other words it was breath-taking!!! Great tips. If I ever work up the courage to brave the crowds.
It can certainly get crowded here Gunta, although we found most mornings were quiet. The North Rim may be more your speed, especially since your rig is small enough to get out to some of the far west boondocking spots.
Love the tips, and your pictures are wonderful. Would love to meet up with you guys if you’re still in Grand Canyon. We are here until the 31st. Then we are heading to Sedona
David and Aurora
We’re gone now…further south by Prescott. Enjoy your time here!
Ok, hopefully we’ll cross path and meet up.
John T. says
Nina, the first and last photo’s are stunning. Bravo! j
Thanks! I think those two were my favs. The top one turned out very subtle, but so nicely moody. The bottom…I was just sooo happy to be there and be able to capture that light.
All good points. You made a lot of grand captures. It’s not easy with so much to see.
Thanks Gaelyn. That’s high praise coming from you. I linked to your blog at the bottom of the post as one of my Grand Canyon photo inspirations. Your shots have taught me a lot.
Deborah Knight says
Every shot you posted was amazing.Thanks for the tips. Well worth an early morning.
That one sunrise shoot was fun. I’m actually very happy, in retrospect, that the Canyon gave us some weather. It made the shooting more challenging, but also infinitely more interesting.
J. Dawg says
Outstanding pictures and tips. Thanks.
Maxx Trails says
Awesome photos, you should be very proud! Thank you for this great blog, I can’t wait to visit the Grand Canyon and use some of your photo tips
Bob Martel says
Looks like you had fun! 🙂
Kim Nowelll says
Great Photos, I really enjoyed them and reading this blog. Lots of wonderful tips that I really am going to save and try. Thank you so much for all your great tips.
Excellent! Hope you have some fun with it!
Marla ~ Corona, CA says
AMAZING!!!!!! That is all I can say!
Personally, I have never been to the Grand Canyon ~ yet ~, so I can’t compare real views to photographed views, but it seems you really got the best shots! Even your quickie rainbow shot is gorgeous!!!
I am super impressed! Keep it up, Nina!! 🙂
Thanks 🙂 I’m just happy I have some photos to share this time around. That first trip in 2010 was sobering, photo-wise. The Canyon has been an educational challenge for me….a very good one.
Spectacular photos, Nina! And very helpful tips. We’re in Fruita right now, and these will come in handy as I’m trying to capture the scenery here.
Oh yeah Fruita! There’s another beautiful canyon of the west. Not quite as big as thus one, but those red colors…wow!
Great points Nina but I just read this now 🙁 We just came back from Canyon de Chelley and Walnut Canyon. Hope I did good on my shoots.
Wonderful post, saving this one for sure!! All the shots and tips are wonderful, and that 1/2 hour after sunrise is beyond spectacular 🙂
Ditto every word above. As a born and bred American (who has traveled far reaches of the globe) the grand chasm has, somehow, escaped me. Your photos, “how to” and text have inspired us to, finally, visit the Grand. We shall begin our journey at the Williams Wine and Beer Garage and travel northward with camera bag in tow. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and knowledge. What a delight! 🙂
Sounds like the perfect trip 🙂 Glad I could inspire a few folks.
What a great set of photography tips! Most of our visits to the south rim have resulted in Ho-hum pictures. I’m going to try a few of your tips on our next trip even though we won’t be at the Grand Canyon. Thanks for all this work.
Hope the tips work for you!
Furry Gnome says
Great suggestions. We really do hope to get there someday!
Excellent tips Nina! Thanks so much for taking the time to share with your readers. Your images are some of the best I have seen of the Grand Canyon…simply gorgeous!
Thank you for your generous tips (especially about best lookouts, which are car accessible). I enjoyed your beautiful captures! I will be going to the GC next week for the first time in 33 years. Can’t believe it’s been that long! I have an array of cameras. May bring the Fujifilm X100T for convenience, but I also have the XT1 and a small tripod, which might be the better option. I’m staying in Flagstaff, so not sure about driving in the dark (before sunrise, or after sunset) by myself.
We haven’t driven that particular route so can’t really tell you much about the road, but matter what time of day you go I’m sure you’ll be blown away. Enjoy your trip!
Teresa in Ohio says
Thank You! for sharing this information….I have taken notes 🙂 We are preparing to go to the Grand Canyon the first part of June. I have been reading and reading trying to figure out which point I wanted to be at for sunrise and sunset….and you have helped me to narrow it down now. I have been been stressing about getting good pictures since this will probably be my first and last time there! I will be lugging around my Canon 7D with my 17-55 lens (a little heavy but I’m determined to use it)….I will also be dragging it along on my 6 mile trip down and back on the Bright Angel Trail after I get the sunrise pics…I am so excited…but like you said ‘How? can you actually capture the Grand Canyon’….in all it’s grandeur. We do the best we can…and that’s what I plan to do. I will practice the HDR as it’s something new for me and I don’t want to be fumbling around later. You didn’t mentioned a tripod and since we will be flying in was wondering if I absolutely needed on? Also I wanted to ask a little bit about your settings and did you set your timer (which would need a tripod for sure) I could possibly find a stable place for using this. Again, Thank You for sharing these AWESOME images…..they give me hope that I too will be able to capture some beautiful images from our experience at the Grand Canyon as well. Teresa in Ohio
All great questions! For my “big camera” HDR pics I definitely used a tripod since I wanted multiple exposures of the exact same frame. I used the “bracketing” function on my camera with self-timer, so that I could get 3-5 pics at a time (with different exposures) without having to touch the shutter in-between shots. Just one click, and the camera fires off the rest! Using the self-timer also helped to reduce any camera movement from manually clicking and fiddling with exposure settings between each shot. For basic settings I just set my aperture between f-14 to f-20 and let the camera do the rest. All this takes a bit of getting used to, so I definitely recommend practicing before you get to the rim.
Oh and one last tip. If you’re shooting on a tripod, remember to turn off vibration reduction on your lens (if your lens has that). I forgot a few times and ended up with blurry pics, which made me a very sad photographer 🙁
Have fun! It’s so hard to photograph here but it’s SO much fun! I hope your pics turn out fabulous!