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.