Thundershower over Eastern Grand Canyon
Many visitors to the Grand Canyon arrive after a drive up from I-40 and spend just a few hours at the rim, often during the middle of the day during the summer. The sun is high in the sky and floods the canyon with harsh light that washes out the colorful rock formations. It’s far better to shoot early or late in the day, when the light is softer.
It's Not Your Equipment
Though the features on pro or semi-pro single lens reflex cameras are designed for versatility and flexibility in many different shooting situations, you can make stunning photographs with modest equipment as long as you understand its limitations. All but the cheapest point-and shoot-cameras have computer-designed lenses that are remarkably sharp. And you don't need a lot of megapixels either. Large posters can be made from five megapixel images.
Seeing the Light
The human eye is a remarkable instrument. It is far more sensitive to light than any camera and also has an extremely sophisticated processor- the brain. The brain processes what we see into what we expect to see, based on what we've already experienced. This means we don't see the strong blue cast to the mid-day light on someone's face caused by the strong blue light from the open sky. We also don't see that scraggly tree branch sticking into our picture when we take it, only the towering rock temple dominating the frame.
Composition in Thirds
The placement of objects within your photo should create a pattern that is pleasing to the eye and draw the viewer into the image. Remember the rule of thirds, which states that major objects such as people, trees, rock formations, or the horizon should be placed one-third of the way in from the edge of the frame rather than in the center. Centered subjects make for dull photos. Action subjects such as hikers or cyclists should be positioned at the one-third point and should be moving into the remaining two-thirds of the frame. In other words, give them space.
When composing your shot, eliminate distractions. Include as little in the frame as you can and still tell the story that you're trying to convey to your viewers. Move closer to your subject or use a telephoto lens or setting. Watch out for wide-angle lenses or settings. Used carefully, wide-angle lenses can create breathtaking images that sweep the viewer from intimate detail in the foreground to broad landscapes in the background, but they can also be loaded with irrelevant clutter.
Experienced landscape photographers know about the golden hours, the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset when the sun is low to the horizon and the light is filtered by the atmosphere into soft, warm tones. At the Grand Canyon, rock formations leap into three dimensions and seem to glow with inner fire. Shadows and haze fill the depths and add an aura of mystery.
During the summer, you'll have to rise early or stay out late to catch the golden hours. During the spring and fall when the days are shorter, it's less work to get out during the golden hours. And even the mid day light is softer due to the lower sun angle. Winter is one of the best times to photograph the Grand Canyon. The sun is at its lowest and snow on the rims and terraces brings out the colors and relief of the canyon to a remarkable degree.
Sunrise and Sunset Calculator
Sun and Moon Azimuth Calculator
The Photographer's Ephemeris
Where to Shoot
If your time is limited, walk to Mather Point from the Canyon View Information Plaza. Then try walking east along the Rim Trail, and shoot back toward Mather Point itself. A shot of the long promontory with people crowding the guard rails is especially effective early in the morning. Another option is to walk the Rim Trail from El Tovar Hotel east toward Yavapai Point. You'll get a variety of views and lots of people for interest. As the view faces mainly northwest until you get to Yavapai Point, this section of the Rim Trail has the best light from late afternoon until sunset.
For sunrise, try Pima, Mohave, Hopi, Mather, Yaki, Moran, and Lipan points. For sunset, consider Powell, Trailview, Yaki, Grandview, and Lipan points. Yaki Point is good for shots of hikers on the upper Kaibab Trail. And don't forget the many historic buildings in Grand Canyon Village, including El Tovar Hotel, Bright Angel Lodge, and the old railway station.
Bright Angel Point, the most popular viewpoint on the North Rim, is one of the worst for photography. Fortunately, Point Imperial, Cape Royal, and Angels Window more than make up for it. Point Imperial offers a close view of Mount Hayden and the cliff-bound head of Nankoweap Creek and is a good place for sunrise. Cape Royal is also best at sunrise and early in the day. Nearby Angels Window viewpoint is especially effective at sunset when the setting sun lights up the foreground buttes and the Palisades of the Desert to the east.
I'll admit I'm prejudiced, but limiting your photography to the rim viewpoints that are accessible by paved road barely lets you scratch the surface of the Grand Canyon. If you have the time and a high clearance vehicle, visits to backcountry viewpoints such as the South Bass Trailhead, Point Sublime, Fire Point, and Toroweap will pay off in dramatic shots taken from unusual perspectives.
To really explore the canyon photographically you have to explore it physically, which means hiking the trails and running the river. On the river with a raft to carry your gear, you can carry a lot of equipment but you won't want to endanger an expensive single lens reflex in the whitewater. One of the new waterproof, submersible point-and-shoots will let you get some great shots.
You can day hike the upper parts of some of the trails from the rims and get to some interesting vantage points. Good places to start are the South Kaibab Trail to O'Neill Butte, the Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa, and the Hermit Trail to Santa Maria Spring or Dripping Spring. On the North Rim, try the Transcept Trail.
Gear for Backpacking
Of course, really getting into the Grand Canyon on foot requires backpacking for two or more days. Because of weight, you can't carry much photo gear. One of the waterproof point-and-shoots makes a great backpacking camera. Or, as I generally prefer, you can carry a lightweight single lens reflex camera body (these are often classed as semi-pro cameras) and one of the new wide-range zoom lenses. Some of these cameras are now moisture and dust-sealed, a feature formerly available only on the heavy pro cameras.
Batteries and Storage Cards
Unless you'll have access to a charger and a computer or image storage device every day, make certain you have enough memory cards and fully charged batteries to last the trip. Memory cards are cheap, so there's no excuse for running out of space. Camera batteries are not cheap but current cameras are much easier on batteries than older models. You can greatly extend battery life by turning off the LCD monitor and using the viewfinder, if your camera has one. Also, turn off instant review and use the play button to selectively review photos as needed. In camp, resist the urge to edit your photos on the camera, unless you know you have plenty of battery power.
Remotely-controlled aerial vehicles, whether used for photography or any other purpose, are prohibited in Grand Canyon National Park.
Commercial photography or videography involving props, models, professional crews and casts, or set dressings requires a permit. Personal or professional photography involving no more than a tripod and that doesn't disrupt other visitors does not require a permit or a fee in any national park.
Commercial Photography Permits
The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking - and looking. -Brooks Atkinson