Photography Tips for shooting in Grand Canyon National Park

Originally posted at Parksfolio.com-

I just returned from a nice trip to Grand Canyon National Park to shoot the Summer storms.  My wife and I spent 4 days in the park chasing rains, clouds and sunsets around the east end of the South Rim.  We managed to come back with a collection of really nice images and the trip as a whole was successful.

Whenever I come back from a shoot at one of the major National Parks or Monuments I get a lot of questions about how I get the images I do.  The questions are all usually pretty similar and range from what equipment I shoot with to tips on composition.  I get a lot of questions about post-processing and have a semi-regular series on my blog with tips and pointers for shooting and processing digital  images.

After this trip, I decided I would address some of these questions as they specifically relate to shooting at Grand Canyon.  These are pretty basic photography tips meant for those who might be new to photography or struggle with how to approach a massive subject like The Canyon.  This certainly doesn’t cover everything, but I would consider these my top 5 photography tips for shooting in Grand Canyon National Park.

 

1. Bring a Wide Angle Lens…

Grand Canyon National Park Photography Tips - Panoramic Shots

The Grand Canyon is huge.  If you’ve never seen it in person, it can be really difficult to grasp just how massive it is.  To really achieve the kind of panoramic shots that you usually find in magazines and posters, you really need to be shooting with a fairly wide angle lens.  I will typically have a 10-24mm lens on my camera for something like The Canyon.  A 10mm lens will cover about 125 degrees of view in the frame.

Also note, when shooting such a wide angle it will take an aperture setting of f11 or higher (number) to get as much of the composition in focus.  I will typically try for a f18 or f22 setting which can often require a slower shutter speed making a tripod necessary.

2. Don’t forget the Rule of 3rds, don’t forget to break it…

Photographic Tips for Grand Canyon National Park - Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a basic compositional tool that has been in use for a very long time.  It’s an easy trick for creating balance in a composition and drawing the viewer’s eye to the main subject more naturally.  It’s a guideline not a hard and fast rule, so don’t get too hung up on it.  The idea is to visually balance your composition in to thirds vertically and horizontally (like the grid on the image above) then align your subject, or subjects, around the intersections of those lines.

In the above image you can see that from top to bottom I have the image split in thirds with the sky in the top third, the canyon in the middle third and the foreground in the bottom third (or 1/3 sky to 2/3 land).  Also, left to right, I have the glowing cliff edge and the river in the left third, and the sunset in the right third of the image.  Pulled together, this creates a very balanced image that allows the viewer’s eye to move easily and naturally throughout the scene.  Had I centered the sunrise (as many beginners will do) the scene would have felt unbalanced with too much detail on the left side and nothing to balance it to the right.

3. Not every shot needs to be panoramic…

Photographic Tips for Grand Canyon National Park - Zoom shots

With a subject as large as the Grand Canyon it’s easy to get lost in the panorama.  You want every shot to take in the whole experience but that’s just not practical (nor really possible).  Instead, you can try using a tighter lens and focusing on smaller scenes that tell a bigger story.  These scene above was taken with a 105mm zoom lens and narrows in on the most dramatic part of the story the canyon was telling that evening.  I shot this same scene with the wide angle lens and it was underwhelming, the story was dwarfed by the rest of the scene.  But with the zoom lens my wife was able to capture the sun’s rays washing the canyon walls as they pierced through the dark clouds.  The mood was much more intense in this image than anything I could have captured in wide angle.

Also note the use of the Rule of Thirds in the image above, bottom third is the canyon with the top two-thirds as the sky scene.  Also note the sun is near the intersection of the the top-right third grid section.

4. Using a Neutral density filter…

Photographic Tips for Grand Canyon National Park - Using a Neutral Density Filter

The Grand Canyon presents the same challenges associated with shooting ocean scenes, where the sky is often significantly lighter than the foreground with a strong and deliberate horizon line.  Especially at sunrise and sunset, you will experience dark shadows in the canyon and potentially bright skies.  In order to extract detail from the canyon in low light, a longer exposure will be required which can overexpose the sky (as in the picture above).  This can be countered with the use of a Neutral Density Filter (either physically or digitally)applied to the lighter portion of the shot.

A Neutral Density Filter will allow you to split the exposure of a given shot to correct for the extreme differences in available light.  Using digital filters makes it easier because you can adjust the location and correction of the filter effect after the shot.  Physical filters can be trickier and require a little planning and forethought.  I will often take multiple shots of the same scene at varying exposures so when I get to the digital dark room I have more to work with in case my first exposure choice was off.

5. Don’t forget the little things…

Photographic Tips for Grand Canyon National Park - Nature Shots

Sometimes it’s really hard to pull your focus away from the main event at the Grand Canyon.  The canyon is such a sight to behold, especially for first time visitors, that it’s easy to forget you’re surrounded by more subtle beauty as well.  My most important photography tip to first time visitors to the Park is to step away from the canyon for a bit and really look around.  The forest, wildlife and architecture found at Grand Canyon can be just as inspiring as the canyon itself.

No one visits Grand Canyon National Park without taking a few pictures, even if that means simple snap-shots with your phone.  But hopefully a few of these tips might prove useful during your visit to help capture some memorable images.  And if I can leave you with one last unofficial tip: Have patience.  Be patient for the right light, be patient in finding the right vantage point but most of all…be patient with the people.  Seeing the Grand Canyon is on a lot of bucket-lists and everybody wants their time with the canyon.

Good luck, be safe and happy shooting.

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Dave Creech is a successful business owner and entrepreneur based in Phoenix, Arizona. He shares his personal story and lifelong passion for travel and rugged outdoor adventure through his blog at WildernessDave.com. David’s focus has been on trip stories, gear reviews, Wilderness Medicine and a series of articles aimed at introducing Yoga to hikers and backpackers as a path to staying fit, healthy and injury free.

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Comments

  1. Mike Atkinson says:

    Thanks Mr. Creech. This was timely information that I will re-read. I am going on my second backpacking trip down the Tanner Trail and then along the river and back out up to Horseshoe Mesa with a total of five days down in the canyon. Sadly last year I completed filled a 2GB SD card in my camera and took the card out to take a few more photos using my cameras internal memory. I think that SD card is still down in the canyon somewhere where I must have dropped it. So, I don’t know if I had decent photos or not from last year, and I didn’t have the benefit of your experience and camera skills. I will study your material again and this time I will have an SD card with enough space that I won’t have to remove.

    • Mike,

      Oh, man…that’s sucks. It happens a lot though. I was on a 3 week rafting trip in the canyon in 2007 and one of the guys lost his digital camera about 16 days in. He lost everything, pictures and video, from that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Very sad when that kind of thing happens. Take a bigger card and be more careful this time. That will be a killer hike, good luck!

  2. Great tips – I am so looking forward to our trip out there in Sept!

    • It’s a great place. Be sure to capture some quality quiet time with it. There are some trails out past Desert View that don’t get a lot of traffic. Check those out to get away from the crowds.

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