7 Tips for Photographing the Grand Canyon – South Rim

Lookout Studio from the top patio

Earlier this week, Peter posted his suggestions for a photography trip to the Grand Canyon. Since we had such different experiences, I thought I would post my own tips,

Before I start, just a brief word about how difficult it can be to photograph this jaw-dropping landscape. The Grand Canyon is definitely Peter’s favorite type of photography, large landscapes that beg for a wide-angle lens. I prefer abstracts and intimate landscapes where I tend to use my telephoto lens as my go-to lens. I’ve even started carrying around my 100-400 lens regularly. It was difficult for me to isolate subjects, and yet still try to interpret the grand scale of the landscape, so I decided to break some nature photography rules and see where it led me.

Tip 1: Embrace people in your photographs

Usually I wait (patiently) for people to clear the scene so I can capture nature in its purist form. I found photographing people helped provide a perspective on how large the rock formations were, and how sweeping the landscape was from end-to-end (see cover photo). It’s also out of necessity to include people, they are everywhere. I was even nudged out of the sunset spot I had so carefully scouted earlier in the day, by a tour operator so his group could take selfies.

Tip 2: Look for trees

In addition to photographing people, look for a tree to help create perspective. I found those that are on the edge of the rim, and had an interesting shape worked best for me. Sometimes, I found a sculptural tree, and decided to not even shoot the canyon in the background.

Tip 3: Create your own postcard

I found its necessary to get the “postcard shot” out of my system so I can see beyond the expected. And its a nice way to document my trip. I found when we first arrived, I took travel snapshots for the first day or so, before I started looking deeply, and seeing new ways to shoot the landscape. Embrace the tourist stops, there is a reason the National Park Service has created a pullout or an overlook.

Rim Trail and Duck on a Rock Pullout

Tip 4: Look for Layers

The light can be dramatic, and in a challenging way. Soft light after sunrise, and before sunset, shows off the layers of the rock formations. The light before sunrise and after sunset can create deep shadows in the formations; illuminating some, and keeping others dark. Focus on the shapes the layers create and the color of each layer. Try to abstract the layers of the canyon, rather than capturing all of the detail.

Tip 5: Focus on the light

This is a foundational rule of nature photography: having good Light, Subject, Background, and Gesture can create a compelling photograph. With an overpowering subject like the Grand Canyon, its easy to forget that interesting light can make an interesting photograph when you hone in on an intimate landscape. Find subjects that accentuate the qualities of the light, and narrow your frame to isolate them interacting with the light.

After sunrise from Yavapai Point
Sunrise from Yavapai Point

Tip 6: Capture Architectural Details

The Grand Canyon is the birthplace of “Parkitecture”. Mary J. Colter was a trailblazer, and designer and one of the few women architects of her time. Her work is showcased in many places at the Grand Canyon: the fireplace at the Bright Angel Lodge, the china pattern in the El Tovar dining room, and the architecture of the Hopi House, just to name a few. I spent my hot afternoons researching her, and her influence on the designs and architecture of the southwest. It inspired me to look at the Hopi House differently, to see it more than just a gift shop at a National Park (which it is much, much more. They represent amazing artists with stunning products).

Hopi House
Hopi House
Hopi House

Tip 7: Creatively process your images

After a few days, the canyon never loses its ability to capture your attention. Expand your vision and let it capture your imagination. Sometimes, I would take only my phone and walk the Rim Trail in the afternoon. Then I would use different apps to process them. I liked the result so much, I tried using different processing tools on my PC when I returned home. The goal for me was to try to imagine how a photographer in the 1800’s would create an image of the canyon.

From Yavapai Point. Made with Alien Skin Exposure.
Rim Trail near El Tovar. Made wiht TinType

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