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Sunset, Hopi Point, Grand Canyon

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 14 May 2009 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

Most people think I’m nuts when I say I find the Grand Canyon a difficult place to photograph. After all, there probably isn’t a square inch on the canyon’s rim that doesn’t have a breathtaking, photograph-worthy view. But I’ve photographed the Grand Canyon three times in the last five years, and it wasn’t until the most recent trip (in April) that I finally felt productive.

Part of my problem is a familiarity thing—I can visit Yosemite in any month, under any conditions, and come home with several images I’m excited about. I know Yosemite’s light, locations, and conditions, and how the conditions and light in one location will translate to another. At the Grand Canyon I’m a rookie.

But my difficulty at the Grand Canyon goes beyond my knowledge of the area. I think an even greater hindrance is that, as an infrequent visitor, my impressions of the Grand Canyon have been formed largely by the images of others. It takes time and exposure to purge that programming and see it my way. And there’s a large part of me that just doesn’t want to turn off the nature lover who simply appreciates. Fortunately, my previous visits allowed me to manage my awe this time, and I headed out to Hopi Point that evening armed me with my own mental picture that helped me plan my shot.

Hopi Point is magnificent torture for a photographer. Magnificent because it offers a 270 degree perspective of the canyon; torture because we can only shoot in one direction at a time. The last time I shot there I found myself in what I call panic mode, watching the sun’s orange disk inch toward the horizon in front of me, all the while being fully aware of the rich golden light illuminating the clouds and casting long shadows behind me. The result was decent but not great images in both directions (and a lot of angst).

So on this visit, rather than react to the light, I simply picked a composition that would work in the light I knew was coming, and committed to it 100 percent. The scene at my back would have to wait for the next trip. If I’d have been there by myself I probably would have explored a bit more before picking my sunset composition, but since I was assisting Don Smith’s workshop, I set up in the midst of the rest of the group, which had scattered along a couple of hundred foot stretch of the rim. As I usually do when I’m leading a group, I called out my thoughts, advising them to anticipate and monitor of what was going on behind us, and to find the composition that worked for them before things started happening. Many stayed with me; others headed off in search of a different perspective. But at least they had a plan.

My own plan worked as designed. I was in position early enough to get a feel for the small details that often make a scene, and to prepare for the difficult light. Technically, shooting into the sun is always tricky, so I readied my array of graduated neutral density filters (at the risk of repeating myself, I'm not a fan of HDR). For this composition the Singh-Ray 3-stop Daryl Benson reverse GND was perfect. I went with a small aperture to enhance the sunburst. And while the color in the sky was nice, I really wanted to emphasize the foreground, which I thought was much more interesting, hence the extremely high horizon line.

In scenes with a close foreground and distant background, it's almost always more important that the foreground be perfectly sharp, even at the expense of a little softness in the background. So I focused on the small shrub in the left foreground--I knew at f18 with a fairly wide aperture I'd have lots of depth of field, but this was as far out as I was comfortable focusing with confidence that my entire foreground would be perfectly sharp.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Am very drawn by the textures and the tones of this photograph. Really appreciated your commentary. Regarding HDR, although I don't much care for the so-called HDR look, I do appreciate the way that it handles a range of light beyond the capture capacity of the camera. I need to play more with graduated ND filters. Thanks for being a part of aminus3.

14 May 2009 5:19am

@john4jack: Thanks, Jack. My objection to HDR isn't so much the idea of it as it is the way it's used. I'm kind of old-school where it comes to post-processing--I appreciate the control Photoshop gives me, but I don't want to use it to do anything that couldn't have been done in a darkroom. Another way of putting it is that I want my creativity to be in the capture, not the processing. So if I can tell an image has been HDRed, it's too much. It seems the best (most realistic) HDR images I've seen are those that don't include the sky. Just an observation--it would be an interesting thing to look at more closely.

chrissy from uk, United Kingdom

wow spectacular landscape and beautiful colours

14 May 2009 9:05am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

I love this Gary. Thank you for your discussion on this. I often feel that panic, when I am overwhelmed by what is happening and I am reacting to that...I somehow feel that I will never get another chance to photograph a particular happening & freak out- ending up with nothing by trying to do too much. (I am glad to hear that it happens to the pro's too.) Now all I have to learn is how to control it! Easier said than done! :)

14 May 2009 3:32pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy. So much of successful photography is about anticipating. And I find that the more prepared I am, the easier it is for me to react to the unexpected.

Rick Trautner from Greenbrae, CA, United States

Nice image. I'm particularly pleased to hear you experience some of the same angst I do-a vague panic about things happening quickly and not sure I've found the right spot, composition, settings, etc. Knowing it happens to you, I'll be better able to tolerate it next time it happens to me.

14 May 2009 4:04pm

@Rick Trautner: Thanks, Rick. As you know, Don and I like getting our groups in place early so people can get a feel for the location and make sure everything's in order. And as you also know, sometimes getting groups onsite 30 minutes before sunrise is like herding cats. We try to sound all tough about waiting for no one when we reach our designated departure time, but the fact is we're really not that ruthless (but don't tell anyone). Don and I still remember that one morning in the Big Sur workshop when we made it just as the good stuff was starting (can't remember what the hold-up was that morning) but not early enough for everyone to prepare, and you ended up shooting a beautiful sunrise at the previous night's ISO 1600. We really did feel bad about that. Of course since then we've made a point of reminding everyone to reset their ISO for the sunrise shoot. Ahhh, the lessons of experience....

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Gary - you articulate my own feelings about HDR perfectly. On a few occasions, I have created an image with the HDR look but that has always been an experiment and sheerly for fun. I've never so much as printed one. I began taking photography seriously when I was living in the Bay Area in the 60s (I was in my early 30s) and began backpacking in the Sierra. Thus I was greatly influenced by Ansel Adams (in monochrome) and Eliot Porter (color), and later Galen Rowell. I'm very much with you in trying to get as possible right in the camera. However, since I shoot everything in RAW, some processing is required. Part of what I think has happened is that the number of outstanding landscape photographers in the classic mode has dramatically increased. Many people needing to sell their work are looking for ways to stand out, and this has led to some weird stuff. In a similar way, many photographers have given up photographing Yosemite Valley, the parks of Southern Utah, Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, etc. It's kind of like sunrises and sunsets, unless they are absolutely incredible, don't expect them to win competitions (at least in my area). Fortunately I don't have to care. I am able to put all of my energy into becoming more the photographer that I want to be. Looking at your work and Don Smith's takes everything up a notch. Outstanding photographs are my most valuable teacher. You two are superb teachers. Plus, what you both have to say is very, very helpful.

PS - thinking about Hopi Point, we lived in Flagstaff through the 80s and rafted the Canyon a couple of times; plus, hiked down into it a few more times. There is nothing quite like photographing down in the bowels of the Canyon.

14 May 2009 4:35pm

@john4jack: Thanks for your thoughts, Jack. I don't want to give the impression that I don't use or love Photoshop--it's an amazing piece of software that's essential to my finished product. But my workflow is generally limited to curves, dodging and burning, occasional minor cropping, and cloning out small flaws like sensor dust. Not only do I shun HDR, I don't even do any digital blending of images (and can you believe in this day of HDR, digitally blending multiple images via layer masks is "old fashioned"?). The less time I spend in PS, the better. What I'm noticing now is a real move toward "creative" capture and processing (e.g., intentional camera shake, infra-red, stitching, image blending for dynamic range and DOF) as landscape photographers tire of all the Grand Canyon sunsets. The problem is, these gimmicky things are so easy now; once everyone starts doing them, their novelty wears off and they become the new cliche´. But what isn't getting any easier, and what I think will always have staying power, is a well conceived, composed, and captured landscape. The challenge is finding something new (that stands out), but as with all things, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Hmmm..., sounds like a good topic for a blog post.

joel collins from alliance, United States

Hey Rick! I was thinking the same thing-about the anxiety of missing something-and was glad to see Gary experiences that too. BTW, I was there for this shot, mine don't hold a candle...

14 May 2009 6:38pm

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Very beautiful photograph - thanks four sharing your experience

14 May 2009 6:58pm

Rick Trautner from Greenbrae, CA, United States

Hey Joel-Don't you hate that? Actually it's why Gary's the pro-at least that's what I tell myself when I have that experience. Hope you're well! And Gary, it's funny you and Don remember that Big Sur morning-I do as an abject lesson in resetting to my usual defaults after every shoot no matter how late and how tired I am. It was a painful lesson learned well.

14 May 2009 11:19pm

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

superb photo! great explanation too! i am stopping by quickly this time so I just give a 5 star rating for this! wonderful work! it is great to learn from people like yourself!

15 May 2009 5:40am

Don Smith from California, United States

Hi Rick, Tracy and Joel, just had to jump in here and add my two cents worth. Gary has brought up many issues which we could debate at length. On the "angst" issue, I too feel it when the light starts to happen and I'm not "visually prepared" or committed to a location. Sort of like the dream we have all experienced where we are taking that dreaded final exam and forgot to study! Having spent a large portion of my career photographing sports, that feeling is familiar to me. Sports to a large degree is a reactionary experience; but the more one photographs a particular sport, the more one learns to anticipate. Some of my best images come when the adrenaline is flowing and I am in that anticipation mode. The way I turn it into a positive is to have a game plan (with both sports and landscape). That means arriving early to scout or prescouting a location the day before (not always possible in a workshop setting) and anticipating the light (easier said than done). But at other times I am totally in the reactionary mode, I will admit my best images usually come from being prepared, calming my mind, and waiting for the light, but that's also not always reality. My advice is learn to embrace both modes and when you find yourself in the reactionary mode, draw from past experiences and trust your intuition.

15 May 2009 2:58pm

@Don Smith: Thanks for your thoughts, Don. I don't think anticipation and reaction are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they're complementary--different sides of the same coin. Like anticipation, reaction is a function of preparation. If you're prepared, not only are you better able to anticipate shots, you're also better able to react to the unexpected.

Onlymehdi from Wayne, United States

Very Very nice shot

15 May 2009 8:35pm

peter from new york, United States

another outstanding shot. colors are wonderful here!

19 May 2009 9:36pm

Food from Las Cruces, NM, United States

Well done. I always have found the Grand Canyon a difficult place to shoot, if for no other reason than picking a decent foreground without people in it, and having the depth of field problem you mentioned in the background. The place is so huge that it is a compositional nightmare.

10 Jun 2009 1:58pm