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.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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