Grand Canyon


Photographer Hart Kannegiesser provided the details and images for the Grand Canyon destination.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular destinations for photographers in the United States. The scenery is spectacular. The ways in which to photograph it are virtually limitless. The choice in vantage points alone can be overwhelming. Vantage point options together with variations in time of day, time of year, weather, and light ensure that you never shoot the same picture twice.

Planning, Orientation and Getting Around

When planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, you need to think about whether to limit yourself to the South Rim, or whether to include the North Rim as well. The North Rim is harder to get to (5 to 6 hours driving time from Flagstaff), has fewer accommodations to choose from, and has only a handful of easily accessible vantage points. Because its elevation is higher than that of the South Rim, it has harsh winters with lots of snow, and is closed from mid-October to May. On the plus side, there are no big crowds to contend with. Many travelers combine the North Rim with a visit to the beautiful parks in southern Utah.

For a South Rim visit most people stay in one of the lodges or hotels in Grand Canyon Village or nearby Tusayan. For the most part these are not great but adequate. El Tovar hotel ranks above the rest, but is also more expensive. RV or tent camping is an option if that is your cup of tea.

For serious photography, give yourself plenty of time. If you have not been there before, it takes a day or two to acquaint yourself with the layout of the rim, and to figure out the logistics of getting around. Some of the best South Rim photography is on the west side. Most of the year the west portion of the South Rim is off-limits for private cars and can be accessed only via shuttle bus (you can drive the west side in your own car in December, January and February). Shuttle buses run year round from 4AM till well after sunset to accommodate sunrise and sunset viewing (and photography).

On the east side of the South Rim, Yaki point is closed to private cars year round. It has its own shuttle bus line. To all other east side viewpoints you have to drive your own car. Adequate parking is available at most viewpoints.

Which are the best view points for photographers? There is no simple answer. It depends on time of year, time of day, weather, and of course what you hope to accomplish. Some of my favorites are Hopi Point, Mojave Point and Pima Point on the west side, and Yaki Point, Grandview Point, and Lipan Point on the east side. Mather Point and Yavapai Point are centrally located next to the visitor center. They provide great views, but are not ideal for serious photography because of the crowds.

You are of course not limited to the developed view points. Excellent photo locations can often be found on either side of designated viewpoints, and at other points along the rim trail. These can be just as good for photography and you don’t have to contend with crowds. For the venturesome and physically strong, there are countless photo opportunities in the canyon interior that can be explored via rafting, or by backpacking on the trails.

Photography Tips

On days with clear skies, photography is best limited to around sunrise and sunset (both before and after sunrise and sunset). Shooting in mid-day on clear days is a waste of time in my experience.

Some of the best photography can be had on clear days before sunrise and after sunset. The indirect light from the eastern/western sky during the 30 or so minutes before sunrise and after sunset lets you create images with great detail and wonderfully saturated colors.   Assuming your camera is on a tripod, go with the aperture of your choice (f/5.6 to f/11 will do nicely in most situations) and ISO (probably 100) and let the shutter speed fall where it may. Long exposures work well because in canyon images you generally don’t have to worry about subject motion.

Before-sunrise photography presents some challenges. It will still be dark when you arrive and set up. For your safety, and for the sake of good photography, scout your vantage point the day before. Practice and memorize every small detail of setup and composition. A flashlight is a must. Live view, if your camera has it, will facilitate composition in the dark, but it still helps to plan your composition in advance. After-sunset photography is easier, because you have daylight during preparation.

Overcast conditions have the potential for decent photography all day long, but low contrast can be a problem, especially if there is also haze.

Haze can be caused by weather conditions, or can be due to fires (naturally occurring or prescribed control burns). Control burns are extinguished before sundown, so if haze is caused by a control burn, hang in there and wait for the air to clear.

The monsoon season (July and August) with its sometimes spectacular skies may provide opportunities for dramatic and unusual shots, but think about your safety if thunderstorms are nearby.

I have no personal experience with Grand Canyon winter photography. We all have seen wonderful canyon photographs with fresh snow on the rim. Snowstorms occur every winter on the rim. Unfortunately we don’t know about their timing when we make travel plans. So coming home with nice winter images is largely a matter of luck.

Managing white balance can be tricky in some canyon images. Due to the enormous dimensions of the canyon, the characteristics of light in different parts of an image may be different. A single global white balance setting may therefore not give a satisfactory result. You may have to make local white balance adjustments using adjustment layers with appropriate masking.