Dealing with a boring sunset at Horseshoe Bend

The one thing that I love about the city of Page in Arizona is that both Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are within close proximity to each other. This allows you to comfortably fit in a visit to both sights in one day. Horseshoe Bend is the classic shot that you will see of Arizona alongside Antelope Canyon, so it’s one of those unmissable places if you are ever to come to Arizona.

The main problem as a photographer with Horseshoe Bend is the limited variations on how to photograph it. What you see in the photos is pretty much the only composition that you can get at the location (unless if you have a drone). It is literally a massive bend in the shape of a horse shoe with an approximately 1,000 feet drop from the canyon rim to the water level below.

horseshoe band edge

The river is so far below that you have to perch yourself right at the edge of the canyon.

I arrived at Horseshoe Bend in the late afternoon after shooting Lower Antelope Canyon. Already, there were a lot of people there, literally hanging by the canyons edge. I’m not sure how many people fall off over the edge per year, but I would have  imagine that it would be quite a few, given there are no safety barriers in place.

Dealing with a boring sunset

As a photographer, there’s nothing more boring than the empty space in an image due to absence of clouds. Clouds provide to an image the mood, drama and an overall balance that many of us are unconsciously aware of. Unfortunately this is what I got that afternoon. I did manage to take the classic sunset composition with a sunburst on the horizon, but I was hoping for something else that was different and more dramatic.

From the previous images that I came across online, I didn’t see many that were taken from night, so I decided to stick around for some astro photography. As day turned into night, it was only myself, a gentleman from California and a traveling Frenchman who decided to stick around for the long haul.

horseshoe bend astro

A composite of two images: One of the canyon in a landscape orientation and another which was a multiple panorama of the sky composed of 2 x rows of 11 vertical images.

The Milky Way happened to be rising directly in front of us that evening, however the current moon cycle was approaching full, ensuring that the Milky Way core would be barely visible to the human eye. The only benefit from a near full moon was that as it rose at a higher angle throughout the evening, the canyon below would be fully illuminated, making focusing and capturing a sharp image quite easy.

Go wide with your lens choice

The key to shooting at Horseshoe Bend is to use the widest lens that you have. I was using my 16-35 mm lens and all of my images were shot at a 16mm focal length. Anything narrower and you will start cutting into the Colorado River.

If you have a lens that isn’t wide enough, usually I would say to shoot a panorama. However, in this case it would be extremely difficult to stitch a panorama due to the lens distortion. The reason why you’ll see so many people at the edge is that the river in the image is located not too far out from the edge; you could almost throw a stone over the edge and into the river. So by pointing the camera downward at such a steep angle distorts the perspective significantly. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, you will just need to take a lot of shots with at least 50% overlap to compensate for the distortion if taken with a wide angle lens.

horseshoe bend page sunset

Shot at sunset. A blend of two images, one for the sky and another for the foreground. Settings: 16mm, f13, 0.6sec, ISO50

Don’t just shoot at sunset

Although I didn’t photograph this location in the morning, it would be an easier location to shoot during this time because the sun is rising from behind you. You will also find that the morning light will also illuminate the distant Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, thus adding more depth and separation to your image as well.

Be prepared for any conditions

It can be easy to forget that this place is pretty much a desert and susceptible to temperature fluctuations. The location of Horseshoe bend isn’t too far from the carpark, but you want to make sure that you are sufficiently equipped with warm clothing, food and water. While I was there, the temperature had dropped to near freezing, requiring a beanie (warm hat), gloves, polar fleece and a down jacket.

horseshoe bend portrait

This couple from California were doing some portrait shots by the edge. She had made an effort to wear something elegant and he was shooting with just an iPhone. I had nothing else to do but wait for the sunset, so I offered to take a shot for them with my camera. Settings: 16mm, 1/20sec, f7.1 ISO400

Other useful information

Getting there

Horseshoe Bend is located just off Highway 98, seven kilometres from Page in Northern Arizona. The carpark is situated about a kilometre from the bend, so make sure you allow approximately fifteen minutes to stroll over and to find a location to shoot.

Where to stay

Page is the closest city with many options ranging from mid range to budget hotels, restaurants, cafes and a shopping centre. I stayed at Rodeway Inn.

What equipment to bring

Photography gear I used
  • Nikon D610 camera
  • Nikon 16-35mm VR F4 lens– Shooting at 16mm, I just managed to get the entire bend in.
  • Sirui Carbon Fibre Tripod
  • Lee Filters – Mainly 0.9 (3 Stop) Soft grad neutral density filter.
  • Novoflex Panorama kit – I used this for the night time shoots to capture 2 x vertical rows shooting at nearly a 180 degree field of view and then blending it with the single landscape image of the canyon that was moonlit.
  • Vello Wireless Remote – Along with 1 second exposure delay ensures the sharpest images.
Other accessories
  • Down Jacket – Light, compact and super warm.
  • Headlamp – There is no lighting on location, so you will require a headlamp to find your way back to the carpark in the dark.
  • Gore Tex Gloves and hat.
  • Water and Cliff Bars.
Software
  • Adobe CC – Lightroom and Photoshop for colour and contrast correction, and panorama  stitching.
  • OnOne Perfect Effects v9 for the finished look.
  • Skyguide App – To determine where the Milky Way will appear

If you would like to see any of these images from Horseshoe Bend hanging on your wall as a high quality print, you can purchase them HERE.

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