Occupying the north western region of Arizona, the Grand Canyon is the result of seventeen million years of natural erosion from the Colorado River. Sections of the canyon are up to eighteen miles wide and have an average depth of one mile that snakes for 277 miles (446 km). So with only an afternoon and morning scheduled to explore and photograph, it doesn’t really make me qualified to tell anybody where the best places to shoot.
Photographing the Grand Canyon with limited time shouldn’t be too stressful though. Nearly everywhere you go, there is a unique vantage point with mind boggling views. There are viewing platforms within close proximity to carparks, with unrestricted access to most places, allowing visitors should they choose, the ability to get perilously close to the canyon edge. I’ve seen some impressive canyons and valleys, but nothing is as impressive and in your face as the Grand Canyon.
Here are my tips for photographing the South rim of the Grand Canyon if you have a limited schedule.
Shoot before the sun is up and after it has set
Daytime light can be harsh, especially when you have to deal with extremities in highlights and shadows in the canyon. Shooting prior to the sun rising and after it has set prior to blue hour will provide the best chance of having a properly balanced exposure between the highlights and shadows.
Once the sun is up, use the remaining time to scout out other locations around the park. Also, keep note of the direction of sun and the opposing shadows, as this will affect the direction you will shoot. You want to be shooting away from the sunrise/sunset in order to capture all of the shadow detail in the canyon.
Filters are your best friends
I try not to use filters if I don’t have to, which is still a rare occurrence. In the Grand Canyon, you are trying to extract as much detail as possible from the shadows within the deepest parts of the canyon, so graduated neutral density filters will make life easier for you. They allow a longer shutter speed to capture detail within the canyon, while the darker areas of the filter prevent the highlights in the sky above the canyon from being overexposed.
Make sure that you have a sturdy tripod when using filters and a longer shutter speed. I had my 3-stop soft grad filter on my lens the entire time.
Shoot a panorama
Words can’t describe the enormity of the Grand Canyon; that’s why panoramic photography was invented! By taking multiple images in a panning motion, you’re able to stitch them together in Photoshop or Lightroom into a panoramic image. It is possible to hand hold or take the images on a tripod, but a panorama head makes easy work of the process.
My tip for when taking a pano would be to approach it like any image and determine what the key elements of the image will be in the scene; otherwise, it will end up as an image with nothing interesting or with too many distractions in it.
But also, zoom into the details
After taking your wide shots, hone in on the detail and try to identify particular shapes, lines and patterns of colours that be used within a composition. There’s two billion years of the earth’s timeline caked into the geology in the canyon; it would be a waste not to capture that detail.
Find a viewpoint then explore
The viewpoints closest to the carparks will always be the most popular locations and still provide a great spot for a photo. There are also other paths that take you in either direction that can provide access to different perspectives. If you’re feeling extra adventurous then it is possible to go off the beaten path and get right up close and personal to the canyon rim.
Social media plays a huge role in discovering new places as well as providing breathtaking angles and perspectives. However, don’t become a statistic by trying to imitating a photo that may require you to get into a foolishly dangerous position.
Be extra careful of where you set foot, especially on icy and loose terrain when going off the path. A park ranger that I spoke to said that there are twelve fatalities each year resulting from visitors falling off the edge, mainly from unnecessary reasons such as taking selfies or not looking where they walking whilst taking photos. He also told me that lightning strikes are a major hazard in the area and should be treated like any scenario when there is lightning storm in your own backyard.
Other useful tips
Accommodation within the village of the Grand Canyon National Park (South rim) is limited, expensive and booked out well in advance. I stayed inside the village by finding a host on Couchsurfing who worked within the park. This worked well for me because it was only a few minutes from the main visitor centre and provided fast and easy access.
More affordable accommodation can be found in Flagstaff about fifteen minutes from the park. Consider using Bookings.com if searching for accomodation there.
Food options are limited
If you’re picky about what you want to eat then options for food are quite limited and the quality is not the best. It is best to stock up prior to entering the park, especially on snacks and water.
The bus system is quite good
If you don’t want the hassle of driving around in the park, then the internal bus system is fast and leave on a regular basis
Consider get an NPS annual park pass
An National Park Service annual pass costs $80USD and allows unlimited access to the network of national parks in the US. The pass is applicable per vehicle, so grab your friends and make an adventure out of it.
Tools used in this session
- Nikon D610
- Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 VC – For both wide, close up and panorama images.
- Sirui Carbon Tripod – Most shot were between 2 and 4 seconds on a windy evening, requiring a sturdy tripod.
- Lee Filters – Mainly 0.9 (3 Stop) Soft grad neutral density filter.
- Novoflex Panorama kit – Make perfect panos every time.
- Vello Wireless Remote – Along with exposure delay ensures the sharpest images.
- Adobe CC – Lightroom and Photoshop for colour and contrast correction, and panorama stitching.
- OnOne Perfect Effects v9 for the finished look.