The Grand Canyon is a window into the geological history of the earth. Some rocks are 1.7 billion years old. Every time I visit, I am awestruck. The canyon hasn’t changed much in my lifetime but due to weather, clouds, and lighting it always looks different. My photographs are never the same.
The South Rim of the canyon is a very busy place, with visitors from all over the world. Late fall and winter are quieter times. Accommodations inside the National Park should be booked early. I made my reservation 13 months in advance of my recent trip, when rooms first became available for the time of my visit.
Convenient accommodations are also available in nearby Tusayan. I stayed in Tusayan when I traveled with my dog, as I was able to find a dog-friendly motel. Leashed dogs are allowed on trails on the rim, but not down below into the canyon. There is also a kennel available on the South Rim. Advance reservations are recommended.
Parking can be a problem in the Village area, and near the hotels at the rim. It might be best to find a parking spot and leave your car, making use of the shuttle bus system. The shuttle buses are very good, arriving on time and often.
Photographing the Grand Canyon is as much about photographing the light affected by clouds and weather, as it is about photographing the canyon. The weather report, however, is not always correct. We expected boring skies for our recent sunrise and sunset shots, with a thick cloud cover totally covering the sun. We set up our tripods anyway, hoping for a miracle. And each morning and night we had one. The sky broke open, and those beautiful rays of the sun filtered through. One night we even had rain, although precipitation was not predicted. (It’s for that reason I usually keep a rain poncho in my backpack for me and a little rain jacket for my camera. I also carry a small umbrella and use it to shield my camera and keep raindrops off the lens.)
Rain adds drama to photographs, so we were thrilled with the rain shower. This unexpected rainfall was in October, but mid-July to mid-September is the monsoon season in Arizona, and you will have a better chance of thick stormy clouds or rainbows filling the sky.
Sunrise and sunset are, of course, the times to photograph the canyon. Arrive at least 60 minutes before the sun rises or sets. Hopefully you will beat the crowds and will have time to scout around for a spot set up your tripod. Always have a headlamp with you or flashlight. It can get pretty dark.
The big question at the South Rim is where to go for sunrise and sunset. Everyone has a different opinion. The best answer is: “It depends.” Do you want the sun in your photograph as it rises or sets, backlighting and creating silhouettes, or would you prefer the sun be opposite the canyon walls you are shooting, lighting the walls directly? Do you visualize a broad vista of the canyon, or a more intimate section? Perhaps you would like a panorama that includes the Colorado River? Many viewpoints do not include the river.
My advice is to research where the sun will be in relation to the different sections of the canyon. If you have time, scout out locations before you make a decision. Once you arrive at your chosen viewpoint, don’t forget to move around to compose your images, keeping a very watchful eye on beams of light and the shadows of clouds on the landscape. Clouds move quickly, changing the scene, so you may have to work very fast. Consider using trees and outcroppings of rock as foreground elements. Try different lenses, from wide-angle to telephoto.
The dynamic range of the light can be extreme, between the top of the canyon and sky and the lower recesses of the canyon. Use graduated neutral density filters to darken the sky, or bracket and blend images when processing. My preference is to bracket and then blend images together either in Photoshop or in an HDR software application such as Photomatix. I feel I have better control of the final image and don’t have to be concerned about the placement of the filter and the graduated line between light and dark. The light might be best 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset. That was certainly the case for my visits.
Some suggestions for sunrise and sunset photography locations, per recommendations I received from Park Rangers, photographers, and guidebooks:
Sunrise locations: from Mather Point to Yavapai Point, Hopi Point, Powell Point, Pima Point, and Moran Point.
Sunset: Hopi Point, Mojave Point, Yaki Point; Mather Point, Lipan Point, Navajo Point and Desert View.
Hopi, Powell, Pima, and Mojave Points are accessed through the Hermits Rest Route shuttle bus, which starts near Bright Angel Lodge. Mather Point is close to the main Visitor’s Center and parking. Yavapai Point is walking distance from Mather Point. Yaki Point is reached with the South Kaibab Trail shuttle bus, available near the main Visitor Center. Lipton Point, Navajo Point, Moran Point and Desert View are all on the east side of the park, and can only be accessed by car.
A trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon requires planning, patience and luck. Planning to get you where you want to be when you want to be there. Patience with crowds and parking spaces. Luck for weather, dynamic skies and clouds. But, once you find your own special spot and set up your tripod, you will be in a world within yourself, taking in all the beauty that surrounds you, as you make your photographs.