Bucket List – Grand Canyon

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O'Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O’Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

The summer travel season is in full swing and, over the next three months, photographers from around the world will descend upon Grand Canyon National Park. They will arrive by car, bus and train. They will number in the hundreds of thousands and all will have the same goal: to make a once-in-a-lifetime photograph.

With annual visitation of nearly 5 million people, Grand Canyon is among the most photographed natural landscapes in the world. While 4 million of those visitors will come from the United States, travelers from around the world make Grand Canyon their vacation destination of choice. 200,000 Brits, nearly the same number of Canadians, 100,000 Japanese, another 100,000 Germans and 50,000 Dutch will be among those visiting the South or North rim of the canyon.

So, what can you do to maximize your chances of capturing that bucket list photo? First and foremost, chase the light. Great light makes for great photographs. A view of Grand Canyon can be awe inspiring at any time of day. But sunrise and sunset are the times when the quality of light is almost guaranteed to be amazing. These “golden hour” times, offer the best and most reliable opportunities to capture great images. Sunrise has the added advantage of being so early in the day – you’ll need to wake up no later than 5:00 AM to catch a 5:30 AM sunrise – that you’ll be competing with relatively small crowds for position to make your bucket list photo.

Second, pay attention to the weather. Grand Canyon is located entirely within the state of Arizona in the American Southwest. Since record keeping began, June is the sunniest and driest month of the year in this part of North America. With July comes the summer monsoon, the annual rainy season for this arid high desert environment. A typical monsoon day will dawn clear and dry. However, humidity and clouds build throughout the day. By late afternoon, thunderstorms dot the horizon throughout the park. Some of the greatest landscape photos feature dramatic weather and its impact on the immediate environment. If you are visiting Grand Canyon in July or August, leave your late afternoon schedule flexible so you can take advantage of clouds, lightning and rain to capture a dramatic landscape photo.

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Evening twilight and a cobalt blue sky frame Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (Bill Ferris)

Third, include a strong foreground element in your photos. Whether the gnarled trunk of a Juniper tree, a blooming cactus or desert plant, or the imposing profile of an inner canyon butte, a strong foreground element gives your photo a subject. It anchors the image and draws the gaze. At Grand Canyon, there are great views to be had from every overlook on both rims. Since the South Rim gets the lion’s share of visitation, those are the overlooks people flock to for their photo ops. Hopi Point is often recommended as “the best” overlook from which take in a sunset. However, I would recommend you explore a variety of overlooks during the day in search of that perfect place from which to photograph sunset or sunrise.

My favorite South Rim overlooks include Desert View, Lipan Point, Yaki Point and Mather Point. Desert View and Lipan Point are exceptional for both sunrise and sunset. The Desert View Watchtower offers a great compositional element. These overlooks also offer the best views of the Colorado River from the South Rim. Yaki Point and Mather Point are also nice sunrise vistas. However, sunsets offer the most dramatic light for photography from these overlooks. Mather Point is conveniently located near the park visitor center. Yaki Point, though technically accessible only by shuttle bus, can be accessed on foot. If you park your vehicle at the picnic area just down the road from the Yaki Point drive entrance, you can follow social trails through the forest to get to the overlooks.

As sunset's golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

As sunset’s golden light washes over Grand Canyon, a summer monsoon rumbles across the great chasm as seen from Cape Royal on the North Rim. (Bill Ferris)

My personal favorite overlook for photography of late afternoon thunderstorms rolling through Grand Canyon National Park, is Cape Royal. Located on the North Rim, Cape Royal offers an astounding view of flat-topped Wotans Throne. The gently curving ridge of Kaibab Limestone connecting the North Rim to Wotans Throne introduces a natural leading line that guides your eye directly to the subject of the photograph. As sunset approaches on a July afternoon, thunderstorms bathe the inner canyon in a brilliant warm glow. The quality of light combined with dramatic weather and  the imposing landscape creates an almost alien scene for the camera. Being a North Rim overlook, photos taken at Cape Royal have the advantage of standing out from the crowd of images made along the South Rim.

To summarize, chasing the golden hour light of sunrise or sunset, taking advantage of a dramatic mid-summer thunderstorm and adding a strong foreground element to your composition are three key things you can do to make a bucket list photo during your visit to Grand Canyon National Park.

In the meantime, get out there and shoot!

Bill Ferris | June 2014

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