Photography 101: Capturing the Canyon

A group of visitors stand facing a sunset-lit canyon, photographing it with smart phones and traditional cameras.
Both amateur and professional photographers flock to Grand Canyon for its views.
A man hangs down on a rope between two boulders holding a large, antique camera.
Photography has become more accessible since the 1900s.

Photography has a long history at Grand Canyon: from the Kolb Brothers pioneering the art of photographing the canyon in the early 1900s, to countless visitors worldwide coming to capture vast landscapes and stunning vistas on smartphone to treasure for years to come.

To honor this history, we need your help to help preserve the park for future photographers.

When you're in the park, protect the things you come to enjoy, as well as yourself and other photographers by following some simple rules:

Keep your eye on the Trail
When on the rim, always keep your eye on the path and stop walking before shooting. Please be aware of your surroundings and remain at least six feet away from the ledge at all times.

Zoom in with your Lens, not your Feet
Do not approach or pursue animals to take their picture. Wild animals contain infectious diseases and can be aggressive. Keep both animals and yourself safe, by remaining a minimum of 25 yards away from large animals. Do not solicit animals with food.

Park in Roadside Pullouts
Don’t block traffic to take pictures. Keep roads clear and stay with your vehicle if you encounter heavy traffic. Don’t drive or park on roadside vegetation.

Check the Weather
During monsoon, thunderstorms become frequent. Photographers are more at risk due to the conductive metal that cameras and tripods are made of. If you see lightening or hear thunder, leave the rim and go indoors immediatly. Likewise, be aware of extreme heat or cold.


Photography Tips

Taking photos is a great way to make your Grand Canyon trip last. Whether you share them on social media or compile them into a scrapbook, having great photos of your adventure is the best souvenir. But how do you get great photos? Not all cameras are created equal, but a few simple tricks will help you capture what it really means to be at Grand Canyon.

A waterfall descends off a ledge, through midair and lands on a mossy outcropping. The water is slightly blurred.
Though flowing water on the rim is nonexistent, areas such as Ribbon Falls on the North Kaibab trail provide scenic photos.

Mike Quinn

Shutter speed (TV or s) – A good rule of thumb is low shutter speeds give your image more blur, higher shutter speeds will give a crisper image. Low shutter speed may be good to smooth out waterfalls or river rapids, while high shutter speeds capture objects in motion, such as animals or kids who have had too much ice cream. Note that it is recommended you use a tripod for low shutter speed, or else the image may come out blurry. Low shutter speeds can also shoot time lapse photos.

An orange butterfly perches on a flower with thin purple petals, the background is out of focus and shows other such flowers.
Orange sulfur butterfly-adjust the aperture to alter the depth of field and blur or sharpen your image background.

Robb Hannawacker

Aperture (AV or A) – Aperture affects depth of field in photography. A higher aperture allows more light into the lens and creates a shallow depth of field- good for close ups such as wildflowers or small animals. A similar effect can be done with a camera’s zoom from a distance, creating an image with a crisp subject and a blurred background. Lower apertures are preferable for photographing landscapes.

A thick band of stars in the night sky rise behind a dark silhouetted grove of pine trees.
Adjusting ISO helps capture Grand Canyon's famous dark skies.

ISO: ISO is reflective of light sensitivity. A high ISO will be more sensitive to light, where a low ISO will be less so. A high ISO setting will lead to a grainy, noisy image, whereas a low ISO will be crisper. Using a high ISO is ideal for lowlight or nighttime situations, such as stargazing.

A single man with a backpack hikes uphill, towards a golden sunset background.
Bright Angel Trail at sundown. The hour following sunrise or leading up to sunset can give the photo a soft, even glow on the subject.

When to Shoot

Sometimes the answer to your photography woes can be solved with a simple change in time. The following provide suggestions of when you should and should not shoot:

  • Golden Hour: Do shoot at the golden hour. The golden hour is the time shortly after sunrise or before sunset. At these times, the sun casts a warmer glow and the lighting is soft.

  • High noon: Do not shoot at high noon. Direct sunlight casts harsh lighting on the image. When shooting people at this time, the sun will cast a shadow from their nose and eyes, and will likely be unflattering.

  • Cloudy day: It depends. With slightly overcast weather, the lighting in your images becomes much softer, making it much easier to shoot when people are involved. Also, you avoid the risk of overexposure from bright sunlight. However, a lack of light makes it more difficult to capture motion shots of wildlife.

  • Sunny day: It depends. While bright, sunny days often result in overexposed images, this can be counteracted with the right camera settings. The biggest issue in shooting on a sunny day is trying to shoot people because of shadows on their face. Again, this can be counteracted with the right equipment, such as a diffuser. However, sunny days provide the best opportunity to shoot moving subjects or landscapes.


Popular Shots

Pack your patience if you intend to photograph any of these views during the busy summer months (summer trip planner link). Traffic can be heavy and parking limited to nonexistant at certain times of day. Before you visit any of these areas, check our current conditions (current condition link) page to learn about closures that might affect your trip.

The Grand Canyon, illuminated by red light and purple shadows with darker clouds hanging overhead.
Mather point illuminated during a stormy sunset.

On the South Rim

YAKI POINT - Best to shoot at dawn. Look east and Vishnu Temple and Wotans Throne are silhouetted against the dawn sky. If there are clouds or vapors, this can be awesome. Look west (and below), O'Neill Butte and the South Kaibab Trail are lit by the dawn light. Beyond, the Canyon stretches for miles.

MATHER POINT - The classic Grand Canyon view, and for good reason. Monstrous views up and down the canyon, and a view of Phantom Ranch (using binoculars) at the bottom. However, in the morning, you view the "dark" unlit side of O'Neill Butte at Mather. It can also be very crowded, even at 6:00am.

MOHAVE POINT - A spectacular view of the river looking west. Hermit Rapid (a big one) is plainly seen. During late morning, the sun may hit the river.

HOPI POINT - Another classic South Rim view. Vishnu Temple/Wotans Throne are lit by the PM light.

DESERT VIEW - The Watchtower with the river below and the Palisades of the Desert in the background is a great sunset shot.

Learn more about these points and get directions to the viewpoints along Hermit Road and Desert View Drive.

Sandy colored rock juts out against Grand Canyon landscape.
Cape Royal at the North Rim.

Michael Quinn

On the North Rim

POINT IMPERIAL - Emotionally, no other dawn viewpoint stimulates as Point Imperial. The highest viewpoint at Grand Canyon, Imperial Towers over 2500 feet above the opposite rim. From here you look down into the Nankoweap Basin and at Mt. Hayden. The vast expanse of the Navajo Reservation stretches beyond, seemingly forever. Here, you see a true sunrise as the sun actually rises over the distant horizon.

BRIGHT ANGEL POINT / GRAND CANYON LODGE (patio & dining room) - If only the El Tovar Hotel Dining Room (S) had a view like this! If you're staying on the North Rim, you don't have to go far for a great sunset.

CAPE ROYAL - One of the finest views at Grand Canyon. Below, the Colorado River makes a giant arc changing from a southerly flowing river to a northwesterly flowing river. Here you are literally surrounded by a 300+ degree view of the Grand Canyon. Add in Angels Window (a PM shot, usually) and you have a place to spend hours contemplating (and maybe taking a photo or two) of the Grand Canyon.

A patch of green trees and bushes in the middle of scrubland with redwall cliffs in the background.
The Tonto Trail can be accessed by most South Rim trails, such as the Bright Angel trail or the South Kaibab.

Below the Rim
Panoramic photos from below the rim can be unique. The size of the canyon becomes more evident in photos from below the rim. Exploring the inner canyon can lead to some truly one of a kind, intimate photos of streams, side canyons, and the river. However, getting there is no small feat. Even for experienced hikers, carrying heavy camera equipment in addition to the necessities requires extra effort. Before going on an unmaintained trail always check in with the Backcountry office and please be aware of harsh weather conditions and the fact that many trails have scarce or no water. Before setting out, be sure to consult our hiking FAQ.

Cedar Ridge - A 1.5 mile hike down the South Kaibab Trail, starting near Yaki Point. The South Kaibab trail is much more exposed than the Bright Angel, allowing sweeping vistas even just a short ways down. Please note that there is no water avalible on this trail, and on hot days, shade is scarce.

Horseshoe Mesa - Horseshoe Mesa is accessable by the trailhead at Grandview Point, east of the village. It is a lesser maintained and very strenueous trail. The first mile offers spectacular canyon views. Horseshoe Mesa itself juts far into the canyon, and offers incomperable views of Wotan's Throne, Vishnu Temple, Angel's Gate, Coronado Butte, and a distant view of the river. There are also remnants of Peter Berry's 1890s "Last Chance" copper mine including a couple of mine shafts. If you are interested in this hike, please consult the Backcountry office and consider spending a night or two at the mesa.

Plateau Point - A flat 1.5 miles past the Indian Gardens campsite is Plateau Point, offering an unmatched stunning view of the river and Phantom Ranch. Follow the Tonto Trail west and be sure to catch a sunrise or sunset. If you are interested in this spot, consider booking a night or two at Indian Gardens.

These are a few tips to improve your Grand Canyon photography. Try applying some of these techniques during your visit. To go more in depth on some of these tips, visit the NPS Beginner's Photography Guide for some tips on outdoor photography. Happy shooting!
A group of photographers with tripods mingle on a scenic overlook.

Last updated: July 23, 2018

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Grand Canyon, AZ 86023



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