Photography 101: Capturing Grand 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. (Photographer and Grand Canyon pioneer, Emery Kolb) You can visit his home and studio in the historic district on the South Rim.

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 edge at all times.

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

How to See and Photograph Wildlife

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 off the pavement or park on roadside vegetation.

Check the Weather
During the summer rainy season (monsoon), afternoon thunderstorms become frequent. Photographers are more at risk from lightning due to the conductive metal that cameras and tripods are made of. If you see lightening or hear thunder, leave the rim and seek shelter immediately. 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. NPS/M.Quinn

Shutter Speed (TV or S)


A good rule of thumb is low shutter speeds tend to blur motion, while higher shutter speeds tend 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 entire image may come out "shaky", or blurry. Low shutter speeds can also be used to 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. NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Aperture (AV or A)

Aperture affects depth of field (subject matter in focus) in photography.

A higher aperture (lower numbered setting) allows more light into the lens and creates a shallow depth of field - good for close ups such as wildflowers, small animals, or portraits of people, where the goal is to have the background out of focus.

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 (higher numbered settings) are preferable for photographing landscapes, where the goal is typically to have everything in focus.

 
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 sensitive.

A high ISO setting often will lead to a grainy, noisy image, whereas a low ISO will be crisper.

Use a high ISO for lowlight, or nighttime situations, such as stargazing.

Use a low ISO for daytime landscapes, to capture greater detail and range of colors.

 
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 impart a soft, even glow on the landscape. NPS/M.Quinn
 

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 Spring Break or Busy Summer Months. 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 Webpage to learn about closures that might affect your trip.

 
The Grand Canyon, illuminated by red light and purple shadows with a layer of dark blue clouds hanging overhead. The trace of a partial rainbow.
Mather Point view illuminated during a stormy sunset. NPS/M.Quinn

On the South Rim

YAKI POINT (East of Grand Canyon Village) Best to shoot here 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. Access is only by free Kaibab Rim Route Shuttle Bus (Orange Route) from the Visitor Center.

MATHER POINT - The classic Grand Canyon view, and for good reason. Sprawling views up and down the canyon, and a distant view of Bright Angel Campground, by Phantom Ranch, at the bottom. This overlook, being so close to the Visitor Center, can also be very crowded, even at daybreak.

MOHAVE POINT (on Hermit Road) A spectacular view of the river looking west. Hermit Rapid (a big one) is plainly seen. During late morning, the sun may illuminate the river, one mile (1609 meters) below the canyon rim. Access is by free Hermit Road Shuttle Bus (Red Route) March through November.

HOPI POINT (on Hermit Road) Another classic South Rim overlook with expansive views both east and west. Vishnu Temple/Wotans Throne are lit by afternoon light. Access is by free Hermit Road Shuttle Bus (Red Route) March through November.

DESERT VIEW POINT - The Watchtower with the river below and the Palisades of the Desert in the background makes a great sunset shot. The view to the east at sunset features a complex series of shilouetted peaks and cliffs. Access is by private vehicle via Desert View Drive (AZ Highway 64)

Here's more detailed information and photos about the scenic viewpoints along Hermit Road and Desert View Drive.

 
a sandy-colored rock column juts out against a distant series of stratified cliffs rising to a flat-top mountain.
Cape Royal on the North Rim. NPS/M.Quinn

On the North Rim

Visiting the North Rim

POINT IMPERIAL - Emotionally, no other dawn viewpoint is as reliably jaw-dropping 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 Mount. Hayden. The vast expanse of the Painted Desert and the Navajo Nation anchors the eastern horizon. 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 (South Rim) had a view like this! If you're staying on the North Rim, you don't have to go far for a great sunset. Choose among the guardrail lined viewpoints and prepare yourself for a dramatic display. Set up early, as they all draw crowds.

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 (best captured in the morning or midday) and you have a place to spend hours contemplating (and maybe taking a photo or two) of Grand Canyon.

 
A patch of green trees and bushes in the middle of scrubland with redwall cliffs in the background.
The Tonto Trail that travels east and west across the Tonto Plateau can be accessed by most South Rim trails, Including the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails. NPS/M.Quinn

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 Colorado River. However, getting there is no small feat. Even for experienced hikers, carrying heavy camera equipment in addition to the bare necessities (Water, food, rain gear, etc.) requires extra effort.

It is always a good idea to check in with the Backcountry Information Center for current trail conditions, and to be on the lookout for harsh weather conditions. Note: most below-the-rim trails have no potable water for hikers; in fact, when hiking below the rim, a method to treat water must always be part of your gear - as water availability may change while you are hiking. During the summer, it is best to hike before 10 am or after 4 pm to avoid the extreme heat of day. Before setting out, be sure to consult our Hiking FAQ.

CEDAR RIDGE - A 1.5 mile hike down the South Kaibab Trail, starting at the trailhead 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: there is no water avaliable on this trail, and shade is scarce. The only trailhead access is by free Kaibab Rim Route (Orange Route) shuttle bus from the Visitor Center. During summer months, ranger-guided hikes to Cedar Ridge depart from the trailhead daily at 7 am. Allow 4 hours for the round trip.

HORSESHOE MESA - The 3 mile hike to Horseshoe Mesa begins at Grandview Point, 12.5 miles (20 km) east of the village. The Grandview Trail 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 incomparable views of Wotan's Throne, Vishnu Temple, Angel's Gate, Coronado Butte, and a distant view of the Colorado River. There are also remnants of Peter Berry's 1890s "Last Chance" copper mine. If you are interested in this hike, please consult the Backcountry Information Center. All overnight trips into the canyon require a backcountry permit. Grandview Trailhead to Horshoe Mesa is a round trip of 6 miles (10 km) The change in elevation is 2,500 feet (670 m).

PLATEAU POINT - A relatively flat 1.5 miles past Indian Garden Campground is Plateau Point, offering a stunning view of the Colorado River and the inner canyon. If you are interested in this outing, consider booking a night or two at Indian Garden Campground, since this is a strenuous day hike that takes from 8-12 hours. The total round trip from the trailhead is 12.2 miles (19.6 km) The change in elevation is 3,195 feet ( 974 m ).

 
These are a few tips to improve your Grand Canyon photography. Try applying some of these techniques during your visit. The NPS Beginner's Photography Guide provides additional tips to improve your outdoor photography. Happy shooting!

If you are looking for photography instruction, consider a Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute class. They offer classes throughout the year that highlight winter, summer rains, and fall colors for photographers of all skill levels. Visit https://www.grandcanyon.org/classes-tours/classes/photography-art-writing-and-yoga-classes/ for full details, or call (866) 471-4435.

Photo tip from Mike Buchheit: "As a longtime resident, hiker, and river runner, I’ve been shooting the canyon for more than two decades. I would encourage photographers to devote their time to sunrise and sunset (referred to as the Golden Hour), make LOTS of exposures, “work” the scene (don’t stand in one place the entire time), and don’t forget to enjoy the views. You can spend all your time trying to capture impressions that you can share with friends; friends that would rather have YOU enjoying the experience. Have fun, be safe, and good luck!"
 
A group of photographers with tripods mingle on a scenic overlook.

Last updated: June 10, 2019

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 129
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023

Phone:

928-638-7888

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