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Photographer’s Guide To Bryce Canyon National Park

 

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor's Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor’s Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)

I first visited Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park in 2005.  Melissa and I spent a half day touring the overlooks before unanimously deciding that we were unimpressed and should move on to a more interesting location.  In 2012 I was passing by Bryce Canyon on a motorcycle trip when something compelled me to give it another shot.  I rode through a summer monsoon storm along the scenic drive to the end at Rainbow Point, stopping at each overlook to enjoy the view.  I don’t know what inside of me changed but this time, I was awestruck.  I called Melissa and convinced her we needed to plan a trip to Bryce.  She reluctantly agreed.  We came back with our son later that summer and she too was surprised to find herself fascinated by this marvelous canyon.  We camped for two days and hiked among the fanciful hoodoos.  I’ve gone back a couple more times in the last year and am already eagerly planning another trip.

You would think it relatively easy to create beautiful photographs at a place this scenic.  You would be wrong.  Bryce Canyon is a complex place.  Finding a cohesive composition in the right light requires careful study.  Though I’ve visited a number of times I have exactly one photo from Bryce that I consider print-worthy and only half a dozen or so that are marketable (excluding outdoor adventure photographs).  With this post I hope to share a few lessons I’ve learned over several visits that may help to increase your chances of producing quality images.

General Strategies for Photography at Bryce Canyon National Park

The vast majority of overlooks at Bryce Canyon face more or less east so in the morning you’re essentially shooting into the sunrise.  Yes, there are exceptions at some of the side canyons but generally speaking you’ll greet the morning sun head on.  Use this to your advantage!  The light that Bryce Canyon is famous for is that soft, warm glow of reflected light and at Bryce it is strongest at sunrise.  The red hoodoos and badlands absorb sunrise light and bounce it onto the backsides of hoodoos, filling in shadows and giving the entire scene an amazing radiance.  Use a small aperture (i.e. f/16 or smaller) to create a sunburst just as the sun creeps above the horizon.  If you’re including sky in your composition be prepared to deal with the extreme dynamic range between bright sky and darker canyon.  In the past I used graduated neutral density filters.  Now I blend exposures by hand using luminosity masks and am far more pleased with the results.

Don’t stop photographing right after sunrise.  Mid to late-morning is also excellent as you’ll still find wonderful reflected light even hours after sunrise.  This is also a good time to utilize longer focal length lenses to isolate hoodoos or features inside the canyon for a more intimate view.

Afternoon and sunset is a more challenging time to photograph at Bryce Canyon.  The setting sun casts long shadows into the canyon at most overlooks and only the tops of the hoodoos are bathed in light.  Don’t give up though!  Ten to thirty minutes after sunset you may find a pastel pink and blue sky appear above the canyon – Earth Shadow – and a soft glow upon the landscape.  This light is exquisite and very easy to work with as it is low in dynamic range; you can usually record the entire scene in a single exposure.  Clouds may also offer an opportunity for sunset photography as they bounce light into the canyon, filling in some of the shadows just enough to prevent them from completely blocking up.

Choosing the right lens for photography at Bryce Canyon can be challenging.  You will be tempted to go wide by the seemingly endless views but beware of distortion that causes hoodoos on the edges of the frame to bend outward.  I’m not suggesting that you keep your wide angle lenses stashed away – just know that you will need to make some perspective corrections in post-processing.  There are a couple of ways to avoid this: use a tilt/shift lens or stitch two or more frames together to create a single image.  If I had one, a tilt/shift lens would be my first choice.  If you choose to stitch photos together I recommend that you use a moderate focal length of around 50mm and shoot in a vertical orientation.  This technique is often used to create panoramic photographs but if you only use two or three frames you can create an image with a normal aspect ratio.  Another benefit to this technique is that the final image will likely be of a higher resolution than a single-frame photograph.  Go ahead and make those large prints!  Jim Goldstein wrote an excellent tutorial titled “Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography” that I highly recommend for those of you who are new to this technique.

Every season has something to offer at Bryce Canyon.  Spring temperatures are very pleasant and wildflowers begin to bloom, adding dashes of color to the landscape.  In the summer, dramatic storm clouds build almost every afternoon.  Aspen leaves turn bright yellow in fall and contrast sharply against dark evergreens.  Winter snows create unique and peaceful scenes and also drive away most tourists but be prepared for brutally cold conditions.

Locations to Photograph at Bryce Canyon National Park

What Bryce Canyon National Park lacks in size it more than makes up for in opportunity, which is to say that you’ll find yourself in a target rich environment the moment you cross into the park.  Familiarize yourself with the park before you arrive by visiting the Bryce Canyon National Park website.  Here you can read the aptly named park newspaper, “The Hoodoo“, which also contains valuable information about hiking trails and a good map that provides a birds-eye view of the park.  For a map with more detail I highly recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map, #219.

Locations that follow are listed in the order in which they appear as you drive through the park beginning at the park boundary just outside of Bryce City.

Fairyland Canyon

I only discovered Fairyland Canyon last year and have yet to make a dynamic image there.  That said, I believe this relatively small overlook has tremendous potential.  The hoodoos below are densely packed into the canyon with Boat Mesa rising to the south.  In August I found colorful rabbitbrush blooming alongside the trail and ominous monsoon storm clouds in the sky.

Sunrise Point

You don’t need solid detective skills to deduce that Sunrise Point is a great spot to photograph sunrise.  However, it is also one of the better spots for sunset photography.  Sunrise Point is on the northern side of Bryce Amphitheater, which is also overlooked at Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points.

Sunset Point

I find the views from Sunset Point a little more interesting than those from Sunrise Point.  I wouldn’t call them better – just different.  Sunset Point is a very popular overlook and is often crowed with tourists.  Despite the name, I don’t recommend it for sunset photography unless you’re lucky enough to have great clouds to bounce light into the canyon.  There are some good opportunities here for panoramic photography.

Thor’s Hammer

A short walk down the trail from Sunset Point delivers you to an exceptional view of Thor’s Hammer, perhaps the most famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon.  I’ve photographed Thor’s Hammer at sunrise, mid-morning and after sunset and all are good for photography.  The image at the top of this post was made 10-15 minutes after sunset using a 24-105mm lens at 47mm.

Wall Street

While you’re at Sunset Point you might as well hike the Navajo Loop that descends into the canyon through Wall Street.  It’s a steep hike but passing below towering walls glowing with reflected light is not-to-be-missed if you’re in shape to safely do the hike.  Look for an impossibly tall pine tree framed on two sides by huge canyon walls – this is an iconic location for photography at Bryce Canyon.

Inspiration Point

This is my favorite viewpoint at Bryce Canyon.  It’s fantastic at sunrise and early to mid-morning but may also offer some great options for sunset photography.  I also find this to be the best location for panoramic photography.  Instead of walking up to the designated overlook veer left and walk along the Rim Trail until you find a perspective that grabs your attention.

Bryce Point

Bryce Point is my second favorite location in the park.  It is on the southern side of Bryce Amphitheater and provides views looking mostly north and east.  It’s great at sunrise and, depending on the conditions, you may find some good sunset opportunities.

Rim Trail

If you enjoy hiking, the Rim Trail runs between Fairyland Canyon and Bryce Point, passing each overlook along the way.  I can’t recommend this hike strongly enough.  Along the way you will pass endless views into the canyon, many of which are as good, if not better than, the designated viewpoints.

Natural Bridge

I like to photograph Natural Bridge (technically an arch, not a bridge) in mid-morning.  The sun is high enough in the sky that it nicely illuminates the features around the arch and bounces ample light onto the underside of the arch, giving it a nice, warm glow.  This is a difficult area to work as you must stay behind the railing and there are a few small trees that require you to be creative with your composition.  But, it is a fascinating location.

Agua Canyon

Agua Canyon affords spectacular views looking east into the massive expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  Directly in front of the overlook are a couple dramatic hoodoos, one of which, The Hunter, is quite similar to Thor’s Hammer.  I’ve not been at this location for sunrise but I suspect it could be good.  Late-morning light fills the canyon below, eliminating harsh shadows, and sheds light onto The Hunter.

Rainbow and Yovimpa Points

Admittedly, I’ve never photographed at either of the two viewpoints at the very end of the park road.  I find the views less impressive and more open overall.  That said, I do believe there is potential at both overlooks.  At Yovimpa Point you are looking roughly south, which may offer impressive sunset opportunities.  Rainbow Point faces north and east.  You may find good light in the morning or afternoon.  The Bristlecone Loop is a relatively easy 1 mile loop that passes some interesting bristlecone pine trees.  These trees often make interesting subjects for intimate and abstract photographs in soft light.

Inner Canyon

Pick a trail, any trail, that descends into the canyon and start hiking.  It won’t take long and you’ll be surrounded by huge canyon walls, funky hoodoos, arches and twisted old trees.  The entire character of the landscape changes dramatically when you immerse yourself in the canyon.  Some of my favorite inner canyon hikes are the out and back to Tower Bridge, Queen’s Garden Loop and Peek-A-Book Loop.  You will find interesting subjects to photograph in any season and at any time of day.  A word of caution: it’s always much easier going down than coming back up and the park may close trails throughout the year due to ice, snow and/or rockfall.

Wildlife

If you’re a long lens kind of person you’ll find an ample supply of wild creatures to photograph.  Deer, pronghorn, squirrels and a variety of birds are all commonly seen.  Meadows between Bryce Point and Swamp Canyon are often populated by grazing deer among the pines.  Less common but also native are black bears, bobcats and porcupines.

By no means is this a comprehensive guide of every location worth photographing in Bryce Canyon National Park.  Rather, it is a starting point. I wrote it with the hope that it might save you some time and effort as you plan a trip to this most amazing location.  Enjoy!

Looking for some visual inspiration? Here’s a gallery of my photographs of Bryce Canyon National Park.

COMING SOON: eFotoGuide – Essential Guides to Photographing the National Parks and Beyond

 

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 bret edgeBret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret’s creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.

Bret’s work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit www.moabphotoworkshops.com. To view a collection of Bret’s images, visit www.bretedge.com.  Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.

 

 

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Magnifying the World with the Canon 100 f/2.8L IS Lens

 

Canon 100 f/2.8L IS

Macro photography, what better way to make a praying mantis look like a huge evil invader.  Or to make water droplets look so big that you feel like you could swim around inside of one.  When I first ventured into nature photography, macro was something that interested me, but I was determined to make grandiose images with spectacular light that would awe people with the glory of landscape photography with intense light.  What I found as I began my photographic journey was that there were neat things I would see by the side of the trail or field.  Maybe it was a little flower, or a cool pine cone scene, or mushrooms on the bottom of the forest floor, regardless, I would stop and take in these scenes and wish I had a way to capture them.

Phlox at Fontenelle Forest

It  was not long until I purchased the 50 CM.  A solid macro lens, I really got it for the size, and the price. 

I also needed something to capture portraits of the kids.  There’s only so many cute portraits you can get of your children with wide-angle lenses before the grandparents start asking for a view that’s a little more “normal”.  It was a workhorse lens for me capturing thousands of macro images (and hundreds of portraits).  After a while though, and after one too many times in the forest where a slight breeze moved my subject before the sloooooowwwww autofocus of the 50 CM could lock on that I decided to purchase the 100 f/2.8L with IS. This article are my subjective experiences with the Canon 100 f/2.8L IS Macro lens.

Upon purchase, I immediately took the lens home and mounted it to my Canon 5D Mark II and was amazed at how fast the autofocus locked on my subject, and in low light too!  I then placed it on my SL1 and loved the combination with the added crop.  I could now lock autofocus almost twice as fast.  The 1:1 magnification of the 100 f/2.8L IS allowed me to focus closer than ever before on my subjects and without my extension tube.  With my extension tube added, I was getting so close that I felt like I was actually being miniaturized when I looked through my viewfinder.

Tulips

Of course, as they say the proof is in the pudding.  Actually, I’m not really sure who says that and what proof you can find in pudding, but no matter.  I downloaded my photographs and loved the crispness of the images and the bokeh, outstanding.  Don’t get me wrong, the 50CM had decent bokeh and crisp images, and it never held me back from making salable images, but the 100 2.8L I felt opened new possibilities for me.

The next test?  Portraits.  One of the advantages of macro lenses, especially in the 100 mm range is that they are at a good focal length for taking portraits.  On an unseasonably warm February day I took my daughter out to the park to capture some photographs.  Using theCanon 100 f/2.8L I experimented with various lighting and poses.  I was pleased with the autofocus and the bokeh at portrait ranges and felt the flare was well controlled.  It was almost as good as my 135 f/2L.  Almost.  By the way, I recommend taking a look at my 135 f/2L report if you are interested in seeing the best portrait lens at 135mm that canon has to offer or one of my favorite lenses of all time (even though it is one of the most rarely used in my collection).  Anyway, I digress.  the 100 2.8L IS Macro performed admirably.  The IS was a really nice addition with this as well and the focal length worked well on my full frame like the Canon 5D Mark II, but it was a bit close on a crop camera like my Rebel SL1.

Riley

Overall, I highly recommend Canon’s 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens.  Of all the macro lenses I’ve used this one by far was the one that has consistently performed for me.  Fast autofocus, close focus, IS, crisp, and a great portrait lens to boot.  Please take a look at my images and if you decide to purchase the Canon 100 f/2.8L macro lens please do so using the link below.  B and H has been a great provider of photography equipment for me and I recommend their services.

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A snail shell rests on a leaf at the bottom of the forest at Fontenelle Forest in eastern Nebraska.

Branch of Blossoms

Tulips

 

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Derrald_Farnsworth-Livingston

While growing up, Derrald’s parents took him on several trips across the United States to numerous national parks. It was on these trips that Derrald grew a love for the outdoors which we wished to explore and share with others. Photography was a natural result, an endeavor that Derrald began at a young age and continued to explore in years to come.

While pursuing a Bachelors degree at Creighton University, he enrolled in all of the photography courses. With these courses he learned the fundamentals of chemical darkrooms, light, balance, and exposure. After college he continued to explore the art and develop his own technique and style and choose to focus on nature and scenic photography as his primary subjects, although he is not hesitant to point the lens at anything.

Amongst the images of majestic mountains and the crashing waves of the ocean, one can find photographs of the prairies, lakes, and wetlands of the American Great Plains and Midwest. Some of these images are the artist’s favorites as they show the expansive heartland of the United States and the subtle beauty of the area surrounding his home. Through the right balance of subject, composition, and light, Derrald strives to transport the viewer into the composition.

Derrald has won numerous awards and exhibited in several solo and group shows regionally. His work has also appeared in several regional and national magazines, calendars, websites, and postcards. He continues to live and work in Omaha with his family.

Visit Derrald’s website Journey Of Light Photography http://www.journeyoflight.com/blog/ to read his other articles.   His images may be ordered from his store at http://store.journeyoflight.com.

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Early Morning Magic Hour…Free Of Charge

Magic hour…  the beginning and end of the day. As photographers, these moments are important to us. In most cases, they are the best time to be behind the lens and at the same time so much more then that. Although not every magic hour moment is as dramatic as the last, you can always count on them being there to open and close out the day.

Personally, I enjoy the early morning hours the most. Something about venturing out in the dark and watching the world come to life fuels my soul and provides me with experiences that words can’t always describe. These moments go beyond a dramatic sunrise and awaken far more senses then merely visualization.

Sounds and smells become extremely apparent. Fresh dew in the air, scents from nearby pines, the sounds of birds, beavers, crickets and sometimes even silence recharge my mind and always leave me satisfied regardless of the images I produce with my camera.

The memories that the morning hours have provided me with are ones that I’ll never forget, ones that I wouldn’t trade for the world. The soft pink glow of a winter sunrise, a misty fall morning with fog blanketing the forest or the warm twilight of summer bathing the land, every season provides its own unique moments.

And yet in a day and age where most things that are attractive (whether historical, landmarks, or popular geological features) all have a gate around them and an entrance fee, it seems a large majority of people don’t take advantage of the amazing moments that unfold daily all around us. These moments are as accessible or difficult as you want them to be, and the best part, are free of charge. 

So my advice to anyone reading this, photographer or not, is to get out there. Wake up early, venture outside where ever you live, and discover what the early morning hours have to offer. Regardless of the weather or location, there are always moments waiting to be found.

It’s the simple things in life that a lot of the times provide more then money could ever buy. 

A Trip Back In Time - Haliburton Highlands, Ontario

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 MEET THE AUTHOR

Kyle McDougallKyle McDougall is a landscape photographer/workshop leader based out of Ontario, Canada.  He specializes in creating fine art images that touch on both a visual and emotional level.  When not outside exploring the land you can find Kyle online sharing his images and helping others through his instructional articles.  In 2012 Kyle was chosen by Photolife Magazine as one of Canada’s Emerging Photographers.  To view more of his work please visit his website: www.kylemcdougallphoto.com

 

 

 

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