Waking up at the Grand Canyon to start our first full day in the park meant getting up early for some sunrise shots. The forecast was iffy, so we weren’t sure if we’d see any sun that early, but I was willing to try in spite of the snow showers lingering from the night before.
The best part of shooting sunrises in winter is getting to sleep in a little later than you would for a summer sunrise. Yay short days and long nights! Sure, the cold isn’t fun, but that’s the trade-off. I also find the cold scares a lot of people off, so I have a better chance of shooting what I want, from an angle I want, without crowds.
On this particular morning, my impressions of the Grand Canyon started to improve and line up more with my expectations. The weather wasn’t ideal, but with a hint of sunlight brightening the clouds of the snow squall moving through just before the sun broke the horizon, I had a funky blueish, moody light to start the day. If nothing else, we could see a lot more of the Canyon than I could the previous afternoon when we arrived!
Knowing I’d have 2 more mornings to hope for better weather, we didn’t stay out long. What started as snow showers turned into a wind-driven snow/sleet combo that stung as it hit your face. It also meant a lot of lens cleaning, so that was it for the day’s sunrise shooting session.
We bugged out and warmed-up over breakfast, then set back out to check out trail conditions and ease our way into whatever we were going to make of the day. All it took was a few hours after sunrise for the weather to start clearing and yes – the angels finally started singing and the Canyon looked like what I had imagined, and far surpassed any expectation I had of it!
Our day found us keeping it simple by hanging out and taking a long walk around the trail along the South Rim. It seemed like every few feet when I stopped to take a peek, my jaw dropped further and further in amazement of the geological feat in front of me.
Though I took a fair number of pictures that morning, when I got home and sorted through my shots, I realized that so many of them looked the same. Then it dawned on me – even though we walked probably 3 miles or so along the rim, the Canyon is just so big that changing your viewpoint by a mile or two doesn’t drastically affect the perspective in a picture! The only things really changing were the clouds in the sky and the shadows on the ridges in the Canyon. Still, I couldn’t complain because it’s just stunning to see.
After our morning spent along the rim, we wandered into the woods and walked some of the greenways that cut through the park connecting different parts of Grand Canyon Village. Under normal circumstances, when the government is operating (argh shutdown!), you can rent bikes to cruise all over the Village along these pathways through groves of ponderosa pines and junipers. It made for a nice wintry walk to bookend our day.
As we wandered back to our lodge, we passed the Grand Canyon’s train station. The Grand Canyon Railway has a long history – predating the establishment of the park itself!
We didn’t ride the train, but it was parked at the station, having recently arrived for the day’s trip up from Williams, AZ about 65 miles away. Maybe next trip to the Grand Canyon we’ll go for a ride ourselves.
With our first full day at the park nearing an end, we called it a day. Tomorrow was shaping up to be a long one since we planned to get down into the Canyon as long as weather and trail conditions cooperated.
Whenever we’re out in the middle of nowhere land, there’s one thing we always look for at night – stars! Being in remote places like that, there’s little – if any – light pollution from cities or towns and the night skies are magnificent. On a clear night you can see the Milky Way as a bright band across the entire sky, at least when you’re not distracted by the millions of other brilliant stars all around!
There’s only a couple of things that can foil this nighttime treat. Weather – clouds, rain, general “icky” conditions – forget it. You’re not seeing anything. The more sneaky villain is the moon if it’s up all night. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still pretty and you can see many more stars than you typically can in an urban or suburban area on a clear night. The moon just drowns out the twinkles a little by its sheer brightness in the sky. For this trip, the weather generally cooperated. The moon… not so much.
The timing of our trip to Goblin Valley fell in between the extremes of the moon phases – smack on a quarter moon that was coming up around 9 or 10pm each night with clear skies and setting mid-morning. It muted the skies a tad, but we still marveled at the universe blanketing us each night and I wanted to capture it in a picture somehow. Just how?
I played with star trail shots a little almost 10 years ago during our trip to Chaco Canyon NP in New Mexico (very, very much in the middle of nowhere!). I was pleased with the shots I got, though we quickly realized the true challenge of the photography process was staying awake late at night waiting for the long exposures to finish after a long day of hiking in the heat. Staying awake at Goblin Valley wasn’t going to be as much of a problem, but with the moonrise timing, straight-up star trail shots weren’t going to work. Just too much light.
That’s when it hit me – why not use the moonlight as my light source and see what the landscape looks like on a long-ish exposure? The next morning I happened to wake up well before daybreak, so I decided to give it a go right outside of our campsite using a huge bluff of rock right behind us as the focal point.
It took a few shots to dial in how long the exposure should be, but I quickly figured it out. That’s when I bagged a shot that looked awesome and different on the camera’s display that I almost did cartwheels right then and there! (Naturally, when I got home & saw the pictures on the big screen, I saw how much camera shake was in the image because of the wind, but I salvaged it – thank you post-processing tools!)
Knowing the sun was closer to rising than I liked, time was short and I got back into it and clicked off a few more shots. When you’re doing a series of pictures in low light like this in close succession, you really see how quickly lighting conditions change. The sun rises surprisingly fast and the lighting changes nearly imperceptible to your eye have a huge effect on exposure times.
While the shots looked fantastic on my camera in the field (despite the aforementioned shake issue), what I didn’t realize until I got home was I managed to create shots with mini-star trails in them! Even better was that the horizontal shot above happened to be facing the north, so I got the North Star in the shot meaning the trails – given enough exposure time – create circles. Woo hoo!
Eventually it got a touch too bright to continue with the long exposure moonlight shots. But before I put the camera & tripod away, I swung myself around to face east and caught the early morning color on the horizon as day was breaking, complete with Molly’s Castle in silhouette.
Jazzed about the outcomes of this little experiment, I convinced my husband to get up with me even earlier on our last morning in camp so I could try some of these shots among the goblins. Being the wonderful husband that he is, he agreed and off we went. That’s when the moon teamed up with the weather to foil our adventure.
Patchy, thin clouds rolled in over night. Some stars were still visible and the moonlight was filtered through the thin clouds or peeked out when there was a hole in the shroud above. Oh, and the wind was back too (though not as bad as the day before, thankfully). Still, we were up, so may as well give it a go and see what happens.
I wasn’t quite as excited about these shots in the field as I was the day before, but the shots I came home with looked otherworldly! The winds turned patchy cloud cover into streaks of silky white across the sky and the goblin-filled landscape looked like something you might find on a well-eroded area of the Martian landscape in the middle of the day. Funky to say the least!
Although attempt #2 at using moonlight as daylight wasn’t as successful as my initial outing, I learned a lot about shooting in conditions like this and I already have ideas for new things to try next time I have the opportunity. The question is – when will that opportunity arrive? Maybe at Great Sand Dunes in 2018? Hmmm…
(Originally posted November 5, 2012)
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry… and that was certainly the case on this steamy August morning when I grabbed this shot at Valley Forge National Historic Park!
Things were lining up perfectly for a foggy, sticky sunrise shoot on an early August morning, so I made a last-minute call the night before to go for it. The day started with a 4:30am wake-up to get myself and the gear together so I could arrive at the park, find my location, and get setup by 5:30 or so to catch the first rays of sunlight as they split through the trees and the valley. The nearly-full moon was going to be setting within an hour of the sunrise too! Sounds like a recipe for some good pictures, right? Well, life had some different thoughts on the matter.
I dragged my sleepy body, cup of coffee, and my camera gear into the car. Then I turned the key in the ignition – nothing. Absolutely nothing from the car. No lights, no turning of the engine, no clicking. Just silence. Not good.
Thinking of ditching the shoot and just heading back to bed was certainly an option, but my husband let me borrow his car for the morning so I could get on with my day. Wonderful – problem solved, and quite easily. After a quick switch of vehicles, I was frustrated and wondering what was up with my car, but I put that in the back of my mind and headed off to the park.
As I arrived at the park entrance in the darkness and thick fog, the gates were still closed with nary a sign of life that they would be opening anytime soon. Dang it! I’ve gotten sunrise shots in the park before during the winter without problems – I just needed to figure out how to get in for today’s shoot. With nowhere to put the car, I headed down the street to the local casino (of all places) knowing that I could park there in a well-lit area and do some research on my phone. That’s when I remembered that the park doesn’t open until 7am – not at dawn. Double dang it!! Clearly, the fog wasn’t only outside of the car because it seems I needed more coffee or more sleep.
After this latest blip, I was determined to get some kind of session in because the fog was making the scenery really eerie and that couldn’t be passed up. The park is big, with some main state roads going through it, so I figured there had to be a way in. I drove around a bit more and managed to find a parking area along one of the main public drags that would suffice, so off I trekked to see if I could find something good.
It wasn’t long after I setup that I came upon this scene behind the Maurice Stephens house. The tree and the fog in the valley certainly play a big part in the scene, though I think the thing I like most about this shot is the little optical illusion I was able to create. On a quick glance, some may think that the structure next to the tree is a small house or a cottage. It’s not – it’s a chicken coop or some kind of colonial shed structure! The way it was positioned next to the tree made the building look smaller than it was (or the tree look bigger than it actually is). Quite a lovely surprise!
So, with this shot and a few others tucked away, I returned home to start working on my car troubles. It turns out it was – thankfully – just a dead battery. It was so dead that the first time we jumped it, it only kept the car running for about 500 feet before it lost power again and we had to get it towed to our mechanic! After a bumpy start to the day, it all worked out with a couple of fantastic summer shots in Valley Forge and a minor car repair bill. Phew!!
PS – We were extremely fortunate and only sustained a little minor damage during Hurricane Sandy, so our lives returned to normal quite quickly. Others were far, far less fortunate, and we here at Alpha Pup Photography are sending out our thoughts and prayers to everyone – both along the coastlines and in the mountains that were pummeled with snow – who have lost so much and face a long road to recovery.