Situated near the southern tip of Bryce Canyon National Park, Agua Canyon is a jaw-dropping collection of colors, shapes and textures. It’s less iconic than the typical amphitheater shots, but no less gorgeous. Perhaps it’s this lesser known status that draws me back time and time again to this glorious location. More than anything else, Agua Canyon is a challenge in composition and “getting it all” in the frame. It’s tall, and can be challenging to fit into the frame of capture. Other than that, Mother Nature does 99% of the work. Scout your location. Be there a the right time. And click away.
Conditions last week looked primo for a visit to one of America’s most intriguing national parks. Declared a National Park in 1924, Bryce Canyon is best known for its unique, brightly colored hoodoo formations, created over thousands of years by frost-wedging and rain water. The weather forecast looked promising, calling for fresh snow, and then partly cloudy skies throughout the week. The stage was set for what I hoped to be “all time” conditions for a Bryce Canyon shoot. I had visions of intense pink sunrises, endless spotty clouds and fresh powder.
We arrived instead to…howling winds, frigid temps and…not a flake of new snow. Were it any place but Bryce Canyon, I might have been a bit more disappointed, but the truth is, you’d have to be crazy not to be able to do something with this canvas that Mother Nature was certainly inspired to create–regardless of the weather.
Having only been to Bryce Canyon once previously, I had a number of traditional images in mind that I hope to come home with. As usual, however, I was equally interested in finding my own piece of Bryce that perhaps had not been captured by any other lens. Sure, it may have been glossed over by other eyes, but had it really been seen?
The first evening was cold and relativey clear. Having just arrived in the park, we hurriedly set up at and around Sunset Point. I was really focusing on the big picture here, and the dusk glow was terrific.
With the mercury reading a balmy 10 degrees F, we bundled up for sunrise the next morning, again heading to different spots around the canyon rim near Sunset Point. The skies were crystal clear, which meant I would just look for compositions that included less sky. One of the most spectacular things about Bryce Canyon is the way the landscape changes as the sun rises. Hoodoos glow as if lit on fire by the hand of a higher power. The bounce light is insanely beautiful and warm. Typically, I wrap up my morning shoots about an hour or at the very most, two hours after sunrise. We shot well into the morning, taking a hike on the Navajo Loop trail and exploring new photo opportunities around every bend. Winter is a wonderful time to visit Bryce as foot traffic is at a relative crawl compared to other times of the year. Much to our delight, spots that typically would have been a veritable tripod gathering were empty.
Late afternoon was spent exploring some of the lesser visited spots in the Park like Agua Canyon and Rainbow Point. The light in Agua Canyon was a tad harsh, but the colors were amazing. My Singh Ray LB Color Combo polarizer was absolutely key in cutting glare, saturating the colors and deepening the sky. Seriously–if you aren’t familiar with a polarizing filter, it is amazing to watch how it transforms the landscape when used correctly. Remember that the best angle for polarization is when the sun is at a 90 degree angle to what you are shooting.
Sunset that evening was windy and cold at Bryce Point. The view is simply mind blowing. Spotty clouds made for some classic 3D lighting, but we were just a bit late in arriving to capture the best light on the hoodoos. I don’t think I’ve ever shot in wind like that before–it was a huge challenge to handhold my grad NDs while keeping my tripod steady for the longer exposures.
Sunrise the next morning was spent at one of my new favorite places on earth. Agua Canyon is peppered with interesting, colorful rock creations–all surrounded by towering cliffs offering super cool and engaging angles from which to shoot. Perched on top of an 800 foot cliff, I couldn’t help but pinch myself as I took in the sights and sounds of a truly unique and inspiring place. Movements were slow and steady–one wrong move meant either myself, or my gear taking a life-ending tumble.
All in all, I’d say the trip was a great success. I find the longer I shoot, the harder it is for me to come away from places with images that impress and inspire. I feel that, especially given the brief nature of the visit, I came away with some memorable imagery. I’ve listed just a few tips that may help you in your next visit to photograph Bryce Canyon National Park.
1. Arrive early. Stay late. This is generally true for any photo location, but even moreso for Bryce. Popular photo spots can get extremely crowded very quickly–you want to secure your dream spot without stepping on anyone else’s toes. Be sure to stay late for that dusk glow. The hoodoos reflect an inordinate amount of light not really seen by the human eye, but readily picked up by your camera’s sensor. Exposure times will certainly be on the longer end, but these images will be void of any harsh highlights or shadows, focusing mainly on the warm colors of the redrock and the indigo sky.
2. Take a polarizer. Be familiar with its performance and where/when/how you can use it best. You can really deepen the sky and allow the hoodoos and canyon walls to pop against an azure background with the help of a polarizer. It will also help to saturate the color just a tad bit more.
3. Search for bounce light. As the sun rises higher in the sky, get down in the canyon trails and explore Bryce Canyon in a more intimate manner. While the broader vistas may appear washed out and harsh, there are countless opportunities to shoot bounce (or reflected light) down in the canyon.
4. Take a wide assortment of lenses. I used everything from my widest to my longest lenses, and everything in between. One of my favorite practices is to throw on a long lens and “hunt” for that engaging piece of the broader landscape. This is especially applicable in Bryce Canyon as certain hoodoos or areas light up at different times. Make sure you have a sturdy tripod!
5. Don’t forget your graduated neutral density filters–a must for any serious landscape photographer!
6. Look for opportunities to include a human element in your images to help give scale to the landscape.
7. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Seems so many times we are so consumed with coming away with that wall hanger that we forget to simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings in which we find ourselves. Take a step back from the tripod, and enjoy a moment for yourself.