Grand Canyon – Night Sky from Phantom Ranch

Grand Canyon night sky from Phantom Ranch. Copyright Adam Schallau, All Rights Reserved.

For week #2 of the Grand Canyon Photo of the Week, I’m sharing an image that I created while I was the Artist-in-Residence on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. This image of a star-filled night sky was captured at the bottom of the canyon near Phantom Ranch shortly before the moon had risen.  Sounds simple enough, and I thought so too.

I like to share a little background information to give you a glimpse into the creative process and I’m not necessarily talking about shutter speeds and f-stops. What I’m referring to is my thought process before the image was created, what technical and creative challenges were faced, and whether the end result matches the original idea.

Back to the story…Air quality, or lack thereof, has been an issue for the southwest and the Grand Canyon. There are many days throughout the course of the year where a layer of  smog obscures visibility which naturally carries over into the night, limiting our view of the heavens above. During the late spring, high wind speeds also kick-up a layer of dust that can have a similar effect to the smog and pollution. Having seen the night sky over the canyon on a moonless night with clean air and clear skies, I knew I had to capture an image that represented the magnificence of this natural spectacle.

My initial thoughts were to create an image from the rim under a full moon, using the light reflecting from the moon to illuminate the canyon. There was one major problem with this idea, which was that the moon light while helping to expose the canyon, also washed out many of the more faint stars. I wanted to capture as many stars as possible. I could have waited to create an image without the aid of the moon, but the canyon would have been a dark, featureless abyss.What I needed was a location that would give a hint of the canyon while providing a clear view of the night sky. All it took was one trip below the rim and I realized that my shot would be from the bottom of the canyon.

A week after making my initial attempt from the rim, I found myself on the South Kaibab Trail backpacking to Phantom Ranch. Along the way I was looking for an a foreground for my planned photo. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but figured I would know it it when I saw it. Lets call it a gut instinct. I was seeing many wonderful ridge-lines, temples and buttes, but I needed something more, something to anchor the foreground. Without a foreground to provide a sense-of-place, the canyon walls would be nothing more than a big black ink spot in the picture. I needed a tree.

I arrived at Phantom Ranch after several hours of hiking into the canyon. It was a different world from the rim above, and to be honest, it was a bit overwhelming at first. I had hit the trail at 5:30 in the morning, struggling with the bitter cold of late winter and had arrived to shorts and t-shirt weather with a mild breeze, abundant sun and temperatures in the low 80s. It was heavenly. I knew that I should have been scouting for my evening shoot, but the tall grasses under a cottonwood tree along the banks of Bright Angel Creek called my name, and I soon found myself fast asleep in the Garden of Eden.

Fast forward a few hours and I have awaken from my dreamland only to realize that I’m still there, but now fully conscious. I have checked in with the rangers, setup my bunk where I’ll be spending the next couple of nights, made the obligatory visit to the canteen at Phantom Ranch to send a postcard which will be delivered to my wife via “Mule Mail”, and I’ve prepared my camera gear for the evening shoot. Still one problem…I haven’t found my tree, you remember, the tree I need for my foreground. The hike down from the rim has worn me down and I’ve come to accept that it’s o.k. if I don’t take a picture, it would be nice if I could get the shot, but it isn’t the goal of this trip.

Night is quickly approaching as I’m sitting on the porch watching the clouds roll across the rim 5,000 feet above. Other backpackers are beginning to make their way into the campground nearby, many using a headlamp to light the way, when one of them looks up from the trail towards the rim. For a brief moment the beam of light from their headlamp passes through the branches of a tree that is less than 50′ from where I’m sitting. That’s the tree!

I quickly grab my camera and make the short walk to a spot near the tree. I want to take in as much of  the big sky above as possible and decide to reach for my 17mm lens, which provides an ultra-wide field-of-view on a full-frame camera. One thing I want to avoid is a long exposure which will create star-trails. After a few test shots I decide to go with ISO 1600 which gives me a 30 second exposure with an aperture of f/4 (the fastest aperture on my lens), this combination gives me a balance of enough light to get the stars to be visible, while showing very little star movement in the image.

Another benefit of the 30 second exposure is that I now have enough time to illuminate the tree with my headlamp using a technique known as light-painting. During the course of the exposure, the camera’s shutter is open and recording light. With my headlamp set to full-output I begin passing it’s beam over the tree in a manner similar to airbrushing. The trick is to keep the light moving and to run its beam off the tree before making another pass to avoid hot spots.

In total it took me six shots, including the test exposures, before getting the shot I’m sharing here. Lucky number 7.

Many weeks had passed before I finally had an opportunity to review this shot in my archives. My initial impression was one of disappointment, and I was frustrated that the stars were not very bright and the scene lacked contrast. But wait one minute, I’m viewing a raw file, and raw files need to be processed. After just a little bit of work in Lightroom 2 I was able to work some contrast into the image and recover the color that was there. The last step was to increase the clarity in the sky to bring out the stars…there it is, the image I had envisioned.

Sometimes I find myself wishing for some detail in the blackness of the canyon wall, but then realize that it would compete with the tree. Overall I’m pleased with them image and feel that the end result closly matches the original concept that I had envisioned while standing on the rim of the canyon a week earlier.