Grand Canyon sunrise by Adam Schallau

Photographing sunrise at the Grand Canyon can be a challenging affair, and it takes many elements coming together to create a successfully image. I like to start with a location that allows me to have overlapping features in the landscape and a foreground that can catch some golden light. Next, having some clouds definitely helps, but we still need a gap on the horizon to let some light through. Lastly, some moisture in the air in the form of humidity helps as it scatters the light and softens the scene. While northern Arizona is typically a dry environment with regards to humidity, the summer monsoon brings afternoon thunderstorms that can help increase the humidity in the air. It’s the humidity that adds a sense of “atmosphere” in the canyon and helps to soften the light and provide a sense of depth through the scene.

Even when all the elements come together, we are still faced with the challenge of capturing the scene the way we see it. Looking towards the sun, the canyon falls into deep shade and without any contrasting light most of it’s temples, buttes and other formations get lost in its murky depths. The problem is that cameras are not perfect in that they cannot record the wide range of light that we humans see. So, when the sky is bright and the canyon is dark, the camera can only capture the range of light either in the bright sky or that in the dark canyon. If the photographer exposes for the sky the canyon will be dark, and if they expose for the canyon, the sky will then blow-out meaning it will be overexpose with areas of pure white and no detail.

We have several technical options available to overcome this limitation of our camera equipment. One option, and one that I often employ, is to use a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter to darken thy sky while maintaining the proper brightness in the canyon. The GND filter can allow us to capture the scene in a single exposure, but they aren’t always the best choice as sometimes the transition from the dark part of the filter to the clear part may become visible in the landscape.  For this photo, I used another option which is to capture two exposures, the first is a darker exposure to save the highlights in the sky, and the second is a bright exposure to reveal the details in the canyon. These two exposures are blended together using Layer Masks in Photoshop allowing us to overcome the limitations of the camera and to best represent the reality of the scene.

As I mentioned above, it really does take all the elements coming together at once to allow us, the photographer, an opportunity to capture a Grand Canyon sunrise.
Title:First Light at Grand Canyon
Date: July 2010
Camera& Lens: Canon EOS 5D Mark II & Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G lens
Exposure (sky): 1/40 second at f/16, ISO 100
Exposure (canyon): 1/5 second at f/16, ISO 100