Grand Canyon Photography Gear Guide
This guide has been created to assist you in planning & preparing for your photography trip to the Grand Canyon. Being photographers we tend to obsess over our gear. Equally as important as bringing the right camera gear, is bringing the right personal gear to best cope with the high-desert environment of northern Arizona.
Besides bringing your camera and a selection of lenses, your gear selection will revolve around when you are visiting. While we know that in most of Arizona the temperature gets pretty hot and that it’s hot for most of the year, the reality is that northern Arizona and especially the Grand Canyon are not like the rest of the state. Please be sure to take note of the type of weather you could have while visiting the Grand Canyon.
What Camera and Lenses Should I Have?
The Grand Canyon offers a wide variety of photographic opportunities and challenges. The most popular misconception about photographing the canyon is that you will only be using an ultra-wide angle lens. I routinely use lenses as long as 300mm at the canyon to create compressed telephoto stacked compositions. That said, I still do a fair amount of work on the wide end as well, but my most used lens is a 24-70mm zoom.
So, what lenses do I recommend for photographing the Grand Canyon? For those who are shooting with full-frame camera systems, I recommend covering focal lengths from 16mm to 300mm. For APS-C "crop" camera shooters, I recommend from 12mm to 200mm.
Landscape Photography Lenses
- Ultrawide Zoom: 12-24mm or 16-35mm
- Mid-range Zoom: 24-70mm or 24-105mm
- Telephoto Zoom: 70-200mm, 70-300mm, or 100-400mm
Night Sky Photography
For night sky photography, including photographic the Milky Way, you're going to want an ultra-wide angle or wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider to let in lots of light.
Of all of the lenses listed below, I have personally used the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8GM, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, Rokinon 12mm f/2.0, and Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. I have been very happy with all of them. I am looking forward to shooting with the Sony 24mm f/1.4GM, but this lens has been in short supply for several months.
A note for the Nikon and Canon shooters using full-frame camera bodies, you may want to consider the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 lens over the native Canon or Nikon lenses. The Tamron is sharper than the Nikon, it has image stabilization, and it has very little coma (distortion of the stars in the corners of the image).
Night Sky Lenses
Night Sky Lenses from Third Party Manufacturers
Most of the lenses in this list are made in a variety of mounts to fit cameras made by different manufacturers. Be sure you select the correct mount for your camera when you order.
- Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 for Canon, Fuji X, Micro 4/3rds, Sony*
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.4 SP for Canon, Nikon
- Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 for Canon, Nikon, Pentax
- Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC for Canon, Micro 4/3rds, Nikon, Pentax
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art for Canon, Nikon
- Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art for Leica L, Sony
- Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2 for Canon, Nikon
- Tokina AT-X 11-20mm f/2.8 PRO DX for Canon, Nikon*
- Tokina FiRIN 20mm f/2 FE for Sony
* crop camera lens
Tripods & Ballheads
First and foremost, a good tripod is necessary as you will be shooting during the "blue hour" light before sunrise and after sunset. This means you will have very long exposure times upwards of 30 seconds. Another reason to have a good tripod is to help stabilize the camera in windy conditions, which are quite common at the Grand Canyon.
The range of light at the Grand Canyon can be very extreme, from deep shadows at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River to bright highlights in the clouds. This creates a dynamic range that is often beyond the capabilities of what even the most modern cameras can record. While it is possible to bracket images and then spend the time in Photoshop blending them together, an alternative is to use Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters to balance the light in the scene. I recommend as a minimum kit having both a 2-stop and 3-stop soft-edge rectangular GND filter along with the necessary adapter rings for the filter holder.
In addition to the GND filters, I also recommend having a good circular polarizer (CPL) filter. CPLs are often used for removing reflections from the surface of water for cutting back on the sheen on foliage. I use a CPL filter to cut through a bit of haze thus adding a touch more clarity to the scene. A couple of words of caution, it's easy to overuse a CPL creating an artificial look in your images. Also, CPL filters and ultra-wide angle lenses don't go together well when you have lots of sky in the composition as the effect of the filter will not be even across the image.
Lightning Triggers and Gear for the Monsoon Season
If you're visiting the Grand Canyon during the summer monsoon, I strongly suggest bringing a lightning trigger. I've owned many lightning triggers, but my favorite two are the Lightning Trigger made by Stepping Stone Products and the Lightning Bug made by MK Controls.
Some of the best photo opportunities happen just before or after it has rained. For this reason, it's important to have rain protection for your camera. This can be something as simple and cheap as a shower cap, or something more substantial as a dedicated camera rain cover. I've been using the Think Tank Photo Emergency Rain Cover and I couldn't be happier. It is easy to use, it's well made, and it has a window allowing you to see the rear LCD display on the camera.
Finally, you will want a photo backpack to carry everything in. This helps to keep your hands free when walking on uneven terrain, and it gives a place to hold snacks, a rain jacket, sunscreen, a hat, and your water.
I'm a big fan of packs Mountain Series of packs made my F-Stop Gear. Their system is designed around what they call an Internal Camera Unit (ICU), which is the camera compartment within the pack. They make various sizes of ICUs to fit a variety of needs. The ICU then slips into their packs allowing you to select a pack that best suits your needs and is adaptable via different ICUs. They do a great job on their site of explaining how all of this works.
What About Drones?
Drones are not currently allowed in the National Parks. Please do not bring your drone with you. I'd hate to be forced to report you to the law enforcement rangers for flying a drone within the park.
What to Wear?
Temperatures on the rim of the canyon can be range from summer highs in the low 90s to winter lows well below freezing. This is due to the elevation on the canyon’s rim. The altitude above sea-level on the South Rim ranges from 6,700 to 7,500 feet (2,040 to 2,290 meters), and on the North Rim it ranges from 8,000 to 8,803 feet (2,440 to 2,685 meters). The high altitude keeps things relatively cool, and quite pleasant during most of the summer.
During the summer months, the high temperatures can be in the 80s (27-32°C), with early morning temperatures occasionally dipping into the 40s (4-9°C). June is the hottest month at the canyon, and temperatures can get into the 90°s. Due to the high altitude, there is less atmosphere to block out the sun. Be sure to bring a sunhat and plenty of sunscreen. The sun is intense here, and you can get a sunburn very quickly.
From mid-July through mid-September the Grand Canyon and most of the American Southwest sees a significant shift in the weather patterns with the arrival of the Southwest Monsoon. This period typically has afternoon thunderstorms with brief periods of heavy rain. This is also the time of year when the storms tend to produce lightning and rainbows. If visiting during the monsoon, I recommend coming equipped with a lightning trigger for your camera and lots of batteries & memory cards!
The rim of the canyon can be very cold during the winter months, and I have seen temperatures go below freezing as early as September and as late as May. I’ve experienced temperatures as low as -20°F in the morning just before sunrise. Winter also brings the chance of snow with the South Rim averaging about 60″ of snowfall annually.
It’s important to come prepared with the right clothing. This means dressing in layers, and to have a warm winter coat, hat, and gloves. Footwear is also important, and I recommend hiking boots and warm wool socks. REI has a wonderful page dedicated to learning How to Layer Clothes for a winter environment.
If you can, please bring a reusable water bottle with you. There are several water stations where you can refill your reusable water bottle or a CamelBak for no charge.
Where to Buy Camera Gear?
I’ve been purchasing my gear from B&H Photo for almost 20 years. They have consistently had the best prices, they always provide top-notch customer service, and they have a great return policy. You could spend your time shopping around on the web and wondering if you made the right decision, or you could buy from B&H.
If you find the information on this page, or any of the other content here to be useful, please consider supporting this site by purchasing your photo equipment through B&H Photo by using the links above, or by visiting the My Gear page on the B&H website.
Need More Info?
All of my workshop participants receive a free 70+ page booklet with this information plus equipment checklists both as a PDF and in printed form.