The Photographer’s Guide to the Grand Canyon

Larry Mason
Author & Image Copyright

The Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic landscapes in the United States and is, of course, a favorite destination of many photographers. Although there are endless amazing photographic opportunities at the Grand Canyon, some planning is needed to get the most out of your trip, and in this guide we’ll take a detailed look at Grand Canyon in a way that will help you to get the most out of your time there.

Two of the main reasons why it is so important to plan ahead are the massive size of the canyon and its surrounding areas, and the seasonal changes that take place at this area of Arizona. The canyon itself is 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide. Much of the area around the canyon is a part of Grand Canyon National Park. Many of the popular locations at and around the Grand Canyon are actually quite spread out, and driving from one area to another (such as the north rim to the south rim) can take a considerable amount of time. With this is mind, you’ll want to know exactly what spots and locations are most important so you can plan accordingly. Likewise, the weather is also a factor that will impact your visit and it should be accounted for. The north rim is closed for the winter.

Mather Point Photo of Mather Point during the Winter Jan 2016

BEST PHOTOGRAPHY LOCATIONS AT THE GRAND CANYON SOUTH RIM
Landscape photographers can find beauty just about anywhere at the Grand Canyon, but some spots are more popular than others. While it is a good idea to get off of the main roads and trails to get more unique and interesting views, here is a look at some of the locations you may want to consider in your planning.

SOUTH RIM VIEWPOINTS

YAVAPAI POINT
Yavaipai Point
Yavapai Point is near the south entrance of the park and provides a spectacular view of the canyon. Because of the panoramic view it is a good location for both sunrise and sunset.

MATHER POINT
When entering Grand Canyon National Park from the south entrance, Mather Point is one of the first viewpoints. It is also the location of the visitor’s center and starting point for the shuttle buses. From Mather point you have a view of Vishnu Temple.

Mather PointTo the east of the Grand Canyon Village is Desert View Drive, which is the main road that extends for 25 miles and includes several major viewpoints. This road is open to private vehicles, and shuttles are also available. The five viewpoints listed below are located on Desert View Drive.

SHOSHONE POINT
Shoshone point
Shoshone Point is not one of the major viewpoints, and that is part of the reason I recommend it. It is not marked on the road or on most maps, but it is not all that hard to find. It is about 2 miles southeast of Yaki Point. There is an unpaved road that leads to it, but most of the time that road is gated off and closed to vehicles. You’ll have to hike about one mile from the parking lot to reach Shoshone Point. You can park on the north side of the road around mile marker 245 where there is a small parking lot.
This is a good location for sunset photos, partly because you won’t have to deal with many other people. When I was there for sunset there were about 5 other people in the general area. If you do go for sunset be sure to bring a flashlight for the hike back to the parking lot.Shoshone Point is sometimes used for private events, including weddings, so there is a chance you will run in to that, but I have no idea how often that would be.

YAKI POINT
Yaki Point
Yaki Point is also a little bit off the main road, and during the summer you will need to take the shuttle to reach it, as the road is closed to cars for the busy season. Yaki Point is also the location of the South Kaibab Trail, one of the main trails in the park. Hiking down the trail, even just part way, gives you the opportunity to view the canyon from a different perspective as compared to the viewpoints at the rim. If you’re looking for unique photos this is a great way to do it.

GRANDVIEW POINT
Grandview Point is one of the major viewpoints on Desert View Drive and is also the starting point of the Grandview Trail. The trail is very steep.

NAVAJO POINT
Navajo Point

Navajo Point is just a few minutes drive west of the Desert View Watchtower and it provides a nice view of the tower, and of the canyon itself. Navajo point is the highest point on the south rim (aside from the top of the watchtower).

DESERT VIEW WATCHTOWER
Desert Watch Tower
At the far east end of the south rim of the canyon is a the Desert View Watchtower, a 70 foot tower that overlooks the canyon and the surrounding desert. The tower itself is an excellent subject for photos, and it also provides views for photos of the surrounding area. The tower is easily accessed by the main road from Grand Canyon Village, but it is a 20 mile drive. As you go east from the village there are many different viewpoints and trails, and the tower is at the last of the major stops.

HERMIT ROAD
Hopi PointHermit Road runs along the west end of the Grand Canyon Village at the south rim and it includes several viewpoints like Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mojave Point, the Abyss, Pima Point, and Hermit’s Rest. Hermit’s Rest is the last point (at the far west end) and is about 7 miles from the village. Hermit Road is closed to cars except in the months of December, January, and February. The rest of the year it can be reached by the shuttle buses, on foot, or by bike.
The Rim Trail follows the rim of the canyon along the road and if you are up for some short hikes you can easily walk between the viewpoints. In some areas the trail is paved and in other areas it is just a dirt trail.

GETTING AROUND:  CAR AND SHUTTLE
The park areas are accessible by private vehicle in most places. Hermit Road, to the west of Grand Canyon Village at the south rim, is closed to private vehicles except in December, January, and February. The shuttles are free and make it easy to get the the various viewpoints along Hermit Road, and if you’d like you can also walk on the trail for the 7 mile road.

Desert View Drive, to the east of Grand Canyon Village at the south rim, is accessible by private vehicle except for a small stretch that leads to Yaki Point. To get to Yaki Point you’ll need to take the shuttle. The shuttle does not run to the far east end of Desert View Drive, to the watchtower, so you will need to drive or have other transportation to get there.

HIKING
In order to get the shots that you want you will most likely need to do at least a little bit of hiking. The park is full of trails, and in many areas you can simply walk away from the viewpoints to get a different view and to avoid a crowd.
The South Kaibab Trial is one of the major trails and is easily accessible at the popular south rim. If you plan to hike all the way to the bottom you will need to plan to camp overnight. You can easily hike down part way and then hike back up during the same day. In order to reach the trail head you will need to take the shuttle bus to Yaki Point.

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE GRAND CANYON
So now that we have looked at some of the best locations, when to visit, and how to get around, let’s look at some general tips to get the most out of your time photographing the Grand Canyon.

1. PLAN AHEAD
Plan ahead and pick out the locations that are most important to you, and the difficulty of getting to each place will also factor in. One of the nice things about the south rim, even though it is popular and can be crowded, you can still easily access many different viewpoints and trails and pack a lot into a short visit.
2. RESEARCH
Part of the planning process involves research, and hopefully this article has helped with that research. You can find plenty of forum threads and blog posts where people list their favorite spots at the canyon, and that’s how I found out about the unmarked Shoshone Point.
3. GET AWAY FROM THE MAJOR VIEWPOINTS
At the south the vast majority of visitors will be at the main viewpoints where the shuttles stop and with the biggest parking lots. If you find some less popular, but often equally amazing, spots you can have photos that most visitors will never be able to get. Most visitors congregate at the area by the parking lot or shuttle bus stop, but at most viewpoints you can explore a little (be careful because the only safety rails will be at the viewpoint) and get some very unique views and have some space to yourself.
4. CHANGE YOUR VANTAGE POINT
Most photographs of the Grand Canyon are taken from the rim. Changing your vantage point, even if it is only a little, can make a big difference. As you hike down one of the trails you get different views all the way down. You can also change your vantage point by getting higher, either at the Desert View Watchtower, or on a helicopter or airplane.
5. USE FOREGROUND ELEMENTS
Some of the most captivating photos of the Grand Canyon, and landscapes in general, involve a foreground element. Look for opportunities to use rocks, trees, plants, and even people as foreground elements to add interest to your compositions.
6. GET PERSPECTIVE BY INCLUDING PEOPLE IN YOUR COMPOSITIONS
The Grand Canyon is an amazing sight and capturing the size is very difficult to do with a photograph. One of the ways you can achieve perspective and to show the size of the canyon is to include people in your composition.
7. PAY ATTENTION TO THE WEATHER
The weather can be a major factor when visiting and photographing the Grand Canyon. Even in the summer the temperature can change drastically in the evening, and then if you factor in the elevation changes temperature can vary even more. Storms can provide excellent opportunities for beautiful photos at the canyon, but always take safety precautions. This is especially true if you are hiking or camping or visiting one of the more remote locations. Winter, of course, brings its own challenges.
8. LOOK FOR DETAILS
One of the challenges of photographing the Grand Canyon is knowing what to include in your composition and what you want to accomplish with the photo. Just about everywhere you look there are amazing views and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One of the best ways to get great photos is to focus on specific details. It could be objects at the rim or textures and patterns at the bottom of the canyon.

GEAR FOR PHOTOGRAPHING THE GRAND CANYON:

1. LIGHTWEIGHT TRIPOD
To get the best shots you’ll need to do some hiking or walking, and you’ll want your tripod to be as light was possible. Hiking up the canyon trails is challenging enough without the tripod and your gear, so the last thing you want is a heavy, bulky tripod. Tripods from Manfrotto, Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Oben, Slik, Benro, and Vanguard tend to be excellent choices.

2. WIDE ANGLE LENS
A wide angle lens will help you to capture the vastness of the canyon. Canon’s EF 17-40mm f/4L USM and Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G are good options.

3. TELEPHOTO LENS
Don’t forget a telephoto lens for capturing detail of items within the canyon. The Sigma 150 – 600 (for Canon and for Nikon) will give you plenty capability.

4. GRADUATED NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS
Lighting can be a challenge at the grand canyon. The canyon walls cast a lot of shadows and you are likely to need graduated neutral density filters to for shots where the sky is drastically brighter than the foreground. Filters from Lee Filters, Cokin, Hoya, B&W and Singh-Ray are all excellent options.

5. FLASHLIGHT
Sunset and sunrise are great times to be photographing the canyon, but many of the best locations are not right next to a parking lot where you can quickly jump back into your car after the sun sets. To get the shots that you want there is a good chance you will need to walk or hike before sunrise or after sunset. Be sure to have a flashlight and some spare batteries in your bag.

6. CIRCULAR POLARIZER
A polarizer can help to enhance the skies of your photos, and at the Grand Canyon the skies can often play a significant role in your compositions. B+W, Hoya, Tiffen, Lee Filters, and Singh-Ray produce quality polarizers.

7. LENS WIPESwipes
With all of the dust in and around the canyon you will want to have some lens wipes, like Zeiss pre-moistened lens wipes, to keep your gear clean.

8. WATER
While it is not photography gear, having water with you is essential. In the summer the heat can quickly take a tool, and throughout the year if you are hiking you are sure to need water. Water is not available in all locations, so be sure to always have some with you. In the village there are some water stations where you can fill up your own bottle.

Larry Mason is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

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