Morning in Nankoweap Canyon | Mark Lindsay

The Grand Canyon is the most unforgiving of place to be a photographer. One could interpret that in myriad ways. I could write about the monsoon downpours that might short-circuit your camera. Or maybe we could discuss the dust, sand or heat that can also make a mess of your most expensive equipment. Then there are the ledges, cactus and rattlesnakes that seem to be around whenever you are concentrating on what's in the viewfinder. The above-mentioned are critical. Beware of all of them. But, the thing that will really ruin your photos (other than a plunge off the canyon's edge) is the impossible dynamic range of light.

Nowhere else have I seen such differences in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. Trying to capture this range on film or sensor can be impossible. Our imaging systems are inadequate. The problem is all in the details. The best photographers are able to control details in all tonal areas of a photograph. Ideally, we should be able to discern detail in highlights, midtones, and shadows. Sometimes we purposely eliminate detail for artistic intent, but that should be due to choice, not error.

The big dilemma is that imaging systems are not nearly as capable as the human eye and mind. Our eyes can see miraculous extremes in tonal range, a capability that leaves film, camera sensors, displays, and prints in the proverbial dust. Where we see smooth transitions from shadow to light a camera sees abrupt falloff into pure black or stark white. The problem has sadly gotten worse with the proliferation of digital photography. Digital sensors are just about the worst (along with transparency film) at capturing broad tonal range. Negative films are actually quite good, until you try to make a print of them.

It has been proven, through years of study, that the most jarring effect from loss of detail occurs in the highlights (brightest areas of the photo). When we lose highlight detail it's like turning on bright lights in a pitch-black room. It almost hurts to look at a photo where the highlights are completely lost, or as we photographers say, blown out. Losing shadow detail is often not desirable either, but at least detail degradation in shadow areas is more natural and inherently more pleasing.

Grand Canyon has everything from bright clouds (especially in monsoon season) to the deep shadows of the inner gorge. Mornings and early evenings are the most extreme. If you capture the detail of the inner gorge in shadow, you will most likely lose your sky and anything in it. And if you set your exposure to maintain cumulus-cloud detail, the deep canyon shadows will be as black as night.

This is particularly difficult when you are in a hurry. When I'm photographing the canyon I'm mostly doing it while hiking and my hiking friends are strong, fast hikers. I don't have time to ponder my exposures and screw around with things. I certainly don't have time to set up a tripod nor do I have the inclination to lug one around with me. So what does one do to get good images? Here are some tips:

  • Squint! Squinting before you shoot will give you a good sense of how the camera will render the image. Ansel Adams called this "previsualization."
  • If highlights are important (and they almost always are) be sure to expose for them, not the shadows. Hold your highlight detail!
  • Learn about your camera's exposure meter. Today's cameras have very sophisticated meters. Most people don't bother to understand them, relying instead on the camera's intelligence.
  • Learn how to read a histogram. The histogram in your camera (and image editor) has a world of image-detail information. When shadows and details are clipping (getting lost) you'll see a big bar of pixel data on the far left (shadows) or far right (highlights). When at the extremes, this means that you are losing image detail. Adjust your exposure accordingly.
  • Shoot in RAW. RAW files have much more image information in them than do JPEG files. If you are shooting digitally you must learn how to shoot in RAW. JPEG is a compromise.
  • When previsualizing, ask yourself about the important areas of the photo. Where do you need to maintain detail in order to make a great photo? Where can you let detail fade away? Expose accordingly.
  • If you have a tripod you can bracket exposures of the same image and then use a technique called HDR (High Dynamic Range) to blend them together in an image editor like Photoshop. This can allow you to capture extreme ranges in tonality. But, it does require a tripod and some planning.

Once we get our images into an image editor, there are lots of things we can do to reclaim lost details. However, we must have that information on film or in image file for us to do anything about it. That's why exposure is so important. We can't construct image detail out of thin air. The most important thing you can do to improve the dynamic range of your photos is to increase your awareness. Everything follows that. Photographing Grand Canyon is good practice for photographing anything, anywhere, that has a broad dynamic range of light to dark.