How to take an amazing photo of the Grand Canyon

Get five expert tips from a canyon-lover who’s been photographing the landscape for over a decade.

“You can’t capture the essence of the Grand Canyon in a single photo,” says Adam Schallau.

But that hasn’t kept the award-winning photographer from trying. A former artist-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park, Schallau has devoted decades to exploring the canyon in his effort to create images that capture the iconic park’s uncompromising beauty. (Discover the Grand Canyon’s less-trafficked trails.)

On one visit, during a stormy week in May, he had a visual breakthrough. “I got to see the light streaming through the clouds—it was full of drama and theatrics,” says Schallau. The experience inspired him to apply to become the park’s artist-in-residence in 2009. Since then, Schallau’s obsession has only grown. He moved from Colorado to Flagstaff, Arizona, to be closer to the canyon; he rafted the Colorado River through the park, hiked trails between river and rim, and traversed the gorge’s sinuous edges looking for new scenes to capture. He now gives workshops to aspiring photographers, urban youth, and members of the Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo nations, which border the canyon. (Read how hiking the Grand Canyon is 800 miles of magic and misery.)

Here are Schallau’s top tips for making an epic picture of the Grand Canyon.

Bring a tripod

“Some of the best light occurs before sunrise and after sunset, requiring you to use a long exposure for the best results,” says Schallau. “Take advantage of situations that require a long exposure by using a tripod to stabilize your camera. This can include photographing lightning or the Milky Way. In this photo, I used a 30-second exposure during which lightning struck the canyon multiple times. Thunderstorms make for incredible photos, but always be safe—take shelter when lightning comes within eight to 10 miles of your location.
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Schallau used a 30-second exposure to capture lightning strikes across the canyon from Lipan Point on the South Rim.

Use a strong foreground

“Step back from the edge and include a foreground to frame the canyon and make the viewer feel like they are there,” Schallau says. “I love to photograph through the trees, using them to outline the canyon, like this photo of Angels Window on the North Rim.”

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Angels Window frames the San Francisco Peaks, more than 55 miles away, near Flagstaff.

Go wide

“If you’re lucky enough to participate in a river trip on the Colorado River,” says Schallau, “you’ll get to hike to many waterfalls and slot canyons. You can use a wide-angle lens and get close to your subject, in this case, a waterfall in Elves Chasm near river mile 117. For this photo, I used an ultra-wide-angle lens to emphasize the sweep of the leading lines as they move towards the waterfall.”

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The sloping walls of Elves Chasm lead the viewer’s eye to the waterfalls streaming into the Colorado River near river mile 117.

Anticipate changes in weather

“Be prepared to capture dramatic light as storms move and shift. The best moments may only last a couple of minutes, and you have to be on the rim ready to capture them,” Schallau explains. “In this photograph, taken from Cape Royal on the North Rim, the sky had been cloudy for several hours. But as sunset approached, the clouds began to clear just as the sunlight broke through.”

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For hours, heavy monsoon rains had obscured the view from the North Rim’s Cape Royal, but the clouds began to clear near sunset to reveal the the west wall of Wotans Throne.

Use a telephoto lens

“Use a telephoto lens to zoom in on overlapping layers,” Schallau recommends. “One of my favorite spots is the Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim, where I like to photograph to the west before sunset. There are some beautiful overlapping ridges, including the Angels Gate feature. This same scene can also be beautiful in the morning light when the ridges turn a fiery red as they are lit by the rising sun.”

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Sunlight and long shadows silhouette temples and buttes, including Angels Gate. From the photographer’s vantage on Navajo Point to Mount Trumbull, visible in the distance, stretches a distance of more than 77 miles.

River-runner and writer Zak Podmore’s first book, Confluence: Navigating the Personal & Political on Rivers of the New West, is forthcoming from Torrey House Press in October 2019. Find Zak on Twitter @groatnotes.