Bryce Canyon: More Than Just Hoodoos
I just returned from a few days in Bryce Canyon National Park where Mother Nature put on quite a show. A strong cold front moved through and brought her friend, Mr. Breezy, with her! The wind at Bryce Point was some of the strongest wind I’ve ever felt in my life and all I could do was just laugh. The Park sits between 8000′ – 9000′ feet above sea level and is on the edge of a large plateau. When the winds blow in Bryce, they blow with force! Anyone who’s ever been there in a strong storm knows this is true. Several large ponderosa pines were knocked down which closed the road past the first few viewpoints, but those viewpoints offer so much.
The wind can be a very difficult element to deal with when photographing at Bryce Canyon. It simply isn’t comfortable. I must not be the only one who feels this way because I noticed a majority of the people who were also visiting decided to move on and the Park became very desolate. Winds don’t last forever though and sure enough, they calmed down enough to be more tolerable.
The same geography which creates these strong winds is also to credit for another difficult element to deal with: Light. Bryce Canyon predominately faces East and is at a much higher altitude than the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument. Morning light hits the canyon from the first sign of dawn, especially in the Late Fall – Early Spring when the Sun rises to the south of Powell Point (10,188). The other months of the year are good for morning light too, but when the Sun rises to the South of Powell Point in the Winter, direct light travels through MUCH more atmosphere before it illuminates the canyon. Winter can present its own obvious challenges in Bryce Canyon with extreme cold and wind. That’s a topic for another time.
The challenge with light in Bryce Canyon is that the viewpoints face to the East, directly into the rising sun. The presents a challenge with huge dynamic ranges and contrast. There are many ways to deal with this challenge of extreme dynamic range and contrast. One way is a Graduated ND filter to balance the sky an foreground. I personally don’t use these and I’ll write a blog post specifically on this topic. Another way to handle this light is to make several exposures and blend the images in Photoshop or Lightroom. This approach requires more time editing images and can work for many people but I personally don’t enjoy this aspect of photography.
My preferred approach is to not shoot directly into the light and shoot towards or across the light, but not directly into the light. This approach works for me in Bryce Canyon and can produce some interesting results. The hoodoos reflect light in various ways and the light can sometimes bounce between several hoodoos. Shooting across direct light and towards the light can greatly reduce contrast which keeps shadows and highlights in check. I prefer to use a longer lens to accomplish this and a lens hood keeps light off the lens and eliminates flaring.
The other challenge with light in Bryce Canyon is finding these angles to shoot across the light. This is where you’re feet come into the picture. Simply put, you have to move around. There is a great trail that runs along the rim of the main amphitheater for those who don’t want to climb or descend at these high elevations. For those who are more comfortable hiking at high elevations, there are many trails which will yield unique compositions nearly every time. This post isn’t a guide to such locations but I’d be happy to suggest some if anyone’s interested.
During my latest visit to Bryce Canyon I took my own advice and hiked down among the hoodoos at sunrise and discovered a composition and scene that I’ve never seen images of. The light was spectacular and I photographed a scene which I believe may be one of my favorites that I’ve ever discovered in Bryce Canyon. It developed very quickly and within minutes, the light changed and the scene vanished. I hope to share that image with you at some point soon but I shot it on Velvia 50 film and haven’t sent the film in for processing yet. So I’ll wait as well.
Thanks for reading,