Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Grand Canyon Night Photography - Part One

River runners around campfire with moonglow & stars behind granite cliff in the Grand Canyon ~ © Royce Bair
I just recently returned from a 7-day assignment to photograph a Western River Expeditions trip down the Grand Canyon. Unlike John Wesley Powell's expeditions in 1869 and 1872, my mode of transportation into and out of the canyon (the plane ride and the helicopter air lift) was much easier.

My 127 lbs. in four cases
Hillers with 1,000 lbs.
1872 vs. 2013: This photo of John K. Hillers shows some of the photographic equipment necessary to record an expedition, such as Powell's Grand Canyon surveys in the 1870's. Those were the days before it was possible to make photographic enlargements from negatives. A large photograph could only be produced by a large camera. Additionally, the wet-plate process of taking and developing photographs was unwieldy—requiring Hillers to bring some 1,000 pounds of equipment on his trips.

Unlike Powell's photographer, John K. Hillers, I carried only 127 pounds (located in the three Pelican cases and one large dry bag there on the tarmac). Like the other 17 guests that went on this trip, I also carried about 25 pounds of personal gear. Still, my 152 pounds amounts to about six times more weight I had to lug around than the average guest—all of which had to be loaded and unloaded from the boat each day. Even so, Western River Expeditions makes the process so much easier than Powell and Hillers had it. It was more like a 7-day picnic that included a great boat ride!

KEY GEAR used on this expedition:
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III (A great full-frame camera. It is excellent for low-light, high ISO stills & videos. I use an older, Mark II as a 2nd body, which acts as my time lapse camera when I'm shooting stills and video at the same time.)
  • EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Zoom Lens (great all-around lens with constant f/2.8 aperture).
  • Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (ultra wide lens with coma correction for my signature NightScape photography—I shoot this lens wide open).
  • Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 (This is a super fast, wide-angle lens with coma correction for starry night landscape photography. I shoot this lens wide open, which allows me to lower my ISO from a normal of ISO 6400 for Milky Way shots, down to ISO 1600!)
  • Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 3-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod (I use 2 of these light-weight tripods because I often have two cameras going at the same time—one for regular night photography and the other for time lapse. One tripod has just a ball head on it, and the other has a geared head for fine adjustments and doing panoramas.)
  • Manfrotto 496RC2 Compact Ball Head (see above for details).
  • Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head (used on 2nd tripod—see above).
  • Joby Gorillapod Focus/Ballhead X Bundle (This is a pro version that is capable of serious use in low positions and in all kinds of hard-to-get positions. It can be a real life saver, and it supports as much weight as my big Manfrotto tripods and heads.)
  • GoPro Hero3 Black Edition (a great sports camera with waterproof housing -- very sharp 12MP stills and HD 1080p video @ 30 fps or 60 fps, or HD 720p @ 120 fps for great slow motion).
  • Steadicam Smoothee Kit for GroPro Hero (enables smooth, handheld video with the GoPro and your iPhone 4, just like the Hollywood big boys).
  • Vagabond Portable Power station (I used this 120VAC portable power source, with 2 extra lithium batteries to recharge all my camera batteries, including my iPhone).
  • Pelican 1510 Carry On Case (I used 3 of these rugged, waterproof, and sand-proof cases. I think the 1510 has the best capacity for the money, and a single unit qualifies as the maximum size airline carry on, even with the wheels and handle. The 4th case I use on this trip was not a case, but a "dry bag" that stored my tripods.)

Last rays of sunlight on the canyon walls at one of my favorite beaches ~ © Royce Bair
This crescent-moon shaped sandy beach was my favorite campsite on our Western River Expeditions trip down the Grand Canyon. The rich orange and red granite cliffs along this portion of the Grand Canyon are amazing, and much different than the typical sandstone layers (sedimentary) that are higher on the canyon walls. Because of these harder igneous and metamorphic layers, the canyon walls are much steeper and sandy beaches like this one are much harder to find—making this site even more special.

The campfire scene (at the top) was photographed using a Canon 5D Mark III with 14mm Rokinon lens @ f/2.8, 8 seconds, with an ISO of 3200. The quarter moon was just about to rise above the granite cliff.

Please come back every few days and see how I photographed the Milky Way and other starry night skies in this amazing canyon. (BTW, I found out today that Western still has some openings in their July and August trip schedules!)

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  2. I think going on a Grand Canyon bus tour with my family would be pretty fun. I'm sure we'd be able to set up some kind of trip next summer that we could all go on. It's been such a long time since I last went to the Grand Canyon, it should be really neat to get to see it again.

  3. thank you for sharing. keep up good work.

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  11. Captivating journey through the Grand Canyon's nightscapes! Royce's adept storytelling and meticulous gear insights provide a glimpse into the magical confluence of technology, nature, and celestial beauty. Eagerly anticipating the next installment and contemplating a trip with Western River Expeditions!
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