Photo Guide: Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Guided by my headlamp, my gear on my back and my brain in a fog, I scramble over rocks to the edge of the nearly vertical black craggy wall of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. To my pleasant surprise I have the entire photo site to myself. From my rocky perch I hear the roar of the river 2,250 feet below. Birds soar overhead as I setup my tripod, mount my camera, and experiment with different compositions. Once I’m satisfied with my setup I sit back in the early November chill and watch as the morning light unfolds, snapping off shots every few minutes. First pink and purple dance across the sky. The morning climaxes as the first rays of sun strike Painted Wall and it ignites with fire.
- A super wide-angle lens is needed to capture the full depth of the canyon from top to bottom
- A tripod for exposing dark canyon walls and for bracketing shots for combining in HDR software
- A graduated neutral density filter (optional)
The deep canyon provides extreme light and dark contrasts during most times of the day. There are several ways you can approach this.
- Embrace contrast: Embrace the contrasting light and dark surfaces of the canyon and make them part of your photo’s composition.
- Use HDR: Bracket your shot to expose for both the light and dark areas of the scene and combine them using HDR software.
- Let nature help you: Wait for a cloudy or stormy day when the light is evenly diffused from the top to the bottom of the canyon. In the winter, snow may also reflect light into the shadowy parts of the canyon.
- Graduated neutral density filter: Even if you limit the amount of sky in your photos, there will still be a significant contrast between the deep dark gorge and the bright sky. A graduated neutral density filter allows you to expose for the canyon without blowing out the sky.
It’s important to factor in the time of day when photographing the canyon. Due to the depth of the gorge and the direction a wall faces, many formations will either have good light or be in total darkness depending on where the sun is. These are the locations and times of the day that I can recommend with confidence. There are several other locations that I have not had time to explore. Don’t limit your creativity to what I’ve suggested here.
- North Chasm View
- South Chasm View
- Painted Wall View
- Cedar Point
- Dragon Point
- Gunnison Point
Late afternoon or sunset locations
- Warner Point
- Sunset View
- Explanation Point (north rim, closed in winter)
- Summit of Green Mountain (north rim, closed in winter)
- Consider trekking to the bottom of the canyon for a unique perspective
- Look for the not–so-obvious shots that you won’t get from any of the designated overlooks or view points
Places to Stay
There are several hotels in the nearest town, Montrose. Plan on it taking about 30 minutes to get from the center of town to the South Rim Visitor Center in the national park and about another 10 minutes beyond that to get to the Painted Wall turnout, if that is where you want to go.
Personally, I would sleep in a bivy sack on a ledge near the rim of the canyon so I could delay getting up for as long as possible and still snap off some great sunrise photos. Alas, the park rangers frown on that.
A more than acceptable alternative is staying in the South Rim Campground. It is very comfortable and what I would expect from a national park. I was there in late November. Only one loop of the campground was open at the time and there was no charge to stay there. There was just one other tent in the campground so it was nice and quiet. And it took only 10 minutes to get to several great photo locations.
I like to spoil myself and go into town for brunch after a full morning of photography. The Daily Bread Bakery and Café offers a full menu of coffee, pastries, and breakfast entrées. I highly recommend the huevos rancheros. Some of the best that I’ve had.