Earth shadow tints the sky over Thor’s Hammer in pastel shades of blue and pink in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Bret Edge)
I first visited Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park in 2005. Melissa and I spent a half day touring the overlooks before unanimously deciding that we were unimpressed and should move on to a more interesting location. In 2012 I was passing by Bryce Canyon on a motorcycle trip when something compelled me to give it another shot. I rode through a summer monsoon storm along the scenic drive to the end at Rainbow Point, stopping at each overlook to enjoy the view. I don’t know what inside of me changed but this time, I was awestruck. I called Melissa and convinced her we needed to plan a trip to Bryce. She reluctantly agreed. We came back with our son later that summer and she too was surprised to find herself fascinated by this marvelous canyon. We camped for two days and hiked among the fanciful hoodoos. I’ve gone back a couple more times in the last year and am already eagerly planning another trip.
You would think it relatively easy to create beautiful photographs at a place this scenic. You would be wrong. Bryce Canyon is a complex place. Finding a cohesive composition in the right light requires careful study. Though I’ve visited a number of times I have exactly one photo from Bryce that I consider print-worthy and only half a dozen or so that are marketable (excluding outdoor adventure photographs). With this post I hope to share a few lessons I’ve learned over several visits that may help to increase your chances of producing quality images.
General Strategies for Photography at Bryce Canyon National Park
The vast majority of overlooks at Bryce Canyon face more or less east so in the morning you’re essentially shooting into the sunrise. Yes, there are exceptions at some of the side canyons but generally speaking you’ll greet the morning sun head on. Use this to your advantage! The light that Bryce Canyon is famous for is that soft, warm glow of reflected light and at Bryce it is strongest at sunrise. The red hoodoos and badlands absorb sunrise light and bounce it onto the backsides of hoodoos, filling in shadows and giving the entire scene an amazing radiance. Use a small aperture (i.e. f/16 or smaller) to create a sunburst just as the sun creeps above the horizon. If you’re including sky in your composition be prepared to deal with the extreme dynamic range between bright sky and darker canyon. In the past I used graduated neutral density filters. Now I blend exposures by hand using luminosity masks and am far more pleased with the results.
Don’t stop photographing right after sunrise. Mid to late-morning is also excellent as you’ll still find wonderful reflected light even hours after sunrise. This is also a good time to utilize longer focal length lenses to isolate hoodoos or features inside the canyon for a more intimate view.
Afternoon and sunset is a more challenging time to photograph at Bryce Canyon. The setting sun casts long shadows into the canyon at most overlooks and only the tops of the hoodoos are bathed in light. Don’t give up though! Ten to thirty minutes after sunset you may find a pastel pink and blue sky appear above the canyon – Earth Shadow – and a soft glow upon the landscape. This light is exquisite and very easy to work with as it is low in dynamic range; you can usually record the entire scene in a single exposure. Clouds may also offer an opportunity for sunset photography as they bounce light into the canyon, filling in some of the shadows just enough to prevent them from completely blocking up.
Choosing the right lens for photography at Bryce Canyon can be challenging. You will be tempted to go wide by the seemingly endless views but beware of distortion that causes hoodoos on the edges of the frame to bend outward. I’m not suggesting that you keep your wide angle lenses stashed away – just know that you will need to make some perspective corrections in post-processing. There are a couple of ways to avoid this: use a tilt/shift lens or stitch two or more frames together to create a single image. If I had one, a tilt/shift lens would be my first choice. If you choose to stitch photos together I recommend that you use a moderate focal length of around 50mm and shoot in a vertical orientation. This technique is often used to create panoramic photographs but if you only use two or three frames you can create an image with a normal aspect ratio. Another benefit to this technique is that the final image will likely be of a higher resolution than a single-frame photograph. Go ahead and make those large prints! Jim Goldstein wrote an excellent tutorial titled “Mastering Digital Panoramic Photography” that I highly recommend for those of you who are new to this technique.
Every season has something to offer at Bryce Canyon. Spring temperatures are very pleasant and wildflowers begin to bloom, adding dashes of color to the landscape. In the summer, dramatic storm clouds build almost every afternoon. Aspen leaves turn bright yellow in fall and contrast sharply against dark evergreens. Winter snows create unique and peaceful scenes and also drive away most tourists but be prepared for brutally cold conditions.
Locations to Photograph at Bryce Canyon National Park
What Bryce Canyon National Park lacks in size it more than makes up for in opportunity, which is to say that you’ll find yourself in a target rich environment the moment you cross into the park. Familiarize yourself with the park before you arrive by visiting the Bryce Canyon National Park website. Here you can read the aptly named park newspaper, “The Hoodoo“, which also contains valuable information about hiking trails and a good map that provides a birds-eye view of the park. For a map with more detail I highly recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated topo map, #219.
Locations that follow are listed in the order in which they appear as you drive through the park beginning at the park boundary just outside of Bryce City.
I only discovered Fairyland Canyon last year and have yet to make a dynamic image there. That said, I believe this relatively small overlook has tremendous potential. The hoodoos below are densely packed into the canyon with Boat Mesa rising to the south. In August I found colorful rabbitbrush blooming alongside the trail and ominous monsoon storm clouds in the sky.
You don’t need solid detective skills to deduce that Sunrise Point is a great spot to photograph sunrise. However, it is also one of the better spots for sunset photography. Sunrise Point is on the northern side of Bryce Amphitheater, which is also overlooked at Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points.
I find the views from Sunset Point a little more interesting than those from Sunrise Point. I wouldn’t call them better – just different. Sunset Point is a very popular overlook and is often crowed with tourists. Despite the name, I don’t recommend it for sunset photography unless you’re lucky enough to have great clouds to bounce light into the canyon. There are some good opportunities here for panoramic photography.
A short walk down the trail from Sunset Point delivers you to an exceptional view of Thor’s Hammer, perhaps the most famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon. I’ve photographed Thor’s Hammer at sunrise, mid-morning and after sunset and all are good for photography. The image at the top of this post was made 10-15 minutes after sunset using a 24-105mm lens at 47mm.
While you’re at Sunset Point you might as well hike the Navajo Loop that descends into the canyon through Wall Street. It’s a steep hike but passing below towering walls glowing with reflected light is not-to-be-missed if you’re in shape to safely do the hike. Look for an impossibly tall pine tree framed on two sides by huge canyon walls – this is an iconic location for photography at Bryce Canyon.
This is my favorite viewpoint at Bryce Canyon. It’s fantastic at sunrise and early to mid-morning but may also offer some great options for sunset photography. I also find this to be the best location for panoramic photography. Instead of walking up to the designated overlook veer left and walk along the Rim Trail until you find a perspective that grabs your attention.
Bryce Point is my second favorite location in the park. It is on the southern side of Bryce Amphitheater and provides views looking mostly north and east. It’s great at sunrise and, depending on the conditions, you may find some good sunset opportunities.
If you enjoy hiking, the Rim Trail runs between Fairyland Canyon and Bryce Point, passing each overlook along the way. I can’t recommend this hike strongly enough. Along the way you will pass endless views into the canyon, many of which are as good, if not better than, the designated viewpoints.
I like to photograph Natural Bridge (technically an arch, not a bridge) in mid-morning. The sun is high enough in the sky that it nicely illuminates the features around the arch and bounces ample light onto the underside of the arch, giving it a nice, warm glow. This is a difficult area to work as you must stay behind the railing and there are a few small trees that require you to be creative with your composition. But, it is a fascinating location.
Agua Canyon affords spectacular views looking east into the massive expanse of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Directly in front of the overlook are a couple dramatic hoodoos, one of which, The Hunter, is quite similar to Thor’s Hammer. I’ve not been at this location for sunrise but I suspect it could be good. Late-morning light fills the canyon below, eliminating harsh shadows, and sheds light onto The Hunter.
Rainbow and Yovimpa Points
Admittedly, I’ve never photographed at either of the two viewpoints at the very end of the park road. I find the views less impressive and more open overall. That said, I do believe there is potential at both overlooks. At Yovimpa Point you are looking roughly south, which may offer impressive sunset opportunities. Rainbow Point faces north and east. You may find good light in the morning or afternoon. The Bristlecone Loop is a relatively easy 1 mile loop that passes some interesting bristlecone pine trees. These trees often make interesting subjects for intimate and abstract photographs in soft light.
Pick a trail, any trail, that descends into the canyon and start hiking. It won’t take long and you’ll be surrounded by huge canyon walls, funky hoodoos, arches and twisted old trees. The entire character of the landscape changes dramatically when you immerse yourself in the canyon. Some of my favorite inner canyon hikes are the out and back to Tower Bridge, Queen’s Garden Loop and Peek-A-Book Loop. You will find interesting subjects to photograph in any season and at any time of day. A word of caution: it’s always much easier going down than coming back up and the park may close trails throughout the year due to ice, snow and/or rockfall.
If you’re a long lens kind of person you’ll find an ample supply of wild creatures to photograph. Deer, pronghorn, squirrels and a variety of birds are all commonly seen. Meadows between Bryce Point and Swamp Canyon are often populated by grazing deer among the pines. Less common but also native are black bears, bobcats and porcupines.
By no means is this a comprehensive guide of every location worth photographing in Bryce Canyon National Park. Rather, it is a starting point. I wrote it with the hope that it might save you some time and effort as you plan a trip to this most amazing location. Enjoy!
Looking for some visual inspiration? Here’s a gallery of my photographs of Bryce Canyon National Park.
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