The Canyon Conundrum: Winter at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
January 12, 2011
Canyons are tough places to shoot, and Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison has to be one of the toughest of all. At its narrowest and most dramatic, the Black Canyon is 1,800 feet deep but only 1,100 feet wide. Only the canyon rims get sunrise or sunset light and the difference in exposure between the inky-dark depths of the canyon and the sky above is extreme. The structure of the canyon’s precipitous rock walls compounds the photographer’s problems. In many places the rock is shattered into multiple facets that disguise the canyon’s overall structure. If the light is flat and shadowless down in the canyon, such as during a heavily overcast day, or at sunrise and sunset, it can be almost impossible to tell where the south walls begin and the north walls end as you look up or down stream at the canyon’s twists and turns. It’s almost like shooting a canyon in camouflage.
I use two basic approaches to photographing deep gorges such as the Black Canyon. The first is to shoot at sunrise or sunset on days when clouds in the sky give you a fighting chance of adding color to the otherwise somber canyon. With a lot of additional luck, those clouds may bounce enough soft but directional light down into the canyon to give some sense of the canyon’s form and structure. In this scenario, the dynamic range (the difference in exposure between the darkest important shadows and the brightest important highlights) is likely to be well beyond the range of even the best digital cameras. During one recent December sunrise at Tomichi Point, shooting straight into the sun, I used my Sekonic L-608 spot meter to measure an eight-stop difference between the shadowed canyon walls and the bright sky to the right of the sun.
A dynamic range this large is best handled with high-dynamic-range (HDR) software. With my camera mounted on a solid tripod, I shot a seven-frame bracket set using a one-stop bracket interval (each frame differed in exposure from the next by one stop). I then brought the seven frames into Nik's HDR Efex Pro software. Efex Pro then merged the seven files, choosing the correctly exposed parts of each frame to display. Among the many HDR packages now available, Efex Pro is my favorite for its ease of use and its ability to make local adjustments of brightness and contrast to various parts of the image using the same kind of Control Points found in other Nik packages.
My second basic approach to shooting deep canyons is to wait for the kind of soft but directional light found on a partly cloudy day, then shoot when the sun is high enough in the sky that light can reach near the canyon bottom. On a completely clear day, the contrast is generally too high to be pleasing; on a solidly overcast day, the light is too flat to reveal the canyon's structure. On a partly cloudy day, however, all those big white clouds act as giant reflectors, bouncing light down into the shadows, softening them and warming them slightly, since the bounced light is white. On a clear day, the light illuminating the shadows comes from the blue sky and records with a strong bluish cast on your sensor. With the right combination of clouds, however, the contrast deep in the canyon can be well within the range of your sensor. With your exposure problems minimized, you can concentrate on composing the best possible images of awesome gorges like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
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