Go Out (to the Grand Canyon) And Shoot…

Posted by on June 24, 2012


Plenty of people will visit the Grand Canyon in their lifetime, but far fewer will hike into it. And fewer still will discover, hike, photograph, and experience a remarkable part of the Grand Canyon called Havasupai.

Havasupai or Havasu Canyon is reservation land comprised of a paradisical side canyon to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The canyon is home to a perennial creek and lush vegetation, not to mention the Havasupai people themselves. The name means “land of the blue-green waters”

I discovered Havasupai as a potential photography destination last year when I was out in Sedona, Arizona at a photography workshop, and it was “love at first suggestion.” My instructor and friend, Derek von Briesen, considers it a favorite, and spoke of turquoise waters, secret canyons, soft glowing light, and solitude. I was intrigued, and when Derek contacted me late last year to see if I was interested in making it a reality, I enthusiastically accepted.

Getting to it isn’t easy; the village is considered the most remote in the United States, with mail still delivered by mule. Special arrangements must be made ahead of time with the tribe, and tourists must drive to a parking lot basically out in the middle of the desert, and then hike in 10 miles, ride in by horseback, or helicopter in. We chose to helicopter in, shoot for 5 days, and then ride out to maximize photographic time and our experience of the canyon. Everything but water must be packed in and back out, so traveling light and being prepared are crucial. The camping isn’t for the faint of heart, but then the same could be said for the destination itself. Huge payoff though, photographically speaking. I have traveled the world extensively, and I can honestly say that this was one of the most memorable destinations for me so far… Following are the ingredients that make Havasupai such a special location for landscape photography:

Ingredient #1: Gorgeous Light

Typically, shooting landscapes is best done very early or late in the day – on the edges of light, so to speak. Not so in Havasupai. The narrow, 3.000 foot deep canyon is only exposed to direct light in the very middle of the day, the rest of the time there is this beautiful soft light, bounced off the canyon walls so that at times they seem to glow from within. As a result, shooting time is maximized. Major plus. And the quality of the light is unlike any I have ever seen – except perhaps in Africa. I believe it is related to the dust particles in the air which scatter the light. Very special.

Ingredient #2: Water

Havasu creek emerges from underground at the top of Havasu canyon, and flows to its convergence with the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon itself. During its stint underground, the water becomes laden with minerals that, once agitated and oxygenated, precipitate out to form travertine pools and myriad waterfalls (both small and impressively large), and also line the creek bed with a white marble substance. The white creek bed gives the water an intense turquoise color as it reflects the sky.


Ingredient #3: Contrasting Color Palette

Think red and orange toned sheer canyon walls, turquoise water, and electric green foliage. It is a surreal color palette, for sure.

Ingredient #4: Isolation, Solitude, & Adventure

By virtue of the isolated nature of the canyon, it is relatively intact and undamaged. On top of that, there were few people there when I visited in the Spring. An average day had us crossing paths with maybe three or four other parties at worst. At one point, I had a whole canyon to myself with no other soul anywhere close. The fewer people the better in my book – for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is having the ability to capture the landscape by itself and without people. Solitude also adds to one’s experience of place and allows for a deeper connection with it – important parts of being able to convey emotion in landscape images.

Following is a small sampling of what awaits down in this canyon (for more imagery, visit Michele Sons Photography on Facebook). The experience absolutely sealed the deal for me in terms of my love of the American Southwest and the discipline of landscape photography. For the true adventurers out there, I would recommend this location in a heartbeat.

Look up Derek von Briesen as expedition guide/photographer extraordinaire (National Geographic published), or check out the following book for those of you who want to go it alone: Exploring Havasupai: A Guide to the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Greg Witt

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