Patience and framing - Making "Grand Canyon Winter #1" fine art photograph.

Snow covered landscape photograph of the Grand Canyon by Thomas Watkins


For years I'd been trying to get some photos of the Grand Canyon in the snow. And in January of 2018 I had my chance! I heard about the winter storm warnings about a week prior to heading up to the canyon but I figured that the storm would just blow itself out before it got close.

Seeing that the storm was actually gaining strength over the next few days my excitement grew! But as my excitement grew so did my anxiety and fear.

Several years ago I was involved in a car accident that bestowed upon me a level of PTSD about driving in the snow. I hit a patch of black ice under a sheet of snow on highway 87 between Pine and Strawberry, AZ. Only going about 10 or 15 miles per hour because it was pitch black and snowing, I hit the ice, lost control of my truck, and went flying off the road. The whole thing took only a few seconds and thankfully I was not hurt badly. But it seemed like an eternity as I felt the ground disappear beneath the wheels. I remember the truck falling so sharply that, even with my seatbelt on, my head was slammed into the roof and my leg hit the steering wheels just above the knees hard enough to leave bruises that lasted for weeks.

Now I had a choice. Do I let my fears stop me from going north, knowing full well that it may be years before I get the chance again? Or do I face my fears, take the chance and possibly get an opportunity to maybe, just maybe, get the photographs that I have been longing for years?

I got mad at myself for just a second. But that was all it took for me to decide that I wasn't going to let my fears control me.

The next day I was on the road.

The South rim of the Grand Canyon is roughly three and a half hours from my house. So to get ahead of the storm, I needed this to be an overnight trip and planned to spend the night in the town of Williams.

I left the house with enough time to reach the canyon before sunset. I wanted to scout the area and formulate a plan for the next day. When I arrived around 3:00pm the wind was starting to pick up. It was biting cold and getting fiercer by the minute. I needed to find a place to settle in. So, I studied the map that was given to me at the entrance of the park and picked a spot that I believed would award me with a spectacular view of the canyon for a sunset photo shoot. An hour later I found a place that gave me a view looking west and was greeted by a view that was rendered almost lifeless and devoid of color by the now completely overcast and quickly darkening sky. This evening was a bust. But at least I knew where I didn't want to be tomorrow.

Packing up my camera and the rest of my gear, I decided to head to Williams to check into my room and get a bite to eat.

After driving for about thirty minutes south on highway 64 the rain started. Ten minutes after that the full fury of the storm was on anyone unlucky enough to be caught out in it! The rain was falling so heavily that traffic, me and an RV in front of me that I could barely see 15 feet away, were forced to slow down to about ten miles per hour.

Two white- knuckled, nail biting hours later, I arrived at my hotel. The storm only grew worse over those hours on the road and I was thankful that there were plenty of places to pick up some food nearby.

After dinner I decided to study the Grand Canyon map again to find a place to be for the morning light. I had turned on the tv to watch while enjoying my dinner and to keep an eye on the now "severe" winter storm that was hammering northern Arizona and causing power outages as far East as Flagstaff 30 miles away. The power was struggling to stay on at the hotel too. And every 20 minutes or so everything go black.

Around 9:00 pm that night the world went silent.

Growing up in the midwest I knew that the silence meant only one thing. It was snowing. I looked out the window and was blown away at how much snow was already covering everything! The snowflakes coming down were enormous and unrelenting. And those fears from my accident came with them. With the power out completely now, I opened the blinds and sat on the edge of the bed staring out into the snow with a mixture of the wonder that comes with fresh virgin snow, and the dread of knowing that, in the morning, I was going to have to drive in it.

The next morning I woke to find that over eight inches of snow fell and most of the roads were closed. However, the weatherman promised mostly cloudy skies and a high of 45+ degrees. It was going to be a great day for photography! Still, I was both disappointed that there was no way I'd be getting to the canyon for any early morning light and elated that I didn't have rush out. The roads would be cleared soon enough.

The roads weren't clear enough for travel till about 7:30 in the morning. Soon after I was back on the road heading North to the Grand Canyons south rim. It was a cold morning and at times trying to either rain or snow. When I arrived at the South entrance gate, there was very little snow on the road and everything was enshrouded in fog. At this point I was so excited to get to the canyon itself!

Upon arriving at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center I was not surprised to find a nearly empty parking lot. I had the park almost to myself. After loading up my equipment my first stop was the Mather Point Cafe for an overdue quality cup of coffee. Cup in hand and, since I already missed the coveted first light of the morning, I strolled up and down Rim Trail with camera and tripod at the ready.

When I came upon the scene that would become Grand Canyon Winter #1 fine art print the lighting was terrible. So, instead of using great light, the challenge was going to be creating a great composition.

With composition taking the forefront of my thinking, a profound idea struck me. "What if I changed the very concept of the Grand Canyon? Instead of it being this colossal landscape, reverse it, and have the Grand Canyon take up only a small portion of the frame?"

This line of thinking allowed more trees and plants into the scene between me and the canyon and the images I was finding in the frame now took a more storied approach and showed more snow covered foreground.

I saw the snowy yucca cactus several yards down the path and I knew I wanted that to be part the final image.

As I rounded the Yucca and saw how the ground fell away to the right opening a small window to the Grand Canyon and the top of the tree to left came up and over the “window”, the composition fell into place.

It only took some slight repositioning to create leading lines with the tree branches and rocks that lined up with the darkness of the bottom of the canyon.

Fortunately, as I was recomposing, I noticed that the clouds were moving to the right and a small patch of sunlight was filtering through. If I waited a little bit longer that patch would line up with all those leading lines.

So I waited, hoping that the clouds would not suddenly close in on themselves and take that small bit of sunlight away.

Twenty minutes passed and not only did the clouds not close, they actually parted a little wider lightening up the far away bluff at the perfect point to tie the entire composition together!

Equipment and exposure information

Canon 5D Mark III ~ iso 250

Canon 16 - 35mm f2.8 Mark II ~ 1/125 sec @ f11 

Canon RS - 80N3 ~ cable release

Slik Pro 700 DX ~ Tripod

Manfrotto XPRO ~ Ball Head