Have you ever gone back to the same location at different times of the day and noticed how the entire look and feel of the place can be so different? It’s because the light is different.
Some of the very best landscape photographers go back to the same location again and again, studying the light, and waiting until the quality of the light is exactly right to take the photo they’re envisioning.
On my recent trip through Utah and Arizona, I visited some of those iconic landscape photography locations that I’d never been to—Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, and Horseshoe Bend along the Colorado River.
I was fortunate that my travel schedule allowed me to frequent Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona on three different days and at three different times of day—sunset, sunrise, and mid-morning. I don’t think there is necessarily a bad time of day to photograph Horseshoe Bend, but the time of day you shoot matters significantly for the overall mood and feel of the resulting image.
My first shoot at Horseshoe Bend was at sunset. This was also my first time seeing this geologic feature. It’s really quite amazing! I chose sunset because I wanted time to hike to the canyon rim (it’s a ¾-mile hike) and scout the location while it was still light out. Trying to navigate with my camera gear, in unfamiliar territory, in the dark before sunrise, while standing on the edge of a 1,000-foot sheer cliff wall is not a scenario I wanted to experience.
I found a location that gave me the composition I wanted, and I got my camera settings dialed in. With sunset at Horseshoe Bend, you are basically shooting right into the sun, which presents some challenges for exposure. The sky is bright, most of the canyon is in shadow, and the cliff wall right below you is all aglow in the warm light of the setting sun. I love the drama created by the high contrast light in this photograph, and that setting sun right at the horizon is just the finishing touch I was looking for.
My next shoot at Horseshoe Bend was the following morning. I got up well before sunrise, drank some coffee, and made my way to the cliff’s edge. No one else was around, and it was a beautiful morning. The air was fresh and crisp. Mornings really are my favorite time to shoot (if I can manage to get out of bed). I generally kept the same composition as the night before. What I wanted to be different between my photographs was the light. I started shooting in earnest about 20 minutes before sunrise. As the clock crept forward, the sandstone cliffs of the canyon gradually shifted from dark purple-blue tones into warm purple-pink tones. Then, once the sun crossed the horizon, the Vermillion Cliffs on the distant horizon began to glow a brilliant red color. There is still drama in this photograph, but this time it comes from the intense colors and details of the canyon walls. The light is more even and just draws you in.
My final shoot at Horseshoe Bend was the following day. My goal for this third photograph was to capture the canyon and the river below in full sun. I showed up about 8:30 a.m., and most of the scene was fully lit. However, I had to wait an additional 2 hours before the cliff’s shadow cleared the beach and river below. During this time, I just sat at the cliff’s edge studying the scene as the sun behind me rose higher in the sky. I watched people come and go. More than one person got down on hands and knees and crawled up to the edge to get their photo. The light in this photograph is pretty intense, but I think it allows the drama of the geologic feature itself to shine through. For me, this photograph is all about showing off Horseshoe Bend—an entrenched meander along the Colorado River.
So there you have it; three very different photographs of the same location. Of all the times I visited Horseshoe Bend during my trip, the sunrise shoot was my favorite. The light was the most subdued and the colors were the most brilliant. And, I didn’t have to battle crowds of other people. I was the only one there. That sunrise was just for me. Lucky me.