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UNFRAMED 003: Photographing Spectacular Canyon Light

Updated: Jul 10

Making the most of a brief moment in southern Utah


Part blog, part zine, my UNFRAMED series takes you behind the scenes of many of my favorite photos.



As I've discussed elsewhere over the years, I prefer to show up at a location and see what comes my way in terms of photography. That's also known as, I'm not a big planner. Such was the case back in March 2022 when my friend Jon Fischer and I arrived in southern Utah after I invited him on my first big trip as a full-time photographer (I had left my corporate career of nearly 30 years at the end of January).


While that may sound lazy - a not entirely unfair accusation - it's also how I gain the most enjoyment out of photography. I used to be a planner, obsessing over hunting down every little detail about various locations, using apps to predict sunrise and sunset conditions (which were rarely accurate), and just generally eroding my passion for the craft over time as the lofty expectations I built up in my head failed to play out time and time again.


Thankfully, I started to move past that kind of mindset back in 2018, and over the last several years I have embraced the art of reactive photography.


This is all relevant as this first big trip to Utah was an example of when a little more pre-planning probably would have been helpful... maybe. We were faced with the challenge of strong winds for much of the trip, so it's entirely possible any plans I had made in advance for specific locations would have been tossed aside anyways.


As it was, with the unrelenting wind, I knew that one way to avoid it was to head into some of the countless canyons scattered around Grand Staircase-Escalante and elsewhere.


And so it was that as we settled into camp one evening, I found myself flipping through a book Jon had brought along, Photographing the Southwest: Volume One - A guide to the natural landmarks of Southern Utah by Laurent Martres. I decided we should check out Burr Trail the next morning.


Overlooking Long Canyon of the Burr Trail in southern Utah
Overlooking the Long Canyon portion of Burr Trail in southern Utah

We had headed out fairly early to catch the first light of the day, but with the clear blue skies we'd encountered most of the trip so far continuing into the new day, I wasn't expecting to find much opportunity in photographing the morning sky.


As we approached Long Canyon, a stretch of Burr Trail that follows a steep descent, we had a spectacular view overlooking this canyon stretch of the trail. We found a couple narrow shoulders we could pull onto, and both set out to find a composition from our elevated position, before continuing on into the canyon below.


Overlooking a canyon filled with cottonwood trees in southern Utah near Burr Trail
A large side canyon that runs into Long Canyon below. We didn't hike the trail through this canyon in 2022, but when I returned in March 2023 I scouted about a mile into it.

I ended up setting up to shoot a timelapse of the shifting light gradually bathing the distant landscape, with the hope of catching the bare cottonwood trees in the canyon below as they became aglow as the light swept over them.


If memory serves, I stood at the top of the cliff for about 45 minutes. Jon had moved on down into the canyon, exploring on foot the dry creek bed that follows Burr Trail.


Not one to have the patience for lengthy timelapses, and deciding it wasn't going to be anything too special anyways, I finally called it quits and packed up my gear. I also had a specific location I wanted to get to with the early light; I had "scouted" it in the aforementioned book the evening before.


I met up with Jon again and we continued on along Burr Trail, heading deeper into Long Canyon to our destination.


Singing Canyon along the Burr Trail in southern Utah
Nothing too special from the outside...

One could be forgiven for dismissing this little slot canyon just off Burr Trail: from the road it's easy to miss, and doesn't look especially interesting. And to be fair, you can walk the entire slot start to finish in about 15 seconds!


Once inside, though, with the morning sun bouncing off the walls creating some fantastic reflected light, it quickly became one of our favorite locations to shoot for the entire trip.


Entrance to Singing Canyon in southern Utah
Soft light upon our arrival at the entrance to the canyon.

So many little details to photograph!


The first scene I composed was of a couple saplings struggling to grow along the side of the canyon. I've never shared this photo before, and still can't decide if it's quite worthy of being added to my print portfolio.


 

Untitled

Southern Utah | 2022


A black and white photo of a tree sapling growing along a canyon wall in southern Utah
Untitled frame: Although the rich reflected, warm light was appealing, I think I prefer this one in black and white.

Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R5 | Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4

Focal Length: 50mm | ISO: 100 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 1 second

Processed in Lightroom Classic


 

Canyon Shockwave

Southern Utah | 2022


A swooping detail in a canyon wall that looks like a shockwave
An unusual feature high up the canyon wall.

Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R5 | Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4

Focal Length: 89mm | ISO: 100 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 0.8 seconds



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After taking the above photo, I was working to dial in another composition of some rocky features lower on the canyon wall when I happened to glance over my shoulder. That's when I realized the deep red and orange glow of the canyon was thanks to strong light just outside the entrance, as well as rich reflected light bouncing off the opposing wall of Long Canyon.


That combination set the bare trees at the mouth of the canyon aglow, their white limbs contrasting wonderfully with the warm tones in the background and the deeper shadows in the foreground.


And thus, one of my favorite photos of the trip came to be.


 

Transcendent Glow

Southern Utah | 2022


Backlit cottonwoods along Burr Trail in southern Utah
Fleeting elements of canyon light.

Realizing this moment of light would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, I dialed in my composition over the course of a few initial shots (and while anxiously waiting for a couple other visitors to move out of the frame). I contemplated bracketing for exposure given the extremely high contrast of the scene, from the brightly lit trees to the dark shadows, but in the end, I decided a single frame would suffice to capture the image I had in my mind's eye.


The Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R5 | Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4

Focal Length: 105mm | ISO: 100 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 1/15th of a second

Processed in Lightroom Classic



Exposure & Processing Notes


Although I opted to not exposure bracket the scene to capture frames for the bright highlights and deep shadows, to be blended together in post, I was concerned with overexposing the highlights: I had to find the right middle ground without blowing them out.


In the following comparison of the unedited raw file and the final result, you can see that the frame as a whole is significantly underexposed to protect those highlights in the trees:


A comparison of an unedited raw photo file versus the final image
Transcendent Glow: Unedited raw file (left) vs. the final edit.

As you may be able to see in the above screenshot, the edit in post was not terribly complicated. I primarily set the overall exposure while bringing the highlights back down to avoid a loss of detail in the trees, and used a few color adjustments - coupled with setting the profile to Camera Landscape - to bring out the rich, warm tones of the canyon walls.


It's also very close to the JPEG preview I saw on the back of the camera:


Back LCD preview of a photo of trees in a canyon in southern Utah
Back of camera preview: I immediately knew I had something special!

Making the photo in-field wasn't terribly difficult, and neither was the processing. This photo is all about the fleeting moment I happened to witness simply because I glanced over my shoulder at the right time.



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Speaking of fleeting, I was able to compose one additional photo before the sun shifted enough to significantly alter the nature of the light reflecting into the side canyon. All total, I'd guess it lasted no more than 15 minutes or so.


 

Utah Palette

Southern Utah | 2022


Reflected light on a canyon wall in southern Utah
Closer detail of the warmly lit canyon wall.

Technical Details


Camera: Canon EOS R5 | Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4

Focal Length: 70mm | ISO: 100 | Aperture: f/16

Exposure Time: 0.6 seconds



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For such a tiny little canyon, it proved to be extremely fruitful! Amazingly, we spent an hour and a half photographing an area that we could walk through end-to-end in 15 seconds.


This experience is definitive proof that being in the right place, at the right time, can be absolutely crucial to finding and making a specific photo. I returned to this canyon earlier this year (March 2023); having arrived later in the day, I wasn't expecting the light to be doing much and I was absolutely right. The environment looked completely different as the small side canyon was in complete shadow, and the walls of Long Canyon were not receiving strong enough direct light to create any rich reflected light on opposing walls and the side canyon.


A photo of a slot canyon along Burr Trail in southern Utah
Right place, wrong time!

On the flip side, I was able to get a few nice photos outside the canyon during my 2023 trip. Instead of relying on morning light, I leveraged strong afternoon sunlight reflecting off the opposing wall of Long Canyon.


But you'll have to wait for those photos... I'm working on wrapping up my editing from that trip and will be releasing the images in my second (free) ebook gallery in the future. Sign up for my newsletter to know when it's available!


 

Michael Rung

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