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Utah Trip Report: Day Two / Bryce Canyon National Park

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Snow blindness, sunburn, and Sunset at Bryce Canyon


If you missed the post for my day one trip report from this trip to southern Utah, you can read it here.



After a first day filled with obstacles that brought about some feelings of disappointment and frustration, I was excited to get back to Bryce Canyon National Park on day two as the forecast was calling for much clearer conditions. As I noted at the end of my previous report, Bryce really comes to life with good light!


 

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Day Two: Photographing Bryce Canyon with a Blanket of Snow


I decided to start off day two with little urgency. I wasn't planning to shoot sunrise at the park due to the very cold overnight temps (somewhere around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but yes, I wimped out a bit), and I was still feeling the aftereffects of the 20 hours or so of driving I'd done over the previous two days. As a result, I arrived at the park a little before noon.


But Mike, why would you want to shoot in the middle of the day?!

That wasn't necessarily the best plan from a parking standpoint but, fortunately, I was able to find a spot at Bryce Point. The park shuttle wasn't running yet, so every visitor was reliant upon their own vehicle to explore the park and, with only the first few miles accessible due to the deep snow, everyone was also constrained to a relatively small portion of the park.


Now, I can hear some of you crying out, aghast: "But Mike, why would you want to shoot in the middle of the day?!"


Begging your pardon, but that common photographer's trope of midday light = bad light is as tired as it is old. With the right location, and an inquisitive eye, you can often find great opportunities to make photos in such stereotypical "bad light." It's also a great time to capture frames for black and white interpretations of a place, although I don't believe I'll be doing so with many of the frames I captured on this particular trip.


Bryce Canyon National Park blanketed with snow
Bryce Canyon at noon... no such thing as bad light!

I spent the entire afternoon exploring the area between Bryce Point and Sunset Point, traversing the Rim Trail. Along the way I shot a mix of grand vistas over the Bryce Canyon amphitheater and smaller details directly beside the trail. I had a lot of fun using the deep snow at the top of the canyon as a framing device for shots of the amphitheater below, or to simply provide a nice contrast against the clear blue sky.


I did get a few comments from tourists wondering why I was laying on my belly in the snow a few times, but hey, gotta do what it takes to get the shot!


I didn't document much of my time spent along the Rim Trial for whatever reason, but here's a sneak peek at my initial selection of unedited frames from the Big Cameras that I took while wandering that path:


Thumbnails of photos along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Unedited candidate photos from along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon

So much snow! It truly does change the experience of exploring Bryce Canyon. Some elements are softened, others are hidden or drastically altered, the quality of reflected light is different...


... and it was absolutely blinding.


even setting the electronic viewfinder to full brightness wasn't enough to overcome pinhole pupils

I was being a bit over-dramatic in the subtitle of this post in teasing snow blindness as part of the experience, but as someone who is quite sensitive to sunlight and often finds his eyes watering badly if found outside on a bright day without sunglasses, it was a struggle.


To add to the challenge, if I wore my sunglasses while hiking and then took them off to frame a shot through the viewfinder, it took a while for my eyes to adjust between the two environments as my pupils were still quite constricted (even setting the electronic viewfinder to full brightness wasn't enough to overcome pinhole pupils). I also can't use my polarized sunglasses with the camera as the polarization blocks most of the light coming from the LCD screens.


As the cherry on top, I also found that wearing my sunglasses and then taking them off to compose shots was causing significant issues with my color interpretation. I've never encountered that before to such an extreme, and it wasn't a quick process for my brain to recalibrate as I tried switching back and forth. In the end, I found myself foregoing the glasses unless I was on a stretch of uninterrupted hiking for a while.


On top of those challenges, I stupidly failed to account for all that reflected sunlight from a skin protection standpoint and ended up with a lovely sunburn that highlighted where my sunglasses and knit cap sat. Luckily, thanks to the cold temps, I was otherwise completely covered. To add insult to injury, my watering eyes were causing skin irritation as tears leaked down my face and then dried in the sun and wind.


Trees in deep snow along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
An iPhone test composition along the Rim Trail: if you look closely at the collage above, you'll see that I did end up making a photo with one of the bigger cameras.

 

Related Tip: Avoiding Underexposed Photos When Shooting Snowy Scenes


Before I go any further, it's worth a small diversion into a technical breakdown of photographing snowy landscapes. If this isn't your thing, jump down to the next section where I start raving about the amazing sunset experience I had to close out day two....


I have not often found myself in snowy environments, and this was - to the best of my recollection at the moment - my first experience photographing so much snow in such strong sunlight. It's something a lot of newer photographers struggle with, especially if relying on some of the automatic exposure settings/readouts available on digital cameras.


Because snow in strong sunlight is so bright, the camera will often significantly underexpose your photos

At a very high level, your average digital camera is likely going to be overwhelmed by the brightness of snow compared to the rest of the landscape or other elements of the frame, especially if you're using evaluative metering that analyzes the scene and tries to find a balanced exposure point.


You can see the negative outcome of this in the iPhone test shot above: the snow is more gray than white even though the photo was taken in full midday light.


Because snow in strong sunlight is so bright, the camera will often significantly underexpose your photos, resulting in dingy looking snow or too-dark shadows elsewhere in the frame. The camera wants to target middle gray, which isn't great when you have a scene with a lot of nearly pure white.


This means that, even if the metering readout shows a perfectly centered reading, you can still end up with underexposed photos of snowy scenes.


So how does one account for this issue?


Firstly, I prefer to almost always use Spot metering on my Canon cameras, instead of evaluative. From the manual:

  • Evaluative metering: General-purpose metering mode suited even for backlit subjects. The camera adjusts the exposure automatically to suit the scene.

  • Spot metering: Effective when metering a specific part of the subject. Covers approx. 3.1% of the area at the center of the screen. The spot metering area is indicated on the screen.

If I'm not mistaken, the default from the factory is Evaluative. I prefer Spot as I can quickly set what I feel are the right exposure settings and then position the camera to take a reading from different parts of the frame I'm composing, allowing me to see the metering readout for each spot. I've never used a spot meter for shooting film, but it seems reasonable that that's a fair comparison (I've watched enough Ben Horne videos that I'm basically a film expert, after all... if you don't know me well enough, that is heavy sarcasm).


I may let the shadows clip a little bit since modern digital sensors are pretty darn good at shadow recovery

Without changing my actual exposure settings or taking test shots, I can gauge whether I may need to exposure bracket a shot or if I can pull detail in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights in a single frame. Or determine if that initial baseline exposure I set needs refinements to my settings after taking a few meter readings around the frame.


I don't always use this method, but it's a handy trick when you can't just eyeball the scene in your viewfinder (or if you're shooting with a DSLR with an optical viewfinder that can't provide exposure simulations).


More often, I'm watching my histogram to make sure I'm not clipping my highlights on the right or the shadows on the left. I may let the shadows clip a little bit since modern digital sensors are pretty darn good at shadow recovery (less so with highlight recovery). If you're familiar with the term Expose to the Right (ETTR), you want to push your exposure to the right side of the histogram as much as possible without actually clipping the brightest points.


If I do clip the highlights a bit, I'll also rely upon clipping warnings in the image review to determine whether the amount of clipping is acceptable or not. That knowledge is going to primarily come from practice and experience, but a basic example would be allowing the sun itself to clip as long as the rest of the highlights are not. The blinking clipping indicators on Canon's image review will help provide that guidance.


Here's an example of a poorly exposed photo of a snowy scene: I have no idea what I was doing here, but you can see the histogram in the upper right of the screenshot is far from hitting the right edge and the snow is a dingy gray:


A dead tree in snow
A poorly exposed photo of snow.

Compare that to a properly exposed photo:


A pine tree in deep snow along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
A correctly exposed photo of snow.

Quite the difference, isn't it? In the second photo, you should note that the histogram is close to the right edge, but not actually clipping against it.


I could have actually pushed to the right a touch more, but it's worth noting that the histogram as seen on your camera is reading data from a JPEG preview of the file, which doesn't have as much data and, therefore, can show clipping that won't actually exist in the raw file (assuming you're shooting in raw).


I tend to err on the side of caution and avoid clipping in-camera based on the JPEG previews but, again, with experience and familiarity of your camera's capabilities you'll come to learn how much in-camera clipping you can still allow and end up recovering with the added data contained in the final raw file.


If you really want a nerdy breakdown of the differences between the two photos, looking at the Lightness LAB values in Lightroom, the "brightness" of the average snowy pixel in the first photo is around 75, while in the second photo the brightest pixels are around 95 (100 is the max). That puts the second photo's snow roughly 30% brighter - or less dingy - than the first.


You start running into issues the moment you start running out of data.

Why does all this matter? After all, you can just raise or lower the exposure in Lightroom or Photoshop! Well, you start running into issues the moment you start running out of data.


If you clip your shadows too much or need to raise them a significant amount in post, you'll either have no detail to recover (if badly clipped) or may end up with a lot of noise introduced in your shadows as you brighten them. You may be able to get away with one or both in small patches of shadow, but larger areas won't look good at all.


On the flip side, if you clip your highlights, it's far more likely you won't be able to recover much, if any, detail. As noted above, digital sensors have become very good at recovering shadows but highlight recovery is still a weak point (this is essentially the opposite of film).


Instead of seeing fine textures and small details in a snowy scene, you may just have a big blob of pure white... or, if you commit one of my pet peeves of photo editing, you'll have a big blob of gray after being too aggressive with moving the highlights slider to the left to "eliminate" highlight clipping.


In summary: expose to the right while watching for clipped highlights on your histogram. As long as you do that, and also make sure your shadows aren't heavily clipped, your photos of snowy landscapes will be nicely exposed, and you'll avoid gray snow.


Now, let's jump back to more Bryce Canyon adventures, shall we?


 

Sunset at Bryce Point: Frozen Extremities & Hot Diggity Dog! Views


After frying my face on my hike along the Rim Trail, I made my way back to the parking lot at Bryce Point around dinner time. I was more than ready for a nice meal at the back of the 4Runner and had the pleasure of showing off my truck-camping setup to some curious passersby as I sat warming up with a mug of freshly brewed hot tea.


After reenergizing myself with a bit of a rest and food, I decided to load up my camera gear and climb over the snowbank that stood at the trailhead for the Under the Rim Trail. I had initially decided against venturing onto that trail, but watched several others head down there without any apparent peril, so took the plunge myself (literally, as I'll discuss in a moment).


A photo of Bryce Canyon from the Under the Rim Trail at Bryce Point
Snowy selfie on the Under the Rim Trail at Bryce Point. I was trying to show off my camera, but instead I look like I'm holding a guitar while singing a country song.

Exploring that trail was not my primary objective, and I certainly wasn't going to follow it all the way down, being alone and the day nearing sunset (and plunging temperatures). But I felt I had some time to kill, so why not?


The trail cuts back and forth a few times with some switchbacks as you drop in elevation. At one point - around the time I decided to head back up to the parking lot - I followed a set of tracks off the main trail towards what looked like a compelling opportunity for a nice composition of the canyon valley.


Cue sinking up to nearly my hip as I took one step off the previously made tracks. No big deal, it was just one bad spot.


Nope! I proceeded to sink a few more times before I made a somewhat-concerned turnabout and trudged and plodded my way back to the better-packed main trail.


That little adventure aside, I still came away with a half dozen or so candidate frames that are in the running for final editing (I've only done one pass at culling my files at this point: I generally make three passes before getting down to my final selections... for what it's worth).


Photos taken along the Under the Rim Trail near Bryce Point at Bryce Canyon National Park
Some of the unedited candidates from my side quest on the Under the Rim Trail.

I had whittled nearly an hour of time away by the time I got back up to the parking lot, so I went ahead and proceeded to the overlook itself to start scoping out compositions before the juicy golden hour and sunset light came into play.


As the sun slips closer to the horizon, the light begins to dance across the landscape below

The view from the Bryce Point overlook is absolutely fantastic: you have everything from the classic Bryce Canyon hoodoos and pine-filled valleys to distant mesas and mountain ranges. As the sun slips closer to the horizon, the light begins to dance across the landscape below, simultaneously plunging parts into shadow while the tops of hoodoos and ridges alight with a wonderful glow.


This is when Bryce Canon turns into a veritable photographer's playground.


Although I took my share of wider shots, of the 68 candidates I currently have from that evening atop Bryce Point, 53 were captured with my 100-400mm lens. The light begins shifting almost faster than you can react: it begs you to become completely absorbed in every little detail of the landscape, anticipating how it will play out from one moment to the next.


Later afternoon light across Bryce Canyon as seen from Bryce Point
Approaching the magical time of sunset at Bryce Canyon.

Seeing the world with a 100-400mm mind's eye is second nature for me at this point - without checking, I'd estimate that I've used that lens for roughly 70-75% of my photos over the past three years - so I was fully in tune with the countless opportunities unfolding before me as the sun drifted lower and lower. I also had my past visits in 2018 and 2022 to pull from, where I gained a deep appreciation for seeking out the smaller details within such a tremendously vast landscape.


Sunset light at Bryce Canyon National Park
Late light kissing one of the many ridges below Bryce Point.

They key to photographing Bryce Canyon during sunset is speed. As such, I wasn't standing about taking a bunch of phone snaps while I quickly worked to compose frame after frame. Therefore, once again, here's a look at a small sample of the unedited photos I've selected as candidates in my first round of culling:


Thumbnails of photos taken during sunset at Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Unedited candidate photos from sunset at Bryce Point.

It's hard for me to put into words how awesome this time at Bryce Canyon is.


Spectacular. Breathtaking. Transcendent. Exhilarating. Spellbinding. Enthralling.


Take your pick. Better yet, experience it yourself!



But the magic doesn't even end once the sun drifts below the horizon. Now, with the right conditions, you'll get the amazing "afterglow" I talked about in the day one trip report, when the hoodoos and landscape in general take on an incredibly deep, rich glow. Unfortunately, there were just enough thin clouds on the western horizon that the glow didn't manifest as I experienced back in 2018.


What did unfold, however, was equally beautiful. Pulling from my list of descriptors above, I'm always enthralled by the Belt of Venus: that moment when the earth's shadow appears on the horizon after sunset. There's just something inherently calming about it and witnessing it over Bryce Canyon was no different.


Thumbnails of photos taken at dusk at Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Unedited candidates from dusk at Bryce Point.

The lingering, yet fading, indirect light on the valley below the overlook also offered up a new vibe to the landscape, with soft brushes of light offering subtle contrast to the gentle shadows falling on the eastern side of rocky features.


Once the sun had set, the crowd immediately thinned out (as is the norm at touristy locations). For the last 20-30 minutes it was just me and two other photographers... and then one other... and then just me. And pure silence.


Oh, and frozen toes, nose, and fingers. It became bitterly cold as the light faded, and even with toe warmers in my shoes and hand warmers in my gloves - in theory, at least, as they seemingly did nothing - I had been fighting off the pain of that cold for the better part of an hour. And with that I took my smug sense of pride at having outlasted all the other photographers and scampered back to the truck, anxious to toast my buns with the heated seats as I made my way back into town for a last-minute hot dinner before Ruby's closed the buffet.


A photographer at Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park
F-f-f-frozen s-s-s-selfie atop B-b-b-bryce P-p-p-point.
 

And so, we close out this Day Two trip summary. After the mild disappointment of day one, this more than made up for those frustrations and roadblocks.


Tune back in soon for my day three report. While my homebase was still Bryce Canyon, I mixed things up a bit and did some daytime exploring along Highway 12 to scout locations and conditions along there as I planned to camp and explore in that general area for the back half of my trip.


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