Creating a photograph of something as enormous as Horseshoe Bend presents a wide range of challenges. The canyon itself is breathtaking. Once you park in the parking area off Highway 89A, It’s a mile hike over a couple of sizable hills and then, all of a sudden, you are there, looking straight down at a 1,000 foot drop. There are no walkways, no handrails, and no authorized park rangers to tell you to step back from the edge. It’s just you and your common sense. It’s a miracle that no one fell into the abyss while I was there. Perhaps the greatest thrill of the Bend itself takes place the moment you take your first steps near the edge allowing that glorious canyon and the river winding through it to come into view.
I made two trips to Horseshoe Bend. The first was at noon, when lighting was at its worst. The sole purpose of this visit was to look through the camera, see how the canyon lined up in the viewfinder, and select a spot on the rim which would serve as my base at sunset. I snapped off a few images, very aware that my Nikon D800, even with a 14mm lens attached, would not be able to capture the entire Bend.I tried various methods, and even held the camera 10 feet over my head while attached to a tripod, but that did not capture the essence of the canyon. I knew this was going to have to be a multi-image panorama.
I took a few practice shots, but it was impossible to capture the entire range of tones that the human eye can see. Using HDR (High Dynamic Range) technique, I found the proper exposure, then adjusted the shutter speed to create a series of exposures, each one two stops under the proper exposure. Then I repeated the process, adjusting the shutter speed so it would create a series of overexposed images. It is important that the shutter speed is adjusted, not the aperture. The aperture will affect the images’ depth-of-field, which will prevent the pictures from properly aligning in the computer. I snapped off the pictures rapidly, shooting only what the camera could capture in a single image. I would create the panorama later that evening.
I now had all the information I needed to shoot the image, so I made the trek back down the sandy path. Six hours later, I was back, waiting for the sun to drop almost even with the horizon. It was a good thing I arrived early; the rim was already filling up with sightseers.
It took over an hour for the sun to drop into a desired position. In the meantime, the edge of the canyon was a beehive of activity, tourists snapping myriad selfies while other more serious photographers positioned themselves inches away from the thousand-foot drop and waited on the light. My camera was mounted on the tripod in vertical mode. Since I was shooting a multi-image panorama, the width of the image was of no importance. I would get my width by rotating the camera from left to right. The images would be stitched together later in the computer. My aperture was set to f/13.0. The ISO was 100 because I wanted the least amount of digital noise possible.I would begin my exposure with the shutter speed set at a quarter of a second, dramatically overexposing the scene, and then speed the shutter up in increments. First 1/4, then 1/6, 1/15, 1/25, 1/60, 1/100, 1/160, and finally, 1/200. The final exposure was vastly underexposed, but it picked up the brightest details in the sun-lit sky. The first overexposed image picked up near-invisible details in the shadows in the depths of the canyon. All the exposures in-between picked up all the remaining details. This procedure was performed for the first section of the panorama. Once the camera was rotated into position this process would be repeated. This was a four-shot panorama, with each section consisting of eight images. Therefore, the final Horseshoe Bend image would be constructed with 32 separate images.
Finally, the sun was in position on the horizon. I utilized a small aperture to create the starburst from the sun. A large aperture will not allow a light to become a starburst. My starting point was f/13 to create the burst, and the ensuing shutter speeds would be wrapped around that.
It was time to shoot. I clicked off eight exposures from the exact same location. Then I rotated the camera, overlapping the image by at least 50 percent. Then I repeated the process. I did this until I had all four vertical exposures. Then I did it again, rotating the camera right to left, once again bracketing my shutter speeds. Then back again. And again, again, and again. I didn’t stop until the sun had disappeared completely. I estimate that I did this 10 times or so, so I shot a total of approximately 300-250 images in the span of a few minutes.
The photos were all shot in RAW format. In Nikon, this means they were an NEF (Nikon Electronic Format). I selected my best sequence of 32 images and opened them in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw). Each batch of eight images was synchronized so they would all receive the exact same edits. Then I used HDR software and merged the images into one, as the computer selected the best detail from each exposure and combined it into one perfectly exposed photo. I did this with each group of images in the panorama. When I was done, I had four separate images of the Canyon, edge to edge. Then the images were stitched together using Photoshop’s merging tools. Once the geometric distortions were adjusted, the final print was presented.
And that’s all there is to it.