Breaking the Rules

There are rules in landscape photography. One of them involves the Golden Hour. Generally speaking, that’s about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, when the light is warm and the shadows are dramatic. (Latitude can affect how long that hour really is.) I personally like to incorporate the hour before the so called golden hour in my shooting plans. At the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, that all changes.

Gunnison River in the Black Canyon

To understand why, it’s helpful to understand some of the geography of the BlackCanyon, and how it got its name. The Black Canyon is cut into the Gunnison Uplift. The rim of the canyon is relatively flat, with rolling hills and plains around it. Colorado is known for its mountains, but they’re not near the canyon. The canyon is also about 2200 feet (670 meters) deep. It’s also narrow at the rim, about 1100 feet (340 meters) wide. Think about that for a moment. Twice as deep as it is wide, the bottom of the canyon is in shadow much of the day.

This has a significant impact on the Golden Hour. It’s almost dark in the canyon at sunrise. Golden hour = dark hour, at least in the traditional sense.

Extended shooting times

It’s not that you can’t get good photos at sunrise. You can, but you’ll need to plan for more unusual lighting conditions. Differences in light and dark are much more extreme. Some HDR techniques may be useful.

Painted Wall near Sunrise

I found that mid-morning and mid- to late afternoon were best for capturing the textures, colors and depth. Mid-day flat light is accentuated at the Black Canyon, so that rule holds. But the window of good shooting is actually expanded somewhat beyond the golden hour idea.

Special Conditions

Weather, particularly clouds, make it easier to capture the texture of the canyon. Clouds can add some dramatic color to sunrise and sunset photography. Clouds also add to the shadows that help define the contours of the canyon itself. While morning or afternoon light help to highlight the ridges and contours, they can still feel a little harsh because of their sharp edges. Cloud shadows soften those edges, as you can see in the photo of the Gunnison River above, and the rainbow below. In fact, the rainbow image illustrates both the softer cloud shadows as well as the sharp cliff shadows.

The rainbow also shows another benefit of weather related photography. Some rain or fog can also enhance the photographic opportunities. This is generally true, so it’s proving a rule, not breaking a rule.

Afternoon Rainbow

Impact of the Time of the Year

My visit to the Black Canyon was in late spring, about mid-May. Most of the roads in the park are closed during the winter, and used for skiing and snowshoeing. The roads are opened in late April or early may, depending on weather conditions. The time of year can affect the lighting conditions. The canyon is near 38.5° N. latitude. Fall and winter sunlight will be quite low in the sky, and the sun will rise and set relatively far south. This should make the morning and evening shooting windows much wider. But be prepared for colder weather, especially in the winter.

Closing Thoughts

The unique geography and topography of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park provides the opportunity to expand good shooting windows well beyond the traditional golden hour rule of thumb. The environment also encourages looking for weather conditions to provide enhanced lighting on the canyon walls.

The Black Canyon pushed me to look at the landscape in very different ways. It defies the more traditional methods and guidelines for photography. I was just starting to understand how to relate to the canyon when it was time to leave. Bending and breaking these rules will undoubtedly help me to look for similar opportunities in other landscapes.


After writing about my experiences, I read a really good book about photographing the Black Canyon: Getting Up Early: The Visitors Guide to Photographing the Black Canyon, by Vince Farnsworth. The first part of the book is primarily a review of photography fundamentals, with some additional advice on canyon safety. The latter part of the book describes various locations for shooting the canyon.

The book only seems to be available at the park, unfortunately. I haven’t found it anywhere else.