Facing the Abyss

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Black Haze. The Gunnison River flows between steep cliffs in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 92mm, 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200.

Recently a friend asked about things to photograph in western Colorado this coming June. I decided that the easiest thing to do was write a couple blogs on the area, although I have to reach pretty far back in the archives to do so. This week we are going back to October 2016, although most of that trip was about fall color around Crested Butte. She is not going to see fall color in June, obviously, but I have a few other suggestions. The first is visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, above.

Spectacular? Yes. Easy to photograph? No.

Usually when I gather photos for a blog post I do a first pass and collect up as many as 40 or 50. Then I whittle them down to six. It was not without trepidation that I started looking through these images, because I knew that even finding six I wanted to share would be hard. And it was, but in the end I think these at least give a feel for the place.

The Grand Canyon is pretty notorious for being a difficult subject, but the Black Canyon is so, so, so much worse. First, the walls of the Black Canyon are, if not truly black, very dark; there are no beautiful colors to carry the day. Second, unlike the Grand Canyon, which is miles across, the Black Canyon seems like God just swung a giant axe into the ground—it is very deep and very narrow. Third, it runs generally east-west. And, finally, there are essentially no vantage points except from the rim. When you put all these together, what you end up with is a lot of pictures that look like you are peering over the edge into a dark pit, which isn’t that far from the truth. Since leaning over the edge of 2000 foot cliffs is career-limiting for a landscape photographer, it is only at the handful of observation points with railings that you can pull this off, and even then only if a patch of light is hitting the canyon floor:

Raptor’s View. From the canyon’s rim, this view of the river below is nearly vertical in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 112mm, 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200.

I suspect that overcast skies would be better because they would soften the light; I was not so lucky on this day. With some research on The Photographer’s Ephemeris, it is probably possible to find a spot or two where late afternoon (or early morning) sun will hit the cliffs, but most of the canyon walls will just be in shadow; it’s not like the Grand Canyon, where towards sunset there are countless cliffs and buttes catching the light. And with the rock here being so dark, the light isn’t bouncing around in the canyon, either.

There are some interesting rock features on the cliff walls, however, like this frog-shaped pattern:

Frog on the Wall. An igneous inclusion exposed by the cliff wall appears in the shape of an enormous frog in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 135mm, 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.

These photos were taken a long time ago, but in looking through my catalog I can tell that I was trying different things in hopes of coming up with something worthwhile. (I can almost feel the long-forgotten desperation.) I took a number of telephoto images like the one below that I think were successful:

Sheer. A narrow spine of sunlit rock stands in front of a shadowed cliff, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 200mm, 1/500 sec, f/4.0, ISO 100.

I also tried to isolate this skeleton of a tree against the far cliff with a shallow depth of field, but my lens only had a maximum aperture of f/4.0, which wasn’t really enough to do this well:

Overcome. The skeletal remains of a tree still mark the site where it grew on the canyon rim in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR at 102mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.0, ISO 100.

I played around trying to emphasize the tree above in post-processing. Lightroom didn’t want to select just the tree (or just the background) easily, and I didn’t think the picture was worth spending a lot of time on doing it manually, so darkening the tree and/or blurring the background after the fact just weren’t happening. In the end, I was able to select the little green spots in the background by their color and lighten them up. The result was a net increase in the the contrast between the relatively dark branches and the somewhat lighter background. I think that was a useful trick to have discovered, if nothing else.

Of course, the other strategy is to forget the stupid canyon altogether and take a picture of a twisted juniper tree:

Juniper Twist. A juniper tree reaches up from the high plain next to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado.
Nikon D800 with AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED at 1/350 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.

If you look at the metadata I include beneath each image, other than this last juniper tree, they are all telephoto shots: 92mm, 102mm, 112mm, 135mm, 200mm. I’m not sure this set of images is sufficiently successful to convince anyone that longer focal lengths are the way to go when shooting this canyon, but that was certainly my opinion at the time. I do think wide angles would be hard unless there was a worthwhile sky above or you somehow got at least partway down into the canyon. (There is a very steep road, apparently, that will take you all the way to the bottom at one spot. Other than that there are some permit-required wilderness routes from each rim, but that seems really, really dicey; they are very specific that they want you to check out when you are done. I think the permits are just a means of keeping a body count.)

Looking back, I pretty much got skunked. You might not think that a geologic feature could mock you from your Lightroom catalog, but that’s the situation.

So, I guess I have to go back. It’s starting to get personal.

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7 responses to “Facing the Abyss”

  1. Your comments convey very effectively the challenges of the location but the images are even stronger. My “favourite”? Sheer. There is a such a sense of menacing depths between what appears to be a narrow gap between the foreground and background. Cut by an axe, as you say.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, as always, Rob! I think you are right, Sheer is the most powerful image of the lot. I want to like a few of the others more, but Black Haze needs, well, less haze, and Overcome needs a faster lens (and better light on the far cliff would help, too!). I think the location is worth another go.

      I do think it was a good idea to lead off with Black Haze, though, because it gives a pretty clear picture of what the canyon looks like. It’s pretty glorious, really.

    • Thank you, Lucy! I know you have a soft spot for Colorado. It’s nice to live here now…so much to explore and it is a little easier to revisit places like this, which I am looking forward to doing!

  2. Jim, I enjoyed this post immensely. You write with personal clarity and humor. I certainly got a good idea of the challenges the Black Canyon poses for one hoping to see what the fuss is about. I think I’ll seek more photographer-friendly locations on my upcomong trip north to Montana from Santa Fe. I will say, you have given the place a fair shake and have some striking images. My favorite is Sheer.
    Judy

    • Thank you, Judy! Well, Sheer seems to be the popular favorite, and I think it is mine, too. I hope my post didn’t discourage you from visiting, because it is spectacular and even if you just enjoy the views from the rim, it is worthwhile.