picture of a Nikon FE laying on a light table with a sleeve of black and white negatives underneath

5 Frames in the Grand Canyon with an Nikon FE, T-Max 400, and an Orange Filter

I consider myself pretty lucky to live within a 4-hour drive of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world. As an avid backpacker and photographer, it troubled me when I realized I had somehow allowed over a year to elapse since my last visit to Grand Canyon National Park. So back in February, I filled out my paper application for a wilderness permit and faxed (yes, this is a government agency we’re dealing with) it to the Backcountry Office in Flagstaff. I got a follow up call two weeks later from a kind ranger who informed me that both the routes I had applied for were currently buried under several feet of snow. For those readers elsewhere in the world, the western and southwestern United States received record-breaking precipitation this past winter. Furthermore, I was unaware that the access to the South Bass trailhead, one of my two requested routes, still had not been reopened since the pandemic because accessing it requires traversing tribal land. So I decided to push the trip back by six weeks into late April when the snow would be melted at the canyon rim. After some back-and-forth with the ranger on the phone, I settled on a trip down to Horseshoe Mesa starting from Grandview Point. From there I could set up a base camp and day-hike down Cottonwood Canyon or Hance Creek Canyon, both side-canyon offshoots of the main canyon, and worthy hiking objectives in their own right.

Fast-forward and my wife and I were setting off down the Grandview Trail with heavy packs full of 3 days worth of supplies, and mine with my 4×5 field camera kit. I also had my Nikon FE and Nikkor 28mm f/2 around my neck. I brought an A12 orange filter that I dug out of a drawer and that I had never used before. I think it came from an old camera “lot” that I had ebay’ed years ago. But I am a sucker for my Lee red filter on my 4×5, so I thought I’d try it out on this trip where I knew the skies would be clear and open all weekend.

black and white photograph during midday looking north across the grand canyon
A view down Cottonwood Canyon with the dry wash visible. The large flat plateau in the midground on the right edge of frame is Horseshoe Mesa, and would be our campsite for the next two nights.

The following morning I awoke very early on top of Horseshoe Mesa as the sun came long and low across the canyon, backlighting all the layered ridges and tributary canyons to the east. From my campsite, there were nearly 180-degree unobstructed views. I set up the field camera but ended up not making any exposures and instead just watching the light move across the landscape for awhile. In honesty I always find difficulty photographing the Grand Canyon. It is just so immense, and I struggle to take decent photos that really convey that vastness. It’s so easy there to take a photo that loses all context of scale in the endless layers and open landscape in all directions. On this trip I was happy to have a 35mm camera with me to be able to take simple snapshots for myself to remember the trip by:

black and white photograph of a woman sitting in a tent in early morning light with mountains in the background
My lovely wife in the tent early on the first morning. She got extra points this trip for carrying my film holders when they wouldn’t fit in my pack with all the water I had to carry.

The two of us donned our day packs and set off down the steep trail into Cottonwood Canyon. The wet winter had turned the canyon at mid-elevation into an Eden of wildflowers. I saw lots of orange Globe Mallow and white Cliffrose in full glorious bloom. Beautiful lilac-colored Mariposa Lilies formed blankets in the flatter and sunnier areas. The first section of Cottonwood Canyon is a dry wash that only flows after heavy rain. Cottonwood Spring flows into the wash after about a mile or so, and from that point on I was hiking stream-side through a lush riparian corridor shaded by tall cottonwood trees that give the canyon and the creek their names.

black and white photograph of a single tree growing in the middle of a mountain valley with a small creek flowing through the middle of the frame
Looking back up the creek, a single cottonwood tree grows in the middle of the wash. These trees have incredibly deep root systems that allow them to reach ground water and grow big and lush, even in such inhospitable places.

The water and shade provided a great spot to wait out the dangerously hot afternoon. I kept hiking down the canyon, eventually turning to a scramble, and after that to the top of an 80-foot sheer drop that marked the end of my downstream progress. I made two exposures with my field camera that I hope to share in a future post. Hiking back up late in the day, the wash was cloaked in the long shadows of the canyon walls, but the taller summits up closer to the rim were still sunlit. I shot many frames on my FE walking back up to our campsite. This is my favorite:

black and white photograph of cottonwood trees growing near a dry creek bed with a mountain peak in the distance
Another shot taken from Cottonwood Canyon. In the desert, cottonwood trees are always an indicator of nearby water. The peak in the distance does not have a name on my map, only denoted by the elevation of its summit, 6,683′.

The next day I hiked back up to the trailhead at the canyon rim. I always love the hike uphill because around every switchback you get a slightly different frame of a worn trail leading up into the scene with foreground on one side and an endless expanse on the other. Sometimes the trail is hewn right out of the cliffside. I am always amazed by the imagination and engineering it must have taken the CCC trail crews when they constructed these impossible routes into such an impenetrable place. I took a photo of a juniper tree growing straight out of the side of the cliff alongside the path.

black and white photograph of a juniper tree growing out of the side of a cliff next to a steep trail constructed of wooden log steps
Some impressive trail construction framed by a precarious juniper. I “burned” the lower right corner a bit in the scan, it was a very bright day and the FE was metering for the shady foreground.

I’m not sure how or why, but I came out of the canyon with 4 frames still left on my roll. They all got used when I stopped for lunch on the drive back home.

black and white photograph of a tall, vintage motel sign partly obstructed by tree branches full of young springtime buds.
A bonus shot, taken in Flagstaff on Beaver Street. The trees were just staring to flower and bud.

Thank you for reading this far. You can find a mixture of my large format work and digital work here: samcarl.com/landscape.
I’m also on instagram instagram.com/samcarl.photo

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About The Author

13 thoughts on “5 Frames in the Grand Canyon with an Nikon FE, T-Max 400, and an Orange Filter”

  1. Great series of shots, Sam! I’ve only hiked to the bottom of the Canyon five times over the years, which comes out to about once a decade or so, though there was a 30 year stretch without canyon hikes! Always great to see photography of the inner canyon and out of the way destinations. I’m in Mesa these days and also enjoy architectural photography, which I come by naturally, I suppose, as my dad was an architectural illustrator who drew and painted renderings completely by hand. I just started following you on IG, by the way.

    1. Sounds like another trip is in order for you! Maybe when the weather cools down…
      Thanks for the follow! I don’t really post much on my Instagram about architectural photography, which is all digital work. I prefer to keep that focused on my film photography.

  2. Alasdair Mackintosh

    I read the title and I thought: “that sounds interesting, but I wonder if medium format, or even large format, would be better for the Grand Canyon?”

    Then I read about the route you were taking and the distances you were going, and I thought: “OK, I can see why you’d only want a lightweight 35mm camera and a single lens.”

    And *then* I read that you were taking a 4×5 as well 😉 I am very impressed. (I’ve done a few gentle “hikes” with LF and MF cameras, but nothing like yours.) Would love to see some of the LF exposures you made.

    Regarding the difficulty of capturing the scale of the Grand Canyon, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been there as well, and had the same issue. I think your approach of capturing smaller details, or more intimate views, works really well. I particularly like the juniper tree on the side of the slope, which has a vista in the background, and a fascinating shape in the foreground. I think it’s also an image in which the 3:2 35mm aspect ratio works better than the more square 4:5 ratio.
    Great article!

    1. I actually wanted to post about my 4×5 setup but I didn’t come away with enough large format photos for a 5 Frames With type of post. I shoot so much with the view camera that sometimes using a 35mm camera just feels so liberating. I would love to share the LF photos in another post. Maybe a broader post about my specific camera or process.
      Thank you for the kind words! The vertical shot of that juniper, as well as the one of the enormous motel sign, are my favorites off the roll!

  3. Fantastic shots and great story telling! I think this article really epitomizes the “5 Frames” idea. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hike the Grand Canyon but I feel like you took me along for your journey. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thank you for the kind praise! I would love to share more of my work through this format in the future.
      The nice thing about the grand canyon is you can get some of the best views from the parking lots! Every photographer should visit once in their lifetime. All the best to you!

  4. Great photos Sam.. and the next-to-last juniper shot is KILLER. But I have to ask– you didn’t use that path, did you? WOW… it looks precarious!


    1. Haha yep, that is the Grandview Trail. That’s the route we took. Pretty impressive to think about the crews who built that trail into the cliff side almost 100 years ago. But I promise it isn’t as much of a drop as the framing makes it seem!

      1. Simon Cygielski

        I only visited the Grand Canyon once, and found it very challenging to photograph from the top. The only images I took away that I remotely liked focus on close-up foreground, with the vastness of the canyon only suggested in the background. Yours clearly show your extensive experience with the place, and the many ways to approach it. Great work!

        1. It can be tough to find compositions from the overlooks, despite all the vast detail of the canyon the horizon can be very uninteresting. Conversely from the bottom of the canyon it can be tough just to find a vantage where you can see far enough back up to get a sense of scale. All my favorite canyon photos I’ve taken were from about halfway down.

  5. My question: Has the orange filter improved the tonal qualities of the pictures? I’m not sure. Yellow-green might be better.

    1. Possibly so, though I do not own a yellow green. This post represents more of an experimental process for me, as I mentioned I dug that filter out of a drawer and had never used it. I believe it did mostly what I imagined, which was to darken the bright, clear sky and lighten the red-to-yellow sandstone and buttery-orange color of the kaibab limestone.

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