Anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon has faced the challenge of trying to capture such a grand vista in a single photo. This photography guide to the Grand Canyon will reveal the best times and locations to photograph sunrise, sunset, night skies, and one of the world’s most heralded natural miracles.
It will also focus on those viewpoints and scenes that are easily accessible from the North Rim and South Rim drives, as this will be where the majority of visitors spend their time.
Grab your camera, tripod, favorite lens, and plenty of batteries as we explore Grand Canyon National Park.
You may also want to queue up the following Grand Canyon guides as well to help plan and inspire your visit:
Grand Canyon Photography Equipment
Before we get into the where and when, let’s quickly discuss the photography equipment I strongly recommend bringing with you for your “grand” adventure.
Camera / Tripod
These almost go without saying, but I’ll mention them anyway. If you have any interest in night photography, storm photography, or capturing sunrise/sunset, you will want a tripod. Additionally, those of you traveling alone like I was during my visit will need one if you want to be in your photos!
Photographing sunrise/sunset at the Grand Canyon usually requires exposure blending as the sky will be brightly lit and colorful while the canyon is entirely in shadow. If you are using a cell phone to take photos, your workaround is to turn on “HDR Mode” to allow you to capture light and detail in both the sky and foreground.
Many of you reading are wondering what are the best lenses for photographing the Grand Canyon. Obviously, wildlife and bird photographers will be bringing the usual telephoto lenses, but landscape photographers will likely find themselves shooting mostly wide angle.
Personally, I was carrying a 24-105mm lens and found myself shooting in the 24-35mm range most frequently during the day, though I also took a lot of photos with my 15mm. The wide-angle prime lens featured in the photo above was used a lot! Note that these focal distances are for full frame cameras. For APS-C sensors, you should expect to use the standard 18-55mm lens that is included with most camera bodies.
Basically, I recommend leaving the telephoto lenses at home unless you are not worried about hauling them around. Of the common full frame lenses, I believe the 16-35mm to be the best choice for Grand Canyon photography, followed closely by the 24-70mm.
You will absolutely want to bring a good Circular Polarizing Filter (CPL) to cut through the insane haze of the Grand Canyon and bring out the color in the canyon walls. You will be blown away by the difference between a polarized and non-polarized photo, particularly during daylight hours.
If you are hoping to capture some lightning during one of the seasonal storms, consider bringing a Neutral Density Filter as well. The best way to capture lightning is to leave your camera on some sort of continuous shooting mode with 10″ shutter speeds. If lightning strikes in your frame anytime during the 10 seconds, it will be captured. However, you will likely need an ND to get your shutter speed this slow.
I personally use the PolarPro ND/CP 10-stop filter, allowing me to cut the haze through polarization and drag my shutter to capture some lightning. Sadly, I have not had an opportunity to capture any storms so far.
Batteries do not perform well in extreme temperatures, and Grand Canyon tends to be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Be sure to bring plenty of spare batteries, particularly if you are planning on doing some astrophotography.
EXPLORE MORE OF THE GRAND CANYON: Ultimate One Day South Rim Grand Canyon Itinerary
Best Locations for Grand Canyon Sunrise Photography
The following viewpoints and trails provide clear views to the east with interesting foregrounds, making them the best locations to photograph sunrise in the Grand Canyon.
I have broken them down by North Rim and South Rim for clarity. Generally, I prefer the views from the Grand Canyon North Rim as they are predominantly easterly facing. This means you will have more options for including the canyon itself in your foreground for sunrise, which is important in capturing the essence of the national park.
Grand Canyon North Rim Sunrise Locations
Most viewpoints dotting the North Rim scenic drive provide fantastic views of sunrise over the Grand Canyon. None are bad options, but these below provide the best compositions for sunrise photography.
This is among the most iconic viewpoints of the Grand Canyon and is my favorite foreground for sunrise photography in the North Rim section of the park. While the sun will not rise directly in line with the scenery, it casts beautiful directional light on the intriguing rock layers.
Quite often, the clouds will be coming from the Southeast, which means you are likely to get a lot of color in the sky from Point Imperial and can avoid the challenge of shooting directly into the sun.
This popular picnic area has the most direct view of the eastern horizon to capture the sun rising over the Grand Canyon. There is also an isolated rock formation to provide a subject for your photos.
While this is the best option for capturing the sun crossing the horizon directly aligned with the scenery, the unfortunate thing about photographing sunrise at Vista Encantada is that you have a very narrow viewpoint. This means that if the interesting clouds are to any direction besides due-East, you will not be able to put them in a usable frame.
Most landscape photographers would agree that Cape Royal is the best overall viewpoint in all of the Grand Canyon! This is the only location that provides sweeping views to the east, south, and west. The south-facing and west-facing foregrounds are the most interesting, but there are plenty of strong compositions for framing a sunrise photo to the east as well.
The biggest opportunity in choosing Cape Royal for your Grand Canyon sunrise location provides is that you have the most options for chasing the light and clouds in all directions. The biggest drawback is that the view to the east where the sun will be rising is probably the least impressive foreground for this particular viewpoint.
I wanted to make sure this was included on the list only so readers didn’t think I forgot about it. It is scratched out because while it has a reputation for being a premium spot for sunrise and sunset, I would only recommend it for those who are staying in the North Rim campground and don’t feel like making a lot drive up the scenic road.
For everyone else, the locations mentioned are far superior for sunrise pictures.
DISCOVER MORE OF THE GRAND CANYON: Complete Guide to Grand Canyon North Rim
Grand Canyon South Rim Sunrise Locations
The South Rim viewpoints are mostly favorable for sunset. However, there is one that offers incredible views for sunrise photography as well. In fact, my favorite place in the entire Grand Canyon National Park for sunrise is on the South Rim.
I consider Grandview Point the best location for sunrise photography in Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim or South Rim! There are sweeping views with interesting foregrounds, allowing the photographer to choose from several frames depending on where the light is best as the sun rises.
This overlook requires no hike and is located only 20 minutes from Mather Campground.
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Best Location for Grand Canyon Sunset Photography
Most people find the South Rim better for photographing sunset as more of the views over the canyon are west-facing from the South Rim. However, while there may be more options on the South Rim, my favorite location for sunset photography in Grand Canyon NP is once again located in the North Rim section.
Grand Canyon North Rim Sunset Locations
Known more for sunrise than sunset, the Grand Canyon North Rim still has some magical vistas to watch the sun go down. Below are what I consider the best destinations for photographing sunset in Grand Canyon National Park.
In my opinion, Cape Royal is the absolute best place for Grand Canyon sunset photography in the entire national park. There is a thrilling view to the west with a beautiful foreground precisely where the sun is setting. Additionally, there’s an incredible landscape to the south that catches all the light and shadow play from the setting sun. As this angular light hits, the layers and colors start to reveal themselves and become accentuated.
The other benefit to shooting here is that if you get an incoming rain cloud, it will likely be from the southeast. These rain clouds tend to get the best color at sunset. From Cape Royal, you have three cardinal directions to shoot toward meaning you are sure to get something for the trophy-wall no matter where the light is best!
Bright Angel Viewpoint
While it is not my favorite, the westerly views from Bright Angel are strong enough and are the most accessible, making it the most popular spot for sunset on the North Rim.
It is this popularity and ease of access, however, that steers me away. The place can become an absolute zoo at sunset which steals from the magic.
The views from Walhalla Overlook are among my favorite in all of Grand Canyon NP. The reason it is low on this list is that it is primarily southeast facing, meaning you cannot see the sunset directly. However, you often get the best cloud color in this direction meaning you can capture a beautiful foreground with a colorful sky if conditions are right.
You will be able to tell a couple of hours before sunset whether or not there are incoming rain clouds. If you see blue skies to the west with whispy clouds to the east and have already photographed at Cape Royal, consider taking in a sunset from Walhalla Overlook instead. If you have not yet shot at Cape Royal, however, that should definitely be Plan A!
Grand Canyon South Rim Sunset Locations
I don’t think there is a single viewpoint along the Grand Canyon South Rim that does not provide clear views to the west for sunset photography. In that regard, the possibilities are endless for where you want to set up your tripod.
However, many of the vistas provide limited views or uninspired foregrounds. Below are the most popular and best locations for Grand Canyon sunset photography on the South Rim.
Desert View Watchtower
Expect a crowd at this iconic South Rim sunset destination! The Watchtower provides an interesting subject for photos, but can only be framed facing away from the sun. This makes it somewhat challenging to include in photos.
There are really two main compositions at Desert View. The first is facing away from the sun and featuring the Watchtower and/or the winding Colorado River, as seen above.
The other option is to face directly into the sun and focus on the canyon layers and golden horizon instead. Depending on how much sky interest presents itself, there may be opportunities to shoot wider or even pano your shot to include more scenery.
Hopi Point / Powell Point
Hopi Point is the best location for photographing sunset along the Grand Canyon NP South Rim. This is one of the few viewpoints that offers open views spanning west, north, and east, with interesting foregrounds available in all directions.
Having such open views and a scene that features the Colorado River, numerous “temples”, horseshoe formations, and massive crevices is every Grand Canyon photographer’s dream. As the light changes and different sections gain or lose interest, simply rotate the camera in the direction of the most interesting color and you will discover yet another fantastic frame.
Be aware that Hopi Point can only be reached by shuttle bus! Some will stop directly at the parking lot, while others will only stop at nearby Powell Point. Powell Point is pretty as well, but I strongly recommend walking 5-10 minutes across to Hopi Point instead. Shuttles typically run for up to an hour following sunset, so you will have no trouble getting back after dark.
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Best Location for Grand Canyon Night Photography
If you are planning on photographing the Milky Way over the Grand Canyon, you will be needing southerly views. Depending on the exact time of year, this could be anywhere between Southeast (spring), South (summer), or Southwest (fall).
Accordingly, the Grand Canyon North Rim is the best place in the park for Milky Way photography as most overlooks and vistas provide clear views of the canyon to the south. While you can still enjoy astrophotography from the South Rim, you will not be able to capture the Galactic Core over the canyon from anywhere in this section of the park.
All of the pictures in this photography guide were genuinely captured at night using a technique called “stacking” for noise reduction. This technique differs from “blending” in that it does not require shooting at multiple times of day. If you would like to learn more about my personal technique, you will find walkthroughs in the Night Photography Tutorials and Videos.
A great spot for sunrise, but an even better spot for Milky Way photography in Grand Canyon! The prevalent rock formation at Point Imperial is due Southeast from the lookout point. This means the Milky Way will be visible directly above your scene for most of the year, stretching horizontally across the horizon.
There is a bit of light pollution coming from the South Rim and Flagstaff, but it does not distract from the photo and can be easily corrected in post-processing.
There are actually 3 viewpoints at Walhalla Overlook; one from right in the parking lot, another from an elevated walkway, and one from a small, hidden trail. All of the views look out toward the same section of the canyon, but still provide somewhat-unique compositions.
Of those available, my favorite views were from the elevated walkway and from the hidden trail located just to the left of the trail.
It should be no surprise that my favorite location for sunrise and sunset is also one of the best locations for Grand Canyon night photography. This viewpoint requires a short walk in the dark, but the whole path is clearly visible and easily traversable.
The best composition features a horseshoe-shaped rock wall facing south from the Cape Royal trail’s end. During the late spring and summer months, the Milky Way will stretch vertically behind the formation, featuring the galactic core prominently.
LEARN MORE: Night Photography Tutorials and Videos
Wildlife Photography in the Grand Canyon
While wildlife photography is not my speciality, nor do I have the proper equipment for it, there are some great opportunities to partake in Grand Canyon NP.
For the most part, you will be photographing small animals such as birds, deer, squirrels (including the rare Kaibab squirrel, if you’re lucky), and very rarely cougars and black bears can be seen as well. In addition, there is a California Condor couple that nests near Hopi Point on the South Rim, giving you a chance to see these extremely endangered avine!
Have a telephoto lens ready and please do not feed or touch the wildlife!
(Personal) Best Grand Canyon Photos
Below are some of my personal favorite pictures from my time in the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, I was not gifted with any major lightning storms during any of my visits which is really the one thing I would like to see most! Still, I have always walked away with some shots that I enjoy and wanted to share those for inspiration.
Final Thoughts on Grand Canyon Photography
It is no wonder that Grand Canyon National Park lures in photographers from around the world and is considered one of the premier destinations for landscape photography. With opportunities to capture this incredible natural marvel long after the sun has set, there is never a bad time to visit or photograph.
Please understand that I photograph and process my photos according to my taste, as I recommend you should as well! Even if they do not speak to you, the information provided will hopefully allow you to plan a successful visit with camera in hand. If, however, you find anything inaccurate or out-of-date, please let us know in the comments below… or, just say something nice to be nice!