National Geographic photographer Pete McBride recently explored and photographed the Grand Canyon while on assignment for Traveler magazine. Here he shares how he made pictures while running white-water rapids in the canyon’s iconic dories.
Capturing white-water action from a small wooden dory inside the Grand Canyon poses some technical challenges for photography.
The moment the action is at its peak—waves are smashing into the boat and bodies, and icy water is either consuming the vessels or pulling them upside down—is the exact time you want to click the frame. Waterproof housings for DSLRs are one option, but they’re typically heavy and awkward and require at least one hand to operate. A safer alternative is a GoPro, which can be mounted in obscure locations and set to take images in bursts or on timers so you capture the action, all of it, as it unfolds. What you sacrifice in image quality, you make up for in the quantity of adrenaline-filled frames that don’t require the photographer to sacrifice the clutch of a hand, something that can often be the difference between staying in the boat or not.
When we ran Lava Falls, I ran two GoPros—one for video and one for stills—mounted on my sister-in-law’s helmet and on the bow. Having shot this same rapid before with a handheld waterproof camera, I knew the GoPro would offer more consistent shots no matter what happened. My experience with a handheld produced some wonderful, watery moments of chaos, but because I used one hand to manage the camera, I got pounded by a wave and nearly tossed from the boat and had to abandon shooting for precious minutes as I clambered to climb back aboard.
While the image quality of the GoPro has improved immensely recently, it still doesn’t hold a candle to DSLRs for low-light situations and battery life—it gives you a day of shooting at best. So if you want to capture those silky light moments after the sun sets, a second camera is required. And if you want to document an entire Grand Canyon trip with a GoPro, remember to bring plenty of extra batteries and solar panels, because there are no outlets at camp or anywhere.
The beauty of the GoPro is its portability and easy-to-use options. With a wide range of mounts and brackets, it enables you to explore angles and perspectives that I’d never be able to explore with a heavier, clunkier DSLR. Thanks to that freedom, two of my shots for my story “River Dance” were GoPro images—both of which I might not have captured if I only used my larger Nikons.
Follow Pete McBride on Instagram at @pedromcbride.