National Geographic photographer Pete McBride photographed the Grand Canyon while on assignment for Traveler magazine. While McBride concentrated on making incredible still images, he also used time-lapse photography to capture the ever changing light along the river. Here, he shares how both his photographic and Grand Canyon expertise were key to creating successful time-lapses.
One of my favorite elements in the Grand Canyon is the light. It is constantly changing as sweeping rays paint ancient walls. At night it is no different. Dusk light bleeds into the glow of the Milky Way, the moon creeps in for a visit—often late in the night—casting a surreal glow. Capturing this dance of magic is challenging, but the results can be poetic.
Time-lapse photography—using still images to document these changes over multiple hours—is one method I prefer. To create one second of motion video, you typically need 24 images, which you can space out over different intervals. For example, tracking the glimmer of starlight moving in relationship to the Earth’s axis, I use roughly one photo per minute, thus 24 minutes equals one second.
One challenge is making sure the exposure doesn’t change too much during your time frame—one eight-hour block. If it does, you have to adjust the exposures as subtly and smoothly as possible to avoid washing out the image or underexposing your landscapes as the light changes.
While I often look for high vantages above the river to show the scale of the canyon, I also like to create time-lapses near the river to reveal the quiet changes in reflections. In the Grand Canyon, river flows constantly fluctuate, depending on the demands placed upon the turbines of the Glen Canyon Dam upstream (the more people turn up their air conditioners in Phoenix, the more electrical current is required, thus more water is released through the dam). And depending where you are on the river, you have to plan accordingly, as the dam releases arrive at different times of day the farther downstream you go. If your camera starts clicking away on the river’s beach at 11 p.m. for multiple hours, it might be underwater by 2 a.m. Just part of the fun when documenting “America’s Sistine Chapel.” Sleep is often optional, but then again, it can be hard to snooze amid such nighttime beauty. Napping in the heat of the afternoon the next day becomes critical. Job duty.
Follow Pete McBride on Instagram at @pedromcbride.