Glen Canyon Dam at Night

Glen Canyon Dam at night

There’s a picture of Glen Canyon Dam that I’ve been wanting to replicate.  In this picture it appears that you’re hovering directly over the river at night, level with the top of the dam.  With the main light source at the base of the dam the canyon, normally lit from above, takes on a different character.  There’s something otherworldly about the composition: the unusual lighting, the dramatic color gradients, the symmetry of the dam and bridge.  Normally I shy away from the mark of man on a landscape but I can’t resist some excellent symmetry and color.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend about a week in northern Arizona and decided that it was as good a time as any to try and take the picture.  I did a little scouting on Google Earth and found the likely vantage point for the picture, the appropriately named Glen Canyon Dam Overlook on the northwest side of Page.  The weather was perfect with clear skies and no threat of rain (which, honestly, isn’t often a threat in Arizona).  As a bonus the evenings were nice and cool.  My schedule was pretty relaxed.  I had a couple of nights to get the shot I wanted.  It’s nice having the time to experiment.

My first night out I got a late start.  It was around 8:30 or so, well after sunset, and it was pretty dark by the time I got to the overlook parking lot.  I did the best I could to focus and frame in the dark.  Even though the lights from the dam were pretty bright I still couldn’t tell if I had the focus right.  I’ve often wondered how people focus in the dark.  I was hoping for a bit of an assist from the moon, but it was hidden behind clouds while I was shooting.  I experimented with a couple of shutter speeds, stretching it out as long as I needed to remove the traffic on the bridge.  I decided to call it a night after a few shots and review the images I got to plan for the next night.

The pictures I got were … okay.  It was clear the focus was a little off.  Also I noticed that the bridge didn’t show up as well as I wanted.  I figured to get a better picture I’d actually need to shoot at dusk.  That way there’d be enough ambient light to dial in the focus I wanted as well as to highlight the details of the canyon, bridge and top of the dam to fill out the picture.

The next day I headed down a little bit earlier in the evening.  This time I decided to use my 105mm lens instead of the 24-85mm that I had used the previous night.  It framed the dam nicely but was loose enough that it would allow for some cropping as needed.  I had a couple of goals for the final image: I wanted the noise to be as low as possible to capture the smooth color gradients and I didn’t want to capture any images of vehicles on the bridge.  I set the ISO to 160 (normally I like to keep it around 250) and ended up with a shutter speed of 5 minutes at f/20.  The small aperture served a dual purpose: it gave the lights at the bottom of the dam a nice starburst appearance and it enabled me to shoot with the shutter open for so long.  Even though the sun had long since set there was still enough ambient light that I had to shrink the aperture and decrease the ISO so that the image wasn’t over exposed.

Post processing wasn’t too much work, but it was a bit of a chore correcting the color.  The lights of the dam gave the walls of the canyon a purplish hue.  To add complexity to the color cast the top of the image was highlighted by a mixture of ambient and artificial light.  On top of this the artificial light at the top of the dam was different than what was at the bottom of the dam.  In the end I compromised by adding a bit of warmth to the entire image and then doing my best to remove the purple from the bottom.

I was pretty happy with what I got.  I played around with some different vantage points the following nights but settled on this image as my favorite.