Zoom: Buildings Inside the Grand Canyon
"It's huge! It's enormous! It's gigantic! I mean, they said it was big, but I didn't expect it to be... BIG!"
That's a quote from the 1987 movie Roxanne when Chris McConnell (played by Rick Rossovich) sees the exceedingly large nose of C.D. Bales (played by Steve Martin) for the first time. That's how I reacted when I recently saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. Sure, I had seen pictures, videos and movies of the canyon, but nothing could prepare me for the great depth, expanse and grandeur of the Grand Canyon.
The picture above was taken near Mather Point on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. Before we start talking about zooming in on things in the Canyon, let me mention a few facts to help put things into perspective. The Colorado River has been carving out the Grand Canyon for the last 6 million years. As a result, the bottom of the canyon in this area is about a mile below the rim and the other side of the canyon is about ten miles away. If there were a bridge across the Grand Canyon, then driving across it at a highway speed of 60 mph (97 kph) would take about ten minutes.
When I was on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in early November, the daytime temperature was around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) and the early evening temperature was about 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius). It was also very windy, which made it feel pretty cold. Well, it felt really cold to me considering that I drove up from Phoenix where it was almost 20 degrees warmer.
But there was a positive side to the cold. As the sun dipped lower in the sky and the temperature dropped, most of the people visiting the canyon disappeared. So other than a few photographers like the one in the picture below who know that the "golden hour" produces magnificent views of almost anything, I had the Grand Canyon all to myself after 4PM!
The Grand Canyon is kind of big and so things that you might want to photograph tend to be far away. Really far away. So, I of course brought my Nikon COOLPIX P1000 with me for this photo shoot. The P1000 has a maximum focal length of 3000mm (35mm equivalent), which yields a magnification of 125X compared to its minimum focal length of 24mm, so it's a great camera for a large space.
In addition to the spectacular views of the natural landscape, there are lots of other interesting sights to see in the Grand Canyon. One of those sights is Phantom Ranch, which is a group of buildings on the canyon floor that provide accommodations for hikers and folks that ride a mule down there. Phantom Ranch opened on November 9th, 1921, so I thought it was appropriate that it be the subject of my photo shoot considering that I was at the canyon a couple of days before the ranch marked its 101st year in operation. You can read more about Phantom Ranch in the Smithsonian Magazine article that describes the history of the ranch.
You have a couple of options if you want to photograph Phantom Ranch. The first option is to hike or ride a mule along one of the trails that winds its way down to the canyon floor. I'm told that the 7.8 mile hike from the south rim to the ranch along Bright Angel Trail takes about four to six hours and it takes another six to ten hours to hike back up to the canyon rim (the return hike is longer because of the climb). A trip that long will require an overnight stay, which was the genesis for building the ranch. Unfortunately, the ranch is always fully booked for at least a year in advance.
OK, so that rules out the first option for photographing Phantom Ranch. The other option is to take photographs of Phantom Ranch from the rim. The problem with that option is that the ranch is really far away from the rim. So much so that you can hardly see it with the naked eye. In fact, I'd wager that the majority of people who look out over the canyon from the south rim have no idea that there are buildings down there.
"How far away are the buildings", you ask? Well, I'm glad you asked because now I get to do some math. "Is doing math really necessary", you ask? Well... no, but I spent a lot of time in math class when I was in school and by golly I'm going to make use of it! However, for those of you with a severe allergic reaction to math who will be skipping the next two paragraphs, the answer is that the buildings are 3.33 miles or 5.36 kilometers away. And... you're welcome :)
According to Google Maps, the horizontal distance from the rim to the ranch is about 3.17 miles (5.10 km). Per the National Parks Service website, the vertical drop from the south rim to Phantom Ranch along Bright Angel Trail is 4,460 feet (1,360 m), which is 0.84 miles (1.36 km). The horizontal distance is the "Base" of a right triangle and the vertical distances is the "Perpendicular" of the triangle. The line-of-sight distance from our photo shoot location to the ranch is the hypotenuse of the triangle.
And as we all clearly remember from 8th grade math class as though it were yesterday, the Pythagorean Theorem tells us that the hypotenuse is the square root of the sum of the Base squared and the Perpendicular squared. So, the direct line of sight distance between today's photo shoot location and Phantom Ranch is... drumroll please... 3.33 miles or 5.36 kilometers. Yay, math!
At that distance, you won't get a good view of the Phantom Ranch buildings until you reach a focal length of about 1000mm. That means you won't get a very good pictures of the buildings with most cameras. While the buildings are visible at 1000mm, starting at around this focal length, you also see some atmospheric distortions from particles in the air and heat waves moving through it. It's important to note that these distortions are not due to a problem with the P1000's optics. Any camera at these zoom levels would see some haze and thermal waviness in the picture.
And here are the buildings at the Nikon COOLPIX P1000's maximum optical zoom of 3000mm.
Why do we zoom to the P1000's insane maximum focal length? Because we can! And it's amazing! But, we don't always need to zoom in all of the way. I prefer the pictures at either 500mm or 1000mm because they show the buildings in the context of their unique surroundings. The longer focal lengths get us in closer, but we lose the context of where the buildings are and the atmospheric conditions become more pronounced.
But if we just want to marvel at how close we can get to the buildings at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, then we can go beyond the maximal optical zoom and use the P1000's digital zoom. A digital zoom of 1.4X yields an effective focal length of 4200mm (3,000 * 1.4 = 4,200). This magnification doesn't introduce too many digital artifacts.
But... sometimes we just want to throw caution - and picture clarity - to the wind and get even closer. For these moments, we can apply the maximum digital zoom that the P1000 camera can produce, which is a magnification of 4X, yielding an effective focal length of 12000mm.
OK, there are obviously some digital artifacts here, but that's still a ridiculously close-up view of some small buildings that are 3.33 miles (5.36 km) away. To those who say, "this is not a particularly clear picture", I say, "yes, but we didn't have to hike fourteen hours round trip into the Grand Canyon to see the buildings" :)
Watch the Video
I also recorded some video at the Grand Canyon, zooming in super close to the Phantom Ranch buildings from high up on the south rim. In one of the video clips, you can see a line of mules walking through the compound. These are the mules that people ride down to the canyon floor. The zoom out video clip from the ranch really shows the range of the P1000. You can watch it all on YouTube by clicking on the picture below. If you enjoy the video then it would be great if you could "like" the video on YouTube or maybe even leave a comment to let me know that you stopped by!
Thanks for reading this article and watching the video! If you enjoyed it then check out some of the related articles and videos below. Or you can browse through all of my articles.
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