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Grand Canyon Rafting Tips?


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I'm headed out to the Grand Canyon this friday for a 1 week Grand Canyon

rafting trip. I'm going with Grand Canyon Expeditions on one of their 8-day

motorized rafting trips. I wanted to do an oar-raft trip, but given time and

expense, this trip seemed like the best.


I'm taking the following:


Canon 5D

Canon 10D (backup)

17-40mm f/4.0L

24-105mm f/4.0L IS

100-400mm f/4.0-5.6L IS

Tripod, filters, cleaning equipment, etc...


I'll be carrying the lot in a Pelican 1520 case, and use it to work out of on

the boat. I'll just drop the 5D and the 24-105 in my waist pack and use that

on any hikes.


Equipment: I was wondering if I'm better off taking a 70-200mm f/4.0L with me

instead of the 100-400? The 70-200mm is quite a bit lighter and easier to

handle than the 100-400, though the 100-400 has the advantages of more reach

and IS. Plus, I can use the 100-400 as a boat anchor, if need be.


Shooting Tips: Any tips for shooting from a raft or inside the canyon?

Positions on the raft best suited for photography? Best way to protect my gear

while working from the raft? Opportunities to watch out for?


I read Michael Reichmann's report of his trip down the canyon on Luminous

Landscape, and looked at a few reports on the web, but am always looking for

more tips.

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I'll be going the same place on a private trip in October, but have never been there before. However I have done quite a few rafting trips in Alaska ( http://paddling.jimstrutz.com ). From my experience, and after reading many comments from other rafting photographers, I find that the best pictures of rafts and rapids come while standing on the bank. This being a commercial motorized trip I'm not sure how often you will be able to observe other boats while your boat is scouting a rapid. Certainly, take every opportunity as it comes along. Private trips ar far slower and take much more time to scout large rapids.


You could make do with the 70-200 if that was all you had with you, but I would think a longer lens would be better in many situations from the shore. Perhaps a 1.4x TC with the 70-200? I hate packing around a 100-400 for the times you will want 400mm, but I think I would do it for a trip like this.


Also, Grand Canyon has a lot of calm, flat water, and plenty of interesting geology and landscapes to shoot from the boat, but you might want a smaller "boat camera" for this. I'm planning on taking a 12x superzoom Panasonic in a small Pelican box for most of my shooting from/in the boat. This is my usual boat camera, and I find it great for boat-to-boat, and boat-to-shore shots. It's faster/easier to get into the box "just in time." This will allow you to get some pre-rapids shots that you might not get with the bigger, more expensive camera. It's only downside is the lens is not very wide, and makes pictures of fellow passengers limited.


Some of the most interesting things in Grand Canyon seem to be quite small. I'm not sure how good the 24-105 is up close, but you might consider taking a close-up lens for it. Nikon's double element T5 & T6 lenses are no longer available, but Canon's more expensive ones are. They're not cheap though. A real macro lens would be nice, but if you don't have one, or don't want to pack that much, a double element close-up lens is quite good.


Some of my best "from the boat shots" have been with the camera very close to the water's surface looking at other boats, etc. Another good vantage point is way up high. Often the commercial J-rigs, snout-rigs, etc. have a few high seats in the middle. Something private boaters never have.


If you can take a small waterproof camera as well, (even a disposable one) you might want to get right in front and snap a few shots just as you're heading into the froth, or if you're farther back, just as the front of the boat get buried.


Have fun, and let us know how it goes. I would like to hear what works best for you, and what doesn't work at all.

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Jim - thanks for the tips. I do have a point and shoot (Canon A80) and have an underwater housing for it - I bought it for snorkeling in the Galapagos. I'll probably throw that in my bag, as well, for on-raft shots while in rapids. It also has the advantage of doing video. I am a bit worried about taking all this equipment, but one more camera couldn't hurt.
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I went with Steve Kossack on a Photo Tour in the Grand Canyon 2 years ago (http://www.f-8andbethere.com/past_ws/GC_may05_Pages/index.htm) and some things I learned from Steve:


1) If possible, have the guides cut the engine when you are on very calm water in nice spots, and bring out your VR glass while silently floating (as Steve says "like planting your tripod in the middle of the Grand Canyon"!) - very nice


2) We carried all of our gear in LowePro Dryzones - worked great (sticky zippers near the end with all the dirt - had to clean them more)


3)Your equipment looks great I used the a Nikkor 17-55 and 70-200 a lot.


4) Lots of WONDERFUL opportunities up side canyons (http://www.f-8andbethere.com/notes/Becomingwater.htm)


I want to go back :-)



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You are going to have a wonderful time! I did the 14-day oar/paddle trip through AzRA in 2004, and that trip was what inspired me to get a DSLR (film loading problems with our old 35mm SLR caused us to lose shots). So I have often thought about, if I were to go again--and I intend to someday--what camera gear I would take. Here is what I advise:


1. I think the 70-200 over the 100-400, for reasons you've stated (weight) and I think it's adequate. You can use the 70-200 from the shore if you have an opportunity to photograph other boats going through the rapids, or candid shots of the people at camp, or flora/fauna you'll see. I really think, especially with your 10D, this lens has enough reach. If you have a 1.4X, all the better.

2. I'm thinking you may want the 17-40 on your hikes with the 5D (in addition to, or occasionally instead of, the 24-105). The reason I say this as in Red Wall Cavern, for example, you may want to be able to capture the entire cavern. Also, at bottom, the canyon walls are high.

3. Special sights: Red Wall Cavern, Nankoweap, Little Colorado River, Elves Chasm, Havasu Canyon.

4. Other opportunities to watch for: big horn sheep along water's edge, early morn/late afternoon sun on canyon walls (may need ND grad so the shadowed canyon bottom won't be too dark).


Another thing...lots of CF cards or portable hard drive, and spare batteries.


Oh, and another thing. Maybe a waterproof bag (~$10) for your camera on the hikes. Some hikes are along creeks, sometimes fording them, and if you slip and fall and drop your camera...:( Or if it rains on you...We used one for our camera on our trip and it was especially handy on our hike up Havasu Canyon to Moody Falls, where there is lots of creek fording, up to chest level!


Have a great trip!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, I'm back. I thought I'd report back what worked well for me and what didn't.


As noted previously, I took the following:


Canon EOS 5D


Canon EOS 10D


Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0


Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0 IS


Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS


I kept everything, including cleaning materials, memory cards, portable storage device, etc..., in a Pelican 1520 waterproof case. I also brought along my Canon A80 point and shoot, and an underwater housing for it.


First of all, the trip was a lot of fun. I don't think I got any "winners" in terms of my photography, but the experience was definitely worthwhile. I think one would have to do a photography-oriented trip in order to do really good photography down in the canyon as the schedule and knowledge of the guides isn't geared towards the needs of photographers. It's definitely worthwhile, regardless.


Equipment-wise, I think I had the right set of lenses. I didn't use the 17-40mm as much as I thought I would. It may have just been a reluctance to change lenses very often, though the 24-105mm is a fantastic range and may have simply been adequate for my needs. I did use the 17-40mm at Redwall Cavern and to capture some on-boat shots. The 100-400mm I only brought out to shoot other rafts going through rapids or the occasional bighorn sheep spotted on the shoreline. I do think the extra reach was worth the weight and size of the lens. IS is essential given the movement of the boat.


As for working from the boat, I kept most of my gear in the Pelican case strapped to an area in the center of the boat where I could get at it. Grand Canyon Expeditions had no problem with me taking this case, and the configuration of their motorized rafts allowed for fairly easy access. One problem I had with this particular Pelican case is that there aren't any attachment points on the case itself aside from the handle. I had a carabiner, but it was not large enough to use easily on the handle itself. We ended up using a short webbing tether in conjunction with the carabiner to make it easy to attach the Pelican case to the boat. If I go again, I'll make sure to have webbing and carabiners to make it easy to attach my case to straps on the boat to secure it from moving around.


While the Pelican case was pretty easy to access, it was a pain to have to get up and navigate my way to where it was all the time, so what I ended up doing was keeping my 5D and the 24-105mm lens in a small dry bag that I kept with me. I had the lens mounted on the body with the lens shade attached. In the dry bag, I had a small towel and a pair of clean socks at the bottom for cushioning. I would insert the camera with the lens down into the bag. It was a good fit - just enough to hold the camera, but not so tight that it was tough to pull out. I could keep the camera in the bag for small riffles, and roll it up and clip it to something for rapids. On flat water, I would have the camera out and ready to shoot.


I tried to get creative with my point and shoot. It has a movie mode, so what I would do is put it in its underwater housing, strap it to the front of my pfd, and have it going as we went through rapids. It took a bit of trial and error to get it right, but it was fun to see the video.


Aside from water, the greatest danger to my camera gear was the sand. It was worse than shooting in Death Valley. You're camping on beaches the entire time, so sand is a major problem in terms of keeping your gear clean. You have to be very careful in using lens cloths as a grain of sand could cause a major scratch. I tried to keep lens changes down to a minimum to avoid dust and sand, though it was difficult to keep the grains out of the various zooming mechanisms. I brought a rocket blower, a lens pen, and several cleaning cloths to maintain my equipment.


One must also be careful with the water. It has a lot of sediment and minerals in it. The minerals would leave behind marks very quickly on the lenses (and my sunglasses) from splashes, so it was best to clean that up as soon as possible. I kept a thick lens cleaning cloth in a double-sealed ziplock bag in my pocket for this.


I didn't use my tripod on this trip, though I probably should have. There were a number of hikes into side canyons that would have benefited greatly. I think I got lazy since I could simply adjust the ISO. Also, our visits tended to be short, so I didn't have a lot of time to work. Everybody else was interested in jumping into the various pools and waterfalls to cool off and clean up, so my time to shoot undisturbed was a bit limited.


A polarizer is an absolute must.


In general, we were on the water not long after first light hit the tops of the canyon walls. I shot mostly in the mornings and afternoons when the light was best, and shot people shots during mid-day. I concentrated on scenics, which is tough to do since it's difficult at times to find suitable subjects to give a sense of scale. I was on a two-boat trip, so I would include the other boat for scale.


On hikes, I carried my 5D and 24-105 in a waist pack, which is pretty much all I needed. In camp, I kept everything in the Pelican case.


On the boat, the best position for photography was in the back. Grand Canyon Expeditions has their boats configured such that there's a large deck in front with a large storage box bisecting the boat. In back, there's a smaller deck area, followed by another large storage box, and then the boatmen area in the very back. Daypacks and my Pelican case were stored on top of the middle storage box, strapped down. The front obviously gets the most splashes going through rapids and is the most fun. The back section gets a lot fewer splashes and has a more stable ride. It's also easier to access your equipment and shoot around other passengers. However, be aware that other companies had their boats arranged differently, so you'll have to figure out what's best for a particular configuration.


Grand Canyon Expeditions ran a great trip. They're very organized. The equipment is good. The food is excellent. And, the guides know what they're doing. I can definitely recommend them as a company.



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