This article was written in 2004, when digital cameras were in their infancy, and updated in 2010, when cameras on smart phones were still an afterthought. Some of the tips have aged well, others not so much. Everyone's a photographer these days, so I have left the article as is rather than try to bring it up to date.

[This article received some comments and additional tips, which I have posted with the permission of the contributors]

This is aimed to be a bunch of simple tips to help people get better photographs out of a compact digital camera in a canyon. It's not for people who have SLRs and already know what they're doing, to get that one magical photo of a lifetime. The tips are too basic for that. It's also not aimed at compact film cameras (do they still exist?) - the only way to get better shots in canyons is to take a lot, and film is not conducive to this.

Canyons are difficult environments to take good photos. The main reason is that they are dark. There are a lot of blurry images, dark images, images with overexposed sections in them. My photos are full of these. But by using the tips below I have been getting more good shots each trip.

A tripod

1. Get a tripod

Get a tripod. Get a tripod. Get a tripod.

I'll keep saying it. Why? Canyons are dark. Your camera needs light to take a picture. So in a canyon it leaves the shutter open for a while, usually at least 1/8th of a second, and probably 1-2 seconds in a dark canyon. Without something to keep the camera steady, you are lucky if you can hold it still for 1/8th of a second.

The little bendy tripods (pictured) are a good start. They are extremely small, and their legs can be bent so that the camera sits at the right angle even on uneven canyon surfaces. By holding the tripod firm against a canyon wall, you can take vertical photos.

For something a bit better, there are mini-tripods with a ball-and-socket joint that allow the rotation of the camera. This means you can take vertical photos in canyons from a horizontal surface, something that the bendy ones can't manage. However, you're more reliant on finding flat spots as they don't have the same range of flexibility.

All that said, many of the latest digital compacts have image stabilisation (IS) built in. With care, that can allow you to take hand held shots down to 1/5 or 1/4 of a second, and with steady techniques, possibly even more.

2. Turn off the flash

In general, using flash in canyons is a bad idea. The flash on compact cameras has a range of only a few metres, so unless you are just taking photos of people who are close, and don't care about the background, you should turn the flash off. Below is an example of what I mean. The photo on the left was taken without flash, and has a much more vibrant range of colours than the one on the right, taken from the same place.

Banks Canyon Banks Canyon

Using the flash to fill in darkened faces can be useful, but needs to be used carefully, as in canyons it tends to wash out the rest of the photo. It can occasionally work, as in the images below. The one of Stacey on the left is using the flash, while that of Dave on the right is not. While the one on the left is better, it is not by any means a great shot.

Stacey in Claustral Canyon Dave in Claustral Canyon

3. Play with the ISO settings

In the film world, ISO refers to the speed of the film, or its sensitivity to light. Basically the higher the ISO, the less time the shutter needs to stay open to get the same level of light in the final image. Sports photographers often use high ISO film to take sharp shots of fast-moving sports people. The trade off is that the higher the ISO of the film, the more grainy the final image. But slightly grainy can be a better result than very blurry.

Digital cameras don't use film, but the same principles apply. Higher ISO means more noise in the final image, but potentially less blur as the camera leaves the shutter open for less time. Modern digitals have better noise reduction than those of say 5 years ago, so even shots at high ISOs (ISO800 or ISO1600) can still give acceptable results.

Most digital cameras have adjustable ISO settings. Try pushing the ISO up to say ISO400 or even ISO800. This should make shots in dark environments brighter, and also allow you to take some shots where people may be moving a bit. It may also allow you to take some shots without using a tripod, which is handy when there's nothing to rest the tripod on.

The shots below are taken at increasingly higher ISOs, with all other settings identical. You can see the noticeable improvement in quality in a very dark environment.

Claustral Canyon
Claustral Canyon
Claustral Canyon

James in Claustral Canyon Andy jumping in Mt Hay Canyon

4. Get your subjects to stay still

Moving subjects are tough to photograph when it's dark.

Getting the canyon to stay still is easy! However, photos of people in canyons are difficult. Even at high ISOs, the camera can still take a second or more to take a shot if it's dark. For those really good shots, you need to get your subject to freeze for a second or two. And use a tripod!

In the image to the near right, James has frozen for a couple of seconds, as you can tell by the flowing water at his feet. The result is a good photograph.

In the image to the far right, Andy has just jumped from a chockstone in Mt Hay Canyon, and while the surrounds are crisp and clear, he is just a blur of arms and legs.

Another example is this shot of Chris Collier's from Claustral, where the background is nice and sharp, but the human subject is a blur.

Most shots of people in a canyon are going to have to be posed shots. If you want a good shot, get them to stop. Action shots in a canyon, such as people jumping, or flying down an abseil, are almost impossible if you want them to come out as anything other than a blur.

If you can't live with this, and desperately want some action photos, some of the newest compacts can ramp the ISO up to speeds that may allow for action in darkened environments (I've heard of up to ISO12800).

144_4415.jpg (11321 bytes)

5. Keep exposed areas out of the shot

Cameras are not as good as the human eye at balancing light and dark areas in a shot. Where you have areas of bright light, even if it's just a rock that has sunlight on it, you will probably get "burnt" patches or washed out areas in your photo.

The photo at right is a good example of this. While it is not that bad a shot, too much light is coming in at the top, and distracting from the rest of the photo. It is washing out the canyon walls near the top as well.

Often the light is just coming from the top. Taking your photo angled down a little more can often reduce this. Or perhaps you can crop the image to eliminate the overexposed area. Where light is landing directly on rocks, you may need to just choose a different subject. By moving around a corner, you may be able to get a more balanced shot.

File Name
Camera Model Name
Shooting Date/Time
31/12/2004 2:00:36 PM
Shooting Mode
Photo Effect Mode
Tv( Shutter Speed )
Av( Aperture Value )
Metering Mode
Center-weighted averaging
Exposure Compensation
ISO Speed
7.4 - 22.2mm
Focal Length
Digital Zoom
Image Size
Image Quality
White Balance
AF Mode
Single AF
File Size
Drive Mode
Single-frame shooting

6. Take lots of shots

The best way to improve your photos is to take lots of shots. Use different settings to take the same shot. All decent cameras record the settings that you used (the EXIF information), and you can review them in your image download program. A sample EXIF information read out is on the right.

Depending on your level of camera, you can control a number of the settings. Flash setting, ISO speed, digital zoom, white balance and exposure compensation are most common. More advanced compacts will also let you control the shutter speed and aperture. Most cameras have other special effect modes that may be of some use as well (night shooting, for example).

I am not going to go into any details here, as these are more advanced topics. But there is a wealth of information on the internet if you want to learn.

7. Cull. Cull. Cull

There is nothing worse than opening thumbnail after thumbnail and finding them blurry or boring. Don't put up your crap photos! Just pick the good ones and show them.

On average, I will delete about 30% to 50% of my photos just because they're not very good - blurry, dark or just a bad shot. Of those that are left, I will usually put about half on the web - mainly because a lot of them are almost duplicates. So in the end, only one quarter to one third of the photos I take will generally get shown.

This is the way professional photographers have always worked - take a lot of shots to get a few good ones. The advent of digital cameras has allowed amateurs to do the same without taking out a mortgage to buy film. Take advantage of it!

Take it from me - it hurts to delete shots to start with! There's always this temptation to say, "That's not a great shot, but it's not too bad". But once you start deleting, it gets less painful. There's always more canyon photos out there!

8. Displaying photos on the web

If you put your photos on the web, you want people to look at them, right? So have a think about how it's easiest to view them.

Can I just say this - thumbnails are a pain in the arse! You have to look at the thumbnail, try to decide whether it's a shot worth opening to view the full size image, open the image (in a new window/tab), wait for it to download, and then look at the image. And you have to do this for each thumbnail. Some people put up pages of them!

Modern gallery slideshows, such as those found on Flickr, Picasa or Facebook are some improvement, as they can usually load the next photo in the background, making the loading quicker. Faster broadband speeds are also helping.

However, my preference is to put the photos from a trip on one page, at a resolution that most people can view comfortably on their screen. That way, people can open the page, let it download while they're doing something else, and then go and look at all of the images. If you've done a decent job of culling, then people won't mind looking at all the photos. It used to be that 640x480 pixel resolution was about right. Currently, 800x600 pixel resolution is probably the best, and it will no doubt go up again in a few years when even bigger monitors become more prevalent.

My qualifications: none. I am simply an amateur who has taken a lot of photos, looked at a lot of other people's photos, made all of the mistakes above, and more. I have learned from the mistakes, and seem to be getting a better proportion of "good" photos. If the tips above get you one more good shot per canyon, then I reckon it's been worthwhile writing this.