2021-10-12 | New Roads Magazine

Shooting the North Rim

Shooting the North Rim

A day at the remote northern edge of the Grand Canyon is a photographer’s dream, if you have the camera to get the shot and a truck rugged enough to make the trip.

They call them vermilion, but the fractured, blocky rock faces that describe the plateau change color in the light.

 

The Vermilion Cliffs read as a purple black in the morning, burn out into an oxidized orange as the sun goes high, eventually shifting—through some earth magic—to their eponymous red hue sometime after lunch.

 

If you’re up early, and very patient, you can clock this color shift from U.S. Route 89A, which tracks south of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, bisects the undulating Kaibab National Forest, and skirts the northernmost crag of the Grand Canyon’s remote North Rim. But to get in close—where the colors come alive and these dramatic landscapes change with each minute and angle of the sunlight—you’ll need a truck. And to get in where you can make a remarkable photograph of a landscape that has been documented in film for a hundred years now, you’ll need real capability.

The Details Matter

Colorado ZR2

3.6L V6

ENGINE

308/275

HORSEPOWER/
LB.-FT.
OF TORQUE

8-SPEED

AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION

STAY FOCUSED
Large-format cameras, like this 4x5 Wista, remain popular because they capture more detail for landscape photographers. Want to learn more about how they work? Check out this short video explainer.

There aren’t many better ways to reach your photo location—or any location—than the 2021 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison. Designed in collaboration with off-road specialists American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), the ZR2 Bison is capable of extreme off-road use while still being backed by a limited factory warranty. With five protective skid plates, AEV stamped steel front and rear bumpers, locking differentials, and the revolutionary Multimatic™ DSSV dampers, the Bison is the backcountry photographer’s best friend.

 

It’s easy to understand why image makers have been toting cameras out here ever since there were cameras to tote. As early as the 1930s, Ansel Adams was hiking in and around the northern edge of the Grand Canyon to document its incomparable texture and jaw-dropping scale on large-format film.  

An illustration of a large-format camera from the side, showing the accordion folds of the camera body.

THE GEAR
The large-format camera is pretty basic: a lens at the front, a glass at the back for a viewfinder, and a sheet of film in between. Move the lens forward or back to focus and hold the shutter down for as long as you need to make an exposure.

The kind of collapsible field camera employed by Adams was never banished entirely by newer, more compact technology. Hobbyists and professionals have been using the devices forever. But oddly, the march of cutting-edge technology has helped to fuel a resurgence and interest in shooting large-format film, especially out in wild places.

 

Flagstaff, Arizona–based photographer John Hartman was hiking and mountain biking all around Arizona and Utah, snapping pictures of lovely, lonely landscapes with a more modern camera (and his phone) before being loaned an antique.

 

“I was loaned a large-format camera and it just kind of really clicked for the type of photography that I wanted to do,” says Hartman. “I found it allowed me to have a lot more control over the image-making process, an ability to create photographs that better reflected in a print what I was seeing in real life.”  

HOW TO USE A LARGE-FORMAT CAMERA
Large-format cameras might look as though you’ll need your great-great-grandparents’ wedding photographer to operate them, but they’re fairly simple and straightforward to use. Watch the video to learn the basic concepts behind their operation.


A large-format camera is essentially a light box with a lens on one end, a glass screen on the other, and a very large piece of film (from 4 by 5 inches up to a whopping 8 by 10 inches) in the middle. The lens displays an inverted image on the rear glass at the film plane, meaning a photographer is seeing literally what will be captured on film once the exposure is made. Both the film plane and the focus planes can be tilted to various effect, and in concert with lens focus, this type of photography offers a tremendous range of control over how your picture turns out. That flexibility lends itself very well to landscape photography, assuming of course you can get your camera, tripod, and self out into the field … at daybreak.

An illustration of a large-format camera, seen from the front.

LARGE FORMAT,
ANY BUDGET

A large-format camera can range from inexpensive to exquisite.

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BUDGET:
Intrepid 4X5 MK4
A lightweight, modern rethink of the traditional field camera.

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LEVEL UP:
Chamonix 45F-2
Feature-rich and lovely, made using teak or cherry wood.

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SPLURGE:
Toyo Field 45AX
Handcrafted, extraordinarily light, with unparalleled precision.

A large-format camera is essentially a light box with a lens on one end, a glass screen on the other, and a very large piece of film (from 4 by 5 inches up to a whopping 8 by 10 inches) in the middle. The lens displays an inverted image on the rear glass at the film plane, meaning a photographer is seeing literally what will be captured on film once the exposure is made. Both the film plane and the focus planes can be tilted to various effect, and in concert with lens focus, this type of photography offers a tremendous range of control over how your picture turns out. That flexibility lends itself very well to landscape photography, assuming of course you can get your camera, tripod, and self out into the field … at daybreak.

 

The geological features that make this corner of the country ideal for stunning photography also make it almost inaccessible without the proper vehicle.

 

“Out on the North Rim, it’s pretty rugged in most spots,” says Hartman, who explores new pockets of the canyon most weekends. “Often there are no roads at all. On top of the cliffs, it’s very, very sandy, and you would sink in a passenger car right away. Hell, you would sink in a 2-wheel-drive truck right away.”

 

Built for crossing open country, the Colorado ZR2 Bison is not only at home out here, but is a reassuring presence in an occasionally nerve-wracking environment. The truck’s beefy fender flares house model-specific 17-inch aluminum wheels, wrapped in knobby rubber dedicated to this kind of variable ground. Scrabbling over loose rock or pushing through deep sand is no problem for the truck. And in a place where big, sharp rocks can be seen just about everywhere, those durable AEV skid plates made from hot-stamped boron steel give a bit more peace of mind. Armor around a fuel tank, oil pan, or diff could mean the difference between driving home and hiking home.

 

“Out here you just need something really capable and something really reliable,” says Hartman. “Because there’s no one out here to help you. There are no tow trucks.”

 

Just as vehicles for off-road travels have evolved rapidly over the years from simple farm trucks to ultra-advanced overlanders like the Bison, full-frame cameras have also made a technological leap. While the antique hardware can often still be used in the field—and lenses of all vintage are utilized for exactly the right effect—camera bodies, peripherals, and tripods have become lighter, more flexible, and in many cases much more affordable.

mobile-view-start

A large-format camera is essentially a light box with a lens on one end, a glass screen on the other, and a very large piece of film (from 4 by 5 inches up to a whopping 8 by 10 inches) in the middle. The lens displays an inverted image on the rear glass at the film plane, meaning a photographer is seeing literally what will be captured on film once the exposure is made. Both the film plane and the focus planes can be tilted to various effect, and in concert with lens focus, this type of photography offers a tremendous range of control over how your picture turns out. That flexibility lends itself very well to landscape photography, assuming of course you can get your camera, tripod, and self out into the field … at daybreak.

 

The geological features that make this corner of the country ideal for stunning photography also make it almost inaccessible without the proper vehicle.

 

“Out on the North Rim, it’s pretty rugged in most spots,” says Hartman, who explores new pockets of the canyon most weekends. “Often there are no roads at all. On top of the cliffs, it’s very, very sandy, and you would sink in a passenger car right away. Hell, you would sink in a 2-wheel-drive truck right away.”

HOW TO USE A LARGE-FORMAT CAMERA
Large-format cameras might look as though you’ll need your great-great-grandparents’ wedding photographer to operate them, but they’re fairly simple and straightforward to use. Watch the video to learn the basic concepts behind their operation.

An illustration of a large-format camera, seen from the front.

LARGE FORMAT,
ANY BUDGET

A large-format camera can range from inexpensive to exquisite.

alt=" "

BUDGET:
Intrepid 4X5 MK4
A lightweight, modern rethink of the traditional field camera.

alt=" "

LEVEL UP:
Chamonix 45F-2
Feature-rich and lovely, made using teak or cherry wood.

alt=" "

SPLURGE:
Toyo Field 45AX
Handcrafted, extraordinarily light, with unparalleled precision.

Built for crossing open country, the Colorado ZR2 Bison is not only at home out here, but is a reassuring presence in an occasionally nerve-wracking environment. The truck’s beefy fender flares house model-specific 17-inch aluminum wheels, wrapped in knobby rubber dedicated to this kind of variable ground. Scrabbling over loose rock or pushing through deep sand is no problem for the truck. And in a place where big, sharp rocks can be seen just about everywhere, those durable AEV skid plates made from hot-stamped boron steel give a bit more peace of mind. Armor around a fuel tank, oil pan, or diff could mean the difference between driving home and hiking home.

 

“Out here you just need something really capable and something really reliable,” says Hartman. “Because there’s no one out here to help you. There are no tow trucks.”

 

Just as vehicles for off-road travels have evolved rapidly over the years from simple farm trucks to ultra-advanced overlanders like the Bison, full-frame cameras have also made a technological leap. While the antique hardware can often still be used in the field—and lenses of all vintage are utilized for exactly the right effect—camera bodies, peripherals, and tripods have become lighter, more flexible, and in many cases much more affordable.

Some very recent entries to the film camera space bring the large-format price point down through the use of 3D printing technology, agile manufacturing, and all-digital sales models. For as little as a few hundred bucks (lens not included) you can get a camera body that will get you started. And even when you’re driving in, getting the perfect shot still requires a bit of hiking around, so lightweight materials like plastic composites and aluminum for camera bodies and bases can make a huge difference. A full-size tripod is also a must; carbon fiber setups keep weight to a minimum but increase your cost, while aluminum versions might make a better compromise between price and weight for someone just getting started.

THE NORTH RIM THROUGH A LARGE-FORMAT LENS
Created by John Hartman, from left: In Vermilion Cliffs National Monument near Cottonwood Teepees; the Colorado River from Toroweap Overlook; north of Toroweap looking toward Tuckup Point. Instagram: @john_hartman_takes_pictures

THE NORTH RIM THROUGH A LARGE-FORMAT LENS
Created by John Hartman, from top: In Vermilion Cliffs National Monument near Cottonwood Teepees; the Colorado River from Toroweap Overlook; north of Toroweap looking toward Tuckup Point. Instagram: @john_hartman_takes_pictures

Whether by way of cutting-edge or legacy equipment, a spur-of-the-moment drive or a last-minute hike, getting out into this magical landscape in the American Southwest is utterly worthwhile. After hours spent under the big sky in the early morning or silently crawling through slot canyons after noon, one can appreciate why photographers have been seeking this country for a century.

 

“I don’t know exactly why I love it out here alone, but I do,” says Hartman. “I guess I like to take a picture of a certain feeling, and I think an amount of remoteness is necessary for that.”

 

STORY: SEYTH MIERSMA / PHOTOGRAPHY: DANA NEIBERT / ILLUSTRATION AND VIDEO: CHRIS PHILPOT

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*The Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price excludes destination freight charge, tax, title, license, dealer fees and optional equipment. Click here to see all Chevrolet vehicles' destination freight charges.