Tips for Photographing Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend is a 270 degree curve in the Colorado River, located 5 miles south of the Glen Canyon Dam. But, words don’t do this geologic feature justice. If you’re ever driving along Hwy 89, stop, grab a camera with a wide angle lens and hit the 1.5 mile loop trail to the overlook.

Choosing the Right Lens to Photograph Horseshoe Bend

Large format color photo of Horseshoe Bend.

Shot with a 4 x 5 Wista VZ Field Camera and 75mm Rodenstock Lens.

To capture all of Horseshoe Bend, you need a wide angle lens. If shooting digital, or 35mm, then use at least a 21 mm lens. The photograph of Horseshoe Bend above was taken with a large format camera (the negative is 4″ x 5″) and 75 mm lens, which is roughly equivalent to a 20 mm lens on a 35 mm or full frame digital camera. On my next shooting trip here, I’ll be using a 60 mm lens on a Toyo 4 x 5 Field Camera and a 15mm on a full frame dSLR (5D Mark II). In other words, I’d like to photograph Horseshoe Bend with an even wider lens.

For a frame of reference, these were taken with a 28 mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

Horseshoe Bend shot with a 28mm lens

Where'd the river go?

vertical shot of Horseshoe Bend

Shot vertically, I got the river but lost the surroundings.

As you can see, the 28 mm lens isn’t wide enough to capture all of Horseshoe Bend.

Filters: A split / graduated neutral density filter and polarizer may come in handy.

Composition Tips for Photographing Horseshoe Bend

Try to get at least a little sky in the picture. If there are neat cloud formations, or it’s sunset, then get even more sky in the composition. The wider your lens, the more sky you can capture. The sky will give your photograph a lot more depth.

Try to get some foreground. Again, it adds depth; it adds texture; it adds context; it adds perspective.

Research before you shoot. Look at as many Horseshoe Bend photos as you can and note which images you like best and why. Then, ask yourself how you can take those images one step further with composition, lens choice, exposure, lighting etc.

Choosing the Best Time of Day to Photograph Horseshoe Bend

Standing at the overlook, looking to the river and across the canyon, you’ll be facing west. The sun will be behind you in the morning and in front of you in the afternoon.

Just before Dawn: The whole scene is painted in gorgeous sweet light at dawn. Great time to shoot.

Shortly after Sunrise: The top 1/3 of the photo (some rocks and all sky) will be in sun, with the bottom 2/3 in shade. If the sky is cloudless, then the top will be pretty bright (maybe about 2 stops brighter), with a harsh shadow cutting across the photo.

Late Morning: On a clear day, the south cliffs are in shadow by late morning. If it’s overcast, then you may still be able to get some detail in your shadows.

Mid Day through Afternoon: Can be very contrasty – unless it’s overcast. If it’s overcast or stormy, then the lighting and sky might be really cool at mid day.

Late Afternoon – Sunset: This is a great time to shoot here, although it’s not without it’s challenges. The position of the sun may cause lens flare, the rock formation will be back lit (or, perhaps rim lit depending on the time of year). The colors will be great, though! Bracket your shots. Also, if it’s cloudy, then it’ll be less contrasty, a more dynamic sky and perhaps easier to photograph.

After Dark: Star Trails! Good place for night photography.

Valerie setting up her 4 x 5 camera at the rim of Horseshoe Bend.

Caution: There are no railings at the rim of Horseshoe Bend!

A word of caution:

There are no railings at the rim of Horseshoe Bend. Nothing but air between you and a 1,000 foot drop (about 305 meters). Be very careful. It’s a disorienting view even for those of us not bothered by heights. The park service actually recommends laying down if you want to look over the rim.

Parents and pet owners, be vigilant.

Use your camera strap and keep all your gear secure.

I had to get pretty close to the edge to compose the photo that I wanted. Don’t leave your comfort zone and don’t do anything careless.

Finally, bring water and sun protection. The hike is 1.5 miles with no shade. Wear shoes; the sand can get very hot and sandals won’t protect your feet.

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About the Author

Valerie earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Applied Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2000. In 2005, she founded Valerie Hayken Photography & Design. Visit to view her portfolios and see what she's been shooting.