Big Bend – Rio Grande Overlook

Friday morning it was off to the Rio Grande overlook for sunrise. This is down near the Rio Grande as you might have guessed and has the Sierra Del Carmen mountains in the distance for the sun to rise above. In the portion of the park map below, the blue arrow indicated where we were shooting from and you can see that the mountain range is to the east crossing the US-Mexico border.

While waiting for the sun, I made some attempts at panoramas looking down the mountain range to the east. I did this by holding the camera in portrait mode and shooting about 12 photos at 200mm focal length. I did all of this handheld, so maybe there is a small amount of motion blur if you look closely. I stitched it all together in Lightroom and cropped it as you see below. The stitching process takes about five minutes on my computer, so that is a good time to get a cup of coffee. I was going for the depth created by the layering of hills and cliffs in the haze.

Panorama from the Rio Grande Overlook

There is a collection of buildings in the lower left and I think that this is Boquillas del Carmen on the Mexico side of the river. There is a border crossing for this town, so that you can walk down to the river and pay someone to row you across to go visit Boquillas and then passport your way back into the US. The border crossing was closed at this time because of the pandemic situation, which is sad for the town’s folk there who live on tourism revenue. They do sell little souvenirs at the overlooks on the honor-system and I purchased a little souvenir that way.

You can also see that we weren’t greeted with any clouds in the sky for a pretty sunrise, which was a little disappointing as clouds can make for a beautiful sunrise. I framed up on some desert plants and patiently waited for the sun to crest the distant mountains. I used a wide, 20mm, focal length to make the plants large in the frame and made an HDR merge that I think turned out well enough. There were just the thinnest little wavy clouds high in the sky that almost look like noise in the picture.

Sunrise from the Rio Grande Overlook at Big Bend

The sun did eventually come over the high cliffs and I stopped down to f/14 to try to get some sun-burst in the photo. I was also experimenting with this odd lonely sotol in the foreground that just seems out of place to me now. All of the warm sunlight really brings out the red of the prickly pear needles as well. This is another HDR merge to capture all of the light. When shooting into the sun, you will likely get lens flare in the shot, but I don’t mind it in this image.

Sunrise from the Rio Grande Overlook at Big Bend

There is a highway tunnel right next to the turn-out for this overlook. One of the people holding the workshop suggested that a view from in the tunnel might be interesting, so I gathered my gear and drove up and parked near the entrance to the tunnel. There was almost no traffic on this road and I could hear the vehicles long before I could see them so the risk was minimal. I walked along the side of the tunnel until I got about where I wanted to be and then got out in the center of the highway for a few quick shots. I had the tripod low to exaggerate the size of the road stripes leading off into the distance.

Tunnel in Big Bend National Park

I noticed that from this vantage point that I could also see the road going through the hills in the distance. So, I got a longer lens and tried to get the opening of the cave and the distant road through the hills. It is partially obscured by an ocatillo, but it still looks nice. The longer focal length helps fill more of the picture with the distant mountains. The above photo is shot at 27mm and the below photo is shot at 70mm focal length.

Tunnel in Big Bend National Park

I probably could have changed my position a bit if I had thought about it and changed the alignment between the ocatillo and the road in the distance. Also, in hindsight, I would like to have tried this from farther back up the tunnel shooting at 200mm to more fill the tunnel opening with the distant cliffs.

I would say that the tunnel pictures were among my favorite from this location and this was a lot of fun to shoot. Hopefully on a future trip to Big Bend the clouds will be available for sunrise and I can return to this spot. Thanks for reading.

35 thoughts on “Big Bend – Rio Grande Overlook

    1. Yeah, some kind of say that HDR is a crutch or a gimmick and I agree that if HDR goes overboard it does look like a mess. But when you are in a high contrast setting like this, you might need 7 images to capture all of the light; that’s just camera reality.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. “Grow tired…” Nope, don’t think so! That made me think though of when my parent’s went to Alaska for their 50th anniversary. They took hundreds of photos and we did really enjoy them. But we all did get a good laugh out of my Mom’s whale photos. They went on a cruise and they loved seeing whales up close but half of the photos were of the whales πŸ‹ tails! LOL!


  1. Jason, I really appreciated how you broke down your process for each photo. I wouldn’t have thought to stop down to F14 fearing diffraction would start to affect image quality, but for sun stars it makes perfect sense.

    The photos came out lovely. I’m curious if HDR is something that you use in many photos or just because of the high contrast you were dealing with at sunrise. I used to bracket for HDR quite a bit back in the day when I was still shooting M4/3 but that was in large part because of the low dynamic range of the smaller sensors. I haven’t had that problem on either of the full-frame cameras I’ve owned since.

    I guess the last thing I’ll say is if you like the beauty of the desert and haven’t visited Moab in Utah I can’t recommend it enough. Plan at least a week out there if you do end up going. We just got back a trip out there earlier this month and the biggest trick was chasing the light at either end of the day. Just finished a blog post on the trip if you’re interested in the area.

    Look forward to your next post! Regards Tobias

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you would be hard pressed to find the effects of diffraction at high aperture except on one of those sharpness and contrast test charts under controlled test conditions. I don’t think that it is something to really worry about in landscape photos. To get a nice sun burst with lights or the sun, you do have to stop down quite a bit. I would usually shoot in the f/4 to f/11 range anyway unless it was just a really bright situation.

      I use HDR when shooting sunset or sunrise as that situation is just beyond the capability of camera sensors. In this scenario, I picked what looked like a good middle exposure, set bracketing for seven shots (-3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3), put the camera into high speed continuous shooting, and held the shutter button down while the camera takes 7 shots. I was using a tripod to control camera shake, but if it was too sensitive, I would use a remote and manually take the seven shots. It does make for importing a lot of images and spending time merging them. I also usually forget and leave the camera on bracketing and then get a bunch of shots with bad exposure the next time I shoot.

      I would like to travel to other national parks, but this year I am sticking to driving and not flying. Maybe next year. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Some great advice. I really appreciate it. I would have to agree that a lens wide open is usually about as soft as it can get from diffraction at high F stops. So you’d really only notice if you were comparing against something shot at F8 and probably only in the corners where nobody is realistically looking anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I looked at your Moab blog. I like the close-up of the rock texture. I tried to do something like that at Big Bend, but not very successfully.

      Also the photo of the little stream and the lines in the cliffs above caught my eye.

      Did you take all of these with film?


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