Big Bend – Santa Elena Canyon Sunrise

Saturday morning well before dawn, the workshop group was off to Santa Elena Canyon in the dark to get there in time for sunrise photos. To get there we took the Old Maverick Road from the west entrance gate. This is yet another rough unpaved and dusty road which I didn’t enjoy driving in the dark. The paved road would probably have taken longer, but had I known I would have gladly left 20 minutes early and taken it. Anyway, we arrived in the parking lot in the predawn twilight and made the short hike  to the trail that leads up into the canyon. To get to the trail, you had the option of walking across the knee-high water in Terlingua Creek or taking a long path around that involved a lot of climbing. I didn’t mind the cool water, so I took off my shoes and socks and walked across the cool muddy creek to the other side. On the map excerpt below you can see Terlingua at the top and Santa Elena Canyon near the lower left.

I made it up to an overlook with plenty of time to look around and find a place to set up the tripod in hopes of getting a nice sunrise. I experimented with an ocotillo on the edge of a cliff as a foreground. I took a few practice shots and waited for the distant horizon to develop. It was another morning of very few clouds in the sky save for some clouds beyond the mountains in the distance. So the horizon gradually transitioned to orange as sunrise approached. Below is a photo taken just before dawn showing the yellow and orange predawn glow. The Rio Grande comes in from the lower right and curves back around keeping Mexico on one side and the United States on the other. I was never actually in Mexico during this outing.

All of these photos were made using 5 or 7 bracketed images that were HDR merged in Lightroom. Every image was shot with a tripod mounted Nikon D750 and either a 16-35mm f/4 lens or a 24-120mm f/4 lens. For bracketing, I generally locked focus and set a mid-point exposure using Aperture Priority mode and then set the camera’s bracketing feature to take 5 or 7 exposures above and below this point, for instance it will shoot exposure values of -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3 based on the exposure I set. I set the shutter to high-speed continuous shooting, so that I could just hold down the shutter button and it would fire off the programmed number of shots as quickly as possible. This is a really effective and easy way to end up with several thousand images to sort through and process.

At 8:11 AM according to the clock on my camera, the sun rose over the Chisos Mountains. I zoomed in to 120mm to get close to the distant Mountains and get the sun through the few clouds on the horizon. I had hoped to get more of the warm light reflected in the river below, but I had to settle for just a tinge of color.

Sunrise Over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park

I zoomed out to get more of the river while hopefully keeping the sun and mountains prominent in the distance. The below photo was shot at 78mm focal length. In the mountain ranges toward the left of the image, you can see a couple of shorter peaks that are called the Mule Ears. I’ll have more on this next time.

Sunrise Over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park

And the below photo is out to 24mm focal length and includes more of the river.

Sunrise Over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park from Santa Elena Canyon

As the sun rose, I hiked a bit farther up into the canyon looking for a vantage point that included more of the cliff walls to frame the sunrise. I came across a spot on the edge of a cliff that had some desert plants in the morning sun for a foreground. Shooting into the sun generally results in lens flare and there was some bright green lens flare in the photo that I tried to hide in Lightroom; I won’t tell you where it was. I also found that the stark contrast on the plants along the cliff in the foreground resulted in a very harsh looking image so I reduced clarity and texture in those areas to soften it up to go with the hazy sunrise in the distance. This is my favorite photo of this morning.

Sunrise Over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park from Santa Elena Canyon

When I got back down to the river bank I experimented with using the river rocks as a foreground leading into the canyon. In the photo below, you can see on the right the area leading up to the overlook where I took the sunrise photos. I crossed the muddy creek that is just out of shot to the right and climbed up through a gap in the trees. The path is then straight-forward up some stairs and along the canyon. During the drier parts of the year you can walk across to Mexico in ankle-deep water, though there is little point to that as there is mainly just a canyon wall there.

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park

Another sunrise without clouds, but you can’t schedule clouds. I do think I got some nice photos without the clouds though. After this, the rest of the group headed back up the bumpy road to get breakfast, but I took the scenic highway and stopped in a few places to get some more photos that I will share in my next post. Thanks for reading.

22 thoughts on “Big Bend – Santa Elena Canyon Sunrise

  1. Stunning photos. My favorite is the 120mm of the Chisos Mountains. It looks almost sci-fi. I don’t blame you for taking the paved road back, as traveling for miles and miles over a bumpy, dirt road can get very annoying.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks. In hindsight I might have used an even longer lens to zoom into just the mountains. Switching to the 70-200m lens is more of a hassle as the tripod collar is on the lens rather than on the camera so I have to switch that out as well.

      Liked by 1 person

            1. The longer the lens, the more any movement is magnified when the shutter is open. So, for a sharp picture, you need the lens and camera on a tripod.

              There is a rule of thumb about the minimum shutter speed needed for hand holding being the inverse of the focal length, so at 200mm you should be able to hand-hold 1/200s shot. There is vibration reduction built in to the lens that is supposed to buy you more than that.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Gorgeous pics! I agree with the one you picked for your favorite.

    I wouldn’t have liked driving over bumpy roads in the dark either! Wading would be more inviting to me too. Though if it was knee deep for you….welll….than not so sure. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks,

      I didn’t mind walking across the creek. The water was cool, but not too cold, and it was all just soft mud and no sharp rocks. It helped give the illusion of having an adventure.


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