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Photographing Havasupai - The Land of Turquoise Blue Waterfall

Deep inside the heart of Grand Canyon, Havasu Creek flow through the Supai Village where the American Indian has been living for more than 800 year.  The Havasu Creek  and Supai village together make it Havasupai, a land of many majestic waterfalls and natural beauty. There is not just one, or two but many waterfalls that you can touch, get soaked in, swim into or just sit on a rock with your feet immersed into the water.  That's what make the place spacial. We have waterfall at many places around the world, but there are not many where you can swim around it. The best part of it, the water temperature is just perfect, about 70 degree Fahrenheit year around.

The Havasu Fall at Full Moon Night

While the destination is wonderful, the journey itself offers an unique experience. If you take the short-cut helicopter ride (the only alternative), you would probably miss a lot. It's an unique experience to hike through the canyon where your footstep echoed back to you from the canyon wall. There are places where sunlight never reaches, and your GPS watch keeps searching for the satellite signal. Amid, you are worried about getting lost, but the chances are very slim unless you ignore all the signs and head towards somewhere with no visible trail. All the while, I thought the trail was actually a river that dried up centuries ago, but I could not find any such references.
Grand Canyon Caverns, we stayed here the night before the hike

The Beautiful Canyon Walls
The landmark to start the journey is Hualapai Hilltop. Once you reach here, you have 3 options to reach your destination.
  1. Hike Down the 10 miles trail with your full camping gears
  2. Give your hiking bags to pack mules (fees apply), then hike down with your day pack & photography gears.
  3. Take a helicopter ride to Supai and miss all the fun 
From a photographer's point of view, option 2 is favorable. It's not easy to photograph everything you want to, while a 40 lbs hiking bag is attached to your back. There are time when you would need to go low on the ground to frame your shot which you can't do with such a huge bag attached to your back. However, you could take your bag while hiking in, and give it to pack mules while hiking out.

Recommended Camera Gears:

In present days, anyone with a cellphone is a photographer. They obviously take some good pictures with the phone camera but sometime they would argue that the phone camera could do everything that those bulky DSLR can. If you are one of those, then this blog is not useful for you. My recommendation is for advanced photographers or hobbyist who see photography as an art that can be perfected with practice and an appropriate gears.

  1.  A Camera that allows bulb exposure: You will need bulb exposure / long time exposure to shoot milky way, waterfall at night.
  2. Extra batteries and memory cards: There is no electricity to charge your batteries and you don't wanna run out of memory card on day 2. So carry some extras. 
  3. Cable Release / Remote ( for bulb exposure ): Anytime your shutter speed drops below 1/30 sec, it's better to use a remote trigger. 
  4. A sturdy Tripod: Without a tripod, you can't shoot silky smooth waterfall, or the milky way. 
  5. Wide angle lens : Everything is so close to you that you can feel them. So if you wanna fit them in your frame, you need wide angle lens. I've used a 16-35mm f4, and a 16mm fisheye. That was enough for me.
  6. ND filters and UV filter: You need the UV filter to protect your lens's front element from the abrasive mineral residue from the mist. 
  7. Lens Cleaning Kit: It's dusty in the trail and mist near the water fall. You should have a lens pen to brush of the dust and a microfiber cleaning cloths to wipe the moisture.
  8. Flash Light: If you wanna hike near the waterfall at night and lit up the fall, you need a flash light. It also help to lit up some foreground object while you shoot milky way.
  9. Rain Cover: If you wanna get too close to the waterfall, you need to protect your lens and camera from getting soaked.

              Photographing Opportunities

              The Canyon Trail:

              The Trail 

              Whether you are hiking down to Supai or returning, you will see the majestic beauty of the canyon that invites you  to click the shutter release button in every few steps you take. The temptation would be enormous. Only, if you ferry your bag with the pack Mules, you would be able to shoot as much as you desire.
              The Pack Mules are used to transport the regular supply and hiker's backpack to Supai. This not only helps the tourist but also provides useful revenue source for the tribal. The Mule usually travels in a pack, but sometime they could be naughty and go off track like this one, only  to be chased down by the owner to put it back with the others.
              A Pack Mule Transporting Hiker's Bag

              This giant rock would come to your sight once you hiked down to the flat land inside the canyon. It is just beautiful. You can't probably guess the size, unless you are really under it
              The Giant Rock
              Mystic Trail  Under the Canyon Wall

              Another Beautiful Rock

              There are rocks everywhere but some would stop you to look back and appreciate their beauty. This one is huge and the erosion made the edge wavy.  

              The Waterfall:

              Then there are waterfalls. This is the land of waterfalls. If you love swimming, then this would be the toughest moment for you. You can't decide whether to jump into the water or stay dry to shoot the waterfall.  
              Mooney Fall

              The Mooney Fall is the most challenging one to photograph. There are mist everywhere. You take your camera out,  before you knew it, the lens would be covered with the mist, and if you are not careful enough, soon it would be soaked. So take all the precaution to protect your gears while photographing Mooney .
              Havasu Fall

              The Havasu Fall is the most admired and easiest to photograph. It is easily accessible, closest to camp (north side), does not require any ladder climbing. You will find lots of people swimming here. This is the place where you can photograph the fall from a distance without worrying about getting your camera wet. 
              When you enter the campground area for the first time, you see the Havasu Fall first.

              Novajo Fall

              The Novajo Fall is one of the most beautiful ones. It is the first one you see while hiking down to the campground. This fall is visible from the hiking trail, however little up there is the 50' fall, which you need a short hike to reach before it's beauty is reveled in front of you.

              The Beautiful Fifty Feet Fall

              The Creek and Rapids:

              There are rapids in every few hundred yards of the creek. And there are places where the creek is calm, but with the combination of vegetation and canyon walls, the beauty is enormous.
              Beaver Fall

              The Milky way:

              This is the kingdom of far far away, with no light pollution around it. There ain't a better place to shoot milky way. However, you need to check the lunar calendar and time your travel date accordingly to shoot milky way.  I was there during a full moon night, so there was no chance of shooting milky way.  But I did shoot my tent with the night sky while others were sleeping.
              The Campground at Full Moon Night

              The People: 

              Last but not the least, you get a lot of happy people to photograph. Just make sure you have their consent.
              The Group I hiked with to the Beaver Fall

              There are several friends who wanted to have their picture taken with a silky smooth waterfall in the background. That requires long exposure, but human can hardly hold still for that long. Result, I got blurred faces with silky smooth waterfall. My friends were obviously disappointed. But I did learn from this experiences.  Such shot could only be done in two steps.  The first frame you shoot the water fall with long exposure, and in the 2nd frame, you take the person's picture at regular shutter speed, faster than 1/60sec. Make sure your picture frame does not move between those exposures. You can post process those images to combine them as one.

              Useful Information:

              The land belongs to tribal and access to campground needs permit. All the useful information related to reservation and etiquette are well documented in this  Facebook page Havasupai and Havasu Falls
              Usually reservation for campground opens in February and sold out within 30 minutes. The online reservation site is Havasupai Campground Reservations  
              If you have any photography related questions, you could contact me for the same.

              How To Clean DSLR Image Sensor

              Back in the old days, we only cleaned our camera body. It was limited to external cleaning and blowing out dust from the mirror & focusing screen. The digital era added another component in that list, i.e. the Image Sensor.  It is also the most delicate part of any DSLR.  If you shoot  in outdoor or change lens frequently, the chances are pretty high that your image sensor will gather some dust, maybe even few stubborn dirt that ruins your images. 

              Know When To Clean Image Sensor:

              The only thing you need to do is to view your digital image at 1:1 enlargement. Almost all photo viewing / editing software has 1:1 enlargement setting. At 1:1 enlargement, scrutinize the image for tiny black ( or dark) dots or lines. You may not see anything in landscape shots if the whole frame is covered with objects  / trees etc. They are more visible in blue or white cloud sky shot covering the whole frame. The best reference would be the blue sky covering the whole frame, or just a white screen. This is a 1:1 crop of blue sky shot, showing dart in the image sensor.

              Tiny dots at 1:1 crop
              At 1:1 crop

              How To Clean The Image Sensor:

              The fist place you should look into is your camera setting menu. If it has a 'clean image sensor' ( most Nikon camera has) in the menu, select that and press 'OK' button. I've no idea what it does internally, but I know it could remove small dust that are not so stubborn. Once, you have done this, take a shot of blue sky ( white cloud is OK too) and view your image in 1:1 magnification.  You are in luck, if the image is clear. If not, read on.

              Please note that image sensor is very delicate & sensitive component. It can be easily damaged by a tiny scratch from any foreign object. If you are not sure of handling sensitive electronic component, you must send it to any professional service center for cleaning. Nikon charges only $50 + shipping for cleaning image sensor. However, a damaged image sensor would need replacement that often cost more than $1000 for high end cameras. If you wanna do it by yourself, you risk damaging the sensor.

              What You Need To DIY:

              The first task is to identify the image sensor size. The full frame camera image sensor is 36 X 24 mm across the brands. Whereas APS-C camera sensor size varies by brand. You will need to get sensor cleaning swab as per your sensor size. Purchase that as per your sensor size. There are few other  items you would need, here is the full list.
              1. Sensor cleaning swab as per the sensor size ( at least 2 )
              2. Rocket Blower ( also known as blower brush )
              3. A small flash light
              4. A magnifying glass
              5. Lens cleaning solution
              6. Fully charged camera battery
              The complete cleaning kit I used to clean full frame sensor

              The Process:

              Insert the fully charge battery in your camera and remove the lens. Turn on the camera and go to the setting menu. Select the option that says 'Lock Mirror Up For Cleaning' and press OK.  This will pop up a dialog that says "When Shutter Release Button Is Pressed, The Mirror Will be Locked UP, Turn the camera off to return to the main menu".
              BTW, Nikon cameras will not allow you to perform this step unless the battery is fully charged.  I don't know about canon or other brand, but they must be having similar restriction.

              Now, press the shutter release button and verify the mirror is really up. You should be able to see the image sensor directly.

              Next hold your camera up, with the opening face down. Gently pump the rocket blower, the nozzle tip should be at least 2 inches away from the sensor. Make sure, your hand do not shake and the nozzle tip of the blower never touches the sensor surface. This will remove all loose dust & dirt.  You should not be needing more than 5 to 10 blows.

              Once you are done with blowing, put the camera down on it's back, with the opening face up. Grab the flashlight and magnifier and inspect the sensor. Look at the placed where you see dirt in the image. Even if you don't see anything, you should still do the next step.

              Unwrap one of the sensor cleaning swab. It might have instruction printed on the packaging. Gently place the swab at 60 degree angle at one end of the sensor and then slide toward the other end. You will need to make it 120 degree when you reach near the other end of the sensor, but make sure you go all the way, till the end. Now, do a reverse sweep till the start point. Put the swab back in it's wrapper, we might need it soon. This will remove moderately stubborn dirt.

              Inspect the sensor with the magnifier and flash light again. If  you are satisfied, switch off the camera, attach a lens, and shoot a image of blue sky or white screen. Transfer the image in your computer, and inspect at 1:1 magnification.  If the dark spot are gone, your sensor is clean.

              If you still see dirt from magnifier & light inspection or from 1:1 image on computer, we need to do a wet cleaning. Unwrapped the second new swab and spray it with lens cleaning solution. Now, repeat the step you did with the dry swab. If you saw any stubborn dart from magnifier & light inspection, you can sweep over that spot few more time. Now, put away the wet swab and run the dry swab again first forward and then backward. The chances are very high that all dirt are gone by now.  Only in rear cases, you might need to repeat with first wet and then dry swab. Don't forget to verify with 1:1 magnification in the computer before you close this DIY project. Good luck.

              Shot the blue sky post cleaning, all stubborn dirt are gone. 

              How To Photograph Bird Catching Fish

              If you shoot wildlife, one of your most seek after action shot would be 'bird catching fish'. The large birds with long bill ( herons & egrets family) pulling a live fish out of water looks fantastic in the photo.  The other group is the eagle & osprey family. This group usually catches fish that the other group wouldn't even dare. The size of prey is always proportion to it's predator.

              Eagles & Ospreys are not found in abundance. They lives in specific area, and often migrate with the season changes. To shoot them catching fish, would require special planning. You may have to drive to their habitat, and book hotels for few days to see them in action.  Whereas herons & egrets are very common bird.  They are seen almost near every water body.  To shoot them in action, you just need a lot of patience & patience only. It will never be like you go out with your camera and the bird would be ready to pose with a fish in it's bill.

              The Gears:

              You will need the following

              • A first camera, minimum 4 fps ( frame per seconds)
              • A telephoto lens, minimum 300mm
              • A sturdy tripod
              • Cable release / Remote Release (Optional)

              The Time & Place:

              Birds are usually hungry most at dawn or dusk, but that is not written in stone. They will catch fish anytime they find one. But make sure you get plenty of light to properly expose your shots. A poorly exposed shot would show lots of grains, may not be usable or presentable.  
              A Snowy Egret got 2 at once, but the photo is underexposed due to limited light.

              Head to a place where birds usually catches fish.  This should be shallow water with moderate stream. If you are shooting in a enclosed lake, the Egrets or Heron will be somewhere at knee deep water near the exit or entrance pipe. They find fishes that swim through the pipe as easy prey. Do your research in your local area. You will know where the birds are.

              The Setting:

              Mode: Shutter Priority, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/500s for a 300mm lens, for any bigger lens, use 3X (or faster) time of  the maximum focal length of the lens  e.g. 1/1800 for 600mm.
              Focus: AF-C (Continuous Focus)
              Focus Area: Single Point or Group Area(Depends on your camera's AF performance)
              Metering: Spot metering
              Exposure Compensation: As per the available light and condition
              Release: CH (Continuous High, the fastest your camera offers)
              ISO: Auto ISO if your camera supports it. The max ISO should be below the tolerable noise level. 
              Shutter release: You can use a remote release or cable release to reduce motion blur. This could be optional, pressing the shutter release button directly would be OK too.

              The Shooting:

              Once you arrive at the location, find a bird that is waiting for it's prey. Go as close as possible without being seen by the bird ( stay far enough not to disturb the bird). Set your tripod, mount your camera on it, focus & frame, and take a test shot of the bird. You may need to adjust your exposure compensation based on the test shot. Remember, you can't bracket your shots here. You want all shots are perfectly exposed.
              Once satisfied with the test shots, the wait game begins. Your eyes should be on the view finder, monitoring every move the bird makes. Every time it looks down, you fire the shutter for a series of shots. If it flies, you fire the shutter too ( you would get few take off shots ) and then find another bird to monitor.  You would get the shots sooner or latter, but keep trying.  
              Here are few pictures of a 'Blue Heron' pulling out a large fish to swallow it within a second.





              Blue Heron made the final gulp before the fish disappeared in it's tummy

              I wish you the best with your bird-fishing shot.  If you think these tips were useful to you by any means, you may subscribe to my blog for future photography tips & tricks. For any questions, you may email me at

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