Photography by Jim Doty

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Photography in
Big Bend National Park
Jim Doty, Jr.


Sunset, "The Window", Chisos Basin
Big Bend National Park, Texas


Big Bend National Park is about as far from anywhere as you can get and still be somewhere. Located in the "Big Bend" of the Rio Grande River in southwest Texas, it is Chihuahuan Desert country with the Chisos Mountains in the center with impressive canyon walls in various places on one or both sides of the Rio Grande River. It is one of my most favorite places and I fell in love with Big Bend on my first trip.

It is, for most reasonable people, unbearably hot in the summer. Fall, winter and spring are the preferred times to go. I have photographed in temperatures as high as 80 degrees in February (although it can be much colder) and I don't even want to think about what it is like in the summer. May and June are usually the hottest months, although early May is tolerable. Carry a lot of water in your car and drink water frequently, no matter what time of year you are there. If you are hiking away from your car, carry water. Don't get dehydrated and don't risk heat exhaustion. Unprepared people have died in a few hours without water. Read more at the park service site linked below.

It is cooler up in the Chisos Mountains. There is a bowl shaped basin in the middle of the mountains that has a variety of park services including a place to stay, a modest store, and a restaurant. There is one V-shaped notch in the basin called "The Window". It is the only place you can see out of the basin into the surrounding park. If you want lodging in the basin, reservations well in advance are highly recommended (link below). You can also camp in other locations in the park. I would suggest the campground near Boquillas Canyon. If you want lodging outside the park, look in Study Butte-Terligua, two small towns just outside the west side of the park on TX 118.


Boquillas Canyon, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Boquillas Canyon and the Rio Grande River, Late Afternoon
Big Bend National Park, Texas


This is a huge park and it takes a while to drive from one location to another.  Santa Elena Canyon is in the southwest part of the park and I would recommend shooting there in the morning.  Boquillas Canyon is a terrific place to be at sunset.

Late one cloudy afternoon I headed for the restaurant with a group of friends and ordered a trout dinner. Moments after they set my plate in front of me, the room turned golden. The sun had just dropped out of the clouds and was setting in The Window (photos at the top and bottom of this page). I looked at my excellent trout dinner, looked out the window, and decided there would be other days for trout dinners. It might be a long time, if ever, that I would catch a sunset again in The Window at the right time of year with just the right kind of light. I grabbed my tripod and camera gear (they were with me in the restaurant), headed outside and photographed the sunset. When the light was gone, I went back inside to eat cold trout.  FYI, the sun sets in the window from late April through early May. I was there May 1 which is just about ideal in terms of sun location. I can't guarantee the right mixture of clouds to create a glorious sunset!

To capture the warm afternoon light on canyon walls, or the wonderful colors at sunset, set the white balance on your digital camera to "Daylight" (often represented by a pictograph of the sun), or put a high saturation slide film like Fuji Velvia in your film camera. When you are photographing the canyon walls early or late in the day, meter just the sunlit canyon walls and set the exposure compensation to around 0 (zero) + or minus 1/2 to saturate the color in the canyon walls.


Ocotillo in Bloom, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Ocotillo in Bloom, Big Bend National Park, Texas


If you are shooting at right angles to the sun (the sun is to your left or right), use a polarizing filter to darken the blue sky and saturate the colors.

Cactus blooms in the spring. The exact timing and extent of the bloom depends on the species, the amount of rainfall, and when it falls. Ocotillo is one of my favorites. The sun was coming from the left in the photo above, so I used a home made reflector to bounce some sunlight back into the shaded side of the flowers.


Sunset, "The Window", Chisos Basin
Big Bend National Park, Texas


Big Bend, National Park Service

Lodging in Big Bend

More information


April 11, 2011

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