Photographing Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZThere is a mystical, mysterious and beautiful place in Page Arizona that any photographer who visits the Southwest, and anyone interested in seeing a unique creation of nature, must visit.  It is the slot canyons known as Antelope Canyon.  These canyons were formed over the eons by water running and wearing through the colorful sandstone, leaving a maze of deep, narrow canyons, many of which are open to the sky above in some areas.   According to the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department website:

The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tse’ bighanilini, which means “the place where water runs through rocks.”  Upper Antelope is at about 4,000 feet elevation and the canyon walls rise 120 feet above the streambed.  Lower Antelope Canyon is Hasdestwazi, or “spiral rock arches.”  Both are located within the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

My wife and I enjoyed a two week visit to the Great American Southwest last fall, and I made sure that Antelope Canyon was on the itinerary.  Before leaving, I did my homework and researched how other photogs had captured the canyons, and prepared accordingly.  I’ll share my notes and experience with you here, in the hopes that if you haven’t already, you will get to visit this magical place.

The walls of the slot canyons are amazingly colorful and shaped in graceful, curving forms.  Light falls into the canyon through the “slots” above, and provide opportunities to capture shades and shadows, textures and tones.  At different times of the year, the light falls in different ways.  During the summer months, thanks to the alignment of the earth, sun and slots, it is possible to witness a beam of light passing straight down into the canyon.  At other times of the year, there is no beam but the colors are brilliant, so any time of year is a good time to visit.

Carolene and Roger Ekis Antelope Canyon ToursGuides: The canyons are on land owned by the Navajo Nation, and entrance is only permitted with an authorized guide.  There are many but after careful research, I selected Antelope Canyon Tours by Carolene Ekis.  Carolene and her late husband Roger have been conducting tours for years and were a smart choice.  She offers a Standard Tour and a Photography Tour, the latter of which is 2.5 hours long and geared for “experienced to professional photographers”.  (Please note that this is not a “how-to” tour; you are expected to be able to operate your equipment, know how to shoot long exposures in low light settings, and operate in dusty conditions.  But some preparation will put you in a good position to capture some amazing images.)   Check Carolene’s  website for their schedule and to make reservations, which are required as each tour is limited to about 12 people and book up months in advance.

Carolene and Roger Ekis Antelope Canyon Tours bus

Tour bus and entrance to Upper Canyon

After meeting at their office, we  boarded an open bus that drove us about two miles to the canyon entrance.  The ride itself is an adventure, particularly the next two miles which are over a dried (at the time), sandy riverbed with plenty of dips and bumps.  The truck deposited us at the entrance to the Upper Canyon and our guide, Al, a very friendly fellow, walked us in and provided us with some background about the layout of the canyon, what to look for, do’s and don’ts, etc.  He brought us in and pointed out interesting formations and angles to shoot.  Over time, our group dispersed into the various nooks and crannies of the canyon, and Al would travel about, offering more advice for great shots.

Gear:  You will be shooting with available light only (flash is definitely not permitted) so think long exposures.  Hence, the number one recommended piece of gear is a good tripod.    I rented a Manfrotto Tripod 055XB with a 22RC2 Manfrotto Pistol Grip Ball Head from Carolene Ekis for a mere $10.00.  I brought my Nikon D90 which has good low light performance and made sure my battery was fully charged.

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

f/6.3, 20 seconds, ISO 320, -1/3 EV, 18mm focal length

If you can’t bring or rent a tripod, another option would be to use a Joby Gorillapod and brace it against one side of the canyon to shoot.  It’s not as versatile as a free-standing tripod but it’s much more portable and less obtrusive amidst the crowds.

There are differing opinions on what type of lens to use in Antelope Canyon.  In researching, I read that many photogs used and recommended a wide angle lens, to be able to capture vast areas of the canyons.  Others however recommended a medium tele since the crowds make it difficult to get a clear shot without intruders.  So I brought my old standby, Nikon 18-200 plus a Tokina 11-16 ultra-wide, and thought I had all the options covered.  But the photog who advised a tele because of the crowds was right, because it was very crowded, and I couldn’t get a clear shot with the ultra-wide.  So the 18-200 was pressed into service and performed well.

Antelope Canyon in black and white

f/7.1, 1.3 seconds, ISO 320, -1 EV, 18mm focal length

Shooting:   I shot mostly in aperture priority, and at a range of shutter speeds, depending on the amount of  light in the scene.  Because of the nature of the slot canyons, there are areas that are pretty well lit, and others that are very dark.  So I let the camera choose the shutter speed and thanks to the very solid tripod I was using, I was able to take long exposures.   

I used the mirror lock up feature in my D90 and shot with the 5 second timer, all to minimize shake.  I frequently bracketed +/- 1/3 to 1 stop and chose the best exposure after the fact.  You should not allow into your frame any section of the rocks up high that are directly lit by the sun. It will result in a blown out area due to the long exposure and can “blow up” your entire image.  Exclude bright sky that may be visible through the open slots for the same reason.  Remember to turn off your VR/IS when using your tripod, and keep looking for light, color, textures, shadows. 

Antelops Canyon, Page, AZ

f/4, 1/5 second, ISO 320, -2/3 EV, focal length 31mm

Advice: 

  • There’s a lot, (emphasis on the words A LOT) of dust in the slot canyons, so be very careful about changing lenses.  In fact, when the wind blows above and outside the canyons, sand falls down into the slots, coating everything with a fine red dust.  So, like many others, I advise against lens changing unless you absolutely must.  In which case, you need to look for a quiet corner and keep your open camera body pointed down and quickly make the change.  Also due to the dust, I recommend you bring a large zip top plastic bag, with a hole in the bottom, just big enough to poke the end of your lens through.  Keep the camera in the bag, and operate it with your hands in the bag, even when on the tripod.  Even then, I needed to give my camera a thorough cleaning afterwards.  I had brought a Giotto Rocket Blower on the trip and it was invaluable after visiting Antelope Canyon.
  • Be mindful of others, as you will have lots of company.  This means be courteous and stand aside when others are making their long exposures, and hopefully they will return the favor.
  • A pen light can come in handy and the canyons can be cool, so dress appropriately.
  • Bring a bottle of water.  Remember, it’s dusty.
  • Tip your guide – his or her knowledge and assistance can provide you with opportunities you might otherwise miss.
Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

f/6.3, 1/8 second, ISO 320, -1 EV, 48mmfFocal length (Tour Guide Al held his flashlight on this while I shot)

With a little preparation, you will achieve some outstanding results.  If you’ve been to Antelope Canyon, share your photos with 2 Guys and we’ll post them for others or send a link.  If you plan a trip, please let us know of your experience.  Thanks for visiting 2 Guys Photo.                               Posted by Ed

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About Ed Spadoni

www.2GuysPhoto.com "Thoughts and opinions, resources and experiences… for emerging photographers everywhere."
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18 Responses to Photographing Antelope Canyon

  1. Wonderful images and great advice in shooting the canyon.. funny, I have never seen a person in any shots I have seen taken there so your comments that there are ‘crowds’ sort of took me by surprised! Thanks for sharing this… wonderful article. I am really enjoying your blog!

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      That’s a great point Hillary. I, probably like many Photogs who go to Antelope, try hard to capture thenatural beauty of the place, we disregard the crowd shots. But I do have some and I’ll update this post with the later on. Thanks for visiting and subscribing to 2Guys Photo. Ed

  2. Pingback: Back into the Canyon | 2 Guys Photo

  3. Emmy says:

    I will be visiting both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon in a few weeks’ time.
    Can you tell me what lens(es) you recommend for a Nikon D50.
    I can take a good pic using basics but I’ve never worked much in low lite with time exposures. I dont expect Ansel Adams prints, or nearly anywhere the contrasts that you achieved, but I can try :) Any pointers? I usually look to capture interplays of light and shadow, tone and texture, and can’t wait just to see these canyons.

    also- what time of the day did you go and do you recommend earleir or a bit later morning?

    Many thanks!

    Emmy

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      That’s great news about visiting the canyons. I’ve owned a D50 and it’s a very capable camera.

      The most important item you can bring (or rent) is a good tripod. To capture the beauty of the canyons, you will need to take long exposure images and a tripod is really the only way to do that well. If you don’t have much experience with long exposure/low light photography, you’ll want to have plenty of practice before you depart. Experiment in low lit rooms and make outdoor shots after sunset and into the evening. Practice setting up the tripod and using the timer on your D50 to prevent shaking the camera when you release the shutter. Also, try the D50′s higher ISO’s to allow faster shutter speeds (but still with the tripod). The D50 will perform well at ISO’s up to about 800. Keep at it until you have sharp images.

      You asked about a lens. The best option would be a fast (low aperture number) zoom that allows you to cover wide angle shots to at least moderate tele zooms. Generally, the canyons are crowded, so the wide end will work only when you have an open view without other people, but you’ll want to use the long end to exclude the crowds. I used a Nikon 18-200 which worked really well, the 18-105 is another good choice. If you only have your 18-55 kit lens, you’re still in good shape, because although it’s not very fast, you’ll be using your tripod and a higher ISO, plus the 18mm wide end will come in handy.

      I recommend you take a “Photographer’s Tour” from your tour guide (see my post for my recommendation of a guide). They will schedule the Photo tours to take advantage of the light and features of the canyons, so let that be your guide as to what time of day.

      I hope this helps, but email me if you’d like. Have a great trip and PLEASE SHARE your photos with us when you get back! We’d love to see them. Best, Ed

  4. Emmy says:

    Thank you! I am grateful for your concise and informative reply. I will share pics for sure.

  5. Mack Hicks says:

    We go to the 4 Corners area every year on a mission trip, usually in October and generally take a side trip before heading home. Thinking about Antelope Canyon this year. I have two full frame Nikons and plan on having my 24-70 on one and am thinking about a 16-35 on the other. Would you agree with those choices or should I plan on using a 70-200/300?. From what I have read, most people are shooting stopped down to f/11 or f/16 so fast glass is not as important. I know all about the dust, think my original D200 still has dust in it from a windy day at Monument Valley.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Mack, you’re smart to bring two bodies to avoid lens changing. I brought with me an 11-16 ultra wide and my 18-200, fully expecting to rely mostly on the former. But, because of the crowds, it was the zoom that allowed me to shoot past the people and capture the beauty of the canyon. Depending on the time of year, the canyons can be very crowded, so I would bring the 24-70 on one body and the 70-200 on the other. And don’t forget the tripod.

  6. Anu says:

    Hello Ed, I am planning to visit this place in couple of weeks. Yes its winter and not sure if its bad timing or not so bad after all. Any thoughts ? Whats the main difference b/w the std tours and photography tours ? Also any idea if tripods are not allowed in standard tours ? Could you pls share some info on this and your reasoning on choosing the photographer tour.
    Any suggestions on the best time to visit the 2 canyons in winter ?
    Lot of queries and hoping to hear back from you. Thanks in advance for your time.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Hi Anu, thanks for visiting 2 Guys. If photography is your interest, I’d strongly recommend the Photographer’s tour, for several reasons.

      It’s an hour longer than the standard tour. Unless you’re short on time, take as long as you can in the canyons. There are many twists and turns where the light plays differently, and once you’re there, you’ll want to maximize your experience. Plus, it can be very crowded… So an interesting shot might not be available at the moment you’re there, due to crowds. But if you can wait a bit, or circle back to that spot, you can hit it when the crowds have passed. That requires a little more time, and patience.

      My experience was that our guide was tuned in to the photographic desires of his particular group. He would point out interesting light and angles, he shone a flashlight on a tumbleweed just for me, and waited while I took the long exposure, and he even held back the other groups when we were shooting. The standard tours I observed were larger, and more interested in moving swiftly through the canyons (remember, they had less time), so their guides didn’t have the luxury of doing what ours did.

      And lastly, in the Photographer’s tour, you’re with like-minded people. We knew we were all interested in the same thing, and helped each other locate interesting scenes, exchanged tips, and compared notes. Not a big deal, but helpful.

      I just revisited Ekis’ websites, and I see you can bring a tripod on the standard tour, and the Photog’s is only at one time per day in the winter, to maximize the light. In the winter, you wont see the shaft of light, but the colors are splendid, and the textures and tones will give you many opportunities to make great images. Take a look at their site for some more tips.

      Hope that helps Anu, tell us about your trip when you get back, and send some photos, we’ll share them with our readers. Best of luck!

  7. Ed, thanks a bunch for your detailed suggestions. It indeed was helpful and I did make that trip finally …inspite of Draco the snowstorm !, He didnt ruin the trip and I am so glad we took the chance.
    I wanted to take a moment to say thank you :)
    A few of my humble captures are shared at my blog and would be very happy to hear your comments – http://village-traveller.blogspot.com/2013/01/antelope-canyons-page-az.html

    I am sure the upper antelope is worth another trip in summer and definitely the photographer’s tour !

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Anu, so glad you made the trip and we could help with a little advice! Your photos are great and I recommend everyone take a look.

      Where are you headed next? I hope you’ll take us along! Thanks, Ed

  8. Jennifer says:

    Hi Ed you have a lot of helpful tips here. I’m planning on visiting the antelope canyon this coming summer. Which lens should I bring with me–I have a Nikon d80—with Tamron AF 75-300mm F4-5.6, 35-70mm f3.5-4.8, 18-135mm, or a 50mm f1.4—I would like to use just one lens and not worry with changing it out and getting dust in the body. Thanks for all of the info.

    • Ed Spadoni says:

      Hi Jennifer. You’ve got a lot of good choices there. I’m guessing the 18-135 is the kit lens which is about an f/3.5 at ifs fastest. Given that the summer is a peak time for visitors, I’d expect a lot of crowds so a zoom will help you exclude the people and capture the scene. But at the same time, the 18mm wide will allow you to get the beauty of the caverns without people if you get a chance, or even with as a sense of place.

      The 75-300 will give you more reach but you sacrifice the wider view so I’d pass on that. Don’t forget the tripod as that’s THE most important piece of gear you’ll bring.

      Let us know how it goes and please send us some photos. Best, Ed

  9. cindy knoke says:

    Ethereal! My husband is hankering to go here~

  10. RMW says:

    Gosh, looking at your (fantastic) photos crowds are the last thing I would have thought of. As for being courteous, I find that even taking my point and shoot snapshots of places I often have to take two or three shots because of people walking in front of my camera. I always look to see who is attempting to take a photo, but the courtesy is rarely returned.

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