There 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.
Guides: 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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