After a freezing cold photo shoot at the Grand Canyon, we made our way to Page, Arizona. Located on the Arizona-Utah border, this small town is a good place to stay for day trips to the iconic Antelope Canyon slot canyons, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Vermilion Cliffs and Rainbow Bridge.
NIKON D300,f/20 @ 24 mm, 15s, ISO 200,
Located on Navajo Nation land, the slot canyons offer endless photo opportunities and also a great introduction to the other worldly geology of the Southwest. We arrived at our first destination, Lower Antelope Canyon, by mid-day. Our plan was to purchase photographer passes, which allow photographers about two hours of shooting time in this amazing slot canyon without a guide. As it turned out, this option is only available to photographers with a tripod, who can be accompanied by one “assistant”.
My brother Brian – a self proclaimed expert business negotiator - made compelling arguments for our party of five to go on the unguided hike, but all to no avail. He finally struck up a conversation with a nearby canyon guide, who quietly agreed to give our group a two hour tour without the usual wait for the next regularly scheduled tour.
Our Native American guide was knowledgeable about the history and geology of the slot canyons. He also graced us with some haunting wooden flute music from time-to-time, making the whole experience more enchanting than ever.
NIKON D300,f/22 @ 20 mm, 5s, ISO 200
From a photography standpoint, Lower Antelope Canyon is a truly wondrous location for literal and abstract images of water sculpted sandstone. The strongest slot canyon images are created using reflected light, which showcases both the interplay of the close canyon walls and the striated rock surfaces.
As so much has been written on slot canyon photography techniques, let me share some quick thoughts from my lessons learned the hard way:
· Because it’s very dark in the slot canyon, it’s best to have a headlamp or small flashlight and to make all of your camera settings before entering the canyon.
· Because most of the canyon photos involve long time exposures, the camera “long exposure noise reduction” switch should be set to “on”. The in-camera processing seems to take an eternity, especially for the long exposures, but the resulting improvement in image quality is well worth the wait. Also, some of this “extra time” in the field may be regained in post processing.
· Given the close quarters of the slot canyon, wide and mid range lens seem to work best. It can also be pretty dusty in the canyon, so I’ve found it preferable to start the hike with my wide angle lens (Nikkor DX 12 – 22 mm) and to not change lenses unless absolutely necessary for a particular shot.
· Use of a circular polarizer is a must to reduce glare on the polished surfaces of the canyon walls. This make the shooting a bit tougher, as the polarizer renders images very dark in the view finder and longer exposure times are necessary given the light reduction rendered by the polarizer.
· To eliminate random overhead skylight and lens flare, a lens hood should be used at all times. The lens hood will also protect the front of your camera lens from accident bumps and scrapes on the tight canyon walls.
· This will sound so elementary, but double check your camera view finder to make sure that no tripods legs are in your photographs. A few of my best shots have been ruined due to the accidental inclusion of tripod legs, both of my own tripod and those of other otherwise respectable photographers.
· As a general rule, it’s best to avoid the inclusion of skylight and direct sunlit areas in slot canyon photographs. Although the bright lit areas are wonderful to see in the camera viewfinder, in actual photographs they are invariably overexposed (burned out) in comparison to the mid-tone and dark shadow areas of the lower canyon walls. Exposures should be taken from the brightest “highlight” areas, to avoid total burnout. Some of the richest colors and surface textures can be in found in areas adjacent to the canyon walls awash in direct lighting.
· Although multiple exposure require some additional time and patience, we’ve found it best to auto “bracket” for 3 -5 exposures of each scene. Yes, these additional shots take more time and there is so much to shoot in the canyon, all in a limited amount of time. Perhaps, this has been my greatest area of growth: Slowing down and having the presence of mind to capture a few “keeper” photos as opposed to a large series of flawed images … Or at least I can only hope …
- Photography team gazing down steel ladder, preparing for another descent into the slot canyon.
Located “just down the road” from Lover Antelope Canyon is a smaller but none the less dramatic ground level Upper Antelope Canyon. Time permitting, it is very worthwhile to visit both slot canyons. The upper and lower canyons offer different kinds of hiking and photo opportunities, especially with the overhead sky light shifting during the course of the day and also from season-to-season. Logistics are a bit more challenging in the narrow descents of Lower Antelope Canyon, but the hike is manageable due to well designed steel staircases.
By mid afternoon, we were heading over the Utah border to Alstrom Point, a cliff area overlooking Lake Powell, for sunset photography ….
- Photographer and team entering Lower Antelope Canyon through a ground level crevice on the plateau.
Landscape photography techniques, photo expedition travel planning and hiking tips.