The contrast between my most recent visits to Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons could not be more stark, even more so in retrospect. While photographers often compare the formations and quality of light in the two slot canyons, my sense of bewilderment instead reflects the two entirely different experiences in visiting both photogenic canyons on the same day: One a sublime connection with nature and the other a hectic rush amidst crowds of tourists.
Upper Antelope Canyon Radiant Light, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 70 mm, 0.6s, ISO 200
In short, my unguided photographer's tour in Lower Antelope Canyon that morning was self-paced and relaxed, allowing ample time for tripod set-up and careful camera calibrations. With my descent into this below ground slot canyon, time seemed to some to a standstill for thoughtful exploration. After shooting a series of bracketed photos, I would switch from vertical to horizontal format, zoom out for a wide angle perspective, adjust my circular polarizer, etc.
Lower Antelope Canyon Sand Floor, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 19 mm, 0.5s, ISO 400
Regrettably, all sense of calm quickly vanished, given the large crowds of tourists and the loud sounds of tour trucks at popular Upper Antelope Canyon. This being my first Saturday primetime visit, I had never seen this area so busy. Looking back at the situation, I'm grateful we were able to walk-in and get tour passes without prior booking.
Our well meaning tour guide seemed equally flummoxed by the flurry of activity, shifting from pleasantries to terse directions about tour etiquette.
Once our group was assembled at the entry of this ground level canyon, the tour guide advised that this was not a photographer tour and no tripods would be allowed. Hearing an outburst of protests in many languages (this being an international destination), our guide quickly relented, saying, "Okay, fast with the tripods, but no f stops or that stuff." A sense of relief and calm came over the group, punctuated by a few chuckles and looks of puzzlement.
Upper Antelope Canyon Endless Folds, NIKON D800E, f/14 @ 35 mm, 4s, ISO 200
"Fast" was a vast understatement, as our guide literally dragged and pushed the group through Upper Antelope Canyon. Admittedly, she pointed out some of the more intriguing formations and photo ops, even grabbing cameras and phones from the tourists to catch a quick point and shoot photo. As our group ripped through the canyon, I was a bit envious of some of the other tour groups. Somehow, they all seemed to be enjoying explanatory lectures on the geology and history of the area from their remarkably relaxed guides.
Upper Antelope Canyon Sculpted Walls, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 35 mm, 3s, ISO 200
If there is really a silver lining in every cloud, ours was the excellent overhead skylight and radiant glow of the striated Navajo Sandstone walls. Ironically, the endless foot traffic had stirred up lots of dust (fine sand) into the air. With the thick dusty air as a "natural" filter, I was fortunate enough to capture one of my only acceptable photos of a canyon light beam photos to date .
Lower Antelope Canyon Aged to Perfection, NIKON D800E, f/16 @ 50 mm, 3s, ISO 400
What a unique "man made" opportunity in an otherwise unadulterated setting - winding canyon walls sculpted by years of erosion.
In all fairness, Upper Antelope Canyon also offers more slowly paced photographer tours, including those on slower weekdays. Time-wise, I was simply unable to schedule this kind of tour along with my longer photographer's tour at the lower canyon that same day.
VIDEO: Lower Antelope Canyon End of Hike, NIKON D800E
So, on balance, it was a memorable outing and I am most grateful to have a few photographs from both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons. Despite the rush and significant challenges of the afternoon, these iconic slot canyons remain one of my favorite places for abstract captures of a true geological wonderland.
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