Antelope Canyon – A Humbling Experience


This blog is not necessarily about the destination as it is about what to expect as a photographer once you get there.  Of course, most everyone has heard of the Antelope Canyon in Arizona Navajo tribal land.  And they know of the beauty of this place from seeing many spectacular photographs of this place.  But as a photographer, this place will certainly serve you up a large slice of humble pie. 

If you are like me, a photographer who wants clearly focused, large-format photographs, you very seldom use your camera in the automatic mode, otherwise, you would just use a point and shoot camera or your cell phone.  

They say that the three most important items in real estate are location, location, location, but in photography, it is location, lighting, and focus.   In Antelope Canyon you won’t have any difficulty with the location part of the equation, but with the variation and constant changing of lighting, you really must make rapid changes to your camera settings or you will ruin a perfect shot.

Typically you do not have much time once inside the actual narrow passageways of the canyon.  The tour guide keeps the group of 12-15 people moving at a pretty good clip.  During peak season there is a steady flow of visitors that are led in one direction through the canyon and back out in the same direction.  Stopping in one spot for too won’t make your tour guide too happy as they have a schedule to keep.  So fiddling around with your aperture and shutter settings are something that must be done rather quickly.

As you walk through the canyon you cannot leave your camera settings at one setting and expect to get great shots throughout the narrow passageway.  The sun will shine brightly in one spot and then a few feet further into the canyon will only reflect a shadow on another part of the wall.  The sun may bathe a portion of the walls that you are photographing with bright and harsh light while just a bit further on it may be dark and shadowy, yet still be part of your composition.    

Dark and light are one issue but mixed focal planes inside the canyon are another because tripods are not allowed.  Handheld shots will have to do but you must be quick to adjust your metering because the subject’s focal point changes as you try to capture different angles and lighting. Focus is difficult especially if you want to have depth throughout your image.  ISO settings are important especially if your aim is to use your photos for high-quality reproductions.

Shades, hues, and textures within these walls are as amazing as they are different.  And they change literally from one minute to the next.  The narrow canyons are open and as the sun moves, so does the light and the shade.  Typically in this region of the southwest, thick puffy clouds hang in the sky.  One moment you may have harsh sunlight on your subject and then a few seconds later a cloud will pass overhead and the canyon is now in “equal” lighting that harmonizes every aspect of the subject.

Hues of red from the sandstone come in an endless array of colors that can change from subtle golden yellows to orange to blood red, maroon, raspberry, salmon, mahogany, and rust.  And then you walk back toward the exit and those same colors are very much different and the shadows may be seen as blues, purples and even greens.

The slot canyon can also be a very dangerous place as several tourists found out when rains that fell many miles away quickly swept through the narrow pass as a flash flood.  It doesn’t have to be raining in the immediate area for this to happen and for fast-moving flood water to inundate the narrow slots.  This is all part of the on-going erosion process that continuously shapes and forms the Antelope Canyon.

Some time ago there were opportunities for photographers to tour the slot canyon and use tripods to get their ideal photographs.  However, with the popularity of this magnificent place and the ever-increasing number of tourists who visit here, the separate photo tours were discontinued in favor of having more tour groups shuffled through much quicker.

Antelope Canyon actually encompasses two unique and separate slot canyons. One is known as the Upper Antelope Canyon, or simply as “The Crack,” and the other is called the Lower Antelope Canyon, or “The Corkscrew.”

The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, which means “the place where water runs through rocks.”  The Lower Antelope Canyon is called Hazdistazí or “spiral rock arches.” Both are in the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, however, the Upper Antelope Canyon is the one that is part of the tour.  It has been accessible by tour since 1997 when the Navajo Tribe made it a Navajo Tribal Park.  It is accessible only by guided tours and reservations must be made in advance.

As the sunlight changes throughout the seasons, and even in the course of a day, the light, shadows, and colors in the canyon will also change dramatically.  What was once a bright red, has now turned into an earth-toned umber with tones of blue.  And this can happen between the time you first entered the open-roof cavern until you return toward the exit some 15 to 20 minutes later.

Every step of the way through the canyon is filled with flowing shapes that beg to have their photos taken.  The tour guide will move you along pretty quickly so always have your camera ready.  There are a few stops along the way at prominent geological features, or if the tour group ahead slows to a stop.

As you traverse through the narrow meandering slotted passageway you marvel at the unique shapes and wonder in amazement how this place was created and how it continues to evolve.  Our guide mentioned that as a child she and her friends would play hide-and-seek among the long, winding red sandstone corridors. 

Our guide, knowing from experience the problems that most photographers face while trying to take photographs inside the canyon, offered many useful tips that helped improve the overall quality of my photos.

White and black balance inside the slot will be another challenge as dark and bright are a constant battle that your camera will try to make compensation.  Be prepared to either go the dreaded automatic or be prepared to make continuous adjustments to metering, speed, and aperture.  And of course, with modern digital photography, you can take numerous shots of the same subject and become very creative, both on-site and back in your “lab” using photo manipulation software.

The canyon contains many unique and photogenic features but one of my most favorite was the Flame.  This impressive feature looks like a massive flame that literally changes and moves as you see it at different angles and the way the sun backlights it.  

So, what type of lens should you use in the canyon? My preference and go-to lens is my 18-270mm.  It is wide enough to capture the expanse of most situations where a wide-angle lens is required, yet the details are sharp and crisp without distortion.  It is also perfectly suited for close-up shots and general snapshots that can be used to document your journey. 

I hope that this has helped you as you prepare for your visit to Antelope Canyon.  Be sure to check their website for the availability of tours, costs, reservations, etc.

Make sure that you make reservations before you just show up.  We did so many weeks in advance as you cannot arrive there and expect to get on a tour.  And be sure to show up well before your scheduled tour time.  They move tours through there rather quickly and if you are late, they will leave without you.  It is a long way to travel and an expense that you will not get back.

Above, this photo was taken by our very professional, but very stern guide.  She took her responsibility for our safety and well-being very seriously, which we appreciated.

The American Southwest is one of the most unique places in the world.  And no visit to this region is complete without a tour of the amazing Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona.  If you have not already done so, add it to your bucket list, it will be a memorable drop in the bucket!

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me with any questions, comments, or for authorization to use photos or for signed, high-resolution prints.

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